Haitian Artists Bring Garbage to Life Artists in Port-au-Prince are using bits of garbage and flotsam to create works reflecting poverty, voodoo and the urban Haitian experience.
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Haitian Artists Bring Garbage to Life

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Haitian Artists Bring Garbage to Life

Haitian Artists Bring Garbage to Life

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Haitian art is known for colorful paintings that show an idealized picture of the countryside, but deep in the slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince, a very different artistic movement is under way. As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, the artists use bits of garbage and find their roots in Vodou and the urban Haitian experience.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Down twisting dirt alleyways crowded with tin shacks, a large metal man with hair made of shredded tires sits in a small clearing. Residents here pay it little mind. They mill around it, smoking and talking, used to its striking presence. The sculpture has become part of what is an informal outdoor gallery for a bold group of artists who work in downtown Port-au-Prince. Nearby, two old rusted cars have been decorated into a kind of art installation. According to the creator of the works, who goes by the name of Giolo(ph), what they do is inspired by what they see around themselves every day.

GIOLO (Artist): (Through Translator) We use all that society throws away. All that is not going to be used again, we are bringing back to life. If you look at some pieces here, you will find they are made with old sandals, old colanders. Those are things that are garbage, but we use them to create.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Giolo lives in a tiny one-room hut, but it's outfitted like a museum of the bizarre, where every space is used to display glistening silver and painted figures that incorporate items like plastic dolls' heads and old cutlery. He sleeps on a tiny patch on the floor.

GIOLO: (Through Translator) The work we do is not easy. It's not something we can sell. It's rare that customers come here so that we can earn a little money. It's our heart. It's our culture. We are fighting for it. But let me tell you, this is not art we could show up with at the mainstream galleries here. It's art for people who know, people who have a different eye.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nearby, another sculptor, Andre Ujen(ph), sits and listens to music with his shirt off in the afternoon heat. He's surrounded by fantastical pieces made from twisted iron and metal springs that look like ribs with bits of cloth attached. There is social commentary, Vodou symbolism and sexual imagery in these works. One of Andre's pieces shows a man on a cross, with a phallus. Above him is a Florida license plate.

Mr. ANDRE UJEN (Artist): (Through Translator) The guy on the cross, you can either call him the Vodou spirit, Baron Samedi, or Jesus, as you wish. But whether you take him for Jesus or the baron, he's still the boss, and it is him that brings life. As for the Florida license plate, the way we Haitians are living now, everyone would go to the United States. Nobody would stay.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The man who first began to practice this kind of art in this neighborhood is 39-year-old Jean-Erard Sollier(ph). He initially worked with the handicraft makers that live in the area, but found it limiting.

Mr. JEAN-ERARD SOLLIER (Artist): (Through Translator) I started around 1977 as an apprentice sander, because in this area, you have a lot of wood handicrafts. But I felt it was just copying and copying. Vodou brought me more freedom.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Much of the work of these men seems menacing. The figures have nails protruding from them. Real human skulls are used liberally. It echoes the violence and poverty that surrounds them. In the slum where they live, death is never far away.

(Soundbite of dominoes)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the center of the neighborhood, a group of men play dominoes under a tarp. Among them is Sonny Valesco(ph), a traditional woodcarver. He says it took a while for the people here to appreciate the art, but now it has brought a measure of pride to the depressed area.

Mr. SONNY VALESCO (Traditional Woodcarver): (Through Translator) These guys are doing very good work. They organize themselves, and they are getting people to talk about the country and their artistic movement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, this art movement is slowing becoming more widely recognized. Inside the Institute Francais in downtown Port-au-Prince, a show that includes a massive metal figure made by Ujen Andre is under way. Barbara Prezeau is an artist and an art critic who has promoted the works.

Ms. BARBARA PREZEAU (Artist; Art Critic): There is a real movement in Haiti. It's not a fantasy. It really came by necessity. The artists started using garbage things because they didn't have money to buy imported materials. I think it is excellent. We really fight to present this aspect of Haitian art at international level.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mario Benjamin is a well-known Haitian painter who's also involved with the men.

Mr. MARIO BENJAMIN (Painter): I think they are great artists, period.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says that although their art has boiled up from the poverty in which they live, it has transcended it. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can see photos of the artists and some of their work at our Web site, npr.org.

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