Roughly an hour before the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January, Frantz Zephirin, one of the country’s best-known painters, was drinking beer at a bar in Port-au-Prince. After a discussion at a nearby table turned into a heated political debate, Zephirin paid his check and left with a friend. Moments later the earth shook. Walls crumbled. Houses collapsed. Sound reverberated around them. “I thought it was a bomb,” he says. After the great shaking had ceased, Zephirin looked and saw that the bar had turned to rubble. Stunned and saddened, he walked to the beach later that night and painted by candlelight. “I saw so many things I can’t explain to people, so much death and devastation,” he says. “I want to paint everything I saw.”
Close to nine months after the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 in Haiti, the city of Port-au-Prince is still in ruins. Reconstruction has been slow, and more than a million people remain homeless. Yet the country’s artists—those on the island as well as their counterparts abroad—are using their limited resources to channel the nation’s suffering, hope, and anxiety into new paintings, crafts, and sculptures.
In the process, they have created a market for post-earthquake Haitian art, particularly in the United States. Recently, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., opened an exhibit of post-earthquake paintings and drawings by Haitian children. In September, Macy’s partnered with Haitian artists on a new line of home-décor handcrafts, Smithsonian magazine commissioned a painting by Zephirin for its cover last month, and the Miami International Airport opened an exhibit featuring works created by Haitian artists in the wake of the disaster. The 4,000-square-foot gallery features voodoo flags made with beads and sequins, intricate metal carvings made from flattened oil drums, and carnival masks made from papier-mâché. “This exhibition is a testament to their optimism,” said Yolanda Sanchez, the airport’s fine-arts director.
That optimism—long a cornerstone of Haitian art—has helped the country survive its difficult history. More than 200 years ago, Haiti was created in the aftermath of a massive slave uprising against the French. Since then, the nation has suffered a host of indignities: invasion, isolation, and poor self-governance. Yet out of this misery has grown a rich artistic tradition that draws heavily on African, Taíno, voodoo, and Catholic influences. “Haiti doesn’t have car factories. It doesn’t have steel plants,” says Richard Kurin, the undersecretary for history, art, and culture at the Smithsonian. “Culture is one of the few resources Haitians have. Art has become a way for them to preserve their dignity.”
Art has also provided a way for Haitians to reckon with tragedy. Since the quake, various relief groups and nongovernmental organizations have set up dozens of art-therapy camps for children and adults in Port-au-Prince and other nearby areas. “We use art as a meditation,” says Mazen Aboulhosn, a psychologist for the International Organization for Migration. “It’s easier to talk about difficulties through…art…than talking directly,” says Patricia Landinez, a psychologist for the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Those difficulties are evident in Zephirin’s work. In the piece commissioned by the Smithsonian entitled And Haiti Will Bloom Again, the artist paints the island as a dark mass filled with crosses. In the clouds, a watchful eye is crying. Yet there is also a sense of hope; in the center of the painting, large, colorful birds deliver flowers, money, and justice to the island in their beaks.
A sense of hope also permeates Eight Days, a children’s book by the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat and illustrated by Alix Delinois. Danticat wrote the story to explain to her 5-year-old daughter what happened during the earthquake. Published in September, the book follows a young boy named Junior who spends more than a week beneath the rubble. To quell his fears, Junior imagines the good parts of life on the island: singing loudly in church, playing hide-and-seek with his friends, and catching mouthfuls of rain during a storm. Then, miraculously, he is rescued. Throughout the story, Delinois’s bright, colorful drawings mirror Danticat’s message of hope and resilience. “After a tragedy, we’re always trying to get a sense of who we are,” says Danticat. “Art is proof that we’re alive beyond breathing.”
For André Eugène, an artist known for making macabre sculptures from wood, scrap metal, and skulls, the earthquake has given him new inspiration. “I find myself making sculptures of pregnant women,” he says. “I’ve started to create art about giving life.”
With Nausheen Husain and Tania Barnes in New York