Last week, after almost a month in Indianapolis, Indiana, four artists from the Jacmel Arts Center sat on a plane to return home to Haiti when Gerald Joanis struck up a conversation with the bilingual Haitian-American flight attendant. When she learned that we were artists and were traveling to share Haiti’s culture, she asked to know more and Gerald showed her some photos from our trip including the murals we painted and the groups of youth that we provided workshops for, as well as videos of him dancing at various events in Indianapolis. You could see the pride in the attendant’s eyes as she said to us all in Creole, “That’s right! You show them who Haiti really is! Too many people out there are putting our country down, insulting us without ever knowing who we truly are. Keep showing them all of the beauty we have!” After that we exchanged information and she promised to visit sometime and take some classes from our artists.
This, to me, summarized the importance of why we choose to travel with our artists so that they may share their art beyond Jacmel in cities around the world. There are many reasons why this sort of exchange is beneficial to our artists and the community that they belong to, but when we travel we become cultural ambassadors for the entire country, carrying a powerful message of Haiti’s true culture and identity through the arts that we share. In this way, our art becomes a tool to break down misconceptions and challenge stereotypes about who Haiti is.
On our recent trip to Indianapolis, we had many chances to do just that through the work of our arts ambassadors who traveled. In addition to folk dancer, Gerald Joanis, there were also painters, Meger Samedi, and Bruno Rene, with myself, Lee Rainboth, the executive director of SAJ. We traveled to Indianapolis through a partnership with local arts organization, Indy Convergence, which strives to empower and connect artists and communities from all backgrounds to each other in an inclusive, collaborative environment. Indy Convergence has maintained a strong relationship with the Jacmel arts community for years as they have partnered with local community center, Sa-k-La-k-Wel, to build an amphitheater in the neighborhood of Oban using earthship technologies. This exchange trip opportunity that was realized last month was the result of years of dreaming and planning and hard work to get some of Jacmel’s artists to visit Indianapolis.
While there, our month’s agenda was packed full with opportunities to introduce the Indianapolis community to our Haitian culture while collaborating with local artists on a variety of artistic service projects. Some of the activities that made the biggest impact on our own artists were the ones where they got to interact with the youth of Indianapolis through programs designed to build character and develop skills and awareness of the world. We met with a group of young men in a juvenile detention alternative program who loved learning about Haitian folk music and dance traditions from Gerald as we were able to connect the revolutionary spirit of these traditions with modern day hip-hop music. We also held multiple workshops in sequin art with teenage girls in a program called E-STEAM in partnership with Kheprw Insititute where the girls were drawn in by the sparkle of the art but through that they were able to learn about a country and culture that they knew very little about.
With the greater Indianapolis community we had multiple opportunities to share our visual art through exhibits at Clowes Memorial Hall, Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company, The Green Room Gallery, and Indy Convergence Gallery, in addition to pop up exhibits at Salesforce and the Church Within. Between all of these locations we exhibited over 120 works of art from over 40 Jacmel artists and are happy that even once these exhibits close, much of the art will remain on display through Indy Convergence and other partners. We were also able to leave our lasting mark on the community by creating two large murals, one at the West Michigan Street Portico and one at the Hawthorne Community Center, which Gerald noticed the children that walked by “felt like they were in a dream” when they saw it. Bruno and Meger also got to do a live painting demonstration during an Impromptu party at the portico where dozens of guests got to watch them at work. We also had numerous opportunities for Gerald to share Haitian folk dance, most notably through a masterclass workshop with dance students at Indiana University. The public also enjoyed his performances at events such as the Impromptu party and our visit to The Church Within.
Overall we had an incredible time and thank everyone who helped make the trip possible. Although there were only 4 artists traveling, we were traveling to represent all of our more than 100 other member artists at the Jacmel Arts Center and the community in Haiti that we come from. So on behalf of us all, we thank everyone who made us feel welcome and helped us show the value that Haitian arts can have across cultures. For Meger, he felt that the relationships he was able to make with all of our new friends and collaborators in Indianapolis was the most valuable part of the trip.
We are already planning our next exchange trip which will happen later this summer to Iowa, and in the fall we will be visiting our Sister City of Gainesville, Florida with a delegation of artists. These trips are an essential part of building the global network of support that we need to remain connected to in order to make all of our programs at SAJ possible. “Art was never meant to stay in one place, it’s meant to travel, it’s meant to be mobile,” as Bruno remarked after our trip, but it also needs a strong and stable base to call home. That’s why no matter how far we travel with our art from Jacmel we always are committed to making sure that the trips serve to strengthen our foundational programs at our center in Jacmel. You can be a part of these unique exchange experiences for our artists by sponsoring some of the travel expenses associated with sending out arts ambassadors out into the world. For the Iowa trip we have 3 artists traveling: Vady Confident, Obelto Desire, and Lee Rainboth, and we need to raise $1,000 for each artist to travel. For this fall’s trip to Gainesville, we hope to take 6 artists to Florida and need to raise $600 per artist to cover those expenses. You can sponsor an artist for these trips or make a donation of any amount through our donation page. Thank you very much. We hope that with your support we can keep “showing them who Haiti really is”!
You can also watch a video tour of the exhibit at Clowes Memorial Hall on our Facebook page.
And you can watch a video of Gerald dancing the Zarenyen dance with local Indy dancer, Jean Paul Weaver, on our YouTube page.