Haitian artists put quake scenes on canvas

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Before Haiti’s January 12 earthquake, painter Louis Saurel was depicting the colorful scenes of rural life that many tourists prized as souvenirs of their visit to the poor Caribbean country.

Artist Louis Saurel paints about the earthquake at his makeshift tent in Petionville, Port-au-Prince February 16, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Now he’s applying his artistic talents to capturing the horrific moment when the deadliest disaster in his country’s history turned his life -- and those of hundreds of thousands of his compatriots -- upside down.

In a makeshift tent where he has lived with his wife and five children since their home crumbled to rubble in the quake, Saurel, 35, has started painting pictures of the devastation in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

Using the same blazing colors and stylized depictions that have made Haitian art famous, Saurel and fellow painters in St. Pierre Square in the city’s hilly Petionville district are depicting the cracked buildings, jumbled rubble and shocked victims of the quake on canvas.

“It’s a painful experience, but we artists are the witnesses, we paint the past, the present and the future,” Saurel told Reuters outside his tent -- part of a chaotic, sprawling quake survivors’ encampment that carpets St. Pierre and dozens of other open spaces across the wrecked city.

“Children who are only a few months old now, when they grow up and are 10 years old, they’ll be able to see what happened through our paintings,” he said.

The quake killed more than 200,000 people and left more than a million homeless, and there are some who might feel that painting quake scenes is insensitive and even cynical.

Not Napoleon Chery, 52, another of the painters in St. Pierre’s Square. “This is part of the history of our nation and we have to have a national artistic production that reflects that,” Chery said.

But he recognizes it is a departure from the traditional themes that the square’s painters chose for their canvasses, which usually depict brightly colored rural or city landscapes, market scenes recalling Haiti’s African heritage or symbols used by the Taino Indian inhabitants of Hispaniola.


In a depiction of the earthquake aftermath by another artist, Elysee Francisco, a stick-like figure of a woman holds her hands to her head in horror as she contemplates the dead and injured lying among rubble and toppled telegraph poles.

In his tent, alongside a pile of wooden frames and pots of paint, Saurel is starting another work, a painting of the shattered National Cathedral and other wrecked monuments in downtown Port-au-Prince. He has already etched in black the jagged cracks that rent buildings in the magnitude 7 quake.

“I’ve just started, I’ll add the colors and figures and the mountains in the back,” he said, referring to the sun-blasted mountains that hem in the city like the sides of a cockpit.

Perched on his motorbike is the latest half-filled pot of paint he has obtained. “It’s difficult to find paint now, because many shops are destroyed, and art galleries too,” Saurel said.

Through his battered Blackberry mobile handset, which has a cracked screen, he views pictures of the devastation in Port-au-Prince, using them as material for his work.

“This is what I make my living from,” Saurel said, adding that he has been painting for 13 years. He said sales were slow before the quake but had picked up since armies of aid workers, medics and foreign soldiers had rotated through Port-au-Prince, many buying a Haitian painting.

On Tuesday, members of the National Association of Haitian Artists held a march, singing songs and carrying lit candles, to pay homage to artist colleagues killed in the quake. They marched on Mardi Gras, normally Carnival day in Haiti, but the celebration was canceled this year to mourn quake victims.

Despite the lingering sorrow, signs of the hubbub of normal life have returned to the streets of Port-au-Prince, visible in bustling street markets, the tangle of pedestrians and chaotic traffic and the blaring horns of the brightly colored ‘tap-tap’ buses packed with passengers.

And if any of Saurel’s neighbors resented him using the loss and suffering inflicted by the quake to fill his canvasses, they weren’t showing it.

“We’re alive, by the Grace of God,” said Shirley Floreal, washing clothes in a bucket in the tent encampment.

Additional reporting by Sebastian Rocandio and Herbert Villarraga; Editing by Paul Simao