Diplomatic Pouch / October 6, 2016
By Larry Luxner
On Sept. 24, more than a week before Hurricane Matthew ravaged southwestern Haiti with 145-mph winds — killing at least 35 people, destroying the town of Jeremie and leaving tens of thousands homeless — the focus at the Haitian Embassy in Washington was art.
Paul Altidor, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, presided over a reception celebrating the four-year renovation of his country’s stately mansion along Massachusetts Avenue.
“Today is the first of three days that this embassy will open its doors for anyone who’s interested in seeing Haitian art, Haitian books in French and Creole, and visualizing Haiti without going to Haiti itself,” he told the Diplomatic Pouch.
The renovation amounts to a dramatic facelift of the building, which was constructed in 1907, acquired by China, then Taiwan, then sold by the Taiwanese government to Haiti in 1979.
“This building was in desperate need of repair,” said Altidor, estimating it will cost around $4 million when complete. “We want to be certain that when someone walks in through these doors, it says ‘Haiti.’”
And nothing says Haiti more vividly than the country’s well-known art. Well over 100 paintings — many of them priceless — hang on the embassy’s walls as part of a first-of-its-kind rotating exhibition done under the leadership of Altidor and curator Gaël Monnin, who describes the exhibit of works belonging to the private collection of Galerie Monnin as “a beautiful journey through the creativity of a heroic and long-suffering people like no other in the Caribbean.”
That suffering — of which Hurricane Matthew is only the latest manifestation — includes two centuries of dictatorship following the establishment of Haiti in 1804 as the world’s first black republic. It also includes the utter devastation wrought by a January 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people and leveled much of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.
Despite the upheavals and natural disasters, Galerie Monnin has endured for 60 years. According to an information plaque at the exhibit, the gallery’s golden age was between 1976 and 1986, when Haiti’s tourism industry was at its peak and naïve art was transitioning.
“The young painters under the direction of Michel Monnin, son of the founder, became masters of the modern-primitif ‘de l’espace haïtien’ [of Haitian space and light] movement — with more powerful and polished paintings in which attention to detail is obsessive and often flirts with fantasy,” according to the gallery.
“It is during this prosperous period that the private collection came together and became the journey that it continues to be for the Monnin family. Originally from Switzerland, the Monnins dropped anchor in Haiti in 1948. The family seeks to make a picture book, including our most representative artworks intimately related to the experiences of the gallery. Anecdotes from everyday adventures of our coveted artists — those who made us sweat, but more so, dream the unreal.”
The opening of the Haitian art exhibit coincided with a much bigger event nearby: the Sept. 24 inauguration of Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In fact, Haiti was one of half a dozen countries whose embassies sponsored events linked to the museum’s opening — along with Angola, Ghana, Israel, Jamaica and Venezuela.