Cat Eaters. HBO (Haitian Body Odor). In the 80s and early 90s, it wasn’t always cool to be Haitian in Miami. Back then, Haitians were almost exclusively associated with AIDS and poverty, the ubiquity of these themes fueling brawls and dehumanizing jokes that became colloquial staples on school buses and in classrooms. Many of my Haitian friends became artisans of disguise: No, I’m not Haitian. I’m Jamaican. But then there were other artists—painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, musicians, authors, and fashion designers quietly weaving their way through Northeast Second Avenue into Miami’s own Port-au-Prince—Little Haiti.
Today Little Haiti is North America’s landmark for Haitian artistry. Founded in 1994, the Alyans Atizay Ayisyen (Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance), has pioneered events and exhibits that feature and create a platform for artists to showcase a myriad of Haitian fine art all of the world. The nonprofit organization is set in a loft studio where you can find everything from Haitian literature and masterfully-constructed figurines to some of Christopher Columbus’ original maps.
This weekend, the organization joins critically-acclaimed fashion designer Donna Karan and Russell James, photographer and creator of Nomad Two Worlds, in celebrating the “Discover Haiti” exhibition at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. The exhibit launches Thursday, May 14 with a cocktail reception in honor of Haitian Heritage Month and will be open to the public until July 1, 2013.
“Being able to promote Haitian art enables our organization to show that Haitians are not these sad, down-trodden, famine-ridden people,” said Sandy Dorsainvil, Executive Director of the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance. “Beautiful things are coming out of Haiti.”
In response to the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti, Karan created the Urban Zen Haiti Artisan Project, an initiative that assists in financially supporting Haitian artisans who transform natural resources like stone, metal, wood, tobacco, horn, and paper into exquisite art pieces. The initiative was also designed to create a business model that includes vocational training, small industrial production and commerce expertise.
“Discover Haiti came about because President Martelly was honoring all the artists in Haiti and asked me to do something,” Karan said. “I took the exhibit back to New York, put all the products together and people would go, ‘Oh my God. This is Haiti? This is Haiti?’ because they were seeing it through a different eye.”
Guests will be able to purchase clothing, accessories, art and home furnishings designed and produced in Haiti. Prices range between $85 for a papier-mâché bag or a horn cuff to $6,000 for an iron chandelier with crystals.
“One hundred percent of the profits goes back to the work we’re doing in Haiti,” Karan said.
Last month, the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance (HCAA) launched “A Conversation with…” a monthly event that invites members of the community to discuss their experiences with Haitian culture. Dorsainvil and her assistants choose ten French and ten Kreyol words that guests are supposed to use throughout the evening (Last month, the list included vin rouge (red wine) and des filets de pêche (fishnets) ). Friday night Donna Karan will be the guest speaker, and she will discuss the art of collaboration.
Not all the conversations about Karan’s work in Haiti have been positive. There were criticisms regarding the designer’s 2012 Donna Karan ad campaign which featured supermodel Adriana Lima lounging in the foreground while two Haitian men were tucked in the background. But Dorsainvil, who has coordinated and promoted Haitian cultural events for 20 years, says the designer cast a global spotlight on an artistic community that has existed for generations.
“I want to know how many of those skeptics went to Haiti and put in this amount of time and effort to support the artists,” said Dorsainvil. “What Donna is giving these artists can never be taken away from them.”
Karan’s auspicious arrival is the culmination of a social and artistic movement pioneered by Jan Mapou, HCAA Co-Founder and Owner of Liberi Mapou Book Store, one of the first Haitian-owned business in Little Haiti, Mirelle Chancy Gonzalez, HCAA Chairperson, Edouard Duval Carrié, HCAA’s Creative Director and renowned Haitian artist, Archbishop Thomas Wenski who, in the early 90s, provided legal and spiritual support to new Haitian immigrants living in South Florida and many others.
“I felt very at home the minute I went into Edouard’s place and saw his work,” said Karan, who visited the artist’s studio that is adjacent to HCAA. “In Haiti, there is creativity, heart and soul.”
These days, many artists and entrepreneurs call Little Haiti, home. Friday night everyone from the Bohemian hood rats to the curious conservatives and locals will fellowship in a guise of live music, comfort street food and cool artistic vibes.
The word of the evening? Bon Bagay (Kreyol for good stuff).