Beyond the Mountains

Assistant Director of Cultural Arts
University of North Carolina Wilmington

The flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from the sleek, new American Airlines terminal at Miami International is just under two hours - not even enough time to get halfway through Graham Greene's The Comedians (which I was told was the obligatory literary read for any trip to Haiti).  Immediately upon landing in Port-au-Prince, the devastating impact of the 2010 earthquake dominates the landscape. Tent cities, which still house thousands of homeless Haitians, form a patchwork tarp blanket over plazas, parks and squares; precarious mountains of rubble and debris soar in between downtown houses and buildings. In a metropolitan area of close to a million inhabitants, Port-au-Prince has many of the modern conveniences of home - cell phones, WiFi, ATM machines, high-end restaurants and galleries - but clean, safe water and indoor plumbing is a luxury.  Blackouts occur daily, and even in the bustling downtown, there are no stop lights and many of the roads are unpaved.

Port-au-Prince, however, is not all despair; the streets are lively and vibrant.  Fresh fruit and vegetables spill out of baskets, lining the sidewalks with as much frequency as piles of rubble; music and the sounds of the tanmou (Haitian drums) echo through the streets; brightly colored tap taps (hand-painted pick-up trucks and vans which serve as shared taxis) zip through the city; and colorful canvas paintings line walls and buildings awaiting the rare tourist, a missionary or an NGO worker.

Somewhere in between the despair and vitality of the city, the artists of Port-au-Prince struggle to keep their work alive. They are forthcoming about their struggle, and you can occasionally sense a slight weariness in their voices, but their hardships do not define them. They speak eloquently and passionately about their art and their hopes for the country, and are eager to share their work with a wider audience - to show the world that Haiti is more than the devastation we see on TV. Like artists throughout the world, they are exploring themes of religion, cultural identity, interpersonal relationships and politics. They are blending traditional forms of music and dance with contemporary and global forms. They are struggling to find a balance between their artistic mission, their responsibilities to their community and fundamental needs, such as performance space, funding, reliable energy sources and professional development.

There's a famous saying in Haiti that beyond the mountains, there are more mountains.  The artists of Port-au-Prince are fully aware of the difficult journey that lay ahead, but the fact that they have persevered this long, knowing there are more challenges on the horizon, is not only a testament to their own personal dedication, but to the value and significance of the arts in any society.

Front photo by Rebecca Blunk: Members of Compagnie de Danse Jean-René Delsoin rehearse on their unfinished courtyard stage in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti.  While the stage was not damaged during the earthquake, enrollment in their dance school, a major source of revenue, has dropped drastically since January 2010.   
Top photo (photpgrapher unknown): Center StageSM team and Cultural Affairs staff of the U.S. Embassy in Haiti meet with musicians Ti Coca and Wanga Négés, masters of Haiti’s troubadour tradition.  Left to right, bottom row: Rebecca Blunk/NEFA, Ti Coca, Emeline Michel/musician, Ti Coca member.  Second row: Ti Coca member, Courtney Reilly/UNC-Wilmington, Diane Andant/U.S. Embassy/Haiti Cultural Affairs Assistant, Pascale Jaunay/Ti Coca Manager.  Third row: Ti Coca member, Katherine Garcia/Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Lisa Booth/LBMI, Inc., Regine René/U.S. Embassy/Haiti Cultural Affairs Officer.  Fourth row: Ti Coca member, Jonathan Secor/MCLA.


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