In Haiti, Where Does Art Fit In? With tens of thousands of Haitians still displaced and living in tent cities, some might consider art a luxury few can afford. But curator Diane Ford Dessables is working with venues in the U.S. to sell the work of Haitian painters. The sales go to the artists and to help rebuild an art school. Host Michel Martin talks with Dessables.
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In Haiti, Where Does Art Fit In?

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In Haiti, Where Does Art Fit In?

In Haiti, Where Does Art Fit In?

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As we talked about earlier in the program, we are remembering the earthquake that devastated Haiti two years ago today. And as we talked about that country continues on the long road to recovery, both physically and psychologically. And among those still suffering are the country's artists.

Haiti, of course, is known for its vibrant, artistic culture - heavily influenced by the country's blend of African and European tradition. And while songs and sculptures and paintings can help mend broken spirits, we realize they do tend to take a backseat when there is still uncertainty about food and shelter, so artists are struggling even more than usual to make a decent living in Haiti.

"Three Haitian Painters" is the name of a new exhibition of Haitian art. It's currently on display in Washington, D.C., at a restaurant called Busboys and Poets. Its intention is to bring some exposure to the Haitian art community and hopefully some financial support too. The exhibition focuses on the work of a trio of Haitian painters who live and work in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Here's a translation from a video where one of the artists, Najee, talks about his style of painting.

NAJEE: (Through Translator) I choose more to paint about history, about the history of black people and the culture, the Haitian culture I like to paint. And why do I like to paint those styles? It's a way of conserving the knowledge of our culture and our history through my paintings.

MARTIN: Here to tell us more about the "Three Haitian Painters" exhibition is Diane Ford Dessables. She is an ordained minister. She's a staff member with the anti-hunger group Bread for the World. She's also the founder of the Ayitian Arts Project. She helped bring the exhibition to Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us. Happy New Year.

DIANE FORD DESSABLES: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: I just want to mention that this is the anniversary of this powerful and devastating experience. And I just wanted to ask what is your sense of how the country overall is doing?

FRANCHESCA RAMSEY: Well, the country still continues to struggle. While there have been some strides in picking up rubble and moving forward with life generally, there's still a tremendous amount of people who are displaced and left homeless by the earthquake and we continue to lift them up in our thoughts and prayers today.

MARTIN: Was it hard to give yourself permission - if I can put it this way - to focus on art when basics like food and water and sanitation are still an issue for many people? I mean art is something that is so, you know, all forms of art are so important to the soul but it's very easy in times of trouble to say well, that's just not important. And I know you have a journalism background, so I'm sure you see all of those things. Was it, how do you gave yourself permission to say, you know, art is what we need to focus on - at least that's what I can do?

DESSABLES: That's an excellent question because it can be thought of as being quite peripheral. But in actuality, what we're doing here is focusing on art and using art as a means of spurring community development. I mean we're actually trying to increase the income that artists receive and that residual income permeates all the way throughout the Haitian economy in ways that support families. And that's precisely what people want in Haiti, that's what Haitians are desiring right now, they want work opportunities with dignity and they want to be able to shape those on their own terms and under their own conditions.

MARTIN: Your specific goal is to sell the works that you bring and to return 100 percent of the proceeds to the artists.

DESSABLES: That's correct.

MARTIN: And that's probably a good time for you to tell us a bit more about the artists whom you selected and the art that you brought with us. And I do want to mention at this point that we will display some of these submissions - with your permission, of course - on our website. Just go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE so that you will have a - people can see exactly what we're talking about. Would you just tell us a little bit about the artist that you selected and why you like these particular works?

DESSABLES: There are three artists. One is Robert, who is actually a lawyer by training, but who is struggling like all other professionals in Haiti. And the other two, Robert and Najee are also economically struggling. All three are incredibly talented; the latter two are really without permanent structures at this point. Their families live really in the tent communities in or near Port-au-Prince. And it's our commitment to be able to actually assist them as well.

All three of these artists have very different styles. Mona's work is very spiritual in nature, almost abstract. As Najee said in his quote, his work really capsulizes(ph) and focuses on the history and the almost mannerisms of the Haitian culture. You can really get a glimpse of its soul, its spirit, its, the rhythms of the people there. And Robert has a very different style than the other two. His style is very clean lines, almost serene. There's one painting that evokes a passionate image, it's actually of bodies that are heaped on top of the other with police standing around. And this is something that was taken out of his mind's eye in the wake of the devastation in Port-au-Prince - all of them speak to that day.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because Haitian art, the traditional styles is kind of known for its vibrancy...


MARTIN: ...the beautiful colors.


MARTIN: You know, the evocative imagery. But it's also very newsy(ph). I mean it is like kind of the CNN - if I can put it that way...

DESSABLES: That's right.

MARTIN: know, of the island because the art does reflect what is in fact going on.

DESSABLES: No question. It's a commentary. It's a commentary. And it's a very deep commentary. And not just about what's going on presently, but also past is present. And so you really get a glimpse of what's important and what is transcendent throughout the society.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Diane Ford Dessables. She is the founder of the Ayitian Arts Project. She recently helped bring an exhibition of paintings by Haitian artists to Washington, D.C. This is, of course, the second anniversary of that devastating earthquake that struck Haiti resulting in massive and catastrophic loss of life.

You know, to that point, what's it like to be an artist living in Haiti right now? I'm sure people's circumstances vary...


MARTIN: they do for people, you know, everywhere, and as they did before the earthquake. But can people get materials?


MARTIN: How do people even do their work?

DESSABLES: Yeah. Not easily. They generate a great deal of use of recycled goods in Haiti. The paint, canvases are painted over and over. Paint is thinned. You know, people do what they need to do in order to create, but that's what, that's who they are, that's not just what they do, it's who they are and so they will use whatever means is available to them.

There is an art school in Jacmel called Fosaj with whom we are partnering with and our commitment to them is to help them to rebuild and to purchase the building that they're in and to gain the funding that they need in order to have the materials they need in order to continue to create.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, there are those who will be very interested in our conversation today who will not have access to this exhibition...


MARTIN: ...not near Washington, D.C., perhaps nowhere near Haiti, but are certainly interested in supporting Haitian artists for all of the reasons that you described. Do you have some ideas about how people can do that - whether because of the love of the art or because of the interest in just supporting other artists or fellow artists or their art lovers, you know, at a time like this when they see - just as you said - that people need to make their art in order to express themselves? What would you recommend?

DESSABLES: Well, I certainly would recommend they're continuing to deepen their relationship and knowledge of the work that we're doing with Ayitian Arts Project. And they can do that by logging onto our web - dropping us an email rather, at Ayitian Arts Project at That would afford them an opportunity to become and even relationship with the artists in Jacmel and help us move this whole entire project forward.

MARTIN: Diane Ford Dessables is founder of the Ayitian Arts Project. She helped to bring a new exhibition showcasing the work of three Haitian painters to the United States. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

DESSABLES: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@TellMeMoreNPR.

I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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