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HAITI’S CULTURAL DESTRUCTION
Jan. 26, 2010 

Given the scale of the human destruction caused by the recent earthquake in Haiti -- at least 150,000 people are thought to have lost their lives in the tremors that hit the island on Jan. 12, 2010 -- the initial focus of media coverage was understandably on the efforts to provide basic relief. However, a week on, a number of reports have begun to come in about how the cultural sector has fared, and they are not good.

With almost every prominent structure in the capital, including the National Palace, having suffered damage, it is not surprising that Haitian cultural institutions have been severely affected. The Wall Street Journal reports on one of the more prominent losses: the Musee/Galerie D'Art Nader in Port-au-Prince, a private space run by Lebanon-born dealer Georges Nader Sr. The 35-room mansion contained some 12,000 artworks, constituting one of the richest troves of work by Haitian artists, painstakingly accumulated since the 1950s by the 78-year-old Nadar.

The entire museum building collapsed in the earthquake, leaving Nadar and his wife to be fished out of the wreckage by neighbors. Most of the paintings contained in the galleries were destroyed (though a separate cache of 3,000 works at another location was spared). A few works at the museum did make it through the disaster, including four of the museum’s twelve paintings by Philomé Obin, who is often described as the grand master of Haitian painting; two paintings by Hector Hyppolite, though one of these was damaged (just recently, Nadar’s trove of Hyppolites was on loan to the Haitian Center for the Arts in the U.S.); and five of 52 works by the painter Bernard Sejourné.

According to the Journal, Nadar opened his gallery in 1966. He is credited as being one of the first to take Haitian painting seriously as fine art. As a result of the disaster, he is leaving the country altogether, relocating to the Dominican Republic.

The New York Times has a separate article on how members of Haiti’s art community are trying to deal with the destruction. Particular attention is paid to art dealer Axelle Liautaud, who has made it her mission to try to salvage bits of Haitian culture from the rubble (she is working with UNESCO). At the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, Liautaud sifted through wreckage in the hopes that the church’s murals, executed in the 1950s by some of Haiti’s best artists, might be pieced back together. The lost works include a famous crucifixion of a mulatto Christ and a Last Supper by Philomé Obin, a piece by Castera Bazile depicting Christ’s ascension over a field of soccer-playing youth, as well as murals by Haitian artists Wilson Bigaud, Rigaud Benoit and others.

"Of course, we should care about the people first," Liautaud told the Times. "But the reason why there is still a country, despite all our troubles, is our strong culture."

Also devastated, according to the L.A. Times, was Port-au-Prince’s historic Centre d’Art, founded in 1944 by the California artist DeWitt Peters. The Centre d’Art served as an influential hub for Haitian painters (though just how important this influence was is disputed), crystallizing what is known as "naïve art." Staff members of the institution were reduced to fishing works from the ruined structure -- the L.A. Times account describes them recovering a Jasmin Joseph painting, removing it from its frame and rolling it up for safekeeping.

An overall assessment of the damage has not yet been made. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) released a preliminary report on Jan. 21, but only sketchy information was available. ICOM was able at least to confirm the survival of a few of its members, including Michel-Philippe Lerebours, curator at the Musee d’Art Haitien du College Saint Pierre. Gaspard told the ICOM that his institution had survived, with some damage: "The exhibition hall is still standing, but we do not dare to enter -- but at least the ceiling seems to be stable."

Meanwhile, several press reports have turned their attention to the south coast of Haiti, to the town of Jacmel, about 25 miles from the Port-au-Prince. Jacmel is considered the culture and tourism capital of the Caribbean nation, and sometimes described as "Haiti's most beautiful city," according to NPR. Jacmel received some particular notice because it was the home of a film school, the Cine Institute, founded by New Yorker David Belle. Students from the academy, many of whom had lost their own homes in the disaster, uploaded footage of the devastation to its website, and their images were widely picked up by news sources, drawing international attention to the city’s plight (see www.cineinstitute.com).

Elsewhere in Jacmel, the Fosaj art school was destroyed. Founded in 2003 by Patrick Boucard and Kate Tarratt Cross, Fosaj had set as its noble goal improving "the lives of local residents and visitors alike through community arts, education, and environmental programs." On the school’s website, it boasted of "hosting studios of 16 local artists, performance space, a variety of workshops, cultural events, and visiting artist residencies." The director of the school, 36-year-old American artist Flo McGarrell, who had joined the school in 2008 to help structure the organization, perished when his nearby hotel caved in. 

With the disaster still ongoing, no one knows the true extent of the damage to Haitian cultural life. What is certain, however, is that as the weeks go by, more bad news can be expected.


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