(Jeremy C. Fox / Boston.com)
Broken glass. Weeping women. A hillside where houses are jumbled one atop another like building blocks. Children crushed beneath the wreckage of a crumbling home. Faces peering warily up from a hole within a dry, dusty landscape.
These are just some of the harrowing images of last year’s Haitian earthquake on display in the Mayor’s Neighborhood Gallery on the second floor of Boston City Hall. They’re part of an exhibit of work by Haitian artists called “When Our Brushes Shook” that is both a commemoration of the earthquake and a fundraiser for those artists who are still trying, more than a year later, to put their lives back together.
Edmund Barry Gaither, executive director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, was one of four curators for the exhibit. He said its placement in City Hall was “evidence of an ongoing sense of a certain political and social relationship between Boston and Haiti” that dates back to the mid-19th century, when Charles Sumner, a US senator from Massachusetts, led the drive for formal recognition of Haiti as an independent nation.
While assembling the show, Gaither said he was struck that where one might expect art depicting such a terrible event “to be dark and brooding, perhaps even pessimistic in some way,” it was instead matter-of-fact about the disaster and even held hints of hope. “Behind it all, you see a spirit of ‘Wherever we are, we have to pick up from there and go forward,’” Gaither said. “And that resolve to go forward is a very characteristic aspect of the resilience which has been an earmark of Haiti. And I think the art captures that.”
And despite its often harsh subject matter, much of the work is vividly alive with intense color, which Gaither said is also a reflection of the Haitian worldview and the capacity of its citizens to recover from even the harshest blows. “I think it is that quality that is captured in the striking vibrancy and color in the majority of the works despite the somber narrative that is at the bottom,” he said.
Bright color, too, is typical of the “naïve” painting style that has been popular since Haiti began to develop a distinct artistic community in the 1940s. “Naïve” or “primitive” paintings are simple and frontally oriented in their composition and lack three-dimensional perspective. They are often created by rural artists with no formal training, but Charlot Lucien, founder and co-director of the Haitian Artists Assembly of Massachusetts, cautions that those labels and expectations can be misleading.
“The initial style that [developed in Haiti] was more like the primitive/naïve painting style, and I like to point out that this is not so naïve, because one of the most famous French painters, by the name of [Henri] Rousseau, was also a ‘naïve’ painter,” he said. Lucien said this style of work was promoted by collectors and art aficionados from outside Haiti such as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who admired “primitive” art “because it was not undermined by Western training” and was a truer reflection of the experience of Haitian people.
Over time, though, many Haitian artists began to travel to France and the US for training, bringing back a variety of influences, including everything from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. Some of the works in “When Our Brushes Shook” show those influences, using the visual language of Cubism or Surrealism to help depict a world that is sometimes literally turned upside down.
With help from this show, these artists will continue the task of setting their worlds aright. All works are for sale, with 75 percent of the proceeds going directly into the artist’s pocket and the other 25 percent going to cover the costs of putting on the exhibition and into a fund set up to buy or rent a space for artists’ studios.
The organizers hope to create a new artists’ center in Jacmel, a city of about 40,000 on Haiti’s southern coast that is home to most of the artists in the exhibit. Generally regarded as one of the country’s safest and most tranquil cities, before the quake Jacmel had become popular with tourists and known for its vibrant art scene.
Lucien, himself a native of Les Cayes, Haiti, had a connection with artists in Jacmel dating back to a 2002 visit to the city. Last April, he and another member from his organization visited Jacmel and met with 13 artists who told them of lost homes, lost art materials and lost buyers for their work when tourism ceased in Haiti.
Lucien and the assembly decided to help them get back to work by raising money to buy the supplies they needed. Through small fundraising efforts with other sympathetic organizations, they were able to raise about $2,500 and use it to buy materials and get them to Jacmel artists. From there, they set about creating opportunities for the artists to sell their work by putting on a series of exhibits in the Boston area.
Last fall, as they were planning the exhibits, a cholera outbreak hit Haiti, followed quickly by Hurricane Tomas, causing flooding that worsened the outbreak. Communications with the island nation became increasingly difficult, and the exhibit organizers began to fear that they wouldn’t be able to gather enough work.
But the artists of Jacmel came through. “Through phone calls or meetings between themselves, they provided ultimately 74 pieces, whereas early on we were expecting maybe 30 to 35 pieces as part of the exhibit,” Lucien said. He hopes the show will be a way to revitalize the art scene in Jacmel but also to help build human connections.
“Art is alive and well in Haiti but should also serve as a bridge between different communities and cultures, which is what is happening now between the artists in Jacmel and this art community in Massachusetts,” Lucien said. “I’m hoping that this will move beyond the arts community in Massachusetts to reach out to people who are not into art but are trying to find meaningful, concrete ways to support [Haiti].”
“When Our Brushes Shook” will remain on display at City Hall until the end of January. More work by artists from Jacmel is still arriving and will be on display in shows at Brockton Public Library, Brockton City Hall, the Cambridge Health Alliance, the Menino Arts Center, Lesley University and the National Center of Afro-American Artists through February and into the spring.
In conjunction with the exhibition at the Cambridge Hospital, there will be an “Arts Night for Haiti” fundraiser at the hospital at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 27. And three of the artists featured in the exhibit will appear with Governor Deval Patrick, other elected officials and representatives of the local Haitian immigrant community at “Haiti — A Year after the Earthquake: Reflections and Prayers” on the Grand Staircase at the Massachusetts State House at noon on Monday, Jan. 31.
For more information, visit http://gbspa.homestead.com/JacmelArtProject.html.
For a gallery of works from the exhibit, click here.
Email Jeremy C. Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.