Brian Major | June 24, 2015 11:00 AM ET
Magnificent Artwork is a Haitian Highlight
All photos by Brian Major
Blue skies, sun and sand are common to nearly all Caribbean countries, but almost every island has a distinguishing indigenous characteristic. For Haiti that distinction is artwork. Haiti’s art scene is arguably the region's richest and most productive, and certainly its most inspiring.
Amazing art is found all across Haiti, often in stark relief to the still-evident ruins of the 2010 earthquake. The country retains a handful of must-see galleries, craft cooperatives, and art museums, including the El Saieh Gallery and Artisan Business Network, both located in Port au Prince. There are also entire districts, including Jacmel and Village de Noailles, dedicated to artistic pursuits.
And every morning around the capital of Port au Prince, the nearby suburb of Petionville, and numerous other locations around the country, street vendors set out an incredible array of paintings, mixed-media creations, decorative metal work, and wood sculptures. The displays routinely feature pieces not found anywhere else in the Caribbean.
Painting at El Saieh Gallery in Port au Prince
Regardless of where it’s found, art enthusiasts traveling to Haiti will encounter everything from oil paintings to brilliant wall art crafted from hammered metal and tapestries made from thousands of richly patterned beads. Haitian art themes run from images that chronicle the country’s origin as the first nation born of a successful slave revolt to scenes that depict the nation’s spirituality, ceremonies, celebrations, and dance. Fanciful visions of dreams, love, and romantic fantasies are also a Haitian specialty.
Some of the best art displays take shape each morning on the sidewalks outside of Port au Prince’s top hotels. The 175-room Marriott Port-au-Prince, built through a partnership among Marriott International, Digicel Group, and The Clinton Foundation, (and among the city’s newest properties), is no exception.
Street art vendor outside Port au Prince
Guests can simply walk across the street to peruse a collection of original paintings and decorative wall art. Haitian art vendors expect their customers to haggle, and with a little friendly and intense banter, travelers can come away with beautiful work at great values.
The amazing art continues within the Marriott Port-au-Prince itself, where accommodations and public spaces make liberal use of original Haitian paintings, sculpture, and decorative metal, wood, and papier-mâché creations.
The hotel’s art curator, Philippe Dodard, is a renowned Haitian artisan whose work inspired Donna Karan’s spring 2012 collection. Dodard worked with local artists to create the hotel’s décor, which features his own pieces along with works from 13 artists.
The daily display outside of the Marriott is hardly unique. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake vendors who once occupied now-shattered commercial buildings have moved into the streets. Almost any Port au Prince street is liable to transform into an ersatz gallery during the day, with surprisingly orderly art displayed right across the sidewalks.
Yet Port au Prince also features a handful of top-shelf art galleries, an artists’ collective, and even art-themed neighborhoods.
Not widely known but filled with magnificent artwork, the El Saieh Gallery is a family-run business located in a gated home up steep Avenue Du Chili outside of Port au Prince’s downtown district.
The gallery features thousands of paintings, sculptures, prints, and mixed-media art, with several rooms containing stacks of art work. The main gallery space is adorned with large paintings attached to each wall, and shelves packed with dozens of medium-sized, original pieces. Sculpture lines every wall of the main room, which also holds several large tables filled with imaginative prints and paintings.
Beyond the main room the ground floor features several other rooms similarly bursting with art work. These include a room dedicated to the creations of Jean-Emmanuel El-Saieh, the partner and son of owner Sharon Natan El-Saieh. Ms. El-Saieh said her artwork is affordable to virtually anyone; prices run from $25 to $3,000 and more.
Sharona Natan El-Saieh
Travelers can visit the El-Saieh Gallery by appointment via local tour company Tour Haiti, run by Haitian native and resident Jean Cyril Pressoir. Or said Ms. El-Saieh, travelers in the neighborhood can simply drive up to the gate and knock.
Travelers in Port au Prince can also connect with Tour Haiti to visit the Artisan Business Network’s Port au Prince retail store. The outlet features a smaller but equally representative display of fine Haitian arts and crafts.
Jacmel is located on Haiti’s southern coast and evolved as coffee trading center before and after Haiti’s 1804 independence. Following a major 1896 fire that destroyed most of the town’s buildings, wealthy coffee merchants rebuilt the district, creating grand mansions that incorporated refabricated cast-iron pillars and balconies shipped over from France.
Many of the mansions, built with ground-floor warehouses to store the source of the coffee barons' riches, remain well-preserved. Today many of those ground-floor spaces house artisan shops featuring original artwork and handicrafts, including papier-mâché masks, a local specialty, and carved-wood animal figures.
While the town is largely unchanged from the post-colonial era, Jacmel has sustained some earthquake damage. Key buildings, including the historic Cathedrale St. Jacques et St. Philippe and the iron-roofed market located directly across from the church, remain closed for safety reasons.
Haiti’s government is seeking to amass funding to repair the market and designate the space for the city’s many artisans. Nevertheless their creations can be found in public spaces all around town. Even steps that link the hilly district are adorned with artfully patterned mosaic tiles, and evocative street murals flank walls along the coastal beachfront.
On Haiti’s northern coast lies the village of Noailles, where dozens of skilled artisans convert recycled metal into works of art. Although travelers can walk along a pedestrian plaza street the government has created to house several of the craft-makers’ shops, the artisans are also installed in houses, shacks and courtyards all around the district.
The village of Noailles
Canadian tour operator G Adventures is leading escorted tours to Haiti that feature visits to Jacmel along with other art-themed activities. The tours are well worth the effort for visitors. Haiti’s amazing art offers an eye-opening glimpse into the talent, resilience and tremendous creativity of its people.
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