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By Nathalie Jolivert, Communications and Outreach Coordinator at HCX
For the series of Black History Month events at Haiti Cultural Exchange, I had the opportunity to lead a Sip and Paint session on Haitian Creole Proverbs. This workshop took place at the cozy Haitian-owned lounge ’33 Lafayette’ in Brooklyn.
Haitian Creole Proverbs are very visual expressions that are learned orally from generation to generation. In the Haitian culture, if you want to be well understood, ending your argument with a proverb could easily settle the discussion. During this event, guests learned about a few of those iconic expressions and were challenged to come up with their own visual interpretation.
“Piti piti, zwazo fe nich li” = “Little by little the bird builds its nest”, this proverb resonated to one of the guests who had just moved to New York. While she felt that it would take time for her to adapt in the Big Apple, building her nest, step by step, seemed like a wise approach.
The proverb “Dèyè mòn gen mòn” = “Mountains beyond Mountains” usually refers to endless challenges in Haiti, but for Erika Pettersen, HCX’s Director of Development and Communications, this proverb could also speak about opportunities. For her painting, she first started with a simple rendition of grayscale hills which became colorful as they reached the horizon.
Although most of the guests claimed that they had little visual-artistic background, their sense of composition, their attention and genuine interest for the meaning of those Haitian proverbs resulted in appealing paintings. It was a pleasure for me to work with them and in return expand my own understanding of the wisdom in those expressions.
About the author:
Nathalie Jolivert is a Haitian architect and artist who lives and works in NY. Her art is influenced by her interest in urbanism, environmental issues and human relationships. Nathalie studied Fine Arts and Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Photography by: Liz Gauthier
written by guest author Marie Antoine.
HCX kicked off Black History month with the closing reception and artist talk of the visual arts exhibition Ayiti Toma: The Genesis. The event was hosted at the Haitian owned Tapas Wine Bar and Lounge, 33 Lafayette. The lounge provided a cozy and inviting atmosphere which allowed attendees to attentively absorb the fierce storytelling, history and intricate layers of Haitian liberation as it continues to unfold. Conceptualized and curated by Mahalia Stines a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn and featured two other Haitian women artists: Monique Serres, a realist painter who asserts that the value of art lies in its message and therefore she thoughtfully uses technique including allegory, facial expression or color and form to evoke meaning; and Nathalie Jolivert, a New York based artist whose artwork is influenced by urbanism, environmental issues and human relationships.
Each of the women submitted very contrasting pieces, yet the messages of Haitian triumphs, defeats and aspirations were present in each of their works. Stines’ quilted piece Ayiti Toma: Genesis depicts the birth of Haiti starting from Langinen (the Motherland) to the declaration of Independence in 1804. She also stated during the talk, that the piece is a work in progress holding space for developments in the nation’s plight to achieve liberation. Stines is a natural and captivating storyteller, her quilt includes details that bring to life the various states of anguish that the ancestors lived through; from the atrocious and cramped spaces of the slave ships to the fiery scenes of the bloodshed during the rebellion.Fittingly the opening of the exhibit took place on January 1st commemorating Haiti’s 214th year of independence and the show ended in February during the celebration of Black history month in the United States. Timing was not the only well-thought out facet of the show, Stines’ was intentional in every aspect of creating Ayiti Toma. Firstly she only featured female artists. She did so in order to address that although women played crucial roles in the Haitian revolution they are not given the necessary recognition that is warranted.
From my perspective, the most poignant scene from Stines’ narrative of her quilt is when she told of the slaves’ gazing up at the stars when they were given an opportunity to move from the constricted space they occupied to allow blood to circulate in their bodies. To imagine the ancestors gazing up at the stars triggered a peculiar emotion within me. Often times history can be difficult to grasp, especially a history that is so full of atrocities, covering a long span of time and that affected a huge population. It is easy to focus only on the facts and the dates when studying history and in doing so it makes it possible to disconnect from the reality of historical events on human life, therefore incorporating small details that capture the humanity in history is crucial. I was pleased that Stines presented such a comprehensive retelling of the genesis of Ayiti Toma.
