Yale conservator restores Haitian art

Aronson spent two weeks in Haiti restoring and preserving important pieces of the country’s art.
Aronson spent two weeks in Haiti restoring and preserving important pieces of the country’s art. Photo by Yoonjoo Lee.

Since the 2010 earthquake, Haiti has been flooded with rescue teams, doctors and emergency workers, but now a new force is being sent into the Caribbean nation: art restorers.

In front of an audience of around 50 students and faculty at the Yale Center for British Art on Wednesday evening, chief YCBApaintings conservator Mark Aronson discussed his experiences working in Port-Au-Prince with the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, a program that attempts to recover artworks lost in the 2010 earthquake. Aronson spent two weeks in Haiti this summer with the non-profit organization attempting to restore and preserve some of the nation’s most important artwork — including the famed Holy Trinity Church murals — many of which were damaged in the catastrophe.

Aronson’s talk seeked to address the question he said was foremost in the minds of many audience members: Is art a priority for Haiti?

“Art is an important fabric of their daily life,” Aronson said. “There’s an exuberance about art in Haiti that is less apparent here,”

Aronson said that the American press tends to neglect coverage of normal life in Port-Au-Prince in favor of post-earthquake recovery stories, but art is a major part of life in Haiti, he said. While Le Centre d’Art, the main Haitian arts center, was reduced to rubble during the earthquake, Aronson said Haitian street art continues to flourish with vendors selling colorful and dazzling paintings and even decorating beauty salons and trucks.

During his stay in Haiti, Aronson worked on restoring the structure of paintings that had been salvaged by other members of the organization, while his Haitian colleagues restored the aesthetics of the art using paint and other materials.

Resource constraints forced Aronson and his team to be innovative in the way they approached the project, he said. At one point he said he was forced to design a humidity tent out of mosquito nets and plastic in order to prevent a painting from distorting.

All seven audience members interviewed said they appreciated the attempts being made by Aronson and others to restore a part of Haiti’s cultural heritage.

“When I initially saw the photos from Haiti, I became very emotional,” said assistant professor of art history Erica James. “To see someone actively working towards restoring as much as they can of this historical legacy is thrilling.”

Key Jo Lee GRD ’15, who attended the talk, said she thought Aronson handled the intricacy and complexity of Haitian art well during his lecture, and balanced his consideration of vernacular examples with those considered fine art.

But some members of the audience expressed reservations as to the importance of art restoration in the larger scheme of the Haitian relief effort.

“I was in Haiti last November and for me it was great to see how far the project had come,” said Anne O’Connor, one of Aronson’s ex-colleagues. “It feels a little ironic though to talk about better housing for paintings when there are so many people still living in tents.”

The Haiti Cultural Recovery Project is being funded by the Smithsonian Institute.

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