Destruction to Transformation: The Complexity of Haitian Life & Art After the Earthquake
Andre Eugene founded Atis Rezistans in 1998. Eugene and the seven artists that make up the collective use found items (“trash”) to create artwork conveying the complexity of everyday Haitian life. The space known as the Atelier is multifunctional. The studio where the artists work with metal, rubber, wood and anything else they can get their hands on, is actually Eugene’s backyard.
Picture yourself walking down through a dead end street off the Grand Rue in an industrial area of Downtown Port Au Prince. Walk through a maze filled with huge metal sculpture; dozens of small reliefs inlaid with rubber cutouts featuring brightly colored human figures hang from the walls. This is the studio referred to as “E Pluribus Unum’ Musee D Art.” Eugene calls it “a place for the marginalized.” Each member of Atis Rezistans brings their own background to their art in a way that reflects their own personal style; most are influenced heavily by Vodou.
Eugene, who previously constructed homes using wood, works prominently feature Gedes. A group of spirits in Vodou whose head Loa (spirit) is Baron Samedi, master of cemeteries and the dead. The artist known as “Kaliko” whose real name is Jean Claude Saintilus refers to himself as a mystic; his work often blurs the lines between the mystical world and the physical world. One of the members known as Louko; a welder by trade died in the 2010 Earthquake that claimed upwards of two hundred thousand lives; the exact number remains unknown.
In my conversation with Eugene, we spoke about the expansion of the movement, how the organization and the space could be used for so much more in the community. The emphasis of the work is not so much to bring fame and fortune for personal gain but to give back and empower the artists and the local community.
“If I was given twenty thousand dollars today, I would immediately invest it in the studio. I would bring in computers for research, turn it into a library.” To do this, an enclosure would need to be built since the yard is open and is susceptible to the elements. Eugene’s hope for the future of the movement is that the work would continue even if he were not present.
Eugene travels at least twice a year for exhibitions and workshops. He desires continuity no matter the circumstance. His work with children ages six through eighteen called “Timoun Rezistans” is evidence of his commitment. Without major financing by philanthropic organizations, save for the partnerships with organizations like FOKAL, Atis Rezistans artists independently work to support themselves and their families. Eugene tells me over the phone in a very matter of fact way that Evel Roumain, an artist with Atis Rezistans, is one example of this. During the off-season in Haiti, he often goes to the Dominican Republic to sell his work in places like Punta Cana at popular tourist resorts there.
Tourists who venture to the Atelier in Port Au Prince; are mostly Haitians in the Diaspora. They are often interested in smaller pieces they can fit in their luggage. Gallery owners around the world usually commission larger pieces. Other pieces have traveled to the U.S as part of the “Lespri Endepandan” exhibition hosted by Florida International University, in Miami. Although travel to Haiti has increased in the years after the Earthquake, the art business has remained largely the same. This is something Eugene hopes to change; he wants to shift to making and selling more art for the tourist market.
The latest data on tourism to Haiti for non-natives was 420,000 visitors between 2006-2010 and increased to 460,000 between 2011-2015 according to the World Bank.org. The increase in numbers reflect a\ Haiti in the rebuilding stages and creates a viable market for Haitian artists like Eugene. No conversation about Haitian Art is complete without acknowledging the epicenter of Art in Haiti. Jacmel is renowned around the world for its legacy of producing world-class artisans and Haitian art dating back to the 1500’s when it was settled under French colonial rule.
We have all seen the colorful Papier Mache masks depicting everything from animated heads of state to various animals and even Red Devils. Jacmel is also home to Cine Institute, since 2011 the organization has been serving Haiti’s youth; training them in film production and audiovisual technologies that foster entrepreneurship and business development in local media industries. Jacmels’ folksy, French colonial heritage inspired art stands in stark contrast to Port Au Prince, which is home to Musee du Pantheon National Haitien — also known as MUPANAH. The home of Atis Rezistans represents the polar opposite in the art space with a different focus and draw. Since Port Au Prince is the seat of politics and the nation’s capital, the dynamic there breeds a very different tone in the creation of art.
Eugene says the difference between his work and the art produced in Jacmel is one of subtlety. “The carnival masks often depict political figures in a very open way, this is the spirit of Mardi Gras;” it’s a parody of sorts, it is a political statement through art imitating life. Whereas the messages in the art Atis Rezistans makes is practically hidden, meant to be interpreted in metaphorical terms, one would have to consult the artist for its true meaning. Atis Rezistans’ work in Haiti is critical in that it addresses a major problem, the practice of burning garbage as a means of waste management.
Its an issue the Haitian Government has attempted to address with a law banning the use of certain plastic products in Haiti; however, this measure has proven ineffective due to the lack of enforcement. Eugene acknowledges the long terms consequences of the practice – damage to the environment, as well as the health effects that will inevitably manifest in the people. “This is what we have been given; we are doing our part in bringing a solution to the issue by using the very tools of destruction to bring transformation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Dietz is a Brooklyn bred freelance writer who is passionate about all things Haiti. In her free time she wanders around NYC; occasionally stopping at museums and art galleries while plotting her next travel destination.