I spent this summer working for an American NGO in Port-au-Prince. During my time in Haiti’s capital city I fell in love with the people and culture that make this country so incredible. I also had the opportunity to be privy to the challenges of on-the-ground implementation of development theory that I have studied at Georgetown. As the conflicts and gray areas of the real world bump up against and challenge the academic, I found myself thinking about the similarities between my cultural reality at home in Washington, D.C. and my experiences in Haiti. Through the course of this two-part blog I will explore the academic and the cultural through the lenses of artistic expression and maker ethic in the informal economy.
Culture is influenced by the dynamic interactions that occur between citizens and their surroundings, and one of the most prominent ways that this transpires is through artistic expression. My first introduction to the city of Port-au-Prince was from the passenger seat of an SUV swerving through downtown, with my driver adeptly avoiding potholes, dogs, and rubble. As I looked out the window I was amazed by the colors of the city. Intricate painted trucks converted into taxis (called tap-taps), bright lotto stands, and cement walls painted with advertisements.
After spending nearly seven weeks in the city, I never really recovered from my obsession with the shades of bright in the midst of the gray. Rather, the more I observed over the course of the summer, the more I become fascinated by the creations. The city is enveloped in art. Hand painted lettering and signage, a relic of the past in America (or an embracement of hipster culture), is everywhere in Haiti. There are meticulously
painted ads for popular wireless companies on walls downtown, one logo stenciled after another for blocks in a row. Barber shops feature examples of haircuts painted on the shop door. The aforementioned tap-taps come in all varieties, expressing the owner’s beliefs, preferences, and allegiances (my favorite depicted Jesus on one side of the vehicle and soccer player Lionel Messi on the other).
On the other end of the spectrum is the graffiti. Spray-painted remnants of campaign slogans from last year’s presidential election garnish the walls of the city. The hastily painted phrases remain because no one cleans them up, but they also function as a unique living documentation of the political turmoil and fluidity of the country. There’s a painted building in the upper-class neighborhood of Pétionville that depicts images of President Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Haitian President Michel Martelly, underneath hopeful words imagining a better future. The positive images of these smiling leaders present a direct contrast to much of the other street art in Port-au-Prince, found in all parts of the
city. The most prominent of Haitian street artist is Jerry Rosembert Moise (known simply as Jerry), whose images are political, haunting, and beautiful. His work is reminiscent of Banksy, but his art is distinctively Haitian.
The highbrow art of Haiti is viewable in galleries sprinkled in the wealthy parts of Port-au-Prince. To observe the more prominent art of this country, I visited the National Museum of Haiti, which displays historic artifacts and a small art collection. The artists whose works are featured in the National Museum resonated with themes, unsurprisingly, seen in more lowbrow contexts such as the art that is sold on the side of the road in various parts of town. These are images of the ordinary–femininity, days in the market, and subtleties of tension. Through my Western eye, a number of the artworks seem cliché and unoriginal. Yet, they tell a story, from the Haitian perspective, about the culture.
A component of my coursework last year was devoted to examining the cultural outputs of developing countries as a means to understand the voice of the oppressed, rather than the story told by the oppressors. In this manner, looking at Haiti through the country’s art enshrined in the National Museum certainly does provide a perspective on the nation, but it also offers the elite perspective, whereas the walls of the city portray that turmoil, unrest, anxieties, and pain of people who have access to a can of spray paint. It’s not always elegant, but both mediums prove to be significant artifacts in the process of achieving a better understanding of the culture of the country.
Feature image via Flickr user The Doctr