too bad if the forest wilts into pereskia stalks
too bad if the advance is that of tambocha ants
too bad if the flag is hoisted only on a withered pole
if the water thickens into poisonous latex
protect the word
render appearance fragile
capture in scenery the secret of roots
the resistance resurrects
around a few ghosts more real than they appear
– Aimé Césaire, 1982
Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Professor of Caribbean culture and literature in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Vassar College and an active force within the college’s program of Environmental Studies, invited Anna Wexler and me to bring the fourth iteration of our collaboration to her class, Creole Religions of the Caribbean. Vessel for Haiti IV (2014) engaged her students in creative actions inspired by the artistry of Haitian Vodou and directed toward heightened awareness of the roots of environmental crisis in Haiti and the acute need for compassionate response. Equipped with glue guns and an array of supplies – light-refractive mirrors, sequins, ribbons, trim, materials evoking plant life and the natural world, a variety of Haitian herbs used to heal trauma-induced illness and injury, printed names of Haitians that perished in the earthquake, and a poem by Aimé Césaire, incongruous builders – students focused on turning small glass bottles into crucibles for healing transformation.
Our engagement at Vassar was also an occasion to honor the late Clotaire Bazile, a Haitian Vodou priest and ritual flagmaker. An original flag designed by Clotaire for the Vodou lwa Damballah Ouedo, its surface elaborately hand-worked with sequins and beads, was made available for students to add leaves around its borders using the traditional bead-to-sequin sewing technique, extending the flag’s life-affirming brilliance. With embellished bottles and Clotaire’s flag in tow, we processed outside to a grove of trees by a small stream, where the flag was wrapped around a tree trunk and the base of the tree prepared to receive offerings of bottles. One by one, students shared their intentions and thoughts made manifest in their creations, touching upon themes of life, loss, renewal, memory, and the earth. Our second day at Vassar included a discussion about multiple dimensions of Clotaire’s artistry – the basis for Anna’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard University and other publications – and the inspiration for her interdisciplinary art practice.
Vessel for Haiti IV (2014) at Vassar College | Photos by Prof. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Gordon Gebert, Catherine Tutter