The canvas starts off completely black. The artist can’t afford to purchase a brand new canvas, so he cuts the fabric off of an old box spring and stretches it over a handmade frame of discarded wood, the words “Tempur-pedic” facing backwards. Over the course of two days, he sits quietly on a chair outside of the emergency room, patiently scraping away the black paint with a razor blade, leaving a picture in varying shades of white. Without a paint brush, he’s able to lend depth and shading to the picture, including incredible detail of the abdominal muscles of Haitian slaves. When he’s finished, the black paint that remains depicts the Haitian revolution against the armies of Napoleon, the only successful slave revolt in the history of man.
Haiti is more than an earthquake, more than the political dysfunction, more than a series of coup d’états. Haiti possesses a rich tradition of art and music, a mélange of Afro-Caribbean, French and Spanish influences. As American culture permeates the world, Haiti has retained its unique identity even though she lies just a few hundred miles from Miami.
A dozen different streets in Port-au-Prince are lined with paintings hanging on the security walls outside of private property. Every Haitian home that I have visited proudly displays paintings of women in headscarves washing their laundry in the river or selling baskets full of fruit in crowded outdoor markets. The rented apartments I’ve lived in come complete with furniture and a half dozen paintings on the concrete walls — renting a furnished apartment without art on the walls would be considered gauche.
Twice a year, local artists display their work at an artisanal fair. Sculptors sell statues carved out of stone, single pieces of bolsa wood, or metal re-worked into the shape of a curvy woman walking with a basket on her head. Others sell ceramic bowels, jewelry, placemats, napkin holders, wind chimes, leather goods and anything else that could be considered craft, all handmade and individually elaborated. In travels in Rwanda, Colombia and Turkey, the cheap crafts sold on the streets are made in factories in China, a sign of the increasingly homogenized the global culture. Haiti, however, remains an artistic culture driven by the simple joys of handmade crafts, complete with the imperfections that are an artifact of the process, and a reminder that the human hand lacks the precision of a machine.
The city of Jacmel, the home of the annual Carnaval celebrations, boasts a unique collection of masks constructed from paper mâché as part of its artistic repertoire. The people of Jacmel sculpt masks of animals, both real and fictional, which represent different gods in accordance with the voodoo beliefs still popular in the region. Some of the masks are intended to be worn as part of the Carnaval festivities and others are merely art to hang on the wall of a house or restaurant. Colorful masks of demons or demonic animals can take up an entire wall, part-decoration and part-talisman to ward off contrary spirits. Even the paintings in Jacmel express a different sentiment than those from other parts of the country, typically depicting macabre subjects dealing with life and death, the afterlife and eternal punishment.
Music rings through the air, night and day. Stores blare music from over-sized speakers, potentially driving away customers. On weekend nights, the dance music from discothèques produces a jumble of beats when heard from my apartment up the hill. The musical prayers of worshippers on Sundays can be heard emanating from thousands of diverse churches, some as small as a living room, stationed high up in the mountain villages surrounding Port-au-Prince. The city is constantly decorated by signs and billboards advertising concerts of local rap and compas artists at dozens of venue across Port-au-Prince. The beach club outside the city has a DJ posted on the seawall every Sunday spinning chilled trance, house, and top-40 music for those relaxing below on the sand. Even the current president of Haiti, Michel Martelly, was the premier voice in compas music for two decades before being elected to public office in 2010.
I enjoy the live music whenever I can, reveling in the chance to delve further into Haitian society. At the open air venue of Canne à Sucre, I’ve swayed through concerts of oldies crooning slow salsa, merengue and compas. The Cuban restaurant Latin Quarter sports a Cuban salsa band every Thursday, and the multinational crowd of Argentine doctors, American do-gooders and French businessmen party together. At the annual jazz fest, artists from all over the world descend on the city to sing, scat and jam for a week. They bounce from venue to venue, playing to a different crowd and lending a different vibe each night of the week. My favorite, though, is one famous local band, RAM, who rocks out every Thursday night at the historic Hotel Olafsson with a twenty-piece band in costumes that would rival George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic. Haitian hipsters and bourgeoisie mingle with UN soldiers and expatriates who work for non-profits, all dancing together through the infamous late-night sets.
The artist at the hospital finishes his masterpiece of Neg Marron, the fictional folk hero of the slave rebellion. He admires the completed work for a moment before placing it aside with the rest. Among the dozen paintings of his on display, only one portrays the events of the earthquake.
Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and a global public health specialist at the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blogs.