Today CheckoutART dedicates its page to the artist Louko who, along with many thousands of others, died on January 12, 2010, when an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale devastated Haiti. Over the last two weeks, we have heard and seen the complete and utter destruction of this already impoverished nation. Yet, perhaps even more striking than the unspeakable calamity is the resilience and the determination of the Haitian people. We have seen images of people singing, people describing their survival as a “new life”, students gathering together in front of the destroyed Presidential Palace and raising Haiti’s flag. I cannot begin to tell you how impressed I was with how quickly photographer Leah Gordon (who is presently in Haiti) and Tracey Moberly (a political artist and co-founder of foundry.tv) got back to me. Both women have long established ties to the art community in Haiti and are well-known artists themselves. No sooner would I e-mail them something, then they would both e-mail me back. I cannot begin to thank these women for their generosity. Leah even took the time to answer some questions.
As a point of reference, The Sculptors of Grand Rue are a group of Haitian artists who have made an international name for themselves with their sculptures made from an assemblage of wood carving, metal, and found objects. Grand Rue is the name of one of the main streets in Port-au-Prince.
Q: You asked me to dedicate this article to the memory of Louko, please tell us about him.
A: LOUKO WAS IN HIS MID THIRTIES. HE STARTED WORKING WITH THE SCULPTORS OF GRAND RUE AS A WELDER. BUT IN THE LAST THREE YEARS HE HAS BEEN CREATING WORK OF HIS OWN. hE IS A BIG MAN, VERY BUFF AND WORKS OUT, WITH A BIG GENEROUS HEART TO GO WITH IT. HE WORKED SO HARD FOR THE GHETTO BIENNALE. HE WILL BE GREATLY MISSED.
Q: We cannot talk about the contemporary art scene in Haiti without addressing the current tragedy. Human life is above all everyone’s concern, how much has been lost in this tragedy in the arts community?
A: THIS IS HARD TO SAY BUT THE CENTRE D’ART FELL AND PEOPLE HAVE BEEN DESPERATE TO SAVE THE ART WORKS INSIDE. I DO NOT KNOW HOW THE MUSEE D’ART CONTEMPORAIRE IS AT THE MOMENT WHICH CONTAINS HIPPOLYTES. THE SCULPTORS OF GRAND RUE DESPERATELY NEED HELP TO STORE THEIR HUGE AMOUNT OF WORK WHILST THEY REBUILD THEIR ATELIERS AND HOMES. THEY ARE SCARED THAT THE AUTHORITIES WILL CLEAR IT AWAY. THEY HAVE HAD THEIR WORK BURNT TWICE IN HAITI ALREADY WHILST IN SHOWS IN GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS. BOTH TIMES BY EVANGELISTIC PASTORS SAYING IT IS THE WORK OF THE DEVIL. IF YOU CAN THINK OF ANY INSTITUTIONS THAT CAN HELP. THEY HAVE A MASS OF WONDERFUL PRECIOUS WORK.
The Ghetto Biennale Sign Fallen but Not Destroyed, 2010, (Photo Leah Gordon) (Courtesy of Leah Gordon)
Q: Could you describe the contemporary art scene in Haiti before this?
A: THERE ARE A NUMBER OF BOURGEOIS ARTISTS BUT THE MAJORITY OF ARTISTS ARE FROM POOR NEIGHBOURHOODS AND EITHER SELF TAUGHT OR TAUGHT BY THE APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM. BUT HAITIAN ARTISTS ALTHOUGH NOT SCHOOLED IN ART SCHOOLS ARE TIRED OF THE LABEL NAIVE. LIVING AND SURVIVING AS THEY DO THEY FEEL THEY ARE ANYTHING BUT NAIVE.
Q: Groups like the Grand Rue Sculptors (who lost a member and to whom this article will be dedicated) have gained prominence outside of Haiti. Do you think they see their social role redefined almost as a mission?
A: THEY ALWAYS FELT THEIR WORK HAD CULTURAL, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL DIMENSIONS. AT THE MOMENT THEY ARE JUST HELPING THEIR NEIGHBOURHOOD TO SURVIVE. THE PEOPLE IN THEIR AREA HAVE RECEIVED NO AID AT ALL. THEY NEED TENTS TO SHELTER THEM.
Q: Support for artists even in good times is poor, let alone in a poor country. What implications does this have for young emerging artists who still haven’t made a name outside of Haiti?
A: MY OPINION IS THAT WHILST HAITI IS MATERIALLY POOR IT IS CULTURALLY RICH. PERHAPS THIS TRAGEDY WILL MAKE PEOPLE TAKE NOTICE OF WHAT GREAT CREATIVITY AND BEAUTY HAITI CAN CONTRIBUTE TO THE WORLD.
Q: There seems to be a lot of reference to vodou. What role does this play in the Haitian art of today?
A: ART IS THE MATERIAL REPRESENTATION OF THE CULTURE AND THE CULTURE IS DOMINATED BY VODOU. VODOU IS MUCH MALIGNED AS IT WAS THE CULTURAL FORCE BEHIND THE SLAVES REVOLT. TO UNDERMINE A POLITICAL MOVEMENT THE COLONIAL FORCES DEMONIZED THE CULTURE BEHIND IT.
Louko: The Ghetto Biennale. Portrait of Louko as he looks on..., 2009 (Photo: Seitu Jones)
Louko being interviewd (Photo: Tracey Moberly) (Courtesy of Tracey Moberly)
Entrance to the Ghetto Biennale (Photo: Seitu Jones)
Celeur Jean Herard's "The Delivery", 2004 (Courtesy of Leah Gordon)
Andre Eugene's "Dantor", 2007 (Courtesy of Leah Gordon)
Kanaval "Jakmel" (Photo: Leah Gordon) (courtesy of Leah Gordon)