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Haitian artist shares his heart with Trinidad

Published: 
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
(Above) Art by Didier Civil: “Gede”, acrylic on canvas, 2010. Civil often explores nature and voodoo themes. Two masks (Gran Brigitte and Baron Samedi) Didier Civil made for the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York in 2010. (Below) Didier Civil with one of his masks.

Jacmel is the heartbeat of Haiti’s artistic self. “I grew up in a town where art was valued and masks were always being made for Carnival, madigras (Big Tuesday),” said Didier Civil, a Haitian artist who specialises in papier-mâché art.

“Haiti may be economically poor but in our culture, we are very, very rich. We have a lot of personality by creating, organising things. The problem is often the government doesn’t want to hear the poor people and help them,” said Civil, who was in Trinidad as part of a Jouvay Ayiti workshop on creating mas’ structures. 

Civil takes pride in saying the southeast region of Haiti is particularly beautiful. “Lots of architecture, lots of houses that came from Europe by boat. The streets are not too big but Jacmel is a special little place,” he said. At Karnaval, the region becomes the focus of the art, when the papier-mâché masks appear. “Sometimes, the masks represent the fight between God and Lucifer. Then we show God winning,” he said. Or sometimes, the masks satirically represent a part of the Haitian struggles.

Like Trinidad Carnival, Haiti’s is a very important space, Civil said. “People temporarily forget problems and politics,” he said. Economically, the Carnival allows the opportunity for the poor to make money, he added, since many foreigners come to visit during that time. 

Civil remembers his first experience with the mas when he was five years old. His grandmother, who knew this was a cultural activity children should not miss, encouraged him to watch. “It's a very good moment to people enjoy themselves peacefully,” Civil said. “And moreover, even if your parents didn't take you out, you had the possibility to see the group perform in your area in the street. Because it’s the tradition,” he said.

By age ten, he was already involved in making masks. His mentor, revered artisan Lionel Simonis was his neighbour. “I used to watch him making masks and his own costume for the Carnival,” he said. At that age Civil said he was already addicted to the mas. Watching Simonis at work, he began making his own so he could participate in the festivities. 

“He always said ‘if you really want to do it, you can and one day you will be able to do it better than me.’ And now, here it is—like he said,” Civil said.

The other familiarity of Haiti’s Karnaval is that the masks of mardigras have a connection to those of Trinidad Carnival. According to the website Comite Artisanal Haitien, papier-mâché creations were “in response to Carnival participants who dance and parade in exotic masks of animals and fantasy figures.”  In Trinidad, the craft of papier-mâché can be particularly seen in our majestic fancy sailor hats, in the traditional Bookman headpiece which appears at J’Ouvert and some of the contemporary mas’ creations. Civil’s presence at the Jouvay Ayiti workshop, which took place at Studio 66 in Barataria, served to ensure the workmanship here continues to have life.

Jouvay Ayiti, a non-profit organisation which serves to promote and preserve the traditions of the mas, has been hosting mas-making workshops during this “mango season” (since T&T does not have summer, said the group’s founder Marvin George) for a number of years.

“We are not only running as a programme in passing on a tradition, but it is a recognition of what is the core creative skills inside the mas,” said George, a Trinidadian lecturer at the Edna Manley College for the Performing Arts at Mona, Jamaica.

Considering that artwork such as wire bending, papier-mâché, and cardboard cutting is integral in the definition of the Carnival structure, the need to qualify hands that are interested or are able to work on such craft is important.  “The best artisans were not certified,” said George. “Jouvay Ayiti finds ways of validating the practice of this tradition that did not fit the concept of academia then.”

In Jacmel, Civil has a studio where more than ten people work with him. He shares the art of papier-mâché just as Simonis did when Civil was his apprentice. “He was the first to make masks representing the indigenous inhabitants of Haiti. Being an artist enables me to show this art form—and its place in mask-making history—to the world,” he said.

At Karnaval time, although each member of his team knows how to create the masks, Civil’s mas camp becomes like a manufacturing plant, each member has a responsibility of working on one aspect of the mask to ensure proper detail and craftsmanship. While papier-mâché seems a simple process—a foundation of clay, then layers of construction paper with applications of flour and water that make the paste—the technique also requires sculpture and that’s where the creation becomes a work of art. 

“One mask can take two days. A more complex mask would take as much as five days, depending on the detail,” Civil said. “Papier-mâché allows to add other elements like hair and fabric in presenting the final product.” 

Now 43, Civil continues to demonstrate the beauty of papier-mâché, creating larger than life portrayals of people, animals, fantastical masks, and other carnival masks and costumes. As art, creating the masks come from inspiration, he said. His signature style is what “Le Nouvelliste” has described as “intense three-dimensional portraiture.”

“Sometimes, the inspiration comes from itself—like a feeling—and I let it pass through me. Like in 1990, I created a group of masqueraders called “La Paix”—the peace,” he said.

But just as important, he has been able to demonstrate that one can make a living from it. “I have spent a long time teaching my trade to young adults and children. As a result of these skills, many of them are now able to provide for their families. This is the reason I founded CFAJ (Centre de Formation Artistique de Jacmel) — to keep the ripple effects of mentorship and teaching reaching into the future,” he said.

Outside of Haiti, Civil’s work is well known. He also does acrylic paint on canvas but his papier-mâché pieces are what attract people to his work. In 2010, he was featured at Brown University’s John Hay Library. The following year, he was the Anne Reeves Artist-in-Residence at the Paul Robeson Centre of Princeton University. Civil’s award winning work has been featured at international festivals, curated at major US arts centres. His work was once selected to lead a Halloween parade in Manhattan. Come September, during the Labour Day celebrations, the Haitian community in New York will honour him for his work in their home country.

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