Building something out of nothing

Building something out of nothing

David Specht

While much of Grand Valley State University’s student body was focused on the comedy show and other Homecoming-related happenings taking place this past week, a relatively small group was engaged in what was perhaps a more thought-provoking presentation that took place on Wednesday in the lower level of the Kirkhof Center.

On Oct. 8, Haitian ArtPrize contestants Romel Jean Pierre and Racine Polycarpe met with a few dozen students and faculty members on campus to share their experiences in both Grand Rapids as well as in their hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The visitors’ entries focused on repurposing materials that would typically be thrown out, such as worn out tires, scrap metal and wood.

“Everything they throw in the garbage, we can use it,” Pierre said. “When you turn that into something, it’s less garbage in the street, it’s less pollution in the air and it’s more art.”

The two artists are part of Atiz Rezistans – an artist collective based in Haiti that was founded by Polycarpe’s uncle around 20 years ago. While Polycarpe was raised around the group, it wasn’t until 2009 that Pierre began working with them. And though the two artists utilize different outlets – Pierre is a videographer while Polycarpe is a sculptor – both are heavily involved in Atiz Rezistans and appreciate what they’ve gained from working with the other members.

“I live by art. I pay my school. I give my money to help my mom, pay her house,” Polycarpe said. “I think that Atiz Rezistans is my university…art is my life.”

Of course, the pieces that Atiz Rezistans creates and sells are representative of more than just cleaning up the streets; they symbolize the rebuilding of a nation.

“As artists, I consider myself as an ambassador,” Pierre said. “My art is meant to represent my country. My art is meant to show people my culture. When there are political problems, people take tires and burn them in the street. We take those tires and make art.”

Beyond Haiti’s political turmoil, the nation has faced much more immediate issues in the recent past, such as the 2010 earthquake which left hundreds of thousands dead and even more without a home. Both artists were in their home country the day of the earthquake – a crisis that they touched on during Wednesday’s presentation.

“I stepped outside and it was nothing but white,” Pierre said. “You think you are the only one who survived, but then it’s like a choir of voices screaming for help. ‘Help me! Help me!’ You see children with legs off. You hear people near you saying to help them, but you can’t.

“You are paralyzed with fear. You see people who you can’t help and they die, and you feel guilty. When I was watching the movie ‘2012,’ it shows the world collapse; I can now imagine the feeling of that.”

Four years later, the poverty stricken country is still struggling to rebuild from the rubble. One aspect of life that the artists hope to improve in Haiti is education.

“Haitian people got a dream. We have a dream for education. For what you have here at your university,” Pierre said.

The artists’ visit to the university was made possible by a handful of groups on campus, one of which was the GVSU Students for Haiti, whose president, Cathie Jean, attended the presentation. The student group focuses on a great deal of issues involving the Caribbean nation, the most prevalent of which is education.

“Not only does Students for Haiti help fundraise money for the Empowering Haiti through Education Fund, we also enlighten people on the richness and beauty of Haiti,” Jean said. “We inform them on the culture and history of the country because every one has a stereotypical idea of what Haiti is like and many go down there as missionaries, but many also fail to understand the people, the language and the culture before they go down…”

Jean believes that the artists’ work – which received mixed reviews at ArtPrize due to both the medium as well as the overall message, which included the acceptance of death – is worth taking the time to understand.

“When things are complicated to comprehend, we do not want to deal with it,” she said. “We just say, ‘well that is interesting,’ and walk away. Most people choose not to interpret the meaning; they want the meaning interpreted to them. If people took the time to really listen to what the artist had to say, then they would give it more consideration.”

While the comments on Pierre and Polycarpe’s entries were varied, the artists felt that their visit to Grand Rapids was time well spent.

“Our experience with ArtPrize was very good,” Pierre said. “I realize that people in Michigan are very conservative about art. We do contemporary art. When people who visited said ‘Oh, that is scary,’ I’m not feeling frustrated, but I’m learning.

“It’s not scary: death is everywhere, like love and beauty. Take time to think about death and you will be free. And take time to love and you will be free.”

As far as next year’s ArtPrize goes, the two artists are already planning their return.

“(This year) we only brought a small sculpture,” Polycarpe said. “What we want to do next year is take your trash away and do something very big.”

According to Jean, the GVSU Students for Haiti group is also planning for the future. On Jan. 10, they plan on having a Haitian dance company come to campus to perform. For more information about the student group, contact
[email protected].