Moises Jonas: the art of disaster relief

Gallery owner Moises Jonas’ homeland of Haiti was devastated by January’s massive earthquake. Skye Hernandez heard what he’s doing to help

Moises Jonas. Photograph by Ariann Thompson

Thirty-six-year-old Moises Jonas hasn’t lived in his native Haiti for several years, but this painter-turned-businessman is helping with the earthquake relief effort.

Jonas spends several months a year in Trinidad, working with the Media 21 multimedia services company, in Port of Spain, which has an ongoing exhibition of original Haitian art. The exhibition is entitled “An Encounter with Haiti”, and a third of all sales now go to the Medianet Haiti Relief Fund.

Jonas is still in mourning for his artist friends, and the thousands of others whose lives were lost in the January 12 earthquake in his homeland, including several relatives. He was at home in Santo Domingo when he heard the news that Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, had been shattered by a major earthquake.

“I was in shock. I call, I call, I call. Finally I got through to find out who was alive.” He spoke to his two older children who live in Haiti. “I wanted to see where they were sleeping, and give them money. They were safe but living with somebody else at the time.”

In the aftermath of the earthquake, he was approached by a group of people from Japan who wanted to go to Haiti to help. “They came by me and I took them to Haiti overland; it took five or six hours in my van.

“I lost relatives – cousins, aunts. My brothers and sisters lost everything, and their land was full of garbage.” (His parents had both died years before.)

Jonas made it to Port au Prince six days after the earthquake. “I gave food and money. Who I can give something, I give something.  I stayed in a school and slept in my van. I stayed 22 days and slept in the van. Everybody who has a car, that is their house. Up to now people are sleeping outside, because people are afraid to sleep inside.”

Jonas has been back to Haiti since, taking care of family there and anyone else he can help.

At the exhibition in Trinidad, his job is to explain to visitors anything they want to know about the paintings, artists, and Haiti. “We have everything,” he says. “Acrylic, oil, watercolour, abstract paintings, landscapes, market scenes. We have unknown artists as well as some who are well known like Franz Mosanto, Jean Martin, Petitzil Michelet, the La Fleur family, Franz Pierre and Chavet Kavenagth.

“I know all the artists very well. Some of them die now from the earthquake.”

Jonas left Haiti when he was 29, and spent several years in the US. He was in Dallas when he first met Trinidadians and was invited to visit for Carnival. He saw the sign for the restaurant Veni Mangé, (Creole for “Come and eat”). “So I went up and talked to Allyson [Hennessy] and Roses [Hezekiah], who thought it was a good idea to display paintings at the restaurant. They organised a show, as they had many friends interested in art.”  One of them was the late Tim Nafziger of Media 21, who, says Jonas, bought four paintings.

Jonas hasn’t picked up a paintbrush since 2006, but runs a gallery in the Dominican Republic and sells the work of other artists to collectors all over the Caribbean. He is building a workshop and gallery at his home on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, where he lives with his “last family” – his wife María and two young daughters – as the rents are too high downtown.

He plans to make frequent trips to Haiti to lend a hand. Something he says people do not know is that “Haiti is such a beautiful country – Jacmel, Petionville, Delmas – there are so many places.”
Though, he says, those are only memories.

“Haiti is now destroyed.”