At 27, Edens Cathyl might seem like a successful artist. His black-and-white drawings on view at Stuart’s Considine Gallery through Thursday, February 12, depict life in rural Haiti. We see beautifully executed scenes of a bay, a mermaid blowing a horn, a baby goat nursing, climbing trees for coconuts, planting a field, and walking animals. A woman carries a basket of fruit on her head, and a big fish swims in the sea.
But Cathyl’s life in Haiti is anything but paradisiacal. Cathyl was born into extreme poverty, and his mother gave him up as a slave. Indentured servitude is not uncommon in Haiti.
“In a country as poor as Haiti, when we say not everyone in a family can eat every day it isn’t an exaggeration,” says Ellen LeBow, an artist who lives in Massachusetts but has helped Cathyl learn art skills and sell his work through Art Matenwa (a collaboration project between artists in Cape Cod and Haiti). “Some parents feel they have to give one or more of their children to someone else, either a family member or a friend of a friend who promises to feed, clothe, and educate the child in return for some work duties. This works out well in some cases, but more often the children are beaten, starved, over-worked, and raped. Everyone knows it; everyone denies it. The word for such a child is restavek — meaning ‘rest’ or ‘stay with.’ But no one admits they have a restavek in their house.”
Edens’ mother sent him to her brother, a man as poor as she with three other sons. The uncle beat Edens, but he did send the boy to school.
This problem is pandemic in Haiti, according to LeBow, who taught Cathyl to use the technique in which he found his voice: India ink is brushed onto the surface of a hard board that is coated with soft white kaolin clay (gesso board). Cathyl draws into the ink with a blade, carving to reveal the white beneath it. “Contrary to popular belief slavery has never been abolished,” says LeBow.
Cathyl has a sister and two younger brothers, but LeBow says they were not restaveks. Edens’ father was long gone by the time he was born. “There have been restavek rights groups and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) trying to address the problem with schools. The goal is to educate the kids that no one has the right to abuse them,” says LeBow.
Cathyl was helped by the Matenwa Community Learning Center started by Christine Low, an American educator working with restaveks, and Abner Saveur, a teacher from Matenwa and a former restavek. LeBow was brought on 16 years ago to develop the art program. Cathyl was 11 when LeBow first met him.
“Edens has an uncanny natural gift for detailed drawing, subject matter, and composition but does not automatically make art,” says LeBow. “In a place like Matenwa general life needs trump art-making. Also for the kind of art Edens does best I have to bring him the materials. People don’t have paper or paint or pencils in their homes, so if he runs out he has to wait for more. I encourage him because he has a talent others don’t.
“Cathyl is self-motivated, loved school, was top in his class, and with only a little help taught himself English,” continues LeBow. “At 13 he was impossibly thin for his elongating frame, with enormous eyes and skin as dry and gray from malnutrition as an old man’s. He became excellent in silver cutting, not afraid to try new things, and it soon became clear he could draw better than anyone else at the art center.”
When he was 18 Edens escaped his aunt and uncle and moved upstairs in the art center, where he still lives.
The earthquake of 2010 did a lot of damage to the town where Cathyl’s mother lives. It is unclear how she gets by financially, though Cathyl sends her money when he is able. Even with help and encouragement, life continues to present challenges. Cathyl bought a motorcycle he uses as a taxi. He has also been trained as a cement mason, but there is little work. He has recently become a father.
Princeton-based artist and curator Madelaine Shellaby, recently retired from a teaching career at Stuart, discovered Art Matenwa, Ellen LeBow, and Edens Cathyl through her own interest in Haiti. In 2011 Shellaby, along with Stuart colleague Anne Hoppenot, founded Konekte Princeton Haiti to improve the lives of children and their communities through educational Initiatives. Konekte means to connect in Haitian Creole. Shellaby and Hoppenot have organized trips of volunteers to help rebuild schools. Inspired by Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti they traveled to the Ganthier region with the New Jersey-based Foundation For Peace. Business training and entrepreneurial support, sports, games, and music are all a part of what Konekte does to help rebuild.
“We formed a human conveyor belt,” Shellaby recounts of helping to pour a school foundation with a group of students and parents from Stuart, the Peddie School, Princeton High School, Princeton Day School, and Montgomery High School. “We had to carry buckets of concrete one-quarter mile from where it was being mixed to the site.” Prior to this new concrete six-room schoolhouse, there had only been a shack.
“In order to provide a good education, there needs to be an incentive for the teachers,” says Shellaby. “We help raise the money for their salaries and provided books and art supplies. We also started a soccer tournament on the grounds of the school in Ganthier. We brought soccer shoes, balls, goals, and pinnies (practice jerseys). They learned about following rules and how to win trophies.”
Shellaby spent much of her early life in California, with a year of her childhood in Peru and two years in Rio de Janeiro. Her father was a Latin American journalist, and her mother taught French and Spanish. She studied studio art at Scripps College in Claremont and earned an MFA at UC Berkeley.
She has combined her interests in art and Haiti for this exhibit. The scenes depicted by Cathyl are imbued with symbols of voodoo. There is Damballa, considered the primordial creator of all life. Damballa takes the form of a serpent. Damballa created the cosmos by using his coils to form the stars and planets and to shape the hills and valleys on earth. By shedding the serpent skin, Damballa created the waters on the earth. Damballa is associated with St. Patrick and Moses.
Voodoo originated in the Caribbean when African religions were suppressed and enslaved people were forced to convert to Christianity. Practitioners of Voodoo participate in rituals that serve spirits called loa. Stories of loa are typically portrayed in Haitian art. Every loa has a unique veve, or visual symbol.
Also on view alongside Cathyl’s work are sequined-covered Haitian flags, or Drapeau Vodou in Creole. These are created as sacred ritual objects within the Vodou community, welcoming the pantheon of spirits to temple ceremonies. Flags most often commemorate specific spirits or saints — combining Christianity with the original spirits of the Kongo — but since 2010 the catastrophic earthquake has become a common subject.
Anthropologists and tourists have taken an interest in them, and so the flags are now being made for the art market. As a result the artistic imagery of the flags is changing from a strict adherence to tradition to a freer, more expressive form. Most of the flags in this exhibition include recent work of contemporary artisans.
The flags are covered with beads and sequins, creating a shimmering effect. Shellaby says the beads became available when a Parisian manufacturer of wedding dresses shut down. There are purple elephants, elephants with wings, and a goat with zebra stripes. Shellaby says these artists have never seen these animals, and so they invent what they might look like. “These artists have a calling, a style they all adopt,” she says.
“In Haiti, everything they make, they make to sell,” she adds. With Hoppenot, a French teacher who has spent decades working with schoolchildren in Haiti, Shellaby is working on a book project. “Ann will have her students translate Haitian stories into French, then the Haitian students will translate it to Creole, and I will keep them on task to illustrate the stories.”
Haitian Art — Edens Cathyl: Stories from Haiti, and Haitian Flags: from the collections of Jill Kearney and Indigo Arts, Considine Gallery, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, 1200 Stuart Road, Princeton. Through Thursday, February 12. Opening reception is Friday, January 23, 5 to 7 p.m., with an artist talk on Tuesday, January 27, 11 a.m.
Fundraiser for Konekte Princeton Haiti on Sunday, January 25, 5 to 8 p.m. $60 ticket includes Haitian food from Mommy Joe’s in Trenton. Money raised will go toward teacher salaries in Fond Parisien. A portion of the sale of artwork will go toward Konekte.