We are back from Matenwa with our eyes and hearts filled with the magic of Haiti

art-matenwa-i-am-haiti-artist-1Since our return from Haiti this summer I’ve gotten many concerned questions about whether we got the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus that’s infected so many thousands of people in Haiti.

Thanks to the intrepid Arielle Berrick we were so swathed in Deet products that the mosquitos sent out an S.O.S whenever we breezed by. Thus we remained virus-free. Which almost didn’t seem fair.

Nearly all of the artists, nearly all of Matenwa, had gone through it. People would laugh a rueful JUST- you-WAIT laugh when we said we’d ducked it so far.

The artists were still lethargic and feverish, with ongoing arthritis-like pain in their joints, so we didn’t press them hard, but still we managed to make some fun prototypes of new products in the short time we had.

Often Arielle and I complain to each other that, while in Haiti, we are so caught up in “business mode” we rarely have time to enjoy the culture that drew us to begin with. So one of the best things that happened this trip was returning to the “Iron Market” in Port-au-Prince.

A famous landmark designed over a century ago in Victorian France, the Iron Market (“Mache de Fe” in Kreyòl) is a major indoor center of commerce where vendors sell everything from food products to sorcery products.


It’s a huge, ornate presence in downtown Port-au-Prince, walled outside with wrought-iron openwork, inside with a maze of serpentine tunnels of makeshift booths.

The shadowy rafters of the original market (which burned down, to our shock, a few years ago) were black with a century of thickening soot. Its hidden world of rats, cockroaches, and pickpockets only made it even more attractive to the likes of us. We explored the market so often the ubiquitous market “guides”- skinny men who befriended you as you came through the doors - already knew our names when we walked in, and what we were looking for.

After a few years the market was resurrected but the new booths were too sanitized, too white, too frighteningly airy.

Waiting for non-existent tourists, its meager scattering of new vendors had little to offer but cheap paintings and Chinese-made trinkets.

But things change - or revert - quickly in Port au Prince. This time to our delight the Iron Market offered Arielle and I that aspect of Haiti in which we’d longed to immerse ourselves again.

We had returned once more to the Mache de Fe, this time with a purpose.

Having had enough of lugging heavy fabrics from the U.S. to Matènwa we invited two group managers, Josyan and Kalin, to come to the city with us to search out materials in-country.

art-matenwa-haiti-artist-2To my relief I saw the market was once more blackening. Commerce teemed inside and out.

The only change was a gated parking area for the SUVs of the wealthy protected by glowering, I.D-checking guards heavy with assault weapons.

In a Fellini-like scenario, the new black and red painted market was now flanked by the remains of buildings caved-in by the 2010 earthquake.

Massive cement roofs tipped at frightening angles from sky to ground as if toppled by Samson. Blithe merchants nestled their wares between the knocked out walls and looming columns as if it had always been this way, using the shade to protect their stuff from the rain and sun.

The Market has always been skirted by a burgeoning over-spill of vendors squatting in the sun. It was through this labyrinth outside the gate that we had to steer now, searching for the area where bolt fabrics were sold.

Led by Kalin, we seemed to fall down a fabulous, twisting rabbit hole from which we could never, on our own, return.

We followed each other between vendors through pathways as wide as a shoe. Crouching between great, gray mounds of indistinguishable rotting sludge, incongruously clean market women offered incongruously neat stacks of balancing mangoes or toothpaste tubes, plastic utensils or chickens’ feet. They hawked big trash bags filled with cornflakes, hand-lathed mortar and pestles, reams of baby barrettes and lengths of false hair.

Only the charcoal vendors stood out. In most Haitian open markets they always sit in a line of their own, always clothed in signature black with wide-brimmed black hats. In the black shade of a black-stained container truck they stretched their coal-blackened arms over black baskets of black charcoal probably made from the slain trees of Matènwa.

We walked on. Castles of cheap shampoo and illegal DVDs loomed next to an arrangement of pig snouts. Vodou bottles full of herbs and moonshine, cell phones from China and hair straightener vied for our attention. A serpentine stream of opaque gray water wound itself through the marketplace - The city’s foul “Blood,” I used to call it. If you didn’t watch your step your shoes could fill with its frightening mystery.

IMG_0045We tunneled through it all. Then, suddenly, we emerged in the cool cave of the fabric vendors insulated within their towers of bolts, buffered from the madness, and waiting for people like us. We wandered from seller to seller in a fabric trance, accepting small samples clipped from one bolt and another. We found exactly what we were looking for and didn’t buy then because the same meter would be 10 dollars for me, 2 dollars for a Haitian. 

But we achieved our goal: now both Kalin and Josyan know what we need and where to find it.

Finding our materials as much as possible in Haiti is an important next step toward streamlining the artists’ business as we move into our future. Sometimes it takes us a long time to think outside the box, but we’re always trying to. So stay tuned.

Thank you for your support, Ellen Raquel LeBow