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Seaside town in Haiti takes high artistic aim
The Miami Herald / June 20, 2004

By Larry Luxner

JACMEL, Haiti In early March, a few days after armed rebels forced Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office, vandals ransacked a Port-au-Prince art museum and burned dozens of paintings along with 86 rare voodou dolls that were part of an exhibit marking Haiti's 200th anniversary of independence.

"It was such a shame," said prominent Haitian artist Patrick NarBal Boucard. "A lot of important works were destroyed."

Yet here in the picturesque coastal town of Jacmel, art is being created, not plundered.

On Feb. 14, just two weeks before Aristide's fall from grace, Boucard inaugurated a contemporary, 2,000-square-foot gallery at his evolving Centre d'Art de Jacmel (known in Creole as Fondation Sant d'A Jakmel). The gallery is part of a much bigger fund-raising project aimed at keeping Haiti's rich artistic heritage alive in the face of continuing political and economic chaos.

"We've had no problem here for the simple reason that Jacmel is not as divided, and there's not as much hate here as in the rest of the country," said Boucard. "We have very good relations with the community, and we don't even need security, because people protect our space."

The center is located in a renovated 8,000-square-foot brick warehouse that was used to sort and stock coffee, back in the 19th century when Jacmel was a booming port city and its famous gingerbread houses were built.

The back of the two-story Centre d'Art faces the beach, with views of Jacmel's fishing wharf and the Caribbean Sea. Inside, space has been arranged to accommodate 10 studios for art students, and 10 for visiting artists.

Boucard, a 47-year-old Jacmel native, grew up in Haiti and Mexico, studied art in England and served for a time in the U.S. Navy. He says his goal is to upgrade the quality of art in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

"Haitian art is losing its credibility around the world, for a few reasons," he said. "Because of market forces and economic difficulties, artists here tend to paint what sells. They're selling mostly stereotyped Haitian art mass-produced market scenes, voodou scenes and landscapes. It's diluting creativity."

Boucard spoke to The Herald in his cluttered Jacmel studio as he smoked Marlboros and sipped Barbancourt rum, which aside from art is Haiti's most famous export. His words were nearly drowned out by an electric fan blowing in the tropical heat, and by roosters crowing loudly in the courtyard below.

"Haiti has changed a lot in the last 50 years, but that's not reflected in the art," he complained. "What's being painted are decorative pieces rather than an expression relevant to the changes in the country. Artists are not really expressing themselves. There is no cutting edge, no avant-garde. We're not creating things anymore."

Part of the problem, he said, is that "artists don't have a support system. They don't have schools, they don't have access to markets."

The Centre d'Art hopes to address those shortcomings. Initially, it will start with 11 young Haitians studying only painting, but Boucard says "we'll expand every year and add a new discipline: film, sculpture, photography, printmaking and voudou flagmaking."

Students pay a symbolic fee equivalent to $3 a month. They also pay the center a small commission on sales of their work. In return, they receive all the materials, support and exposure they need.

Eventually, the art center could have as many as 30 or 40 students enrolled.

"We plan to demystify art, by organizing tours for the local schools," said Boucard, who speaks English and Spanish in addition to his native French and Creole. "For the inauguration of our art gallery, we did a photographic exhibition of Jacmel. We went around town, taking pictures of over 100 people. When they came to the show, we gave them a small picture of themselves. The reaction was fantastic."

Among other things, the Centre d'Art de Jacmel will help aspiring Haitian artists sell their work on the Internet, via the center's own website. And the center's gallery will be open seven days a week and staffed by the students themselves.

That alone could lure more cruise ships to Jacmel, since more and better art will be available for cruise-ship passengers to buy thereby giving a boost to the stagnant local economy.

While Boucard concedes that such tourists are more likely to go for cheap, mass-produced paintings than avant-garde works of art, he doesn't see a paradox.

"I am not against stereotyped art, because that also exists in every society. But art with a discourse is lacking. That's what everything trickles down from, including the decorative arts," he said. "That's the kind of segment my art center is trying to fill, but I'm not saying that the other kind of art shouldn't exist."

Next month, Boucard's organization will sponsor a Jacmel Film Festival, featuring more than 50 Haitian films in six venues, in honor of the country's bicentennial.

In order to make his dream come true, Boucard needs to raise $150,000. So far, he and his South African wife, co-founder Kate Tarratt Cross, have spent $50,000 of their own money and have collected $40,000 from outside sources.

To come up with the remaining $60,000, the couple has formed a Miami-based non-profit organization, Hybrid Art Centers Inc.; the group recently sponsored a fund-raising event at Tap Tap, a South Beach restaurant specializing in Haitian cuisine.

"We're hoping that by being a non-profit organization, we'll get discounts on canvas, paints and ink, and exemption on duties," said Boucard, adding that "we're totally independent. We have nothing to do with the government."

Florence Bellande Robertson is president of Foundation Hope for Haiti Inc., a non-profit group headquartered in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

One of the art center's initial sponsors, she said her organization was "proud to add the Sant d'A Jakmel" to the list of charities it has helped.

"Jacmel is bursting with talent, but woefully short on opportunities for artists, both aspiring and established," said Robertson. "What impressed us the most [about the art center] was the widespread support of the project in the Haitian artistic and private business sectors. For such a project to work, it must have the support of the local community as well as generous friends from all over the world."

Patrick Slavin, a New York author who has written extensively on Haiti, said it'll be difficult for Boucard to raise the kind of money he needs without help from foreign governments or NGOs. But he adds that the Centre d'Art de Jacmel will be a godsend for the local economy.

"Jacmel's historic isolation from the turmoil in Port-au-Prince has done wonders for the town. It's the only place that literally hasn't burned down since Haitian independence," he told The Herald. "Having this arts center in Jacmel would be excellent for the future of Haitian culture."

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