Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the Smithsonian Institution began a program to recover and restore artworks marred in the disaster based out of the offices of the United Nations Development Program. Now, the Yale Center for British Art is hoping to create a cultural exchange program to teach Haitian artists restoration techniques that the artists can apply to damaged works in their home country.
One participant in the Smithsonian’s Haiti Cultural Recovery Project was Mark Aronson, the chief conservator at the British Art Center, who worked on the project with two Haitian artists and professors, Franck Louissaint and Jean Menard Dernoncourt. When conservators at the Yale Peabody Museum uncovered 15 forgotten portraits of Haitian political figures in the museum’s storage facilities last year, Aronson said he invited Louissaint and Dernoncourt to New Haven to learn restoration methods that could apply to artwork in Haiti as the pieces were being examined for restoration purposes by a team of conservators from the Yale Center for British Art. Their visit, which began Aug. 20 and ends Friday, was funded through the Smithsonian.
“The discovery of these paintings is very important to Haitian tradition in terms of dating,” said Dernoncourt in an interview conducted in French. “After the revolution of 1804 much of the artwork is lost so it is important in the sense that it helps us to place much in a historical context.”
The Peabody artworks were brought into the United States by renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass in his capacity as Haiti’s commissioner for the Chicago World Fair in 1893, said Richard Kurin, under secretary for History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution. The works were likely used as a backdrop during Douglass’ speeches in Chicago, after which the Smithsonian acquired them, Kurin said.
Aronson said that the paintings and lithographs were transferred to Yale much later, in 1963, at the request of a professor of anthropology who was studying Haitian culture but have remained in storage at the Peabody ever since. With the devastating earthquake in 2010 drawing much attention to restoring art in Haiti, the discovery of these forgotten artworks came at the perfect time, he noted.
“We’re attending to the most flaky ones, doing some consolidation to make sure no more paint is lost,” Aronson said. “We’re also practicing tear-mending techniques so we can imagine what a phase two would be to have all 15 paintings conserved collectively between the Peabody, the Yale Art Gallery and the British Art Center, probably at West Campus.”
Aronson said that he hopes to turn the restoration project into a teaching tool by inviting young Haitian artists and would-be conservators to collaborate on the project. After grasping the fundamentals of conserving and restoring art, he said, the Haitians would be able to help preserve much of the artwork damaged by the earthquake themselves.
“[Conserving art] is very important psychologically for Haitians and the Haitian identity because in these tough times it gives people a sense of who they are,” Kurin said.