Almost one year ago today, I set foot in Haiti for the first time — six months after a 7.0 earthquake had practically leveled the capital. I was in Port-au-Prince at the request of the Smithsonian, with my colleague Viviana Dominguez, a painting conservator, to examine what remained of a series of mural paintings at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. At that point, I was quite familiar with the televised images of the devastation. I had seen the bodies lifted from the rubble and the shots of the crumpled presidential palace. But nothing quite prepared me for the state of need we saw as we drove out of the airport and into the snarl of traffic.
Six months after the earthquake, much of Port-au-Prince remained in ruins. Though the air was thick with the dust of demolition, many collapsed buildings still lay where they fell on January 12. The road from the airport to the cathedral was a sea of tents where people lived without running water and electricity. We saw fax machines and barber chairs set up along the sidewalk, people bathing out of buckets, cooking over charcoal fires and washing clothes in muddy urban rivulets. Because so many roads continued to be blocked by rubble, it took nearly an hour to drive just a few miles.
Sainte Trinité, as it is locally known, had once been a simple but beautiful art deco structure. In the 1950s, the building’s walls were decorated with 14 murals depicting New Testament scenes. Done by a collective of Haitian artists associated with Port-au-Prince’s Centre D’Art, these energetic, color-saturated paintings quickly became something of an international sensation — one of the must-see sites for Haitian painting. For locals, they had a deep spiritual importance because they used Haitian people and settings to illustrate the life of Christ. This went well beyond the skin color of the biblical figures. For example, in Rigaud Benoit’s Nativity, palm trees, a thatched building, baskets of pineapple, and a waterfall that bears a distinct resemblance to a local pilgrimage site frame the baby Jesus. In Wedding at Cana, artist Wilson Bigaud set the miracle of turning water into wine in a Haitian hilltop village, complete with musicians playing conga drums and flutes of local origin. (See a pre-earthquake view of some of the murals here.)
When we arrived at Holy Trinity in the summer of 2010, both Benoit’s and Bigaud’s murals had been reduced to fragments the size of my hand. Gone also were paintings of the Annunciation, Temptation of the Lord, and Crucifixion, not to mention the building’s walls, roof, and pillars. Only three murals — Castera Bazile’s Baptism, Prefete Duffaut’s Native Procession and Philomé Obin’s three-walled Last Supper — clung precariously to walls that looked about as stable as the piles of debris that surrounded them. Doused by rain and baked by the sun for six months, the paintings were starting to fade and powder. They had to come down immediately. The question was how to do it without destroying them.
There are generally two ways to remove a mural from a wall: either you take the paint layer alone or you take the paint layer together with the layer to which it is attached, known as the ground. The first method, called strappo, was inappropriate for Sainte Trinité because the paint layer was too thin to even consider it. Besides, the murals were already cracked into fragments that would facilitate removal by the second method, called stacco. Before we could begin, however, we had to solve a dozen other problems. The walls had to be shored, the powdering paint had to be stabilized, the salts that were steadily accumulating on the Last Supper had to be poulticed, and mainly we had to figure out how to manage the fragments as they came down — whether to cut them into smaller sections, or remove them in larger fragments riddled with hairline cracks. (Some of which weighed more than both of us.) We also had to bring all of our own materials and work together with four young Haitian artists who were new to conservation and who spoke very little English. Needless to say, we spoke no Creole.
The process of conservation, even in the best of settings, is like walking through a labyrinth. You come up with a plan and you move along it until you hit a dead end. You see the end in sight, and then something pops up that makes you go back two steps and then forward again to get around the obstacle. In Haiti, one of our principle challenges was communication. Our interaction with our assistants was elementary at first, but Viviana and I could sense a certain resistance to our methods. The artists seemed skeptical at times; indifferent at others. We surmised that the task of removing murals from a ruined cathedral was just not all that important to them in light of all the devastation that they lived with.
As projects go, this one required constant attention to potential disaster, and a constant tweaking of the protocols. Our adjustments must have been frustrating, if not downright confounding to a crew we could barely communicate with. We would bring pieces down and then find it difficult to safely flip them face up. We would find a repair mix that worked, only to find that we could not get the materials to Port-au-Prince when we ran out. Each fragment had to be brushed of dirt, photographed, labeled, keyed to a drawing, faced with cheesecloth, shored with wood strips, cut at the edges, chiseled from behind, lifted by three or four people, laid onto a cardboard tray, walked down the scaffolding, laid down on a makeshift table in a lean-to workspace, injected with mortar or adhesive, turned, cleaned of its wooden strips and facing, and then photographed again before it was placed into long term storage. But there was no routine to adhere to or take comfort in. Everything was so unstable, our process seemed to change with each and every fragment.
Despite the heat and mosquitoes — not to mention an outbreak of cholera — our team managed to salvage the murals. First came Native Procession, then Baptism, and finally the Last Supper. Approximately 100 fragments ranging in size from 2’ to 4’ square, are now being held at the Haiti Cultural Recovery Center, a Port-au-Prince facility dedicated to the rescue and preservation of Haiti’s cultural property. The plan is to reinstall the fragments on their original walls as part of a memorial park. There are dozens of issues to resolve with that plan, but that just goes with the territory. Haiti is still in dire straights. There are still mountains of rubble on the streets and people still live without running water.
I often wondered about the importance of all this in light of all the human misery. But on one of the last days of work, I had a conversation with the chief assistant, Junior Norelus that summed up the significance of this endeavor. In his vastly improved English, he confessed to us that at first the assistants did not think the removal would work. But over time they had realized it was just a matter of making adjustments and being flexible. “It’s also about breaking problems down into their smallest components and tackling them one at a time,” I added. He thought about this and replied, “It’s what we need to do for the entire country.”