A New Look for Haiti

An art project has humanities scholars collaborating on images of Haitian history and culture

Part of the Engaging Haiti Series

Author Madison Smartt Bell discusses the resin-block art work he did in the Haiti Lab.

In one back-lit block of translucent plastic, there's an image of Toussaint Louverture, the father of Haitian independence. In another there are figures from Haitian legends. In his block, author Madison Smartt Bell placed small personal objects he brought back from Haiti.

Working in plastic is not what the faculty, students and scholars might have expected when they signed on for Duke's first humanities laboratory. But for their project, finding new ways to express Haitian culture -- even if they have to stretch their artistic skills -- is a priority.

"Regardless of their field, any researcher working on Haiti has to confront the fact that in popular imagination the country is linked with disaster," said Romance Studies Professor Deborah Jenson, one of the co-directors of the Haiti Lab. "We're trying to counter that image. One purpose of the lab is to provide a fuller representation of Haiti's history and culture."

The work of Jenson, fellow lab co-director Laurent Dubois and more than a dozen other faculty members, students from Duke and other area schools is also setting a precedent for what a humanities lab looks like.

The lab represents the first effort by the Franklin Humanities Institute to involve humanities faculty from various disciplines working together in new ways. The three-year Haiti Lab project mixes research, education and knowledge in the service of society. In addition to the co-directors, Guy-Uriel Charles of the Law School and Kathy Walmer of Global Health are core-affiliated faculty.

That means bringing students and faculty together in traditional seminars, inviting guest speakers and conducting four independent study projects ranging from research on post-traumatic stress disorder following the earthquake, to rebuilding women's rights in the country. One of those projects involves collaborating on a "stained glass" art project with renowned Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié.

The artist, who now resides in Miami, will be at Duke for a week beginning Dec. 7. During his time here he will deliver Provost Lecture Series (see below), talk to classes and work with the faculty and students in the lab. As part of his visit, he will arrange the installation of the various "stained glass" plastic blocks in a back-lit space along a wall of the lab's offices in the Smith Warehouse.

Each block is poured with four layers of resin; each layer embeds images, documents, personal items or other objects, all of which relate to the theme of cultural fragmentation in Haiti in the wake of disaster and the renewal of memory.


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Stories of Haiti

In addition to preparing a resin block for the Haiti art exhibit, each artist wrote a "story block" that provides a narrative description of the content and process of making each contribution. Read two of the stories here.

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Inspired on a previous trip to Duke by the amber-colored signs in the Smith Warehouse, Duval-Carrié suggested the form of the art project, Dubois said. "We thought if we did an art project in a similar manner around the theme of history and culture, it would be more meaningful."

On a recent visit to the lab, a half-dozen people worked on their blocks with enthusiasm, pride and jokes about their artistic talents. Dubois recounted a number of emergency runs to Michael's and Home Depot to find the right object to include in his artwork.

"This work forces us to develop new skills and to think about the images we use relevant to Haiti," he said, noting that as scholars most lab participants are more used to using academic forms for discussion. "We want to represent our ideas in a different manner.

"The main thing in terms of undergraduate education is that we're aiming for a much more connected experience, where students participate through the lab in a range of activities -- whether grappling with issues of violence against women in Haiti, trauma, or working to represent Haiti through art -- that integrates different approaches and allows them to both learn and produce knowledge in the process."

Jenson and Dubois expect the project to be ready for exhibit in the Smith Warehouse during the spring semester.

The art project is getting outside attention. Before Thanksgiving, Madison Smartt Bell, who wrote an acclaimed trilogy of novels about Haiti and America, stopped at Duke following a talk in Raleigh to spend the afternoon at the lab and contribute to the work.

"Nobody knows Haiti's story or their battle for independence," Bell said during the lab visit. "There's been a 200-year effort to stop people from finding out about it. Of the three revolutions that shaped our modern world, the Haitian one was the most ideologically significant. It was the only one to carry for an idea of freedom for all people, not just white landowners. That continues to strike me as significant."

Bell is a fan of Duval-Carrie's work and had met the artist several times. "When I first met him in Miami, I realized that I had been looking at his work for several years. When I heard he was collaborating on this project, I wanted a chance to contribute to it."


Provost Lecture Series

Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrié leapt into action after the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, establishing the Haitian Art Relief Fund and curating exhibits of Haitian art. He will speak as part of the Provost's Lecture Series on "Natural Disasters and Human Responses" at 5:15 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 7, in C105, Bay 4, of the Smith Warehouse.

More information can be found here.