Monday, March 29, 2010

Aid for Haiti: The Martha Machado Artistic Brigade and the Roktowa Haitian 'Trembling Heart' Residency

HELP THY NEIGHBOR from ABOVE on Vimeo. The innovative artwork directly above is by street artist Above. For an interview with him click here.

This blog is inspired by a young artist friend who keeps coming to me with half-baked ideas for a pro-Haiti Jamaican art initiative. A few days after the Haiti earthquake I received the message below from him in the form of a chat. I reproduce our brief exchange below.

12:45pm Jamaican artist

i had an idea that some of our artists could also do a couple of mural sized banners as art pieces which would be placed strategically in the disaster zone. This would also help to boost morale among the Haitians and send a message of Jamaica's support for them

12:45pm Annie

banners portraying what?

12:46pm Jamaican artist

well as to the exact content I dont know yet, it could be something abstract, something that suggests hope, there could be text involved or a blend of ideas including sumbolism.

12:48pm Annie

i don't know, sounds like a lot of effort for very little gain. The Haitians don't need symbolism right now, they need serious help. and frankly they have far superior artists there so i don't know why this would be important to them.

Last night the same artist approached me with a new proposal. Why don't we start a giant canvas here and send it from place to place for artists to add to. At the end the resulting masterpiece could be auctioned and the funds sent to Haiti...

This time i could not even begin to voice my despair or skepticism, the cluelessness implicit in this vague proposal was so absolute. It's well meaning enough but how would artists be chosen? How would quality be controlled? Was there going to be a market for the product? Were there not better ways to connect with Haitians and help them? At times i find the disconnect between some visual artists here and the real world profoundly disturbing. Do such artists not follow the kinds of amazing initiatives others are undertaking on behalf of Haiti?

In neighbouring Cuba for instance the reaction has been quite different. The Cubans have sent a brigade of artists to Haiti led by the world-renowned Kcho (Kcho–pronounced KAHcho) or Alexis Leyva Machado, the Cuban sculptor who soared to international stardom in the nineties when one of his works won the Kwangju Biennale. Kcho famously made the image of boats-- fleets of them, leaving the island--his virtual trademark .

Now Kcho is the head of the Martha Machado Artistic Brigade whose primary aim is "to alleviate the psychological and emotional effects of natural disasters." The Brigade was started by the sculptor as a response to the ravages of Hurricane Gustav in Cuba. As Conner Gorry, a MEDICC blogger in Haiti noted:

Founded after a trio of hurricanes hit Cuba in 2008 causing $10 billion in damages, the Brigade features a rotating roster of painters, musicians, magicians, clowns, puppeteers, and circus performers.

Fifty of these Cuban artists are now in Haiti to help heal through laughter, dance, art, and play; many are veterans of the original Brigade that visited the Cuban provinces hardest hit by the 2008 hurricanes. One of those provinces was the special municipality of Isla de Juventud (Isle of Youth), from where Kcho hails. The Brigade is named after the artist’s mother who gave shelter to family, friends, and neighbors affected by the storms. (To read further click here.)
Cuban magicians elicit belly laughs at the Hospital de Renaissance

And as Prensa Latina news agency reported:

The Cuban artists arrived in Port au Prince last March 6 and on they arrival they didn’t ask about luxury hotels where to stay, only where to set up their tents, the very same they took to those sites in Cuba that had been hit by the hurricanes of 2008.

The Martha Machado Brigade, made up of renowned artists, was stationed at the side of a makeshift football field, to which they already added some lights, but only for the children in the area to play at night.

Its director, plastic artist Alexis Leyva (Kcho), is aware of the importance of his team in Haiti, despite some people thinking that the language could pose a barrier.

“We are here out of principle. And when you do something like this, if you will do more harm than good, you don’t come,” said Kcho, who has among its projects to incorporate Haitian artists to the presentations.

The renowned painter noted that the idea is to “bring over time many other artists, with the aim of giving continuity, multiply the work. Being here is like passing a school, a school for life, to grow, to become better artists, and more revolutionary.”

He also stressed they are all volunteers, without asking for any money, and that their aim is to bringing people together and add more to this kind of projects for the sake of the Haitian people.

The Cuban cultural delegation is made up of 71 people, including painter Ernesto Rancaño, jazz virtuoso Yasek Manzano, the group Tropazanco and popular comedians Omar Franco, Ivan Camejo, Carlos Gonzalvo (Mentepollo) and Telo.

Stories such as this you won't hear on CNN though i expect the BBC to pick up on it any day now.

Roktowa Haitian 'Trembling Heart' Residency Project

Meanwhile for those on the ground here who want to do something to help neighbouring Haiti, especially in terms of an art-related project, there's the Roktowa Haitian 'Trembling Heart' Residency planned for April when several of the Grand Rue sculptors from Haiti are due to arrive here for a two-month residency at Roktowa. Melinda Brown, Roktowa's creative director, has just returned from Haiti--in fact it was she who told me about Kcho and the Cuban art brigade--and is putting in place what's needed to host the visiting Haitian artists.

The University of the West Indies has kindly provided a house for the duration of the residency. Much needed now will be furniture, food, art supplies and cash to care for the artists most of whom have been left homeless.

The objective of the residency is to create "a visual and historic testimonial to the cataclysm and its aftermath in the form of a limited edition book."

"Bearing the mark of Sculpture--The Book--(edition of twenty) will invite artists to participate in a three week workshop to create installations, sculpture, prints from woodblocks, photography, poetry, prose and music the results will be edited into a Limited Edition (x20) Magazine (90cmx120cm approx."

It is envisaged that 'Trembling Heart' will initiate a series of exchanges with Haitian artists that will lay the foundation for ongoing collaboration between artists from the two countries.

To attend fundraisers, make a donation or volunteer your services please contact : or

On April 18 there will also be an Art Auction for Haiti organized by the National Gallery of Jamaica. More details on that later.