PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – walking around in the rubble on Grand Rue, one gets the distinct feeling that people are putting on a brave face. Three months after the earthquake that took the lives of more than 200,000 people, life continues despite the indescribable destruction as its residents continue the painstaking process of rebuilding the capital – arguably the most important cultural and historical city in the Caribbean.
Coming from Kingston, the scenes of poverty are not entirely alien, and yet, despite its obvious economic disadvantages there’s something distinctly developed about the Haitian people. Amid the piles of broken concrete, trash and flattened buildings, there’s no begging, no wailing, no time for anything but digging upward and outward for the inhabitants of this rebel nation.
On Grand Rue I follow the unconquerable Melinda Brown to the studio of her fellow artist Andre Eugene. Brown’s got some bad news to tell the sculptors who’ve gathered there: their visa applications to visit Jamaica have been rejected. While Brown has received no official explanation (yet) as to why some of Haiti’s most respected visual artists were denied entry to Jamaica, one can’t help but feel a sense of shame as she relates the news to the disappointed faces.
“We’ll find out why and try again in June,” Brown tells the artists she handpicked to create a one-of-a-kind testimonial to the Haitian cataclysm aptly titled The Trembling Heart.
The Australian-born Brown is no stranger to the process of rebuilding places that most people would never tread. Back when the Meatpacking district in New York City still had rampant crime, fish guts and beef blood running in the streets, Brown was running Bombora House. Years later she arrived in downtown Kingston where she set about doing the same in places like Church Street and Rose Town.
Months before the earthquake, Brown had been noticeably missing from the Kingston landscape as she had begun working with sculptors and artists from Port-au-Prince and Grand Rue. For Brown, the Haitian earthquake was no ‘hot charity’ – she was in the narrow alleys of Grand Rue long before the tragedy of January 12.
Back into the streets I follow Zaka, a 22-year-old filmmaker (and primary translator for us hopelessly monolingual Jamaicans) who was just granted a US$10,000 artist residency at the prestigious Vermont Studio Centre in the United States.
As we walk through a tent city and the remnants of a destroyed church, Zaka tells me about the people he lost and the chance for renewal: “Grand Rue can be a symbol to world,” he says with almost bizarre confidence, “a chance to show how the people of Haiti can create good from so much destruction.”
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