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Haiti’s Rich Art Destroyed

NUMBER 18 Rue Bouvreuil was once a mecca for lovers of Haitian art. Outside the Musée Galerie d’Art Nader, perched on a hillside overlooking Port-au-Prince, a sign greeted visitors. ‘On top of the town, top in the arts’ it boasted. Inside, the walls were plastered with thousands of paintings recording nearly a century of Haitian history.

Now the three-storey art gallery is gone, reduced to a dusty heap of rubble and torn canvases. Broken picture frames from irreplaceable local masterpieces poke from the gallery’s ruins.

“My dad has about 12,000 paintings here and we are trying to save what is left,” said Georges Nader, the son of Haiti’s best-known art collector and the owner of the gallery, as he scanned the debris. “We have only been able to save about 2,000 of them.”

The human cost of Haiti’s worst earthquake in more than 200 years — at least 150,000 lives lost — has been well documented. But the disaster also struck a knockout blow to the heart of Haiti’s vibrant arts community.

Several galleries were destroyed and thousands of paintings lost under the rubble of flattened government buildings and art museums.

The Cathédrale Sainte-Trinité, built in the early 1920s, was almost completely destroyed, taking with it a series of celebrated 1950s murals depicting scenes from the life of Christ. A painting by Guillaume Guillon Lethiere, the 18th-century French neoclassical painter, is thought to have been destroyed when the presidential palace collapsed.

“There are paintings from 1905 that have been lost,” said Cedoir Sainterne, an artist from the city’s Petionville district. “It’s terrible. We are going to have to start all over again.” Nowhere was the destruction greater than at the Musée Galerie d’Art Nader, Haiti’s largest private collection of Haitian and Caribbean art.

“When it [the earthquake] started I said, ‘What is that?’ And I ran out,” said Nader, whose father, also called Georges, was one of the biggest patrons of the local art scene. “I was in an 11-storey building and I saw the building shaking and shaking and moving in all directions. The next day when I came here and I went downtown I saw everything. I don’t think there is any word to explain that [what happened] to the world ... You have to be here to see what is going on.”

Nader’s parents, both 79, survived. When the quake struck they were sleeping in the only room of the museum that emerged unscathed.

Haiti may be the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but fans of its art say it is the Caribbean’s most culturally wealthy nation.

From the intricately crafted tap-tap buses that clatter through Port-au-Prince to the explosively colourful paintings that once adorned the walls of its many art galleries, it is impossible to miss the creative spirit of the world’s first independent black republic.

(The Guardian, London)

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