Letter from Haiti: Cross-Residencies and Cultural Institutions

Detail of a work by Patrick Villaire at his studio (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This post was first published in the Jamaica Monitor of February 6, 2022. It is now reproduced here with a few updates and corrections.

The occasion for my trip to Haiti, which ended on February 4, was my role in the Caribbean Cross-Residency project of Le Centre d’Art, which is funded by the UNESCO Fund for International Cultural Diversity. The project was conceived to foster greater collaboration and exchange between Haitian and other Caribbean artists and cultural organizations, and represents an important new programme direction for Le Centre d’Art, which was previously more exclusively focused on Haitian art.

In a sense, however, this Caribbean exchange programme is also a return to the historical roots of the Centre. During its early years, in the 1940s, it served a meeting place for Haitian artists and visitors such as the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam and the French surrealist leader André Breton, who had fled France for the Americas at the onset of the second World War. The archives of Le Centre d’Art have, in fact, been recognized by UNESCO as part of the Documentary Heritage of Latin America and the Caribbean and are an invaluable resource on the art history and intellectual life of Haiti, the broader Caribbean and beyond.

The current Caribbean Cross-Residency programme targets women artists, who are offered one month “all expenses paid” residencies. It is presented in association with the Taller de Grafica in Havana; Alice Yard in Port of Spain; Fresh Milk in Barbados; Proyecto Anticanon in the Dominican Republic; and the Edna Manley College in Jamaica. The participants include five artists from Haiti: Mafalda Mondestin went to Cuba, Phaidra McQueen Sterlin went to the Dominican Republic, and Pascale Faublas to Barbados, while Pascale Monnin was in Trinidad and Pascale Bichot is completing her residency in Jamaica. In turn, Kia Redman from Barbados and Miriam Hinds-Smith did their residencies in Port-au-Prince, at Le Centre d’Art. Michelle Ricardo from the Dominican Republic and Nadia Huggins, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago but lives in St Vincent, did their residencies in the southern Haitian town of Jacmel.

On a studio visit with Miriam Hinds-Smith at Le Centre d’Art (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

The Cross-Residency project has several other components. One is an exhibition of the work produced by the participating artists. There are also two associated training programmes: a curatorial training programme which I presented at Le Centre d’Art in January, and a series of online art criticism workshops presented by the Bajan artist and critic Ada M. Patterson. The interns in the curatorial training programme and I are now curating the project exhibition, which will be shown in Port-au-Prince in May and which, if all goes as planned, will become a traveling exhibition that will be shown in Jacmel, the partner countries in the Caribbean, and possibly also other locations such as Miami and Paris. Excitingly, the curatorial interns have also formed a curatorial collective and are already planning other exhibitions.

In addition to the seminars and workshops, where we covered theoretical, critical, organizational, and technical issues relevant to the curation of exhibitions, we did several field trips in Port-au-Prince. One of the most memorable was our tour of the Maison Larsen in Pacot, which will become the new home of Le Centre d’Art in a few years. The stately gingerbread mansion is significantly larger than the original Centre d’Art building, which was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, and has land space for several additional buildings. We were briefed on the ambitious plans which, when completed in a few years, will raise the bar for cultural organizations in the Caribbean, with museum spaces for the permanent collection, temporary exhibition galleries, an archive and a library, studio, workshop and lecture spaces, an art conservation facility, offices, as well as the customary café and gift shop. The Maison Larsen had itself suffered earthquake damage in 2010 and will be fully restored, as the highlight of the new complex. The old premises of Le Centre d’Art will become a creative co-working space, focused on supporting creative production in the visual and performing arts, and will operate as a subsidiary of the Centre.

Another highlight was our studio visit with Patrick Villaire, the octagenarian Haitian sculptor, ceramist, painter, researcher and cultural organizer, whose large-scale, meticulously engineered mixed media sculptures speak to the existential questions arising from Haitian culture, politics and history and, particularly its perverse dynamics of power and oppression. I had hoped to include Villaire in what would have been the 2019 Jamaica Biennial but alas, that was not to be. He deserves to be better known in the Caribbean, however, and a local retrospective exhibition is also long overdue. An exhibition that explores how Haitian artists have, often through guarded metaphorical references, commented on the countries convulsive political history also seems necessary, but the local political climate may be too convulsive for such ventures.

On the roof of MUPANAH (the shrine and museum are underground, the fountains are not working at the present time) (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

While Le Centre d’Art is thriving, as a recognized “institution of public utility” but ultimately a private initiative, Haiti’s public cultural institutions are not doing so well. This is not surprising, given the prevailing dysfunction in government and the public sector. We visited the Musée du Pantheon National (MUPANAH), a national shrine to Haiti’s revolutionary heroes and history museum that has important holdings of historical art works and artifacts and a modern Haitian art collection. Situated on the beautiful but neglected Champs de Mars area, with its origins as a national pantheon uncomfortably associated with the Duvalier era, the museum seems frozen in time and presents a triumphant but un-nuanced, uncritical and unapologetically masculinist narrative about national history that is in urgent need of a major critical review and update. A museum of this nature should fall under the Ministry of Culture and not under the office of the President, as is the case for the MUPANAH, as this inevitably politicizes the institution and curtails that academic and curatorial autonomy a museum is supposed to have.

MUPANAH’s temporary exhibition gallery, which when I last visited contained a selection of the museum’s modern art collection, was now occupied by a solo exhibition by the Haitian artist Jean-Claude Legagneur who, it turns out, is also the director of the museum. Conflict of interest is a common problem in Caribbean cultural institutions, and tends to take on more pronounced forms when there are serious deficiencies in governance.

The discarded Columbus statue at the Bureau d’Ethnologie (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

The small museum at the nearby Bureau d’Ethnologie was closed, with its storied collections in storage. Apparently, and dishearteningly, the museum building is used for events. We were however able to see the instructive array of discarded and displaced monuments and other cultural relics that are kept in the lovely courtyard garden, such as the Columbus statue that was tossed in the Port-au-Prince harbour during the 1986 déchoucage at the time of the fall of the Duvaliers.

The national art school, ENARTS, also suffered significantly from the recent crisis and is practically inactive, although I was told that they are registering students for the new academic year. There are however mounting calls from younger professionals within the art world for a more up-to-date institutional vision and curriculum, and a new, more engaged approach to teaching and management.

Each of these public institutions has an important role to play in Haiti’s cultural ecology and I can only hope that better futures await them, once Haiti’s social and political context stabilizes.

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