The Biscayne Times

Jul 04th
How a Work of Art Becomes a Place of Learning PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida   
October 2010

ArtFeature_1The metal doors on both sides of the warehouse are wide open and the giant fans are helping with the cross breeze, but the fumes from the heavy yellow paint that artist Leonel Matheu is using are still getting to him. He has to readjust his respirator mask and stand back every so often. As a freight train roars past just outside, he has to shout over the din: “But it’s all okay -- this is the most incredible and important project.”

Matheu is one of the dozen international artists who are painting ten huge canvas tents, each one of which will be able to seat about 30 children and serve as temporary classrooms in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. The paint and the material for the tents are very specific in that they must withstand Haiti’s extreme weather; the curator and instigator of this project, called “Base Paint,” has made sure of that. He goes by the singular name of Antuan, and he too competes with another train when describing an undertaking that truly is incredible.

From a distance, the tent Antuan is painting appears to be covered in what resembles a striped, black-and-white bar code. On closer inspection, however, there are colors within the stripes, the colors of the Haitian flag. The painting is called Barcode Noir, a take on the horrific system that dictated the lives of slaves in French colonies, called the Code Noir.

Antuan is collaborating with another artist on this tent, Elba Luis Lugo. It was Lugo who wrote the introduction to the project: “Base Paint is a utilitarian installation of goodwill for the children of Port-au-Prince from the artists of the world, playing literally on the concept of base paint: A core to build upon, an educational facility pigmented with the components of creativity, scholarship, and care.”

In fact this whole project is brimming with a tremendous amount of thought, dedication, and care. And clearly, much of it stems from Antuan, a native of Cuba whose work is infused with ecological and political themes (he was also commissioned to sculpt Cuba’s gift to the Pope back in 1997).

After the earthquake, he got together with an organization to which he had previously donated work, the nonprofit Step by Step Foundation, and another child-welfare group, Fundación Manos del Sur. They in turn reached out to an after-school sports program in the impoverished Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cité Soleil, L’Athletique d’Haiti, whose soccer fields now house thousands of homeless quake victims, old and young. They would provide tents to function as temporary classrooms, but with a twist: The tents would be colorfully painted, according to Antuan, “to lift the spirits” of a devastated population and “give a breather to Haitian children.”

The day before the painting began in the warehouse space donated by Coverings Etc., on NE 4th Court and 76th Street in Miami, Paulina Montes was surveying the scene. She’s the executive director of Fundación Manos del Sur, which, through corporate donations, concentrates on aiding underprivileged kids in Latin America.

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Like Antuan, she’s passionate about “Base Paint.” The strong history of visual arts in Haiti, she notes, made an artistic collaboration for such a relief effort a natural. “The tents will continue to be an art installation as well as functioning school rooms,” she says, “as you will be able to see them on the ground and also while flying in and out” of Port-au-Prince (the tent schools will be just two miles from the international airport).

Montes explains how the painted exteriors will also brighten the interiors of the classrooms when the sun shines through. But mostly, she says, they will simply be shelter: “Right now the children don’t even have any privacy, especially the girls -- they have no where to change.”

Before the tents take off for Haiti, they will be documented on film and exhibited at a location yet to be determined. Organizers would like to find a large, grassy area connected to an art institution or university. In the meantime, the public is encouraged to stop by and check it all out.

They might encounter the well-known Cuban-born artist José Bedia developing his yellow-and-black tent. “The finished product will represent some deities that are directly linked with effort and sacrifice,” according to Bedia.

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Pedro Barbeito described his images at length: “I used images from Haiti’s past found online and manipulated them in Photoshop to create a narrative that puts into dialogue Haiti’s past and present, and underscores the need for reconstruction and technological assistance.” He calls his piece Zemi, 1492 in reference to the arrival of Europeans and to a pre-Columbian spirit god of Haiti.

The duo of Ruben Millares and Antonia Wright will cover their tent in vibrantly colored words and poems written in English and Kreyol “to emphasize the importance of reading and the power of literacy” in a country where one of every two adults can’t read. Haitian artist and activist Edouard Duval Carrié will apply his distinctive evocation of Haitian mythology to another tent’s walls and roof.

ArtFeature_6The yellow paint that Matheu was starting to apply will eventually form a landscape that “gives a vision from the sky symbolizing the geographical location of Haiti in the world,” he says.

It’s plain that this group of artists, who hail from across the Caribbean and Latin America, have put much time and effort into their creations; they’ve tried to understand the political, social, and environmental history of the troubled land they are offering to help. And while the atmosphere is spirited in the warehouse this late September day, the reality of what Haiti faces is never far away. The ten tents will offer refuge and educational opportunities to 300 or so children, but more than 3000 schools were destroyed or damaged in the earthquake. Healing Haiti is a daunting task. “Base Paint” is a noble and creative step in the right direction.

To help fund school equipment and supplies for the students, there will be an art auction, likely sometime in November (many works have already been donated). Then, after the tents are exhibited around the time of Art Basel, they’ll be shipped off, possibly coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the quake. Rebuilding structures is only part of the renewal process, according to Antuan: “Children’s minds and souls should also be rebuilt.”


Pay a visit while the artists and volunteers work their magic on the canvas tents during October, in the open bay for Iron Side, next to Coverings Etc. 7610 NE 4th Ct., Miami; 305-757-6000.


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