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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Duracin told me it took him three days to gather the emotional strength to visit Holy Trinity. “This is a great loss, not only for the Episcopal church but for art worldwide,” he said.

Visiting the site myself one morning, I saw two murals that were more or less intact—The Baptism of Our Lord by Castera Bazile and Philomé Obin’s Last Supper. (A third mural, Native Street Procession, by Duffaut, has survived, says former Smithsonian Institution conservator Stephanie Hornbeck, but others were destroyed.)

At the Haitian Art Museum, chunks of concrete had fallen on some of the 100 paintings on exhibit. I spotted one of Duffaut’s oldest, largest and finest imaginary village paintings propped against a wall. A huge piece was missing from the bottom. A museum employee told me the piece had not been found. As I left, I reminded myself that although thousands of paintings had been destroyed in Haiti, thousands of others survived, and many are outside the country in private collections and institutions, including the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Iowa and the Milwaukee Art Museum, which have important collections of Haitian art. I also took comfort from conversations I had had with artists like Duffaut, who were already looking beyond the next mountain.

No one displays Haiti’s artistic resolve more than Frantz Zéphirin, a gregarious 41-year-old painter, houngan and father of 12, whose imagination is as large as his girth.

“I’m very lucky to be alive,” Zéphirin told me late one afternoon in the Monnin gallery, where he was putting the finishing touches on his tenth painting since the quake. “I was in a bar on the afternoon of the earthquake, having a beer. But I decided to leave the bar when people starting talking about politics. And I’m glad I left. The earthquake came just one minute later, and 40 people died inside that bar.”

Zéphirin said he walked several hours, at times climbing over corpses, to get to his house. “That’s where I learned that my stepmother and five of my cousins had died,” he said. But his pregnant girlfriend was alive; so were his children.

“That night, I decided I had to paint,” Zéphirin said. “So I took my candle and went to my studio on the beach. I saw a lot of death on the way. I stayed up drinking beer and painting all night. I wanted to paint something for the next generation, so they can know just what I had seen.”

Zéphirin led me to the room in the gallery where his earthquake paintings were hung. One shows a rally by several fully clothed skeletons carrying a placard written in English: “We need shelters, clothes, condoms and more. Please help.”

“I’ll do more paintings like these,” Zéphirin said. “Each day 20 ideas for paintings pass in my head, but I don’t have enough hands to make all of them.” (Smithsonian commissioned the artist to create the painting that appears on the cover of this magazine. It depicts the devastated island nation with grave markers, bags of aid money and birds of mythic dimensions delivering flowers and gifts, such as “justice” and “health.”) In March, Zéphirin accepted an invitation to show his work in Germany. And two months later, he would head to Philadelphia for a one-man show, titled “Art and Resilience,” at the Indigo Arts Gallery.

A few miles up a mountain road from Pétionville, one of Haiti’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Philippe Dodard, was preparing to bring more than a dozen earthquake-inspired paintings to Arte Américas, an annual fair in Miami Beach. Dodard showed me a rather chilling black-and-white acrylic that was inspired by the memory of a friend who perished in an office building. “I’m calling this painting Trapped in the Dark,” he said.


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