Cultural Riches Turn to Rubble in Haiti Quake

January 24, 2010

By MARC LACEY New York Times  

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Long before its ground started heaving, Haiti was already a byword for a broken place. Its leaders were considered kleptocrats; its people were jaw-droppingly poor. But there was still a pride that burst forth from the people here, linked both to the country’s heroic history and to the vibrant culture that united them and enabled them to endure.

Now many of the symbols of that proud side of Haiti lie in ruins. The National Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Supreme Court, all are in various states of collapse. Also devastated is the Episcopal Church’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, known for its murals of Bible stories with all black figures.

The earthquake on Jan. 12 has caused untold suffering and has taken tens of thousands of lives — more than 150,000 bodies have been buried, according to a preliminary and undetailed government assessment on Saturday. The pain of the cultural loss cannot compare.

But in stealing symbols that gave Haitians their hope and grandeur and reminders of a common purpose, the earthquake cast a different kind of shadow over their future.

“Of course, we should care about the people first,” said Axelle Liautaud, an art dealer who has been trying to save what is left of the murals. “But the reason why there is still a country, despite all our troubles, is our strong culture.”

The landscape of the capital was in tatters long before this month’s disaster, and many markers of the country’s past had been looted and destroyed during the political upheavals that racked the country in recent decades.

But Haiti has always clung to its history, the struggle to break the bonds of slavery and become the world’s first independent black republic, even if its governments have not done all they could to preserve that legacy.

Its vibrant arts scene celebrated the country’s creation, and its public buildings sought to capture the elegance of a past that Haitians held onto though political trauma, staggering violence and a string of natural disasters.

That alone has made the depth of the destruction of Haiti’s heritage hard to fully capture.

Teeluck Bhuwanee, the Unesco representative in Haiti, who has toured the city, is still having trouble fathoming what he saw. “You go around and you say, ‘Oh my God,’ and then you go further and you say it again,” he said. “We haven’t assessed all the damage at all the cultural sites, but we know it’s bad.”

The National Palace was the country’s principal symbol, Haiti’s White House, a grand building surrounded by iron gates, which dates back less than a century but was designed in a French Renaissance style. It was a building worthy of a country born after a slave revolt against its French colonial rulers.

The quake left the imposing structure shattered, its signature white domes collapsed, its Oval Office equivalent a total loss.

The palace had no permanent collection of artifacts, since leaders often stripped the place as they were chased out of office. But presidential aides said they were worried about irreplaceable artwork and sculptures that were on display in heavily damaged ceremonial rooms.

The saddest scenes were at the some of the places where Haitians go to pray, ornate churches filled with historical artifacts. At Holy Trinity Cathedral, the murals featuring Haitian renderings of biblical scenes on its interior walls now resemble an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

The organ, which Haitians proudly say was one of the largest in the Caribbean, was smashed.

When Ms. Liautaud, the art dealer, heard that demolition crews were already lined up to clear the site, she scrambled to stop the work in hopes that bricks and shards of concrete containing portions of the murals could be pieced together again.

“We had so much despite the fact that we’re so poor,” Ms. Liautaud said. “Nothing that’s new can replace what’s old. Gone in a day. It’s all gone.”

Still, there were signs that at least some treasures could be resurrected. Experts think that the key collections at the country’s National Museum, built underground in a park facing the National Palace, probably survived.

At the National Archives, there was some structural damage, but important historical documents did not appear threatened, said Bernard Hadjadj, a special envoy for Unesco.

And a giant sculpture in front of the palace that features a man blowing a conch shell as he breaks the bonds of slavery, is surrounded by squatters but standing.

The art world also suffered heavy losses.

At an art center that played a crucial role in making Haitian paintings known around the world, the damage was severe.

Across the capital on Thursday, an artist raised his two bandaged hands in the air and let out a sound that was half sob, half roar.

More than his physical injuries, what seemed to pain the man, Paul Jude Camelot, a student at the École Nationale des Arts, was the damage to his latest creation, a painting of the universe that had had a clay sculpture representing life growing out of the center.

“That’s about all I had left,” he said.

Artists say they lost many of their colleagues in the quake, although nobody yet knows just how hard hit Haiti’s creative community was.

Among the truths bared by the quake was the reality that, after so many years of government dysfunction, private groups and individuals had become some of the most important protectors of the country’s treasures.

Many of the country’s most valuable historical texts, for instance, were owned by individuals, and preserved at their homes — rather than under glass or in wood-walled libraries as they might have been in Washington or other moneyed capitals.

So last week, as they have done so many times since their country’s latest tragedy struck, Haitians again stepped up to perform rescues themselves because other help was slow in coming.

Patrick Vilaire, a sculptor, met on Thursday night with others concerned about saving some of the country’s legacy from looters or further building collapses. They put at the top of their agenda preserving the book collections at two private homes, a cache of irreplaceable history, political and economic texts from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Asked how he could focus on old books after such a catastrophic event, Mr. Vilaire said, “The dead are dead, we know that. But if you don’t have the memory of the past, the rest of us can’t continue living.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/world/americas/24heritage.html?emc=eta1

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