Eugene Andre: “You have to gather all the broken pieces”

Eugene Andre, Haitian sculptor and founder of Atis Rezistans, on how art has changed his life and community — as told to Marielle Barrow

Photograph by Leah Gordon

I became a sculptor as a teenager because of the ghetto. I wanted to change my condition of life, and so at fifteen I turned to my environment. I grew up in the Grand Rue, a known impoverished neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, flanked by the cemetery and bustling streets, and it is here that I learned sculpture. Art was just where I lived.

No one in my family is a fine artist. My mother worked in a home as a maid, and my father made shoes. My sister was a seamstress. When I was young, my sister made my clothes. I had two brothers and three sisters. I was the last, and I am the only one alive. My only daughter lives in New York, and she has a son who lives in Haiti with his paternal aunt.

At first, my parents were not happy about me taking up the craft of the ghetto, but my sister who raised me, she was happy because I was learning a métier. When I started earning some money from my art, my parents came around, though.

I am known now. I am one of the initiators of Atis Rezistans, alongside [Jean Herard] Celeur. Atis Rezistans is about the art of resistance and recovery. We started in 1988, but I was a sculptor from 1980. Our neighbourhood movement is more than forty-five artists, practicing in eight different workshops across the expanse of the ghetto. Celeur and [Jean] Claude [Sintilus], together with myself, formed the Grann Rezistans, and then several workshops make up the Nouvo Rezistans. I am Director of Commissions and Exhibitions. So, in a way, I found myself, through art in the ghetto. That’s why we have a school called Ti Moun Rezistans. I teach kids to do sculpture also. It’s like that.

Ti Moun Rezistans, the children’s movement, is my fondest dream — to find ways to end the famine in this neighbourhood and create a comprehensive centre for the community. We have to raise the ghetto to a new standard and put young people in a position to change their ideas and their way of life. There is now a student who grew up in the movement pursuing tertiary education in Canada. It is gratifying to work with these young people.

My art is crude and refined at the same time, but there’s a method. Sculpture forms the basis of the work, while wood, nails, iron, steel, and rubber are keys to the message. I find them, all the bits and pieces, here in the ghetto. I use nails to represent hair. And as the iron combines with the wood, it looks more fierce. Wood is more prevalent in my works as it represents the masses, the lower class, us, the ghetto. But iron, iron is the privileged class. The rubber forms a kind of link. It is a medium between the iron and the wood. Do you know what I mean? I mean, the rubber is the middle class.

Part of it is that rubber in Haiti is widely used as a means of protest. They burn rubber a lot here, and it pollutes the air, and causes the death of some people, so I use the same rubber to produce works of art, to eliminate this pollution. My work is about recovery and resistance, class struggle and social injustice. But I think you have to be inspired to do this work.

Inspiration for me comes from God, but my collaborators and colleagues motivate me as well. Mario Benjamin, he is an internationally known contemporary artist from Haiti, and a good friend — he inspires me a lot. Lionel Saint-Eloi, I think he lives in Canada, but we have done two projects with him at the Grand Rue for Carnivals in Haiti, in 2005 and 2006.

Many of my invitations come through [curator] Barbara Prézeau. And my first exhibition was with Barbara in Barbados and the second in Trinidad. In 2007 I visited England. Together with other members of Atis Rezistans, I worked on the Freedom Sculpture which was commissioned by the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. In November 2014, I took part in an exhibition that was at the Grand Palais in France. Selling is more profitable locally, though, because I am the direct supplier, so I make more money.

So the artwork alone is not the only vehicle of resistance here. I travel about ten times a year. On these trips, I do exhibitions, workshops — I facilitate training for about ten or fifteen students.

For our major initiative, Atis Rezistans has partnered with Leah Gordon and we have staged three editions of the Haiti Ghetto Biennale already. It has been good so far, and the fourth edition is this year.

To achieve anything, if you are from the ghetto and from Haiti, you really have to accept your condition of life and use that. You must stay true, preserve your authenticity. You have to gather all the broken pieces and make something of it. You should not try to change yourself, but keep on a straight, consistent path. Aller tout droits.

 


 

It is through recovery that artists of the Grand Rue resist and gain the momentum to fight against social injustice. The visual contradictions within their often grotesquely beautiful sculptures — their crudeness and polish — mirror this seeming dialectic of recovery and resistance. They gather the detritus produced by many surrounding factories, and the left-behind objects of the city. In gathering what is broken, the residues of social injustice, in polishing, refining, and re-purposing these articles, and in becoming activists, the artists of the Grand Rue ghetto are making their name within a global contemporary art circuit.

Andre Eugene, one of the leaders of this twenty-seven-year old movement, poised and often adorned in aspects of African regalia, has pushed the movement forwards together with co-founder Jean Herard Celeur. During my first interview with Eugene in July 2014, I was assisted by three students of the University of Haiti: Acenel Laurent, James Legenis, and Lisa Vasari Leonard.

Marielle Barrow