Once, at a public event for the artists of the Jacmel Arts Center to showcase their work, Frantz Aladin got up on stage with a papier-mâché bust that he had created, set the bust on the ground, then stepped up onto it with one foot on each shoulder and stood on top of it while presenting. He then jumped up and down with his full weight on the bust to prove the strength of the papier-mâché sculpture. The audience was stunned and walked away with an undeniable impression etched in their minds of just how uniquely sturdy and high quality Aladin’s work was. It was representative of what makes Jacmel papier-mâché some of the most powerful and most provocative in the world. Where elsewhere papier-mâché is often considered little more than a crafty hobby, in Jacmel the artists have taken their unique approaches to the medium and elevated it to a formidable artform that is respected around the world.
Frantz Aladin has been at the forefront of this movement to redefine the possibilities that this artform holds for his whole career. He says that the possibilities with papier-mâché are really infinite as long as you learn how to do it right. He says that you have to really spend time not just learning the steps necessary to make a papier-mache product, but you really have to get to know the artform on an intimate level to understand its magic. “Papier-mâché is more than just a way to make something, it is a rich and transformative way to reveal who we are as people.”
Aladin started learning papier-mâché early on as a child. He would always make masks for his neighbor kids and they would wear them while they put on shows for their families and friends. As a teenager he got his first opportunity to use his skills in papier-mâché to contribute to the carnival celebrations in Jacmel by working with a mardi gras troupe that paraded in what is called the “zel Materen” which is a traditional Jacmel carnival costume that includes wings on the back of the paraders that they are able to clack together in choreographed movements to create identifiable rhythms in the street celebrations. Throughout the next few years he got involved in more and more mardi gras troupes including the “laset kod” and the “chaloska” groups, all of which tell different stories from Haitian history and folklore.
Since then he has been able to develop his papier-mâché art into a full profession with which he supports his family including his one daughter. He has had the unique opportunity to participate in exchanges with artists from Europe, Mexico, the United States, and all over the world. Every time he shares Jacmel’s regional techniques with artists from other cultures, he takes pride in seeing how these ideas expand their own awareness of what papier-mâché can accomplish. As an artist he says that he’s always searching for ways to evolve his own art and part of that comes from sharing ideas across cultures. One of the highlights from his career was when he was able to participate in a program after the earthquake where Jacmel papier-mâché artists were able to create a number of home interior products that were then sold through Macy’s stores internationally. Although that program is no longer active, he hopes that the international market continues to find ways to invest in the value of Jacmel’s papier-mâché riches.
He is one of the artists in Jacmel, that no matter what hardships may come our way, he remains optimistic in the tough times. Even now when the tourist industry has completely fizzled out and international interest in Haiti’s art has waned significantly, he holds on to his faith in the value of the work that he does and believes that the world will come back around to see that value once again too. He remains a fighter for the future of the Jacmel Arts Center as well and says that his number one priority is for the artists themselves to gain full ownership of their space and to build stronger international partnerships to reinforce their capacity as artists to make a change in their society. It is through the imagination and optimism of artists like Aladin that we at the Arts Center are able to hold on to hope ourselves for what is to come. Just as papier-mâché holds infinite possibilities, so too does the future of the Jacmel Arts Center in the hands of capable creatives like Aladin.