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PÒTOPRENS: Translating Place at the Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince Exhibit

By Susannah Greenblatt

Susannah Greenblatt toured the recent Pioneer Works exhibition PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince with writer-in-residence Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. They discussed the artworks featured in the show, Jelly-Schapiro’s writing about the Caribbean, and the ways in which art and writing evoke, map, and translate place.


Today, Pioneer Works is a city unto itself. It is the final day of the Brooklyn cultural center’s fall exhibition, PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince. Curators Edouard Duval-Carrié and Leah Gordon have brought together works by twenty-five artists based in Port-au-Prince for the show, which sprawls throughout the complex and includes photography, video, installation, and sculpture. This multimedia, multifaceted exhibit does more than present a portrait of the Haitian capital: it creates a new space dedicated to its study and celebration, open for visitors to come and wind their way through.

On the ground floor, people zigzag between the sculptures, which crop up in clusters of staggered heights like a miniature skyline. The sculptures are made, in large part, of the city’s detritus: baby carriages, wire, scraps of perforated sheet metal, cogs, a folding chair. These found objects seem to carry with them their past lives and owners. What else of Port-au-Prince have they brought here to New York? What will they take back with them tomorrow when they set sail from Red Hook to their home port?

I have enlisted a guide to help me navigate: geographer and writer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Pioneer Works’s first ever narrative writer-in-residence. Jelly-Schapiro is co-editor, with Rebecca Solnit, of a trilogy of atlases mapping San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York to give spatial visibility to often-overlooked stories and elements of the cities, from butterfly sanctuaries to queer havens to riot grounds to trash heaps. The “Archipelago” map in Nonstop Metropolis portrays the islands comprising New York City and the islands of the Caribbean as one enormous, imagined archipelago. This cartographic fib tells a profound truth about the movement of people, ideas, matter, power, and history between these places—a truth that is palpable in this exhibit. 

The Caribbean has been a focal point of Jelly-Schapiro’s scholarship and writing, including his travelogue, Island People: The Caribbean and the World (Knopf, 2016). In his many visits to Haiti, Jelly-Schapiro came to know André Eugène, cofounder of artists’ collective Atis Rezistans and the Ghetto Biennale. Eugène’s work features prominently on the exhibit’s ground floor, alongside work by several other members of the collective. This portion of the exhibit, devoted to works of sculpture, is our focus today.


Susannah Greenblatt (SG): One thing that’s stuck with me from your work with Rebecca Solnit is this idea that paper maps are, perhaps counterintuitively, a more fluid and interactive technology than digital maps; their users have to read them and interpret them. So, as we walk through the sculptures, I’m curious what sorts of maps we can find here in three dimensions, and how they’ve translated Port-au-Prince.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (JJS): This show, as Edouard Duval-Carrié and Leah Gordon conceived it, is very much about the geography and place of Port-au-Prince. They wanted to lay out the show not exactly geographically correctly but certainly according to place and thinking about the areas in Port-au-Prince that the works speak to.

The works, for example, of André Eugène and Celeur Jean Hérard and Evel Romain combine two essential elements. One is woodcarving; there is a tradition in Grand Rue of carving for the souvenir market, both for locals and to be sent across the Caribbean with people on cruise ships. But what’s also particular about that part of town is that it has a history of auto body shops—all the tires you see, for example, in Eugène’s work. He especially is into engine combines and springs and all manner of car parts. These found materials are particular to that part of the city, so they actually evoke that place. 

To our left is a group of sculptures by Celeur Jean Hérard (pictured below). Two are composed of bicycle tires, which frame the white wall behind them in crescent and gibbous moons; in another, worn shoes hang, almost ghostly, from every surface. Jean Hérard’s more figural sculptures have carved wood for bodies—shredded car tires arch from their backs in grand wings. 

Evel Romain’s work (pictured below) uses this same mix of materials Jelly-Schapiro mentioned, although in his work, wood seems to prevail. Found objects act as extensions: coiled rope blends into wood grain, and the tires are almost unrecognizable as such. One sculpture stands out from the others: a goat-like figure carved of wood bears a tire on its back and a blue rubber hose snakes through its body and face. Here, detritus seems to overtake the carved wood, to invade and almost possess it

As we make our way to the back of the hall, we pass a dozen or so stone heads of varying sizes and carving techniques nestled on raw wooden beams. Against the assemblages we’ve just seen, these pieces (pictured below) seem solid, almost as if found whole. They are the work of Ti Pelin, from the neighborhood of Carrefour. 

