In Haiti, the Art of Resilience

Within weeks of January’s devastating earthquake, Haiti’s surviving painters and sculptors were taking solace from their work

"We had 12,000 to 15,000 paintings here," says Georges Nader Jr., with a Paul Tanis work at the remains of his family's house and museum near Port-au-Prince. (Alison Wright)
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Jean-Emmanuel “Mannu” El Saieh, whose late father, Issa, was one of the earliest promoters of Haitian art, was paying a young painter’s medical bills. “I just talked to him on the phone, and you don’t have to be a doctor to know he’s still suffering from shock,” El Saieh said at his gallery, just up a rutted road from the Oloffson hotel, which survived the quake.

Though most of the artists I encountered had become homeless, they did not consider themselves luckless. They were alive, after all, and aware that the tremblement de terre had killed many of their friends and colleagues, such as the octogenarian owners of the Rainbow Gallery, Carmel and Cavour Delatour; Raoul Mathieu, a painter; Destimare Pierre Marie Isnel (a.k.a. Louco), a sculptor who worked with discarded objects in the downtown Grand Rue slum; and Flores “Flo” McGarrell, an American artist and film director who in 2008 moved to Jacmel (a town with splendid French colonial architecture, some of which survived the quake) to head up a foundation that supported local artists.

The day I arrived in Port-au-Prince, I heard rumors of another possible casualty—Alix Roy, a reclusive, 79-year-old painter who had been missing since January 12. I knew Roy’s work well: he painted humorous scenes from Haitian life, often chubby kids dressed up as adults in elaborate costumes, some wearing oversize sunglasses, others balancing outrageously large fruits on their heads. Although he was a loner, Roy was an adventurous sort who had also lived in New York, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

A few nights later, Nader called my room at Le Plaza (one of the few hotels in the capital open for business) with some grim news. Not only had Roy died in the rubble of the gritty downtown hotel where he lived, his remains were still buried there, six weeks later. “I’m trying to find someone from the government to pick him up,” Nader said. “That’s the least the Haitian government can do for one of its best artists.”

The next day, Nader introduced me to Roy’s sister, a retired kindergarten director in Pétionville. Marléne Roy Etienne, 76, told me her older brother had rented a room on the top floor of the hotel so he could look down on the street for inspiration. 

“I went to look for him after the earthquake but couldn’t even find where the hotel had been because the entire street—Rue des Césars—was rubble,” she said. “So I stood in front of the rubble where I thought Alix might be and said a prayer.”

Etienne’s eyes teared when Nader assured her he would continue pressing government officials to retrieve her brother’s remains.

“This is hard,” she said, reaching for a handkerchief. “This is really hard.”

Nader had been through some challenging times himself. Although he had not lost any family members, and his gallery in Pétionville was intact, the 32-room house where his parents lived, and where his father, Georges S. Nader, had built a gallery that contained perhaps the largest collection of Haitian art anywhere, had crumbled.

The son of Lebanese immigrants, the elder Nader was long considered one of Haiti’s best-known and most successful art dealers, having established relationships with hundreds of artists since he opened a gallery downtown in 1966. He moved into the mansion in the hillside Croix-Desprez neighborhood a few years later and, in addition to the gallery, built a museum that showcased many of Haiti’s finest artists, including Hyppolite, Obin, Rigaud Benoit and Castera Bazile. When he retired a few years ago, Nader turned over the gallery and museum to his son John.


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