Similarly Serres’ piece of a woman living in a tent city in Port-Au-Prince (PAP) after the earthquake in 2010 was also impactful in the way it portrayed one reality of those who were affected. During the talk Serres stated that she had not been back to Haiti after the earthquake, a fact that surprised me because of the layers of truth she conjured up while creating her piece. At first glance it was apparent that Serres did not paint a subject in despair, in fact the woman in the painting looks dignified in her bright yellow shirt and red dangly earrings which match the bag she is holding in her hand. Deliberately so on the artist’s part, the woman’s presence captured my attention first. However when my eyes started averting to the collapsed presidential palace in the backdrop and then to the American rice laying on the ground inches from her foot I started to get a different picture. Furthermore as the spectator, I do not know if she has been living in that tent a few weeks to a year or more, so it becomes clear why it is necessary that this woman keeps her head up. This attitude of not giving into despair but instead trying to rise above is how Haitians were accorded the term resilient.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary resilient means being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Starting with slavery, through the revolution and the following years of political and environmental issues; Haitians are in a consistent state of recovery. However the consistency of the unrest does not allow for full recovery. Instead Haitians have become a depository for the negative impacts of the persistent assault on Haitian land, Haitian bodies and Haitian psyche. The result is what Nathalie Jolivert touches on in many of her works, which portray the urban landscape and live figures of Port-Au-Prince.
During the talk, one of the attendees noticed that the human figures in Jolivert’s art do not have eyes. Her answer — it symbolizes the invisibility that the masses in PAP embody. She explains further by describing the scene in the tap-taps (a form of public transportation in Haiti) where there is seldom eye contact; she also describes the nameless merchant women who are only classified by the products that they sale e.g the charcoal vendor or the fritay vendor. She paints the figures without eyes in order to stimulate conversation as an attempt to give voice to the reality of the implicit and marginalized aches of the masses in PAP. And also of the distress linked to the poor infrastructure and landscape of the city. One of her strengths as an artist is that Jolivert is not politically correct, therefore she does not dilute the truth of her observations and experiences of living in Haiti.
I left Ayiti Toma: Genesis more knowledgeable of Haitian history than when I walked in. I left inspired by the audacity of Haitian blood. And I left motivated by these three women creatives who are making sure their voices are heard deliberately, passionately and with authority.
About the Author, Marie Antoine
Marie Antoine is a Haitian born holistic counselor and
aspiring entrepreneur based in Brooklyn,NY.
Her ultimate goal is to use her education
and experience in social work to work in community building in Haiti.
As a Lakou NOU artist in residence, Sabine Blaizin, DJ and community organizer, worked in the neighborhood of Crown Heights and focused on the impact of gentrification on its Haitian-American community.
For the first part of her project, Sabine collaborated with Storycorps, an organization that broadcasts stories recorded between two participants as they interview each other. Those stories are then archived at the Library of Congress and made accessible to the public. Sabine reached out to current and past residents of Crown-Heights whom she hosted at Haiti Cultural Exchange with Storycorps, over Haitian tea and hors d’oeuvres generously donated by Grandchamps Restaurant.
The second part of Sabine’s project was an installation at FiveMyles Gallery in which she deconstructed elements of a traditional lakou to create an experimental atmosphere around the projection of pictures and sounds from the interviews recorded with Storycorps.
An ephemeral cube made out of white draping, same as the garment worn by women during Vodoun ceremonies, served as the sacred space in which Sabine projected the stories of her interviewees. As you entered the cube, you could see colorful ribbons hanging from above, on strings woven through the wooden grid of the gallery’s ceiling. Within the cube, Mahalia Stines, a Brooklyn-based Vodoun priestess and long-time HCX collaborator, drew an intricate Erzulie Freda vèvè with pink cornmeal that contrasted well with the grey floor of FiveMyles gallery. Next to it, Sabine also placed a table adorned with objects usually found on Vodoun altars.
On the day of this event, guests trickled into the gallery as Okai, another Lakou NOU artist in residence, played his drums. They ventured into the white space, absorbed the stories of Crown-Heights’ rapid gentrification and together seemed to apprehend and mourn the disappearance of Haitian culture exhibited within the cube.
Join Haiti Cultural Exchange (HCX) and Friends for the Haiti Film Fest Opening Night Fundraiser, taking place on Thursday, May 11th at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Downtown Brooklyn. This celebratory event is the official launch party for the 4th Biennial installment of Haiti Film Fest. Established in 2011, HCX’s Haiti Film Fest highlights emerging talent in Haitian communities, and features provocative and innovative storytelling via narrative films, documentaries, feature-length projects and short films that depict the diversity, depth and vibrant spirit of contemporary Haitian cinema.
The evening will also be dedicated to honoring the following individuals who have made significant contributions to Haitian film and culture:
Arnold Antonin, Award-winning Film Director
Jimmy Jean-Louis, Celebrated Film and Television Actor
Rachelle Salnave, Filmmaker and Founder of Ayiti Images
More information can be found here