I have been thinking about posting something for a while on the new line of Haitian products at Macy’s. This past summer’s visit by Martha Stewart and Donna Karan among others caused quite a stir on other online discussion forums such as the Corbett List. By now most of you have probably heard of the Heart of Haiti Home Décor line, which went on sale last winter. 35% of the proceeds from these handcrafted products go directly back to the Haitian artists who make them. The collection boasts some of the mainstays of Haitian art—decorative bowls, wrought iron artwork, sculptures and jewelry. The effort is a collaboration with Fairwinds trading and the Clinton Global Foundation and BrandAid which has a long history of working with Haitian artists in Haiti, and is being billed as a partnered initiative to find innovative business solutions that will help boost the post-earthquake economy. The artists come from three main locations: a women’s cooperative in Cité Soleil, a group of metal artists from Croix-des-Bouquets and a third artists collective specializing in papier maché in Jacmel. Donna Karan’s work is done through her Urban Zen Foundation, which offers jobs to artists and then sells the products abroad. Karan famously appeared on CNN alongside President Martelly, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Paul Farmer to discuss the benefits of marrying philanthropy and commerce in Haiti.
Thinking about the emergence of the Heart for Haiti and Urban Zen lines brings together a number of different issues related to globalization, philanthropy, and cultural consumption in Haiti today. In fact the selling of this home décor is actual a classic example of cross-cultural consumption, which is basically defined as the production of a product in one culture followed by its consumption in another culture.
Of course the interest of foreigners in Haitian art is neither new nor surprising. When André Breton travelled to Haiti in the 1940s he gave a series of lectures and lauded the “enthusiasm for liberty of the Haitian people.” Of course there is a long history of Haitian art being consumed by foreigners for other purposes. In fact even the university where I teach, has a modest Haitian art collection of paintings that were given to the former alum, a physician who spent time in Haiti while working as a volunteer for Catholic Charities from 1964-1975.’
While I am all for l’art pour l’art I do find it interesting to note that most of this art is stripped down of any subversive or political content. While I would not go so far as to say that this is merely “tourist art” made for mass consumption and emptied of meaning, I wonder if images like vaudou flags, comments about globalization and neo-imperialism or the government critiques that can be visible in different forms of art will ever be featured in this collection?
It is also important to note in terms of the background that this is not the first time that Macy’s has taken on such a project. In the mid-1990s they also launched a “Path to Peace” line of baskets made by survivors of the Rwandan Genocide. This collaboration is still going on today and has had measurable outcomes linked to sustainability for women. As a model for sustainability, the potential impact of the line is clear: putting money in people’s pockets positively benefits their surrounding communities. But since here at Tande we are concerned with culture, the question for us is, what does this new medium of cross-cultural consumption in a globalized, “post-earthquake” (I use quotes here b/c I think the extent of this post should be called into question) Haiti mean for the development of Haitian art? Does who the art is made for and how it is consumed impact how we view, interpret and appreciate it?