JJS: The Riviére Froide runs through Carrefour. These sculptures have no tires; they are very much of the river. They’re limestone. Pelin quite literally pulls the limestone from the river and creates these remarkable heads.

Past Pelin’s work sits André Eugène’s (pictured below), which celebrates detritus to its fullest; he uses wood as pedestals for these assemblages. In one piece, front and center, a skull rises up from a coffin spangled in CD-ROMs. The skull is mounted on a long, curved metal neck encased in rubber coil vertebrae. Also rising from the coffin is a large phallus made of industrial piping. The boldness of Eugène’s work cannot eclipse its sensitivity. Even with the face of death, his figures course with life, and the faces carved of wood are disarmingly expressive.

SG: Where did you first see these pieces, and how is it different seeing them against this white gallery wall here in Red Hook?

JJS: One thing I appreciate about this show and installation is that there are these nice white walls, but it also feels very organic and funky, and you can walk amongst the sculptures and be close to them.

SG: And Pioneer Works is a repurposed place, which is kind of a fitting way to house the pieces.

JJS: It’s not just a generic white box. It’s built out of an urban ruin—an old ironworks by the port—so there’s a lot of ways in which it’s resonant. I saw these works in Eugène’s yard off the Grand Rue, on Rue Jean-Jacque Dessalines, which is named for the founder of Haiti. It was the old main shopping drag; now it’s basically a decimated urban area that doesn’t have much formal commerce anymore. A little part of the yard is covered but most of it is open. When it rains, it gets rained on.

SG: It’s all subject to the elements from which it came.

JJS: It’s basically a jumble of stuff. The too-muchness of it—he’s a prolific guy. He makes three pieces a day and then he has all these young kids he mentors who are also making work, so the sense of abundance in this creation is fabulous, but it’s very hard to actually engage with one particular piece.

These pieces have their own unique potency. The particular aspect of Vodou that he’s interested in is the group of gods of Gede, who are the guardians and messengers associated with the dead and the cemetery, so his work incorporates skulls.

To the left of Eugène’s work is a whole side chamber not visible from the main hall of the exhibit. The walls in here are black and the pieces (pictured below) seem to leap out. Beads of every color gleam from the silky black flags and skulls onto which they’re stitched. 

JJS: This other room riffs on the tradition of Vodou flags and the amazing beadwork and sequins in art coming from Bel-Air, a kind of hill in downtown Port-au-Prince. Bel-Air has a deep tradition of Vodou practitioners and mambos and all the people who engage with and nurture these traditions.

Vodou is not just religion, not just faith—it was a sort of language created by people who were enslaved as a way to talk with one another and to create a way to rise up and create a revolution.

We head out to the pebble courtyard, where we find a small shack (pictured below) with a corrugated roof and murals. Inside, wood panel walls are lined with mirrors. A swivel chair faces a mirror, and combs and gels are arranged neatly on the countertop. Bachata music emanates from a radio.

JJS: This I particularly love. “The Barber Shop.” One of the great vernacular art forms in Haiti lately has been the signage. So much signage there is not mass-produced, it’s hand-painted, which is a wonderful thing about the visual landscape. Barber shops are everywhere. It could be someone’s closet or garage—very ad hoc—but you have some clippers and some scissors . . .


SG: . . . and some bachata . . .


JJS: . . . and a cooler full of beer, ideally. Many of these places are decorated with hand-painted images of hairstyles, different flat tops or fades, and often of celebrities.

This is a self-portrait of Michel Lafleur—I’ve met him. He’s from the Grand Rue neighborhood. He got started painting tap taps (communal taxis). Now he’s a particularly in-demand and accomplished barbershop painter.

We head inside and ascend the stairs to Jelly-Schapiro’s studio. Soon Pioneer Works will be flooded with visitors for the exhibition’s final night and for Second Sundays, the center’s monthly open studios. Jelly-Schapiro procures, seemingly from nowhere, a bottle of Barbancourt and begins to pour out cups for his visitors.

SG: How did you come to be a part of the residency here at Pioneer Works?

