Local Obsessions

Carving Out Art in Haiti

by Bianca Neptune

At a stencil workshop in Jacmel. Photo: Alexpolotsky / Flickr

Haiti is beautiful, and I'm not saying that because I've been going there my whole life. Much of the Caribbean country, the western half of the island Hispaniola, is unknown to travelers. Most people have only seen Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake, and though its impact is impossible to dismiss (you're bound to see at least one tent city on the road from the airport), the country holds much more.

Haiti's main airport is in the city of Port-au-Prince, which is full of activity. There are merchants on almost every street corner, crowds of strolling pedestrians, and traffic caused by the hordes of vehicles (mostly motorcycles, SUVs, and trucks) in the downtown area. Navigating can get very tiring very fast. My advice: When you get out of the airport, head south to Jacmel, my favorite scenic beach town. White sand and turquoise water will greet you at the shore.

Jacmel is known for its beach culture and local arts, and has just the right mix of relaxation and aesthetic vibrancy. I adore winding through the artisan shops lining the streets. There is a peaceful rhythm — one that is stimulating, but not overwhelming — as people walk, children play, and artists work. Jacmel's artisans specialize in painting, wood carving, metal sculpture, and papier-mâché figures. Many artisans work in the yards of their shops, and it's common to see them in the process of creating a new piece. Addition and subtraction are constantly in play.

As a child making trips back to Haiti, I would look out for my favorite artisans, who were always there to greet me. As I got older and spent longer periods of time away, Jacmel's constant energy became more apparent. Jacmel dances to the language of strokes and cuts, colors and depth, on a never-ending continuum. The artisans don't ever seem to age, even when young apprentices appear at their sides.

And they appreciate talking about their work to anybody who is willing to listen. Everyone speaks Haitian Creole, most speak French, and a lot of them know at least a little English. But spoken language seems so secondary to the expression of their art, through which they've been able to express Haiti's landscape and Vodoun beliefs since the beginning of time.

My favorite thing to do is watch the sculptors. Positive negation, exposing a shape from within a stone block or piece of wood, has always fascinated me. These artisans work effortlessly, even as sweat — from the heat and their laborious movements — collects on their foreheads. They only stop to scrutinize their technique. Their tenacity is rewarded in the form of a remarkable new piece for their collection.

Most Haitian art is abstract, referring to either politics or spirituality, and carvings and sculptures of Jacmel are no exception. Because of the lack of galleries in Haiti, most display their work on sidewalks outside of their shop. Passerby are encourgaed to look and linger. Keep in mind that the prices for most pieces are not predetermined, and friendly negotiations might ensue.


Haitian Art Society

Didier Civil, the best-known papier-mâché artist from Haiti

"The Museum of Lost Haitian Art" (New Yorker)

"Out of Ruin, Haiti's Visionaries" (NYT)

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