"Since I joined Ti Moun Rezistans I have begun to have hope and it's all thanks to art. I finally found a good reason to live, my artistic work will be a great thing in my life, in fact Rezistans helps me to express my feelings, sadness, pain, stress, solitude, emotions that I can find by a simple means, which is called 'art'. Ti Moun Rezistans is like a new family for me and it is one space where I can communicate my talents and my inspiration." -- Romel Jean Pierre member of Ti Moun Rezistans
At the southern edge of downtown Port-au-Prince, amongst the narrow alleys, tin shacks and car repair yards is an unexpected art display. Behind the tyre fixer and beyond the welders, visitors are welcomed by a 40 ft sculpture of a man in a top hat constructed from car chassis’ with a four foot wooden dick attached to an industrial spring. Some say it is Legba, the vodou master of the crossroads. Others say it is the Bawon, the lord of all the dead and inspiration for much of the work of the Sculptors of Grand Rue.
Andre Eugene's nearby yard is crowded with sculptures, many using human skulls for heads. His rooms, lit by green fairy lights playing 'Jingle Bells', resemble a Santa's grotto on the dark side, a dystopian sci-fi vodou domain. The studios of other local artists Celeur Jean Herard, Guyodo and Cheby are located further along the neighborhood’s labyrinth. Along the narrow alleys one discovers more monumental works, leaning insouciantly against shack walls.
The work has often been described as bricolage or recycled art. In truth it is a hybrid of classic wood carving, metal sculpture and assemblage. Their muscular collages of engine manifolds, computer entrails, TV sets, medical debris, skulls and discarded lumber transforms the detritus of a failing economy into deranged, post-apocalyptic totems. Their use of readymade components is only partially driven by economic neccessity: it is, for them, an inherent social commentary on Haiti's position in the global economy.
But there is also a playfulness to their repurposing. Little by little you start to grasp the new language assumed by different materials: mountain bike tyres are wings, pistons are penises, industrial springs often ribs. Most Haitian art refers to the past, to the joint cultural, spiritual and revolutionary histories of Haiti. The Grand Rue artists looks both forward and back, referencing both heritage, present conditions and a hellish vision of the future.
Much indigenous art in Haiti has been bound to location. Papier maché studios are in Jacmel, the majority of the Vodou flag artists reside in Bel Air, and the steel drum metalworkers mostly live in Croix de Bouquet. There is an art school in Haiti, but it is fee paying, so most arts are passed on within neighbourhoods, from artist to apprentice. The Grand Rue artists are now teaching a new young generation of artists, from 6 to 18 years old, called Ti Moun Rezistans. All the children exhibit their work around the ateliers. They all took part in the 2009 Ghetto Biennale, notably creating a great performance work called 'Tele Geto.' In light of the lack of video news coming from the ground in Haiti after the earthquake a British artist, John Cussans, sent a basic video recording kit so that the children of the Grand Rue could document life after the quake. The videos have been translated and posted on the internet.
Atis Rezistans and Ti Moun Rezistans are fine emissaries for their country, creating positive images of a Haitian community living in material poverty but with great cultural wealth. Meanwhile they continue to make vast amounts of wildly surreal constructions that compete for space with dogs, chickens, drying clothes, women cooking, alleyway barbers and kids playing in a neighborhood which is rapidly becoming a vast, living art-installation.
Photographer and chronicler of Haiti Leah Gordon is author of Kanaval. See www.atis-rezistans.com for more info.