Vassar Haiti Project
 

Haitian Artists Say Increased Tourism Will Boost Sales

 

Article Highlights

Haiti

Local artists are asking the government to invest in tourism so they can expand the market for their work.

JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Louis Jean Gounod is a poet and artist living in Jérémie, a town in southwestern Haiti. He says he is struggling to make a living in the visual arts, an art form he has long had a passion for.

“Ever since I was 6 years old, I used to draw,” he says. “I used to take money from my mother to buy colored pencils.”

But his family couldn’t afford to provide him formal training.

“In 1998, I started getting serious about painting,” he says, “even though for economic reasons I could not go to art school.”

Throughout the years he has continued to pursue his dream. When he sold his first painting, a piece called “The Rhythm of the Moment,” it went for 4,500 Haitian gourdes ($100).

“I think my artistic talent is a gift from God,” says the 6-foot artist dressed in blue jeans and a gray T-shirt. “I got a lot of compliments for my art.”

Gounod explains artists’ motivation.

“There are two things which make us paint: inspiration and creation,” he says.

He adds that alcohol enhances both.

“I have to drink some alcohol quite frequently,” he says. “Some of the people who owned galleries and who bought some of my paintings encouraged me to drink. They said alcohol is good for your body, and it helps you paint better.”

He says he found some truth to this.

“Yes, I did good work,” he says. “But these paintings were not for me. They were for the gallery owners.”

For Gounoud, it’s an internal struggle when he sells a painting, as if a part of him goes with every painting that he sells.

“When an artist paints one picture, he cannot reproduce another one like it,” he says.

At the same time, he needs to sell paintings in order to earn a living. But compensation is not always fair.

“We sell our paintings for very little money to galleries, who in turn sell them for a lot of money,” he says.

He says that it’s difficult to make a living as an artist.

“What we sell in a year is not much,” he says. “We can barely get by. We just have enough to buy food and some clothes.”

He says he can’t be financially independent as an artist.

“The only reason I can live like this is my mother,” he says. “She does everything for me. She feeds me and buys what I need.”

Gounod says that the visual arts have great importance for Haitians and could boost the economy if the industry received more investment and support.

“I would like to see complete change,” he says. “That means we have a government that thinks about us, that can put an infrastructure in place that can attract tourists, that respects us. A change like that would be really good for the economy of the country.”

Artists in Haiti say they love their work but struggle to support their families with weak and sporadic sales. They are asking the government to invest in tourism in order to expand their customer base. The government runs one art school and organizes occasional exhibits, but officials admit that they need to do more to support the art industry.

International tourism receipts, or expenditures by international inbound visitors, grew steadily from 2005 to 2009 in Haiti, according to the World Bank. But this figure fell by nearly half after the earthquake in January 2010, from 312 million in 2009 to 167 million in 2010.

More than half of Haiti’s population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day, according to UNICEF.

Zami Jean Makendy, 30, works as a painter and singer.

“I sculpt, paint, make papier-mâché, and I sing,” he says. “I did not go to school for all that. I started making art in 2008, so I have been making art for four years. But it brings in very little.”

So it’s difficult for Makendy to support his family.

“I have two children, but it is as if I have many more because I can’t really take care of them,” he says.

Makendy prepares some food inside his house, which is full of smoke.

“Daddy, Daddy, I am hungry,” one of his children says.

Makendy says he enjoys his work, but supplies are expensive and profits are low.

“I like painting a lot,” he says. “But the paint is very expensive. For one painting, I use two or three tubes of paint. Painting is not really worthwhile in Haiti because it is not profitable.”

Makendy’s neighbors gather around as he speaks about his artistic process.

“I paint with all kinds of things – a wooden stick, my fingers – because most of the time, I have no money to buy a brush,” he says. “Another reason is, when inspiration hits, you cannot waste any time or you lose that moment.”

When he sells a painting, he feels as if a great strength surges from him.

The price of his work varies. He says he sold one painting to a foreigner for 4,215 gourdes ($100). Smaller paintings range from 50 gourdes ($1.20) to 90 gourdes ($2.15).

“When I am able to sell one of my works, the money goes for food and to pay the school fees for my kids,” he says. “I don’t really advance.”

So Makendy has to take up another job.

“I love to work in the art field, but I am forced to work as a mason and a mechanic because that is how I can make some money,” he says. “Because as an artist in Haiti, you cannot support yourself.”

He says artists must push to promote the art industry.

“We have to fight for everything ourselves,” he says.

Makendy’s friend, Jacques Marie Etienne, does calligraphy and painting. He sits on a wooden chair with a straw seat in his small studio. Wearing gray pants and a sleeveless T-shirt with black shoes, he fans himself with a piece of paper in the heat.

He created his first painting when he was 17 years old. His expertise now includes three styles: realist, surrealist and abstract.

But has been struggling to make a living through his art in order to support his wife and two children. If he sells one painting this month, it will take another three or five months before he sells another one.

Makendy says that boosting tourism in Haiti could be the key to boosting the art industry.

“I would hope that the government lives up to its responsibility and helps us out with some training and also makes sure that there is security in the country,” he says. “That way, we would attract more tourists who will buy our paintings.”

Gounod agrees.

“It is the state, which is a real barrier,” he says. “There is no structure in place, no tourism really. We need tourists because it is the tourists who will buy our paintings.”

Etienne says that Haiti needs to be more politically stable so that foreigners and Haitians who live abroad visit more frequently. This way, the artists could sell more art, which would benefit the whole country economically.

“In another country, we could have already advanced so much more,” he says.

He asks for more organization and support from the government.

“We have a Ministry of Cultural Affairs, but I do not see their usefulness,” he says. “They do not do anything.”

Sen. Maxime Roumer from the Grand’Anse, the department that is home to Jérémie, is also a painter, a poet and a musician. There is a government art school in Port-au-Prince, the capital, where young artists can take classes, he says.

But he acknowledges that the government is not doing much to support artists in Haiti. Like the artists, he also stresses the importance of political stability and security to attract tourists, who are potential customers for Haitian art.

He says that he also doesn’t know of any nongovernmental organizations that work with artists.

Gounod says he has participated in exhibits organized by the Haitian State Department, the Ministry of Culture and Oxfam International. At one such exhibit, a journalist from the paper Le Matin bought his painting for 4,215 gourdes ($100).

“In 2009, I painted a scene that foresaw the earthquake of January 2010,” he says. “I sold that painting Dec. 22, 2009, at an art exhibit in Port-au-Prince.”

Artists like Gounod say they hope for more opportunities like this to sell their work so that they can support themselves and their families.

“As long as I still have my head on my shoulders, I have hope that things will change,” Gounod says.