The Christmas before last, I went back to see the place where I was born: Jacmel, Haiti. I left Haiti when I was three years old. By then, Haiti was entangled in a full-fledged coup d’etat. I have spent the majority of my life in the United States, as an immigrant, as a member of the Haitian diaspora, as a Haitian-American, as a not-quite American. In the visits I have made back to Haiti since, to my grandparents’ home in Les Cayes, I have felt happy to be back, but also have felt just as much like an immigrant in Haiti and I do in the States. However, when I finally visited Jacmel for the first time since my birth, I felt like I’d truthfully returned home.
In many ways, Jacmel is the art-center of Haiti. There are artists in the streets, artists in the buildings, artists everywhere. Within ten minutes of our arrival, a group of papier-mache artists invited us into their studio to see their work and process. I mentioned a little bit about my own art practice, too, though I felt intimidated! We visited an art school and spoke with the founder of the school about the program. We also met another man named Badio who invited us into his gallery and showed us some of his beautiful assemblage pieces. I felt more at home in Jacmel than I had anywhere else in Haiti.
This is why I was incredibly excited to learn about Jakmel Ekspresyon, a community art center in Jacmel. Though I didn’t get to visit JE when I was in Jacmel, it makes total sense to me that this kind of effort at communal art-making would exist there. Their mission statement reads, “The Jakmel Ekspresyon Arts Center is an organization that provides local artists with space and facilities to create and explore different mediums of artistic expression. The Center offers membership to local artists and workshops to the public. The workshops are lead by local and international artists.”
I was able to connect with Susan Frame, the co-director of JE, about the project:
1. How did this Jakmel Ekspresyon start?
The center started after the earthquake in May 2010. Before the earthquake I traveled to Haiti with my best friend, Flo McGarrell, to help an art centerwith a music festival. I too fell in love with Jacmel. I met so many awesome people and great artists. My American and new Haitian friends decided to start collaborating and did a US cross country traveling exhibit on our views of Haiti to counteract the media that is shown to the Americanpublic. Flo became the Director of an art center in Jacmel and when he saw the inequality marginalized people suffered, he started to advocate for a safe space through the art center. Flo died in the earthquake and no one was left to keep the art center a safe space for women, handicapped and queers. A group of Haitians and myself decided to start an art center that has non-descrimination built in its by-laws.
2. How has the community responded to the project?
There have been ups and downs. On one hand the students have been amazing and the neighborhood we currently reside in has been great. The old men that sit in the park across the street and the kids watch over the building for us. The kids come everyday to sit and watch the classes.
3. What projects are you working on currently?
We have screen printing, theater and painting and drawing. There are also one and two week workshops provided by volunteers as people travel through.
4. What do you hope to do in the future?
Some of our most successful workshops teach skills that can lead to a job. If we find the funding to move forward our goal would be to create a small art school that teaches holistic life skills, including creative skill, how to use those skills in a job, professional skills like resume building and marketing.
5. What have you learned about community since starting Jakmel Ekspresyon?
Haiti is unlike any community I have ever experienced. There is such passion and creativity. This space is a creative engine and when people come, projects happen. Everyone loves Jacmel when they come. Staying and working in the long term is a hard job though. I get the feeling that not too many people in the US are really interested in helping out a neighbor. Working in Haiti is even harder as most people mean well but do not achieve their goals in the healthiest way. For me I see years upon years of trauma in daily life as people try to survive and end up hurting their own future potential and others. Then you turn around and someone, through all the harshness, is trying to make their space a better place. Just last week we had a member ask to use the community center as a base for a project that advocates for children’s rights. This for me is the perfect use of the center. I see it mainly as a resource for local members to use and achieve their own dreams. When we have a great exhibition of new painters and the neighborhood kids are running through the space or the neighbors are out front watching a movie in the street, I know we are doing the right thing.
Susan also spoke to me about the difficulty of raising rent, seeing as Jakmel Ekspresyon is able to run only as a result of helpful personal donations. Please take a brief moment to donate to this wonderful project!