A Haitian Artist Fights Gang Life With Art

LOS ANGELES — It does not take an art degree to understand that context changes meaning. While the challenges of being an artist anywhere are worthy of discussion and making art is not a contest of who has the sadder story, there is something almost miraculous about the emotional depth and visual resonance of artwork made in the most unfathomable circumstances. Such circumstances form the backdrop of the current exhibition at Galerie Lakaye, Art Under Siege: Lesly Pierre Paul and the Students of His New Vision Art School, on view through May 11.

Artist Lesly Pierre Paul hails from the Grand Rue neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a historical arts district known equally for its poverty and creative production. With no formal training, he began making art at the age of 19, slowly building his reputation, exhibiting locally and internationally. In 2017 he decided to use his success to give back to his community, founding the New Vision Art School, a nonprofit that turns to the arts as a way to continue local traditions and keep the neighborhood’s children out of gangs. 

Haiti has long struggled with gang rule, a situation that has recently reached “apocalyptic” proportions, as the nation’s two largest gangs, G9 and GPep, vie for political power in a country that currently has no elected officials and a heavily outgunned police force. Coupled with a malnourishment crisis and almost no guarantee of any form of security, let alone job prospects, gang involvement seems to provide the only semblance of stability for many Haitians. Yet in a morbid double-bind, joining a gang ensures participation in extreme forms of violence and carries a high risk of death.

Lesly Pierre Paul, “Loyal Love in their Universe” (2024), mixed media on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

A sense of the resulting powerlessness many people feel is clear in the exhibition, which brings Pierre Paul’s work together with that of his students. In his “Queen Elizabeth in Meeting with Baron & Legba in Dark World” (2024), for instance, Queen Elizabeth II, a worldwide metonym for colonial rule, is reimagined as a colorfully painted Black woman carrying a Louis Vuitton purse. Poised between Baron, a lascivious Voodoo Loa who welcomes mortals into the afterworld, and Legba, a Loa who serves as an intermediary between humanity and God, the painting points to the inordinate power the world elite hold over life and death. Yet the Queen’s vacant stare suggests that she and her fellow rulers are unaware of, or perhaps even unconcerned with, the repercussions of their actions on those beholden to them. 

Many paintings speak to the importance of love throughout politically tumultuous times and pair symbols of life alongside those of death. In “Loyal Love” (2023), Pierre Paul depicts a male skeleton presenting a female skeleton with his heart as they preside over a cemetery replete with tombstones and flowers in full bloom. This theme continues in “Baron & Brigitte in the Universe” (2024) by New Vision Art School student Kervens Chavannes, which also takes place in a cemetery. The Baron stands alongside his wife, Maman Brigitte — a powerful Loa associated with justice whose origins are tied to the Celtic goddess Brigid. Yet another painting of a couple by Pierre Paul, “Loyal Love in Their Universe” (2024), depicts lovers wearing royal crowns and holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign. The prominent emphasis on loyalty in these paintings conveys the importance one’s intimate relationships assume when you are, quite literally, ensuring each other’s survival.

Lesly Pierre Paul, “Loyal Family in Gucci Universe” (2022), mixed media on canvas, 30 x 22 inches

While the beauty and artistry of the paintings above is striking, some of the more raw and visceral works by younger students are the most inspiring, and harrowing. “Sun and Angel Smiling Down on Boy with Lost Hand” (2024) by 14-year-old Danielo Dimanche provokes the question of how the boy, seen with a bleeding stump of a wrist, his detached hand falling into a container below, lost the hand. Was it an accident or gang-related torture? Despite the subject matter, Dimanche maintains optimism, depicting the sun and an angel smiling down on this boy. 

Currently both Pierre Paul and the New Vision Art School have an uncertain future. They are raising funds to move the school out of the capital and into safer rural regions. In my correspondence with Pierre Paul, he expressed grave concern about the state of Haiti, and is looking into options to leave “until things calm down.” While the artists’ survival and safety are more urgent than the school’s, it has already shown alternate paths to young people and its continued existence can only further its mission. Its importance in providing a safe haven to the children it serves is best evidenced by 10-year-old artist Vaïna Ciaradjie St-Preux’s text accompaniment to her bright, colorful painting “Queen Mermaid in Love with New Vision Art School” (2024): “I LOVE YOU NEW VISION ART SCHOOL.”

Vaïna Ciaradjie St-Preux, “Queen Mermaid in Love with New Vision Art School” (2024), acrylic on cardboard, 12 x 11 inches
Lesly Pierre Paul, “Loyal Family in Gucci Universe” (2022), mixed media on canvas, 30 x 22 inches
Danielo Dimanche, “Sun and Angel Smiling Down on Boy with Lost Hand” (2024), acrylic on cardboard, 12 x 11 inches
Lesly Pierre Paul, “Loyal Love” (2023), mixed media on canvas, 34 x 32 inches

Art Under Siege: The Art of Lesly Pierre Paul and the Students of His New Vision Art School continues at Galerie Lakaye (1550 North Curson Ave, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through May 11. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top