Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Haiti in the Time of Trash

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Haiti in the Time of Trash

Article excerpt

ANDRÉ EUGÈNE IS PERCHED ON A CORRODED tin box inside his downtown Port-au- Prince studio on Grand Rue, demonstrating his hammering technique on a scrap of rubber. Droplets of sweat dance and glimmer on his forehead as he works. He is barefoot, clad only in black shorts and several pieces of beaded, woven and metal jewelry that encircle his neck, wrists and fingers.

" I get more inspiration working with recycled materials because those pieces are unique and can't be duplicated," says Eugène, a senior member of Artis Rezistans-a community of artists who work solely in the medium of garbage. The narrow 14 x 5-foot cement studio is brimming with items of his handiwork, ranging in price from $50 to $50,000 for some of the larger pieces that take over a month to complete. A metal skull, balanced atop a wooden block, grins at me from the corner. One red and one green Christmas light flickers merrily in each of its eye sockets, and it is crowned with a cowboy hat fashioned from tire rubber. Several bottles of Argentinean vino blanco are holding court around the base of the sculpture's perimeter.

The artists work with whatever materials they can pick up offthe streets: metal, wood, nails, cracked CDs, tires, bottle caps and dismembered dolls. Eugène says that he's partial to metal, which has become more and more difficult to find because of the clean-up initiative by the city. When I ask him if part of him wishes there were no such effort underway, he answers: "No. When you have clean streets you have good health, and that is the most important thing."

One of Eugène's students, Patrick Ellie, then leads me around the corner to his cavernous studio on Rue Bois. He is wearing paint-splattered jeans and a droopy beanie with an oversized pompom that bobs behind him as he walks. Ellie's studio is broken up into a maze of rooms: in one, a man is reclining on a wooden chopping block; in another, a slim woman is modeling paper handbags on the crook of her arm; in a third, dubbed the "inspiration room," there are piles of bicycle parts, air conditioners, tires, and metal scraps. One lone doll head, sporting a radiant orange bob, sits atop a smashed plastic basket.

Three young boys are darting in and out of the rooms, making sure not to miss out on any of the action. "André is a person who loves to help children," Ellie says as the kids run underfoot. He tells me that his favorite material is rubber from car tires. He shows me his first recycled creation, a wall hanging made out of rubber that is an abstract representation of the Holy Trinity. When I ask him why he chooses to work in the medium of trash, he replies, "It gives respect to my city to use the garbage. It shows that everything can be used, and nothing was lost."

A few weeks earlier, I had been at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussing recycling and rebuilding with Jan Wampler, professor of architecture, and Gerthy Lahens, a Haitian- American former research fellow, social activist, and founder of the non-profit Haiti Renaissance. My volunteer-run organization, Charitable Confections, is partnering with Haiti Renaissance and the Port-au-Prince-based Haiti Scholarship Association to build a 6,500-square meter campus in the capital's poorest slum, Cité Soleil. Wampler plans on constructing the multi-building lot, which will include primary, secondary and vocational schools, entirely out of bamboo- a material that is both durable and renewable, as it grows quickly-and that doesn't generate waste when sourced. Wampler is keen on doing whatever it takes not to generate refuse, as well as on creatively utilizing what already exists. Some of the ways that Wampler has recycled debris in the past has been to form crushed concrete into hills and mountains, and to place extraneous bits of stone and brick inside wire cages to use as outside support for walls of buildings.

"Two hundred years ago, people didn't throw away things," he said, shaking his head. …

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