“The little ones are Haiti’s best ambassadors,” said Johnnetta Betsch Cole, glancing up at a wall covered with watercolor paintings and Crayola crayon drawings by 3- to 11-year-old Haitian artists.
In the basement of the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center, Cole, the director of the National Museum of African Art, examined the pictures alongside Elisabeth Préval, Haiti’s first lady. One depicted an aerial view of a street, the triangle rooftops of several houses knocked sideways and stick figures lying on the roads. Another showed a child with his head and arm detached on the ground.
The two women collaborated to feature the 100-piece exhibit, “The Healing Power of Art: Works of Art by Haitian Children After the Earthquake,” hoping to “keep the focus on Haiti” and “draw attention to the trauma of the children,” Préval said.
“We need to remember the world-shattering event and scope of the destruction,” Préval said, recalling the Jan. 12 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left more than 1.8 million homeless.
She said the numbers don’t begin to describe the reality, especially the effect on children. Along with the children who were crushed under building rubble in the 35-second quake, 90 percent of the nation’s school infrastructure was destroyed, according to the U.N. mission in Haiti, leaving many with little or no way to cope.
A week after the quake, while visiting a hospital buzzing with patients, Préval met a 13-year-old boy who’d lost a leg and sat waiting in the long line to see a doctor. “As I looked at him, he said to me, I would like to go back to school,'” she said.
The children’s art is one result of his plea.
Taking his desire for education to heart, Préval founded Plas Timoun, “The Children’s Place,” in January. Pulling together psychiatrists and educators, “the center provides psychiatric assistance to children subjected to that horrific scene,” Préval said. It “supports them … allows them to express themselves and get out of the box that has captured their minds.”
The effort began as two green converted buses, substitutes for the destroyed schools, parked in random spaces in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Now the center has 15 buses filled with arts and crafts, games and books. Five thousand children attend, and an additional 10 buses will soon be added, Préval said.
Along with sports, musical theater and reading, the center uses art as one form of personal reconciliation — the results of which sit in the Ripley Center.
Some pictures show the children’s ordeals through depictions such as a black sun or people with sad faces. “These works of art … speak for themselves,” she said. “These are children that have seen houses collapse on their friends. …. They create what they see in their mind.”
But not all the pieces on display are gloomy. Many paintings have colorful flowers, a rare few show smiling faces. Préval said there’s been a change in the children’s art over time. “They’d started painting gloomy colors, browns and grays,” she said. “We gradually saw more light … yellows and blues.”
She calls that “hope” and believes the change in the mood of the pictures is proof of Plas Timoun’s success in “getting them out of darkness.” But there’s still much work to be done, she said. After all, 40 percent of Haiti’s population is children under 14.
“I worry that with time, the world’s attention will fade out,” the first lady said. “My dream and hope is to make sure that the world doesn’t forget Haiti. These children are our future. … We must protect them.”
“The Healing Power of Art” is open until Oct. 17.