“Piti piti, zwazo fè nich” – “Little by little birds build their nests” – Haitian proverb
Similar to the rest of Latin America, Haiti was colonized by Europeans who imposed their Roman Catholic religion on the people. While half of the island was colonized by the Spanish and became the Dominican Republic, the western, smaller portion of the island was colonized by the French and is officially known as the Republic of Haiti.
Haiti is the only predominantly Francophone nation in the Americas and also one of the only nations to practice Voodoo, a syncretic religion that blends African, European and indigenous Taíno beliefs. Haitian Voodoo originated in the Caribbean during the 18th century French Empire as a way for West African slaves to continue using their own religion and beliefs while they were being forced to convert to Christianity. About half of all Haitians practice a combination of Catholicism and Voodoo.
It just so happened that I was in Haiti during Carnival. In all my travels, I had never experienced Carnival before and given Haiti’s unique combination of Catholicism and Voodoo, I could only imagine what Carnival would be like. I had already seen a lot of religious influences within Haiti’s amazing art, music and dance during the first few days of my visit. I knew attending Carnival in Port-au-Prince would be one of those bucket-list life experiences.
As a stoke of luck, our Haitian friend Nat who is the Executive Director of ABN (Artisan Business Network) was able to get our group tickets to be in the Minister of Tourism’s stand. We would leave at six o’clock to beat the masses of crowds that would eventually make the Champs de Mars impassable until the wee hours of the morning.
As we left Pétionville and headed down the mountain into the heart of Port-au-Prince, traffic was intense and preparations for Carnival were well underway. Earlier in the day, we had stopped by one of the stands on Champs de Mars to visit one of the artisans that Nat works with at ABN. The finishing touches were going up all around us.
It takes months to prepare for Carnival each year. Papier-mâché decorations are made, stands and floats are built, and costumes are designed unique to each and every Carnival. The actual festival takes place over the course of several days and involves a parade, street parties, live music and dancing, and of course all the glorious costumes and carnival masks. It is one of the few times during the year that Haitians take a break from work and protesting that wrecks frequent havoc on the city. Our trip was actually almost canceled due to dangerous fuel protests occurring right around the time of our arrival but with the approach of Carnival, everything stopped for a few days while Haitians relaxed and embraced this special time of year.
As we were driving back from Jacmel on Sunday into Port-au-Prince, we pulled over to visit Pascale Faublas, a world renowned papier-mâché artist from Jacmel, and see her work. She was designing her own stand and as a long-time Heart of Haiti supporter and supplier, we were thrilled to meet her.
Pascale’s magnificent creation was still in the works.
Papier-mâché has a long history in Haiti, originating from the French and becoming one of Carnival’s most important forms of artwork. Many of the exotic masks of animals and deities are made from papier-mâché, however, this form of art is also seen in vases, serving trays and platters and other collectors items many that are offered at Macy’s through their Heart of Haiti line to benefit Haitian artisans.
Most Haitian Papier-mâché artisans paint their pieces in the brilliant colors that bring the world to life. Everything was so intensely colorful it made me smile.
Pascale was raised in Port-au-Prince and has been creating beautiful art her entire life. In 2004, she moved to a seaside village on the outskirts on Jacmel with her daughter and joined a community of papier-mâché artists. She works in papier-mâché as well as wood, textiles and mixed media. Pascale is a leader of the collective organization that is creating Macy’s products and has had a pivotal role in the creation of ABN (the Artisan Business Network). Pascale’s home and workshop were destroyed in the earthquake yet her work continues to inspire and amaze the world and other artisans around Haiti.
The colors splashed around the stand were equally as brilliant as the papier-mâché. The finishing touches were being done and by the evening, all would be ready in Pascale and her neighbor’s stand.
Of course we couldn’t resist taking some photos of ourselves against the gorgeous background.
While we were observing the preparations for Carnival, we noticed a swarm of street vendors below who were selling various handicrafts and pieces of art. Once they saw us and realized we were potential buyers, they came in masses.
And they made some great sales to our group! Almost everyone purchased a lovely work of Haitian art.
I even bought a painting as well but I passed on the feathers.
As we left Champ de Mars and headed back to our hotel to rest, I couldn’t contain my excitement for the night. I could hardly wait to see the city alive and dancing to the glorious sounds of Carnival. I knew it was going to be a night I’d never forget.