Art revives Haitian women's lives, businesses

Nayame Simeon-Kebe, left, 9, and friend Benaelle Boente, 8, model hats, that Yverose Moise, Nayame's mother, made at Afrikarib, a show that showcases handicrafts and fashion made by Haitian women, at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

When the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake rocked Haiti, the women employed by designer Phelicia Dell were hard at work on their sewing machines. The workshop and machines were destroyed. Worse yet, a chic Petionville showroom that Dell had inaugurated just two months before was also lost in the quake.

But four months later, Dell's company, VeVe Collections, was back in business. On trips to Miami, she would scour thrift shops looking for materials and small sewing machines that she would take back to Haiti one by one.

"I had to restart. I needed to give my workers hope," said Dell, who produces a line of clothing, jewelry and intricately beaded bags in jute. She was among dozens of Haitian artisans and designers who displayed their creations last weekend at the "Women in Production" trade fair and marketplace at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

"We want to exhibit the beautiful side of Haiti; we want people to see that side of Haiti," said Pierre Saliba, chairman of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce of Florida.

Beyond sharing the beauty of Haiti's rich arts and crafts tradition, the event had a very practical goal: spurring trade and economic development in Haiti and reviving the country's shattered textile and creative industries.

"This is about creating jobs and helping women to design and produce for the U.S. market," Saliba said. "If we can produce, we will have a different country."

The chamber organized the event along with Femmes en Democratie (Women in Democracy), a Haitian nonprofit dedicated to improving economic opportunities for women, increasing their political participation and protecting their rights.

"The most important thing at this fair is that these women sell, sell, sell," said Danielle Saint-Lot, president of Femmes en Democratie. "Most need to recapitalize their enterprises, and this is their first opportunity to really get out and sell. They're ready to be back in business."

"Women in Production" had been held in Haiti every November from 2004 until 2009. The last year there were 84 exhibitors and 8,000 people attended the event. But with the country in ruins, there was no 2010 fair. The fair is being revived in Miami Beach with 50 designers, artists and artisan associations and cooperatives represented. Saint-Lot said the fair will resume in Haiti in November and in the future there will be two fairs every year — one in Haiti and the other abroad.

After the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, many artisans' families were scattered and their distribution networks were in shambles. But within weeks of the quake, they were once again creating — using the bounty of Haiti's earth and plants, coaxing tobacco and palm leaves, bull horn, bone and wood into works of art. They twisted old steel drums into metal sculptures, fashioned dresses from scraps of fabric in the traditional kole pyese (patchwork) style and recycled paper and cardboard into folk art.

Yverose Moise, who lives in La Plaine — a community north of Port-au-Prince — said the women she employs in the countryside to make wide-brimmed straw hats, market bags and patchwork clothes weren't really affected by the quake and kept producing. The problem was, she said, there were no customers. But she decided to forge ahead, and last May she staged an exhibition of her Afrikarib products in Petionville.

"Art in Haiti is our way of living, of feeling alive," she said. Moise, a sociologist, said even before the quake she was dismayed that nearly all the clothing Haitians were wearing was imported. Now, she said, there's an opportunity to organize people "to revive the tradition of making things."

Women in Production brought together "the best of the best" from Haiti and also from the Haitian diaspora, Saliba said. Among the local exhibitors was Carline Phanor, of Cutler Bay, who will be selling her Men Paw hot sauce.

"It's a gourmet hot sauce because of the flavor and the exotic peppers I use. They're all grown by my mother in Homestead," she said.

Besides fashion, those attending the fair found products ranging from appliqued tablecloths, herbal and spa products made from avocado, sweet almond and hibiscus; brilliantly sequined handbags, jewelry, hammered metal, wooden bowls created from the fast-growing gommier tree and a wide variety of decorative items.

Helping Haiti rebuild by jump-starting its artistic traditions has been a goal of a number of U.S. companies since the earthquake. Macy's, in partnership with Fairwinds Trading and the Brandaid Project, for example, began a Heart of Haiti program just before the last holiday season, buying thousands of Haitian home decor items, from fanciful papier mache animals to metal bowls, and selling them in selected stores and online.

DHL, the global logistics company that was one of the event's sponsors, consolidated and transported all the women's products to Miami Beach free of charge.

"This is a great idea because it opens a new market for these small entrepreneurs," said Jean-Paul Faubert, DHL Express country manager in Haiti. "We believe the development of Haiti will come through increasing trade — and promoting that trade will be our way to help Haiti in the rebuilding process."

Leanna Archer, 15, holds her original product, a hair cream, made of oils and spices from Haiti, created by her great-grandmother.
Leanna Archer, 15, holds her original product, a hair cream, made of oils and spices from Haiti, created by her great-grandmother.
Phelicia Dell, a designer of VeVe Collections, in Petion Ville, Haiti, holds up one of her original designs at the recent Women in Production show in Miami Beach, Fla.
Phelicia Dell, a designer of VeVe Collections, in Petion Ville, Haiti, holds up one of her original designs at the recent Women in Production show in Miami Beach, Fla.

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