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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Six weeks had passed since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing 230,000 people and leaving more than 1.5 million others homeless. But the ground was still shaking in the nation’s rubble-strewn capital, Port-au-Prince, and 87-year-old Préfète Duffaut wasn’t taking any chances. One of the most prominent Haitian artists of the past 50 years was sleeping in a crude tent made of plastic sheeting and salvaged wood, fearful his earthquake-damaged house would collapse at any moment.

“Did you feel the tremors last night?” Duffaut asked. 

Yes, I had felt the ground shake in my hotel room around 4:30 that morning. It was the second straight night of tremors, and I was feeling a bit stressed. But standing next to Duffaut, whose fantastical naive paintings I have admired for three decades, I resolved to put my anxieties on hold.

It was Duffaut, after all, who had lived through one of the most horrific natural disasters of modern times. Not only was he homeless in the poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere, his niece and nephew had died in the earthquake. Gone, too, were his next-door neighbors in Port-au-Prince. “Their house just completely collapsed,” Duffaut said. “Nine people were inside.”

The diabolical 15- to 20-second earthquake on January 12 also stole a sizable chunk of Duffaut’s—and Haiti’s—artistic legacy. At least three artists, two gallery owners and an arts foundation director died. Thousands of paintings and sculptures—valued in the tens of millions of dollars—were destroyed or badly damaged in museums, galleries, collectors’ homes, government ministries and the National Palace. The celebrated biblical murals that Duffaut and other Haitian artists painted at Holy Trinity Cathedral in the early 1950s were now mostly rubble. The Haitian Art Museum at College St. Pierre, run by the Episcopal Church, was badly cracked. And the beloved Centre d’Art, the 66-year-old gallery and school that jump-started Haiti’s primitive art movement—making collectors out of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the filmmaker Jonathan Demme and thousands of others—had crumbled. “The Centre d’Art is where I sold my first piece of art in the 1940s,” Duffaut said quietly, tugging on the white beard he had grown since the earthquake.

 Duffaut disappeared from his tent and returned a few moments later with a painting that displayed one of his trademark imaginary villages, a rural landscape dominated by winding, gravity-defying mountain roads filled with tiny people, houses and churches. Then he retrieved another painting. And another. Suddenly, I was surrounded by six Duffauts—and all were for sale.

Standing beside his tent, which was covered by a tarpaulin stamped USAID, Duffaut flashed a satisfied grin.

“How much?” I asked.

“Four thousand dollars [each],” he said, suggesting the price local galleries would charge.

Not having more than $50 in my pocket, I had to pass. But I was delighted that Préfète Duffaut was open for business. “My future paintings will be inspired by this terrible tragedy,” he told me. “What I have seen on the streets has given me a lot of ideas and added a lot to my imagination.” There was an unmistakable look of hope in the old master’s eyes.


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