Imaginary city? Haiti capital’s paintbox approach to slum

Haiti, painting, art, Prefete Duffaut, Port au Prince, slum

One of Prefete Duffaut’s ‘Imaginary Cities’

From the courtyard of Hotel Kinam in Place St Pierre, Petionville, I saw what looked like a page from a child’s drawing book. Clambering up the mountains of Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital, were rows of purple, pink, lime and cream houses. They looked as if someone with a new paintbox had been given a free rein with civic maintenance. Or, as if someone with a good idea and $1.4 million wanted to prettify a shantytown.

And so it was. Those houses up the hill look as if they belong in a painting by the late Prefete Duffaut because they are meant to do exactly that.

Duffaut, one of the greats of Haitian painting, is famous for his vibrant “villes imaginaires” or imaginary cities with brightly coloured houses seemingly astride a rollercoaster that’s arrayed against a cobalt sky and azure water. Now, Haiti’s President Michel Martelly has bared his creative side with this plan to colour Jalousie, one of his country’s biggest shantytowns, a la Duffaut. The effort is called “Beauty versus Poverty: Jalousie in Colours” and it’s part of a government project to relocate people from the displacement camps that sprang up all around the capital after the 2010 earthquake and give them a sense of pride in their new neighbourhoods. Certainly Jalousie, high in the mountains, is very visible and critics of the government say the cosmetic change is meant to give the swish hotels all around an eye-catching view.

Perhaps. But the painting, which began a few weeks ago, does make a statement, if nothing else. The eye is irresistibly drawn to the blocks of colour on the high mountains. It becomes that much harder to imagine the squalor of a 45,000-strong neighbourhood without water, electricity or sewage facilities.

It reminds me just a little of Kijongdong, the so-called “Propaganda Village” within the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The North Koreans claim that 200 families call the model “city” home, and that it includes a childcare centre, a kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, and a hospital. But they reckonned without the truth – and the fact that it is the only place in North Korea that can be seen from anywhere across the border. So, South Koreans can see that the city is always deserted and that very occasionally, some lights flicker in order to create the illusion that people live there.

The painting-by-numbers underway in Jalousie is also about messaging. Many say the makeover is just another example of the shallowness with which the current government is addressing Haiti’s huge challenges, choosing style over substance. Haitian Senator Moise Jean-Charles argues that the money would have been better spent on public services rather than paint.

Why either/ or? Why not both?

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac