On 12th January 2010 a powerful earthquake ravaged the island of Haiti, devastating lives, homes and vital infrastructure in and around the island’s capital Port-au-Prince. Many of the city’s key landmarks, including the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly building and the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, were destroyed or severely damaged. During the two weeks following the earthquake a series of at least 52 aftershocks continued to rock Haiti.
For Haiti’s people, the impact has continued to be felt long after the aftershocks ceased. Lives were turned upside down and priorities reassessed. Haitians and their friends on the international stage channelled their energy into rebuilding people’s lives – the country’s artists were no exception.
Despite its poverty, Haiti has always been culturally rich, famous for its abundance of artists and vibrant art scene. The earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s cultural heritage. Irreplaceable artwork, sculptures and historical buildings lay in ruins. However, with such a rich cultural heritage and long artistic tradition to draw on, art has since been identified as one tool for building a sustainable future for Haiti. In the aftermath of the earthquake, one of Haiti’s most highly regarded contemporary artists, Philippe Dodard, who has turned his hand to everything from painting and graphic design to sculpture and metal work, was called upon to play his role in rebuilding the nation.
Born in 1954, Dodard was awarded his first prize for drawing in 1966 when he was just 12 years old. Drawing led him to painting, a passion he inherited from his mother, who used to produce copies of the classical French masters. During his twenties Dodard dabbled with various styles from Impressionism to Surrealism and Cubism until he developed his own style, Aquatisme. Through fluid water-like imagery he explored “the essence of spirituality” and his relationship with people and nature. As Haiti entered a period of political turmoil during the 1980’s, Dodard’s style evolved once again, into what has become his signature style: Use of bold black and white strokes of ink to capture the reality of life for people in Haiti and powerful symbols from the Haitian voodoo tradition. His “abstract expressionist” artwork, heavily influenced by African art, aims, he tells me, to “speak to your soul and appeal, not only to your sense of aesthetic, but to what humans have inside, an essential spirituality and power”, like “the beat of the silent drum that you can feel inside your body and soul.”
Tragically, the earthquake drowned out the beat of the drum for a time. Dodard told me about his personal experience of 12th January 2010.
“My life changed that day… I almost died twice. I was at the Presidential Palace and I left 20 minutes before the earthquake, thanks to my agent who called me for a meeting. I was in a car very close to the Hotel Montana where all the houses collapsed completely. My phone was working – I told him “just keep on driving, don’t stay there” and even though the car was bumping along and he said “I can’t drive”, I told him to “just keep on driving, go.” We passed a 15 metre wall and right after that the wall collapsed on five cars behind me.”
The earthquake has had a profound impact on Dodard. Ever since, he has dedicated himself to projects which use art for the benefit of Haiti and its people. He tells me “since that time I have wanted my art to be useful for my community.” For the entire year after the earthquake he worked with Haiti’s First Lady Madame Préval on a project called Plas Timoun (The Children’s Place), which provided a safe place for Haitian children to express how they had been affected by the earthquake through art and learn to cope with the trauma. The children who participated in the project learned not only to cope with their traumatic past but to explore their creativity and hidden talents. Dodard is now a strong advocate of the power of art and its potential to contribute to Haiti’s future.
Besides Plas Timoun, Dodard has worked on other projects to help rebuild the country. He played a key role in the reconstruction of the iconic Iron Market (Marche de Fer), which served as a commercial and social hub in Port-au-Prince from 1891 until the earthquake brought it down. The new market, rebuilt with as much of the original material as possible, provides a base for almost 1,000 market traders to sell their wares and stands as a potent symbol of hope for future economic and cultural regeneration.
Thereafter Dodard went on to work with one of the world’s most famous fashion designers, who shares a passion for Haiti and the potential of its artists. On a visit to the island, Donna Karan was inspired by his artwork, writing in her blog “no one captures Haiti’s heart and soul like artist Philippe Dodard.” Donna Karan’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection featured prints inspired by Dodard’s black and white paintings and were exhibited side by side in Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art. He also continues to be involved in Urban Zen, the foundation she established to help develop and market the work of Haitian artisans internationally. Dodard told me about this initiative.
“With Donna and her Urban Zen Foundation we are developing artisans’ skills to produce very high quality products that can be sold on the international market. Working with a designer of such a high level has helped me see how Haitian art can be promoted on the international market. We are working on developing the skills of artisans, the quality of the products and developing an understanding of how to be competitive on the international market, to ensure good service and how to conduct business sustainably.”
Dodard’s current primary focus is the National School of Arts (ENARTS). In January 2012 he received a phone call from President Martelli requesting he take on the role of Director of the School. Dodard accepted. The role is in many ways a natural progression of the various projects he has been involved in up until this point. He explains his hopes for the school.
“It was a school that needed to developed, to be more professional, to be equipped and develop new spaces to be built. It is a challenge for an artist. I accepted the challenge and it is my main work now… I want to make the students aware of their role in developing the country and how they can contribute to it and make a living out of that.”
Dodard firmly believes that, with nurturing, the emerging generation of Haitian artists can make a major impact on the world stage and on Haiti’s cultural and economic regeneration.
“What we have in our culture, we can really take that to sell different kinds of products and different kinds of services: performance, theatre, music, dance, fine art, fashion… The fashion industry is big – why can’t Haiti be in that market? Artisans have a big role to play in that development.”
So, with memories of the earthquake still raw and its impact still keenly felt, Dodard is firmly focussed on the future and the beat of the silent drum is reverberating more powerfully than ever.