Haitian Artist Jerry Rosembert Moise Visits Dartmouth
Last week, Jerry Rosembert Moise, one of Haiti’s most renowned graffiti artists, graced our campus with a live installation and demonstration of art on canvas. His art fills the walls of many Haitian streets, particularly in the capital Port-au-Prince. During his last visit to Dartmouth in 2014, Jerry painted a piece titled Lakou Mizik on plywood in front of a live audience. The painting is lively with two women dancing and a man playing an instrument. His spray paint murals depict what Anthropology Professor Chelsey Kivland, refers to as an “emotional and ideological commitment to social amelioration” of the contemporary issues that Haitians face as a result of their turbulent history.
On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of meeting the artist during his exhibition at the Nearburg Gallery in the Black Family Visual Arts Center sponsored by the Anthropology and Studio Art departments. Upon seeing the murals, I was instantly moved and inspired due to the significance of this time of year for Haiti. Jerry’s work is insightful and optimistic, while heartbreaking at the same time and often difficult to digest. Jerry was inspired by street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haitian graffiti artist Ti Rasta who was known for critiquing the government. He got his start doing graffiti for a hip-hop group called the Barikad Crew during the onset of the hip-hop movement in Haiti’s urban cities. The artist attended the Ecole Nationales des Arts d’Haiti (ENARTS), but was unable to finish because of national political instability. This did not, however, stop him from reaching prominence as a public artist.
On New Year’s Day, Haiti celebrated the 214th anniversary of its independence when it became the first sovereign black nation in 1804. Less than 2 weeks later on the 12th, they mourned the 8th anniversary of the tragic earthquake that shook the nation’s capital taking hundreds of thousands of lives. Jerry contributed in the way that he knew best, painting a mural with the words “We need help” written in English with a pair of praying hands. The mural helped to attract the aid of of many foreign nations, and it also thrust the artist, who considers himself a “shy guy”, into the spotlight.
The first mural that I saw by Jerry shows a woman primping her hair, which is made up of the flora growing above the concrete wall. Below, the street is littered with garbage - a common sight in many Haitian urban areas. She wears shackles for bracelets, a reminder of the past, and her lips are painted with the colors of the Haitian flag; blue for the sky above and red for the earth below. The mural is a reference to the past and also a nod to the future, making the statement that though they cannot erase their history and its implications, the people of Haiti are free to define their own everyday existence. Jerry’s other murals shed light on social problems caused by a flawed public education system, widespread political corruption and a lack of facilities like plumbing and waste management. One is a painting of a “granny prostitute”, which demonstrates the lack of government assistance and employment for the elderly that leads older women desperate to provide to the streets. Another piece he was commissioned to paint by an art gallery shows people peeing on a wall, a United Nations vehicle driving by throwing trash onto the street, a leaky pipe, and a police officer with a stop sign. Many of these go without saying, they are an acknowledgment of “what happened here”, as Jerry says.
Jerry’s more sombre works are those that carry a deeper message about government corruption. Haiti has had more than its fair share of injustice, with politicians offering the people empty promises or threatening their livelihood for votes, and many getting elected only to put money into their pockets. Many of these murals include children, who represent the future. In one image there is a tug-of-war for the island of Haiti between two children on a pier and a shark in a suit, representing a greedy politician. Another is of three children standing on crates, each writing the words “Haiti pap peri” meaning “Haiti won’t perish”.
Some of the more gruesome murals show masked men in suits crucifying the island - the worst is a memoir of two young men named Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin who were executed by a firing squad in front of school children, to set an example. They were part of a group of insurgents called “Jeune Haiti” or “Young Haiti” who were trying to overthrow Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a tyrant and a dictator. The mural says “enstriksyon + travay = libete”, or “education and work equals liberty”. In an interview with Jerry, he told me he believes his generation was among the last to truly have an interest in furthering their education because there are little opportunities afterwards. He said even then, people with degrees had few prospects for a future. Haiti has virtually no public schools and the most affordable are “lottery schools”, meaning since most are business schemes you pick one and hope for the best. Jerry, however, is optimistic and believes in the resilience of the Haitian spirit. The people of Haiti are no strangers to adversary and Jerry’s murals show that they continue to meet every difficulty with courage and heart.