JJS: Pioneer Works has a publishing enterprise and they hired a really wonderful, dynamic woman, Camille Drummond, to oversee publishing and literary programming. We did some events around my book Island People last year, including a hurricane benefit after those awful storms hit the islands. And I think Camille and Gabe (Florenz, Pioneer Works’s artistic director) thought, you do city stuff, you do Caribbean stuff, do you want to come be a part of this? I was thrilled. With writers, you don’t think you need space, and you don’t really, but it is really special to have a beautiful space to be in and to be around these works every day.

SG: You talk a lot about maps as telling stories, or maps as stories in and of themselves. Do you relate differently to a place when you’re mapping it versus writing it?

JJS: I think that, by the same token that all good maps contain a story, all the most effective pieces of writing, or the books that I love, imply maps also. I think they have to, whether or not there’s a literal map in the front matter (I love books that have that). It doesn’t feel like a terribly different vocation. I think that what I try to do as a writer is totally geographical. It’s about place and drawing links and passages, routes, it’s absolutely cartographic.

SG: If you were to make an atlas of Port-au-Prince, what kind of maps would you be curious to see?

JJS: I would be thrilled to help facilitate a map of Port-au-Prince. It’s a place that I love, but I wouldn’t feel that I’m deeply of it enough to map it. I would love to help various people I know and love create those maps.

Part of the baggage tied to geography as a practice and a discipline is that it has been a deeply imperial enterprise—to map a place has been to claim it. So there are certainly questions around that dynamic as a white man who’s written a lot about the Caribbean. They have been at the forefront of the work and I think of them in all kinds of ways throughout what I do.

SG: So some places may be harder to map cartographically, but are certain places harder to write about than others?

JJS: That’s a great question. What I tried to do in Island People (pictured left) is to create a new map of the Caribbean that is hung on some big ideas—to say, this place that you think of as marginal is actually absolutely central.

But formwise and contentwise, the writing is very much about trying to create a new map that’s about people and characters and voices. And I think that the Caribbean lends itself to that because of particulars of climate and culture. It’s a part of the world where life is lived in public in all kinds of ways. People are out on the street. There’s a deep tradition, especially on the big islands, of talk, of creating oneself as a character, of being a performer, of narrating oneself, which makes reporting really easy and fun.

SG: Do you have any favorite writing about Port-au-Prince by Haitian writers?

JJS: There’s not nearly enough that’s been translated into English—that needs to change. There’s one wonderful novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet whose work is starting to come out in English.

SG: Oh, she’s wonderful! Her novel Dancing on the Volcano (tr. Kaiama L. Glover) was published by Archipelago a few years ago.

JJS: Exactly. That’s very exciting writing about ’50s and ’60s Port-au-Prince. There’s a new novel I really love by Dimitry Léger called God Loves Haiti. Edwidge Danticat, of course, is amazing. You know she was a little girl there, so she hasn’t written deeply about Port-au-Prince itself as a city but she’s writing about the echoes of Port-au-Prince, especially as it resonates in places like Brooklyn and Miami. I think my favorite book by her is The Dew Breaker. It’s about the ghosts of Duvalier’s violence.

The main muse for my book is C. L. R. James, a writer from Trinidad who recognized the import of Haiti and the import of the Haitian Revolution. It’s still the great book about the Haitian Revolution in all kinds of ways. I’m drawn to people who have the wit to understand the power and importance of Haiti, especially Caribbean writers. I think Haiti belongs at the center of any story we tell about the new world and the making of the modern world.

SG: The last time you left Haiti, what was your good-bye to the place?

JJS: I love it so dearly. I think I said, “I’ll be back soon.” I’m devoted to it, so I go every chance I get. That’s my good-bye.


Pioneer Works is a cultural center in Brooklyn, NY, dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines. Through a broad range of educational programs, performances, residencies, and exhibitions, Pioneer Works transcends disciplinary boundaries to foster a community where alternative modes of thought are activated and supported.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is the author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World (Knopf, 2016) and the co-editor, with Rebecca Solnit, of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (University of California Press, 2016). He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and his work has also appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, The BelieverThe Nation, Artforum, American Quarterly, and Transition, among many other publications. As a geographer and writer, he has often focused on place, race, and how human difference is thought about and acted on in the world. The recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Science Research Council, he earned his PhD in geography at UC-Berkeley and is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, where he also teaches. 

Published Jan 4, 2019   Copyright 2019 Susannah Greenblatt

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