Spiritual Aspiration: Attending the Sixth Inter-American Cultural Ministerial in Haiti

By Barry Bergey

1.2 Port au Prince - housing on the hill.jpg

Multicolored houses on hillside, Haiti.

Housing on the hill in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Since 2002, the Organization of American States (OAS) has convened a meeting of Ministers of Culture and Highest Appropriate Authorities roughly every two years. These gatherings carry this rather awkward title because in some countries, most notably the United States, there is no Ministry of Culture. The purpose of these meetings is to discuss cultural policy in the hemisphere and to share, among the 35 member states, strategies for cultural preservation and development. I was privileged to have the opportunity to serve on the U.S. delegation, along with Dr. Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art, and culture at the Smithsonian Institution and Melissa Kopolow McCall, deputy development counselor of the OAS mission at the Department of State, for the most recent of these meetings, held in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, August 12-13, 2014.

Woman in colorful garb singing and dancing.

Musicians entertaining at the OAS Sixth Inter-American Cultural Minsterial in Haiti.

The theme of the meeting was Cultural Interdependence in the Context of Globalization, a timely subject given the natural disasters visited on the host country and the gratifying intergovernmental responses to help in recovery. Haiti's commitment to artistic expression as a mode of cultural and economic development became apparent from the opening session.  Monique Rocourt, the minister of culture in Haiti, performed a stirring version of the national anthem of Haiti to open the proceedings. Then Haitian President Michel Martelly, himself a former singer of compas (dance music similar to meringue incorporating the Creole language) and keyboardist, known by his stage name “Sweet Mickey,” welcomed the attendees. This was followed by a procession and performance of rara, a form of music heard at parades during the Lenten season that features bamboo trumpets and hide-covered drums.

Panel of people sitting on stage.

Richard Kurin of the Smithsonian Institution (third from left) addresses a plenary session during the OAS convening.

Kurin addressed a plenary session on the theme Innovation and Competitiveness for Social Inclusion. His presentation, "Developing the Cultural Economy," emphasized the multi-faceted dimension of our nation's cultural ecology that includes profit-making enterprises, individual self-expression, and the nonprofit sector supported by governmental project grants and charitable giving. I was gratified that his address referenced statistics from the NEA/Bureau of Economic Analysis Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account and also cited the NEA Folk & Traditional Arts Program funding of sweetgrass basketmakers from coastal South Carolina as well as the fieldwork and festivals that the agency has supported in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Message painted on wall of hotel.

"Haiti...where art is joy."

A quote painted in large script on the wall of our hotel lobby stated "Haiti...where art is joy." As we threaded our way through the hilly streets of Port-au-Prince crowded with vehicles and pedestrians, this assertion was made manifest. The roads were lined with artists selling paintings, metal sculptures, and decorated hand-made home furnishings, and walls and public buildings were covered with hand-painted murals. Many commercial venues used paintings or sculpture to advertise their wares and attract eyeballs and customers.

On the second day of the meeting, thanks to Richard Kurin's long-standing involvement with the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, I had the opportunity to join him in conversations with Patrick Delatour and Olson Jean Julian. Patrick Delatour was the minister of tourism when the 2010 earthquake hit, killing over 200,000 people and destroying more than 300,000 homes. Immediately after the quake, the president of Haiti asked Delatour to chair the Commission for the Emergency and Reconstruction, even though he himself had lost both his parents in the devastation. Because Delatour and Julian had worked on the Haiti program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, they soon were working with Kurin to develop a Cultural Recovery Project that also involved support from the NEA, President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Man standing on corner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Street scene in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Writing about the efforts to save the artworks and culturally significant structures after the earthquake, Julian, former minister of culture and communication who became the manager of cultural recovery efforts, said "After trying to save people's lives, the next thing to save is the people's reason for living." More than $5 million was raised for the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project in a campaign to engage specialists to conserve 35,000 items, including historic murals at area churches as well as 6,000 paintings and sculptures at the Centre d'Art. Soon a permanent Haiti Cultural Recovery Center will open both to address the ongoing needs for restoration of art works and to serve as an educational resource for cultural preservation in the future.  There couldn't be a more vivid illustration of the role of intergovernmental collaboration for cultural recovery and development.

People sitting next to collection of drums.

Waiting for the performance to begin at the Haitian National Museum.

On the final evening of the meeting there was a closing reception at the Haitian National Museum (Musée du Panthéon National Haitien), a combination history and art museum located in a small park just across from the National Palace. Richard Kurin mentioned to me that just after the earthquake more than 30,000 people were living in this park that consisted of around 40 acres of land. Inside the underground museum, which survived the quake relatively unscathed, was an incredible exhibition of Haitian arts, much of which demonstrated the close connection between visual expression and voudou beliefs in both subject matter and symbolism and most of which revealed the artistic ingenuity of incorporating recycled materials—discarded computers, silverware, buttons, car parts, pots, and pans—to create collages, sculptures, and mosaics.

Women in robes running through water.

A calling down of the spirits at the museum.

On the grounds above the museum we witnessed a calling down of the spirits (orishas) in which drumming, dancing, and devotional declamation combined in an exuberant demonstration of artful expression and cultural continuity. By melding staged performance with spiritual aspiration, this event, on this site, at a time when recovery is still a work in progress, made a powerful and lasting impression.

Women standing in water holding up a container.

The conclusion of the orishas ceremony.

It is not difficult to understand how the visual and performing arts infuse and enrich the lives of Haitian citizens. When choosing Haiti for the Sixth Inter-American Cultural Ministerial, the OAS authorities could not have chosen a better location and experience to illustrate the formidable powers of artistic work and cultural expression to lift the spirits of people and at the same time offer an opportunity to rebuild a sustainable creative economy. Perhaps former First Lady of Haiti Elizabeth Préval put it best: "Haitians are a people of creators. Creation transcends poverty and ideology. Artists invent a new world where hope takes birth from the most terrible catastrophe. For me, art should be an important piece of the strategy to rebuild Haiti, because it mobilizes the internal energy that sleeps in everyone of us; because it puts us in touch with the universal part of ourselves we share with common humanity, where the values of solidarity, brotherhood, love, dignity, and respect for life become the driver of our behavior."

All photos by Barry Bergey