World

Haiti's wild, redeeming metal art

Stephen Puddicombe on the Haitian artists' colony that charmed a governor general.

Haiti is known for its devastating hurricanes, violent political clashes and crippling poverty.

But there is a village on this island country that is also becoming known around the world for its art, unusual art at that.

Sculptor Jean Eddy Remy, president of the artists and artisans association of Croix-des-Bouquets. (CBC)

Artists here are recycling old metal oil drums and transforming them into everything from landscapes to mythological sea creatures.

Their products are not only visually stunning. There is a rhythm to their creation that can stop the visitor cold.

About an hour out of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, you can hear it, the soft, sometimes frantic pounding of metal.

Turn down the small dusty dirt road leading to the village of Noailles and you see them squatting under umbrella-like shade trees, pounding and chiselling their metal canvases, turning what once was tossed into ditches to rust into art.

CBC reporter Stephen Puddicombe's video of the Haitian artists' colony can be seen here. (Runs 2:26)

There are almost two hundred metal artists in this small community, practising an art form that has been around since the 1950s.

Metal sculptor Jean Eddy Rémy, the president of the association of artists and artisans of Croix-des-Bouquets, says this artist colony owes its existence to a simple blacksmith, Georges Liautaud.

In his time, Liautaud constructed simple metal crosses for the graves in his village because so many Haitians couldn't afford headstones.

With the help of an American teacher, the blacksmith would create decorative metal sculptures that went on to shape the sensibilities of a whole generation of imitators.

Metallica

Each work is unique, Rémy says, crafted by hand with a few simple tools and whatever is at hand.

Dried banana or sugar cane is first placed inside the oil drum and set on fire to burn away any impurities.

With a minumum wage of only about $2 a day, recycling scrap metal has become a grinding way of life for many in Haiti. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Once cooled, the artisan flattens the drum with a hammer, pounding it into a metal canvas. Then they often use chalk to sketch a design.

Salvaging metal for some secondary use has been both a blessing and a curse in this poor, benighted country.

But here in Noailles, on the west coast, the magic seems to come in a flurry of hammer and chisel strokes as these artists create everything from large suns to sea goddesses and luminous Haitian landscapes.

Each work has a three-dimensional quality, courtesy of the bumps and hammer marks. Most are coated with varnish, a few are painted, but many are left to rust in places to heighten the effect.

Eye of the world

Metal art has helped this area in many ways, says artist Jean Bruneau. Apart from the almost 200 artists in the community, there are hundreds more selling the work in the larger centres and more still gathering the unwanted drums.

Economically and socially, this work has changed the village and the region, Bruneau says.

Its importance to Haiti's reputation abroad has even helped them get the ear of government.

Measure twice, cut once. Haitian metal artists in Noailles examine a canvas. (CBC)

Buyers of Haiti's metal art include Canada's Governor General, Michaëlle Jean as well as Hollywood celebrities Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

The artists' association is currently preparing for exhibits in France and Los Angeles.

But for many of those here, the real importance of their work is how it has changed their lives.

His fingers taped with small bandages, Felix Calixte sits beside the yellow wall of the artists co-op, gently pounding a piece of metal that he holds steady with his feet. 

He grew up in the slums in Port-au-Prince and says that before he became an artist he was in school only when his parents could afford it.

He likely would have grown up poor and in a gang, he says. But he happened to see the metal artists at one point and began the long apprenticeship of learning how to seek out the best drums and mould the steel sheets.

The metal called him, he says. And his life was changed.