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In Haiti: Rescuing Art Amid the Rubble

In a special post for Gallerina, art conservator Rosa Lowinger reports on one effort to save Haiti's cultural treasures.

Monday, July 26, 2010 - 04:19 PM

WNYC

The Cathedral of Sainte Trinité sits among the hundreds of ravaged structures that teeter dangerously on the streets of Port-Au-Prince. Built in 1924, on the site of an 1860s church that was founded by African-American Episcopalians fleeing slavery, Ste. Trinité housed an extraordinary series of murals, executed in the late 1940s and early 1950s by artists who made up what is known as the Haitian Painting Renaissance.

These beloved murals — which include a virtuoso three-walled 'Last Supper' by Philome Obin, considered the most important Haitian artist of all time — incorporated Haitian imagery and people into exuberantly colored scenes that depict the life of Christ. All but three of the original murals were demolished in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated the city in January. The surviving fragments — by Obin, Castera Bazile and Prefete Duffaut — are cracked, splitting, flaking, baked by intense sun and regularly pounded by torrential rains.

I am a conservator of art and architecture, and earlier this month, I went to Haiti with paintings conservator Viviana Dominguez, to determine what could be done to save these murals. There, we joined a team of Haitian architects, engineers and paintings restorers led by Olsen Jean Julien, director of the Haiti Cultural Recovery Center and Stephanie Hornbeck, the center's chief conservator.* We tried to figure out a way to stabilize the remaining murals and safely remove them so they could be restored and reinstalled in a new church.

Haiti by Rosa LowingerThe job is daunting — to say the least. The paint is powdering and applied directly to a rough concrete surface. There are gaping losses in the picture surface, and painted fragments are piled in corners throughout the church (as well as on the van, at right).

If that’s not bad enough, the walls themselves are made of a local mix of limestone rubble and concrete that is in serious danger of total collapse. A so-called minor earthquake, like the 4.3 that rattled the north part of the island recently, could easily destroy what remains.

As we crawled around the site, measuring and testing, I could not help but wonder if it is right to be spending money and energy on murals in light of other pressing demands. Every drive I took through Port-Au-Prince was a study in human need and the urgency of action: collapsed houses, tent cities, open trench latrines, roads blocked by piles of debris, hospitals and schools that list precariously, shored by makeshift scaffolding. This, along with infinite unseen calamities (like the exorbitant price of everything, from rice to fuel) made our job of rescuing artwork seem like a luxury. It was an issue that nagged at me during my entire stay in the country.

So, one afternoon, in the rubble-strewn courtyard of Ste. Trinité, I asked architect Magdalena Carmelita Douby, the project's registrar, about local attitudes towards our somewhat unusual rescue effort. Her answer came without hesitation: “We have lost everything except our culture," she said calmly. "We have to protect what is left.”

Rosa Lowinger is a practicing conservator of art and architecture with offices in Miami and Los Angeles. The 2009 Rome Prize Fellow in Conservation, she is the author of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub.

*A joint project of the Smithsonian Institution and the Haitian Ministry of Culture with support from UNESCO, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, and the non-profit cultural protection organization Blue Shield, the center was set up to recover and preserve cultural materials rescued from damaged structures.

All photos by Rosa Lowinger. See it large.
Two men on a scooter make their way through the Haitian capital. Buildings all over Port-Au-Prince are in desperate need of repair -- or demolishing.
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Everywhere, the city and its streets are filled with rubble.
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The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Port-Au-Prince — more well-known than Sainte Trinité — also suffered extensive damage in the quake.
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The ruins of Sainte Trinité. The north transept of the church shows two of the three remaining murals, shielded by little more than tarps.
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From a happier time: A sign on one of the remaining walls asks visitors for donations to maintain Sainte Trinité's great organ.
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The great organ, post quake.
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An artist's signature, from 1957, remains as evidence of Sainte Trinité's vibrant murals.
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Mural fragments lay in a heap. Part of our job will be to bring these puzzle pieces back together in the conservatory lab.
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A surviving detail from the 'Last Supper' mural, by Philome Obin, one of Haiti's most important painters.
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A mural by Prefet Duffaut lies under a tarp, waiting to be salvaged.
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In the cathedral's north transept, the entire wall has separated away and shifted. Saving the images on their surface will require time, lots of patience — and surgical precision.
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Conservators and culture ministry officials gather amid the wreckage to plan the next steps.
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Even as their nation is tested, Haitians remain resilient. These schoolgirls from a neigboring music academy enjoy recess in the shadow of the collapsed church.

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Comments [8]

SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

As rebuilding commences, your images of Haiti's neighborhoods, landmarks, homes and people will serve as a record of Haiti's culture and a reminder of what lies beneath rubble.

Consider sharing photos that show Haiti's cultural heritage to http://www.flickr.com/groups/haiticulture

Read more here: http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org/2010/01/rebuilding-haiti-look-to-past.html

Thank you!
SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

Aug. 04 2010 12:04 AM
Eric from DC from DC

The needs in Haiti are overwhelming, but the love for and the need for preserving the cultural heritage is also persuasive. Keep up the good work! (See more about FAIC's work in Haiti at www.conservation-us.org/cert)

Aug. 02 2010 12:47 PM
pat

Thanks for this article. Your photographs are compelling--beautiful photography, heartbreaking subjects. Best wishes to you, the rest of the team, and everyone in Haiti.

Jul. 27 2010 05:19 PM
Liv

Thank you so much for this article! its so important!

Jul. 27 2010 02:06 PM
israel from miami

Thank you for a great post, and the vivid photos. Money spent on restoration actually will be spent on restoring, which is unfortunately not the situation with most of the other aid going to Haiti. Let's hope for a new Haitian Renaissance, where rule of law prevails, bringing this country the prosperity it deserves.

Jul. 27 2010 01:01 PM
joe sembrat from Miami, FL

what an interesting snippet on the tragic situation these people face. The fragments of these murals are symbolic of the plight Haitians face - picking up the pieces and moving on.

Thank you for taking the time to help others.

Jul. 27 2010 10:59 AM
james barron from CT

Thanks for an important article. Art endures, and it's important to address restoring and saving what has survived the Haiti earthquake. The art will stand as a testimony of what has endured in their culture and a testimony to the efforts of those who cared. Brava for your efforts!

Jul. 27 2010 06:56 AM
Kathryn from Los Angeles


I think culture brings us dignity and identity.
It is what separates us from all other species on earth. In the context of these religious murals it inspires us with an ideal. This is the poetry of our souls. Don't doubt the validity of your work even in these dire times. This is the heredity we leave for future generations. It lifts us out of the morass.

Shocking photos.

Thanks for posting this article it gave me thought.

Love,
Kathryn

Jul. 27 2010 03:13 AM

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About Gallerina

Carolina A. Miranda is a regular contributor to WNYC and blogs about the arts for the station as "Gallerina." In addition to that, she contributes articles on culture, travel and the arts to a variety of national and regional media, including Time, ArtNews, Travel + Leisure and Budget Travel and Florida Travel + Life. She has reported on the burgeoning industry of skatepark design, architectural pedagogy in Southern California, the presence of street art in museums and Lima's burgeoning food scene, among many other subjects. In 2008, she was named one of eight fellows in the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program for her arts and architecture blog C-Monster.net, which has received mentions in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In January of 2010, the Times named her one of nine people to follow on Twitter. Got a tip? E-mail her at c [@] c-monster [dot] net

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