Jacmel was founded in 1698 as the capital of the south eastern part of the French colony Saint-Dominique. The area was Taino territory ruled by cacique Bohechio. With the arrival of the French, and the later establishment of the town, the French renamed Yaquimel as Jacmel. The town has not changed much since the late 19th century when it was inhabited by wealthy coffee merchants, who lived in gracious mansions that adorned it. These mansions would later come to influence the home structure of much of New Orleans. The town’s architecture boasted cast-iron pillars and balconies purchased in France.
We spent only 24 hours in Jacmel, but during that time we saw some amazing local art — papier-mache, steel drum art, wood carving, painting, Vodou sequin flags — and early 19th c. architecture that, although faded, is still beautiful. Jacmel (pop. 40,000) is considered to be one of the safest, friendliest, and most easy-going cities in Haiti. It’s an arts and culture hub with its own annual film festival (est. 2007), a vibrant music community, a renowned Carnival (distinguished by its papier-mache masks), and over 200 resident artists. It sustained considerable damage in the 2010 quake but repairs are in progress. Here is a photo tour of our visit:
An artist at a different location (above Blaise’s shop) painted a zebra. A smooth surface is achieved by using something similar to white gesso (primer) and sanding before painting. Blaise is the lead papier-mache artist for Carnival.
The art of papier-mache was originally brought to Haiti in the mid-1800s by the French to make home decor items, and was later used to make masks. According to the artists we talked to, a Haitian artist later went to Germany to study their method of papier-mache and brought back the new skills to Haiti. It has only recently been created for the tourist market. The man above (unfortunately didn’t get his name) is one of the last of the first generation of artists to start making papier-mache for sale (as opposed to personal use).
After visiting artists, we checked into the Hotel de la Place ($80/night/single) and walked around the central market area. I cannot really recommend Hotel de la Place because the accommodations did not include what we paid for (i.e., air conditioning) and the staff were indifferent (at best) about our presence.
Just beyond these boys playing soccer was a row of outdoor cooking huts with tables and chairs set up under tarps and grass tiki huts. Cameron had a delicious fish ($5). I declined fish based on the presence of heads and tails and stuck with my new favorite Haitian food, fried potatoes and plantains.
The next morning, we encountered Berlotte the Tarot Reader-Painter. What’s a visit to Jacmel without a $10 reading by Berlotte?
We left Jacmel around noon after buying some gorgeous art to take home, including papier-mache roosters, a hen, and a sequined Vodou flag. This was the stoic moto-taxi driver who took me back to the van-bus stop.
Riding a moto-taxi in Jacmel is a little frightening, but the good thing is, there aren’t many cars to run you over. I attempted to communicate my safety needs to the driver along the way, combining, in my anxiety, all of the foreign languages I know (Spanish, sort of) with the little bit of French and Creole I’d picked up, “Merci que mwen continuar de vive,” Thank you that I continue to live.
Tomorrow: All Souls Day in Haiti