Haitian artists express earthquake's tragedy through paintings and music

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Edward Cody
washington post foreign service
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Since it was devastated by an earthquake Jan. 12, Haiti has been synonymous with death, destruction and misery. But a month later, out from under the rubble has come a sign of the irrepressible human spirit that makes this tragic country someplace special.

Earthquake art has arrived.

Haiti has long expressed itself through its world-renowned painting. Now, in their ramshackle studios or in borrowed back rooms, using scavenged oils and makeshift easels, Haitian artists have begun painting the first canvases that seek to depict the horror of the quake and proclaim a tenacious hope that things will get better, if only because they can't get worse.

Dorvelus Gerald put the finishing touches on his first earthquake art here Saturday, daubing acrylic paint on a clock marking 4:57 -- the hour the magnitude 7 tremor struck -- that was set in pale yellow high on a towering church steeple. Under the steeple, a titanic struggle was underway, matching a dragon-like monster emerging from the bowels of the earth to devour Haiti against a deep blue angel trying to protect the country from evil.

Gerald, 50, said he began the work about four days after the earthquake. The quake destroyed his mother's house in Port-au-Prince, the capital, where he normally lives and works, and he was forced to take refuge in this little town atop terraced hills about 15 miles to the southeast. He lost most of his oil paint in the rubble, he said, and could resume painting only after a friend gave him some salvaged tubes of acrylics.

"He wanted to give me some money," Gerald recalled. "But I said I didn't want anything but paint. Just give me paint."

Gerald, who sells his work in galleries in Port-au-Prince and Miami, said he hopes the first earthquake canvas will bring in $2,000, money badly needed to repair or rebuild his family home. He recently started a second earthquake painting, showing a cemetery where endless rows of grave markers seem to reach up to flowers floating by in what appears to be turbulent air.

After signing the completed painting, Gerald took a late-morning swig of Haiti's celebrated Barbancourt rum and stepped back to admire his works. A row of a half-dozen empty rum bottles sat atop the refrigerator in his little farmhouse. Just behind him, facing the easel, hung a dime store portrait of the Virgin Mary, who seemed to be looking down with motherly indulgence.

With one painting completed and another underway, Gerald said he has no plans for any more works dealing with the tragedy, at least for the time being. "The earth turns, and so does our spirit," he said. "With these paintings, I have expelled the evil of the earthquake from my brain."

Haiti's musicians have also composed their first earthquake songs, loping Caribbean tunes promising that, although times are tough, the country's tears will dry one day. "There are many artists in Haiti," said Markaens Midy as an earthquake song, with its promise of a brighter future, played on his car radio.

But the status of painting has long been particularly high here. For decades, painting has been a splash of color, humor and success in a history otherwise benighted by dictatorship, corruption and poverty so grinding that people go to sea in little boats to get away.

One of the few things people here remember fondly about the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, for instance, was that he contributed to the founding of the National Art School in the early 1980s. Gerald was in the first graduating class in 1984.

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