Tagged: smithsonian

Haiti Report: Saving a country’s priceless murals.


Cracks in the Wall: Philomé Obim’s Last Supper at the Sainte Trinité Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, display the damage of last year’s devastating quake. (All photos by San Suzie.)

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.

Everywhere around Port-au-Prince there are reminders of the devastation.

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.)

The remains of Sainte-Trinité, Port-au-Prince. At rear, Prefete Duffaut's 'Native Procession' sits behind scaffolding.

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.

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Fire in my Belly: Or how the Smithsonian capitulated to right-wing interests.

Untitled (One Day This Kid…), 1990, by David Wojnarowicz. (Image courtesy of PPOW.)

In the event that you haven’t been following, the Smithsonian engaged in a spectacular act of cowardice this past week. The short of it is that the museum removed a video by artist David Wojnarowicz from Hide/Seek, a queer-themed show at the National Portrait Gallery, after the Catholic League complained that the work was anti-Christian. Since then, the artist’s work has turned into a whipping boy for the far right (namely, no one who has seen the video or the exhibit).

Following the hubbub, the Smithsonian removed the piece, despite the fact that not a single museum attendee had complained about it. The video, titled Fire in My Belly, is a meditation on the AIDS epidemic, created in 1987, when the pandemic was in full and fatal swing. Needless to say, it’s extremely worrisome (and enraging) to see a museum buckle to special political interests in this way. Not to mention that it’s anti-intellectual and censorious.

I’m on a crazy deadline, so I haven’t been able to give this the focus it deserves, but if you’re looking for more reads, here are a few links:

  • ArtInfo has background on the story.
  • PPOW, the gallery that manages Wonjarowicz’s estate has issued a statement criticizing the move. They also have Wojnarowicz’s video online for viewing.
  • The Smithsonian has released a pathetic response on why it capitulated to a political interest group.
  • Over the weekend, a couple of protesters got arrested detained at the National Portrait Gallery for playing the video on an iPad and handing out fliers. See a video here.
  • The New Gay has direct e-mail addresses to the Smithsonian officials in charge of this mess. Let ‘em know what you think.
  • If you live in New York, you can check out the video at the New Museum, now playing in the lobby – for free!
  • If you read one story about this, make sure it’s Christopher Knight’s take over at the L.A. Times, in which he explores the anti-gay nature of the right-wing protest over the show.
  • LATE ADDITION: My 101 on the controversy over at WNYC.