[Europe.justus] Haiti Mural news

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Thu Feb 17 08:10:18 GMT 2011

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Remaining murals leaving Haitian cathedral's walls
Conservators among those who hope to see them rise again

By Mary Frances Schjonberg, February 16, 2011
[Episcopal News Service] Work being done now to remove the three remaining murals from the earthquake-damaged walls of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is aimed at seeing those works of art return to the site one day.
But the work between now and that point is painstakingly complex. Rosa Lowinger and Viviana Dominguez, two art conservators working under the auspices of the of Smithsonian Institution and the Haitian Cultural Recovery Project, told Episcopal News Service by phone Feb. 15 that the work is what is known in their trade as "extreme conservation." Lowinger jokingly called it "the Hail Mary pass of conservation."

Lowinger, who specializes in sculpture and architecture conservation and has experience of removing mosaic and terrazzo murals from stone, said that while she and Dominguez often work on complicated conservation projects, the cathedral work is different because the artwork "is in such a fragile state of disrepair [because of the earthquake and located] in a country where it's so hard to get materials."

Current plans call for the present cathedral site to become a memorial with most of the walls that are still standing left in place, albeit with reinforcement. The conserved murals would be re-installed on their original walls. A new cathedral would be built adjacent to the memorial.

"It's going to have a power for those murals to go back on their original walls," Lowinger said, adding that planners are "going to have to figure out how to protect those murals because the original walls are presently outdoors and the paintings were designed to be indoors."

Dominguez, a paintings conservator with many years of experience working on murals, noted that conservators "say that we conserve the integrity of the piece and that means that one works on the material itself, but also one preserves the history of the piece. The earthquake is also part of the history of the piece itself, so the fact that it is going to go to the same site where it was makes sense."

The 14 murals paintings, completed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, portrayed biblical stories in Haitian motifs and were crafted by some of the best-known Haitian painters of the 20th century. It is said that they gave Haitians of all faiths a vision of their place in the stories of the Bible.

The three surviving murals are Philomé Obin's three-walled The Last Supper and Castera Bazile's The Baptism of Christ, both in what was the north transept, and, in the south transept, Préfète Duffaut's Nativity Procession (others have referred to this mural as depicting a Corpus Christi procession). Obin is considered to be the most important Haitian artist of all time, according to Lowinger.

While some have referred to the murals as folk art, Lowinger said that "to call it folk art somehow belittles" the artists' work because the work is "done in a vernacular style that is local in imagery. These are sophisticated renderings."

The three walls with Obin's murals were structurally unstable after the quake, large fissures are present across the murals and sections are vulnerable to collapse, according to a summary of the work of the cultural recovery project. While the Obin and Bazile murals are somewhat sheltered by the remains of the cathedral, the Duffaut mural was completely exposed after the roof above it collapsed.

Dominguez and Lowinger lead a team of young Haitian artists who in January began removing the murals from the cathedral's remaining unstable walls. They expect this part of the work will take three months. They began the project in July and predicted it will be eight to 10 months before the mural fragments are in a state where they can be stored until it is possible to display them again.

The Haitian artists working with the conservators range in age from 22 to 32. One is a student and two are professionals who are "very prolific artists," according to Dominguez.

They were chosen from among those who participated in introductory art conservation workshops held in Port-au-Prince, and Dominguez said they are working as artists respecting the work of their peers.

Training is part of their job on the site. "As artists, they are excited by process and they are very clearly engaged in what they're doing -- the new methodologies that they're learning, the tools," Lowinger said. "You can see the wheel turning as they work."

The Nativity Procession mural was been removed from its wall and work is underway to do the same with the other two murals, the conservators said.

"Usually we are against removing things from the original site unless the original site puts the piece in real danger, which is the case" at the cathedral because of its exposure to the elements, Dominguez said.

Holy Trinity was established in Port-au-Prince on Pentecost, May 25, 1863. Its church building has since been destroyed six times, often by fire and once by an earthquake in the 1920s. The current building was, as Lowinger characterized it, a "limestone rubble wall set in mortar with cinder-block corners," which is a typical, regional vernacular style of architecture from the Caribbean.

She said she’d seen older versions of this style from the 18th and 19th centuries in southern Cuba in which bricks were used to reinforce the corners because cinder blocks were not yet invented.

The cathedral is still operating on the site, albeit without walls, in what Episcopal Diocese of Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin calls the "open-air cathedral." A structure to shelter worshippers, once made of plastic tarping over lumber supports, now has a more solid roof. On weekdays, the cathedral ruins echo with the sounds of Holy Trinity Music School students taking classes under and around the shelter.

The work to preserve the surviving murals began soon after the quake when Haitian architect Patrick Vilaire led a group that built temporary wooden scaffolding to shore up the walls and roof of the transept area with the Obin and Bazile murals, and placed a plastic tarp over the Duffaut mural.

That work was followed with more substantial scaffolding in the transept containing the Obin and Bazile works, as well as platforms for conservators to use. Lowinger and Dominguez began their work in mid-July by visiting the site and developing a plan to stabilize the murals, clean their surfaces, remove, consolidate and repair them, according to the project summary.

Each mural was photographed so that conservators could see how the fragments fit together. They also are using full-size drawings and small ones with a grid system to aid in the murals' eventual reassembly.

Carpenters built wooden frames to hold the fragments, and filled them with cushioning foam. The murals' surfaces were dry cleaned and a liquid was applied to fix the egg tempura pigment to the surface, according to the summary.

A facing material similar to cheesecloth was applied to the murals to hold them together, and the fragments were removed with the artists working along existing cracks but sometimes having to cut the murals. Often the artists are using tools especially designed for the project. Because the mortar on which the mural was painted is very crumbly, the back of the fragments must be repaired before the facing can be removed. If the facing is not removed before the fragments are stored, mold will grow on the fragments, Lowinger explained.

The Duffaut mural was taken down first, they said, because it was the smallest of the three and "seemed to be the most easily removed," according to Lowinger.

The other two are much taller and might require the workers to modify their scaffolding in order to remove the fragments from the wall, Dominguez said.

On other sites, Lowinger said, conservators can "routinely stop what we're doing and go to the Home Depot" to buy material or equipment. "The thing about this one that makes it so difficult is that we have to 'pre-think' everything before we get there and bring everything with us on the plane," she said. "If we want to make a modification [on site in Port-au-Prince], we have to really get creative about how to make that modification because we're just not going to find what we need there."

In a country with so many needs even before the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, some have questioned the decision to spend so much money on art conservation.

On their first visit to the site, Lowinger said, she and Dominguez "asked that very same question" of Magdalena Carmelita Douby, one of the architects working on the project. "She was unequivocal about it. She said 'We have lost everything except our culture. We have to protect what is left.'"

Dominguez said "culture is the people's identity and they treasure that … museums and galleries and art institutions exist because people want to save their history and their culture."

The Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project is being conducted in partnership with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities with assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, the Hillman Foundation, the Haitian FOKAL foundation, UNESCO, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, and the Broadway League.

The project operates out of a 7,500-square-foot, three-story air-conditioned building that once housed the United Nations Development Programme in Bourdon in the hills above Port-au-Prince. It is a place where objects retrieved from the rubble can be assessed, conserved and stored.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


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