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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The elder Nader had been taking a nap with his wife when the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. “We were rescued within ten minutes because our bedroom did not collapse,” he told me. What Nader saw when he was led outside was horrifying. His collection had become a hideous pile of debris with thousands of paintings and sculptures buried under giant blocks of concrete.

“My life’s work is gone,” Nader, 78, told me by telephone from his second home in Miami, where he has been living since the quake. Nader said he never bought insurance for his collection, which the family estimated to be worth more than $20 million.

With the rainy season approaching, Nader’s sons hired a dozen men to pick, shovel and jackhammer their way through the debris, looking for anything that could be salvaged.

“We had 12,000 to 15,000 paintings here,” Georges Nader Jr. told me as we stomped through the sprawling heap, which reminded me of a bombed-out village from a World War II documentary. “We’ve recovered about 3,000 paintings and about 1,800 of those are damaged. Some other paintings were taken by looters in the first days after the earthquake.”

Back at his gallery in Pétionville, Nader showed me a Hyppolite still life he had recovered. I recognized it, having admired the painting in 2009 at a retrospective at the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas in Washington. But the 20- by 20-inch painting was now broken into eight pieces. “This will be restored by a professional,” Nader said. “We have begun restoring the most important paintings we have recovered.”

I heard other echoes of cautious optimism as I visited cultural sites across Port-au-Prince. A subterranean, government-run historical museum that contained some important paintings and artifacts had survived. So did a private voodoo and Taíno museum in Mariani (near the quake’s epicenter) and an ethnographic collection in Pétionville. People associated with the destroyed Holy Trinity Cathedral and Centre d’Art, as well as the Episcopal Church’s structurally feeble Haitian Art Museum, assured me that these institutions will be rebuilt. But no one could say how or when.

The United Nations has announced that 59 countries and international organizations have pledged $9.9 billion as “the down payment Haiti needs for wholesale national renewal.” But there’s no word on how much of that money, if any, will ever reach the cultural sector.

“We deeply believe that Haitians living abroad can help us with the funds,” said Henry Jolibois, an artist and architect who is a technical consultant to the Haitian prime minister’s office. “For the rest, we must convince other entities in the world to participate, such as the museums and private collectors who have huge Haitian naive painting collections.”

At the Holy Trinity Cathedral 14 murals had long offered a distinctively Haitian take on biblical events. My favorite was the Marriage at Cana by Wilson Bigaud, a painter who excelled at glimpses into everyday Haitian life—cockfights, market vendors, baptismal parties, rara band parades. While some European artists portrayed the biblical event at which Christ turned water into wine as being rather formal, Bigaud’s Cana was a decidedly casual affair with a pig, rooster and two Haitian drummers looking on. (Bigaud died this past March 22 at age 79.)

“That Marriage at Cana mural was very controversial,” Haiti’s Episcopal bishop, Jean Zaché Duracin, told me in his Pétionville office. “In the ’40s and ’50s many Episcopalians left the church in Haiti and became Methodists because they didn’t want these murals at the cathedral. They said, ‘Why? Why is there a pig in the painting?’ They didn’t understand there was a part of Haitian culture in these murals.”


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