One of the greatest disservices that you could perform unto another group of people would be to categorize them as one “thing”—or worse yet, to assume their inability or deficiency in something as broad as art. The disregard of the immensely varied and talented world of Hattian artists is one issue that the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) is seeking to tackle by exposing these artists’ work to wider audiences, and allowing their pieces to be sold for their profit. In keeping with this purpose of promoting great Haitian art, I had the privilege of attending VHP’s screening of “Haiti is a Nation of Artists,” a film directed by Jacquil Constant (who came to campus to discuss this film with us viewers afterward) highlighting the incredible ability of numerous Haitian artists and where we may draw hope for future generations of artists from the nation.
“Haiti is a Nation of Artists” is formatted in a series of interviews Constant conducted with scholars and Haitian artists to contextualize the nation’s socio-political issues that affect the very notion of what it means to be an artist. The process of acquiring sources and sitting down to have these conversations was a long one, taking place over the span of 10 years and requiring the director to travel and re-travel back to Haiti to finish filmmaking. The documentary explains how, while Haiti has an incredibly diversely styled and produced art scene, people around the world have historically ignored art from the island nation as inferior. This is just one aspect of a larger stereotypically derogatory view that many Global North countries took of Haiti. For a developing nation, and one that has not been able to generate much national revenue from tourism, art proved to be lucrative, a space carved out by those talented individuals in order to make a living—against a world of people dismissing them for doing just that. One artist Constant interviewed, Saurel Louis, put it bluntly and aptly: “All around the world, Haiti is known for negative facts.”
This is where Constant’s film and Vassar Haiti Project’s goals converge—namely in the demonstration of the amazing art of the Haitian people while encouraging viewers to give the nation its due consideration, care and support. Specifically, the Vassar Haiti Project buys Haitian-produced art from art galleries in Haiti and then sells this work to buyers from around the globe, allowing the artists’ work to reach a wider audience. The profits from these sales then go back into other projects within Haiti, including donating funding to plant 40,000 trees in the nation. VHP co-founder and executive director Lila Meade described, “The money is going back into Haiti. It’s actually Haiti helping Haiti, and we are just the middlemen.” Constant, along a similar vein, hopes that his film will serve as a celebration of the talent of the Haitian people and encourage more people to act to support them. He said, “Honestly, these films are called action films. They’re like, ‘Do something in your community.’ That fear that you have that you are not valuable, or that you are not worthy, it’s a lie.”
In Constant’s interviews with the artists, we as viewers can get a sense for the directions through which change may come about. Many artists highlighted the simple desire to be recognized, to be given an equal consideration as artists of any other nation. One artist, Famille Louis, touchingly remarked, “If everyone in Haiti was like me, there would be change, because I love everyone.” Additionally, within its own country, the government has made far too little an effort in encouraging Haitian art production and allowing it to serve as a method through which its people may express their creativity, supporting their families while doing so. Many artists called upon their government to invest more into Haitian art, and Constant echoed this sentiment as well. He hopes that with this film, he can contribute to the creation of a Haitian art ecosystem in which buyer, gallery, government and seller can work in unison and allow artists to gain the true worldwide recognition and acknowledgement that they deserve but have had to wait on for so long. Constant also noted that while the movement to carve out such a market is still very much grassroots, it is imperative in creating a culture that values the artists, and one that demonstrates to the younger generations the possibilities inherent in a life and line of work best suited to one’s own creative abilities.
I, along with the crowd gathered to see “Haiti is a Nation of Artists,” was genuinely moved and inspired by the film. Showcasing Haiti’s resiliency, particularly after the devastating earthquake in 2010 that destroyed 20,000 paintings in the nation, spoke to the character of the Haitian people and provided a resounding “YES” to the question of whether artists in the country would endure and continue to produce such amazing work even when so many forces are working against them. It was also a message for us, as the audience, to not contribute to such barriers and rather to support Haitian art in any way that we can. Ending on a personal note, Constant concluded the Q-and-A section by saying, “My mom said to show the best of Haiti, and that’s what I tried to do with this documentary.”