Frankétienne, a voice from under the ruins
In Port-au-Prince, everyone recognizes the old philosopher of the Caribbean. With his impressive white beard and eyes that sparkle with humour, Frankétienne (real name Franck Etienne) is a familiar figure on the island. Born in the central Artibonite region in 1936, he is considered one of the greatest living Haitian artists. Frankétienne is a painter, novelist, poet and playwright, the author of 30 works in French and Creole. In the last 50 years, he has produced a multifaceted and baroque body of work that revisits the many myths that shape the Haitian soul.
As a part of its effort to support Haitian artists after the 12 January earthquake, UNESCO is inviting Frankétienne to Paris for the Forum “Rebuilding the social, cultural and intellectual fabric of Haiti”, taking place at UNESCO on 24 March. His latest play, Melovivi or Le Piège, which he wrote in November 2009, will be performed for the first time. Described by some as a “prophetic vision”, the play concerns two survivors of a terrible disaster who are trapped in a space under the ruins.
On 24 March, Frankétienne will be designated as a UNESCO Artist for Peace.
Interview conducted in Port-au-Prince by Mehdi Benchelah, UNESCO Bureau of Public Information.
Where you did you get the idea for this play, which seems to be based on a premonition of the 12 January earthquake?
In November 2009, a voice both mysterious and familiar woke me in the middle of the night and asked me to write a new play, a play about ecology, because the earth is threatened.
This is not the first time I have had this kind of clairvoyance. Quite a few poets experience this prophetic dimension. I was born and grew up in a mystical voodoo atmosphere, which profoundly influenced me. Although I do not practice voodoo myself, I recognize its importance in the way Haitian culture works, because voodoo really forms the matrix of our culture.
The earth has been weakened by human exploitation. Modern civilisation seems more interested in having than being. This wreaks all kinds of havoc, such as greenhouse gas emissions that weaken the ozone layer and make it thinner and more fragile. This is also causing the insidious gradual desertification of the island of Haiti.
So I started to write out of the anguish born of these painful and tragic observations. As the days went by, the play took on a poetic atmosphere that greatly pleased me, because fundamentally, poetry is what drives me. Poetic transcendence allows me to express with metaphors what I call the aesthetics of chaos, decay and the unexpected. Life is such that most phenomena are not in the realm of the visible; they are impalpable and intangible. I know what I say will disturb certain rational spirits. Too bad for them! Because dry rationalism misses out on life. It claims that one plus one equals two, whereas one plus one equals infinity.
The first performance of your play was scheduled for 29 January in Port-au-Prince and cancelled because of the earthquake. The world première will finally take place at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Do you think that your play will be performed in Haiti one day?
I want it to be, but I know that today the atmosphere is not right for a form of expression like this, which comes so close to people’s pain. I do not know if it will be possible in eight months or a year, when the wound might be relatively healed. I say relatively, because what happened is unforgettable.
This is not the first time that the earth has shaken in this way, it is common, I would say normal. The earth is still shaking, in California, Chile and Japan. But what is not normal is that this earthquake caused nearly 230,000 deaths due to human error. Space has never been properly managed in Haiti. People build haphazardly, they do what they want.
In the more or less distant future, perhaps in a year, the day will come when it will be possible to perform this play in Haiti. I am expecting screams and tears in the audience. But art also serves as catharsis.
Do you really believe that culture will set Haiti free from its suffering, and especially from the trauma of 12 January?
This has always been my wish and my belief. The true wealth of Haiti is its permanent creativity. Yet conditions for artists are appalling. Various authorities do not take care of them at all, though this creativity is the only wealth of Haitian identity.
Our painters, craftspeople, musicians and dancers are our wealth, a wealth that is sacrosanct, as it exists in the imagination, in this cathedral of the human skull.
But this does not only concern Haiti. Humanity as a whole will only reach its salvation through culture and spirituality in its global meaning, that is to say civic, intellectual and artistic education.
How would you define the Haitian soul, which you constantly speak of in your multifaceted work?
It is this primal sensitivity to a spirituality that is nourished by voodoo, whatever some Christians may think. There is a voodoo sensitivity even in those who do not practise it. There is a typically Haitian way of speaking, of eating, of making love and of communicating with others which is nourished by voodoo. This belongs to our collective unconscious. This Haitian unconscious changes over time, but keeps its profound essence. And the nature of this profound essence is fundamentally spiritual.
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