Who hasn’t seen the market women of Haitian paintings? In Petionville with anthropologist Talitha Stam, I saw hundreds of them stacked on the sidewalks to attract passing tourists, a fraction of the country’s painterly inventory that overflows in international galleries and online stores.
The inspiration for the paintings was apparent within minutes of my arrival. Haiti is a country of markets. With few roads and little access to credit, rural farmers rely on women to gather the harvest and bring it to urban areas. While the number of women engaged in this work isn’t known, it’s estimated to be in the millions. Collectively over the generations, Haitian women have developed finely tuned systems of credit, distribution and market pricing; and while those systems might appear primitive compared with our big banks and highways, they absolutely work.
Haiti has been likened to Africa more than any Caribbean country, and its madam saras and marchandes are part of the connection. Other Caribbean nations lost their women sellers as they developed, so Haiti is the last (wo)man standing. Marie Yanick Mezile, Haiti’s minister of women’s affairs, assured Talitha and me that there will always be madam saras; but I found myself wondering if they will eventually be cut out of the market cycle as development progresses.
In the end, I didn’t buy any sidewalk paintings to represent Haiti’s market women. A Port-au-Prince-born painter, Wilfrid Daleus, invited me to his gallery on 125th St. in Miami’s Little Haiti and allowed me to use images of his market works.
Daleus is a long way from the subjects he still paints, and not just geographically. He came to the U.S. decades ago, a famous painter in his country whose work sold copiously and commanded thousands. He enjoyed the best of wealth and society that Port-au-Prince had to offer. But the audience for his work outside Haiti is paltry. “I’m a poor man now,” he says.
As I photographed the market paintings in his gallery, I asked him if he remembered what was going through his mind as he painted them. He pulled out a small cubist-inspired canvas of a woman grimacing under the weight of a bundle on her head. Talitha and I had seen the same grimace on a thin young woman selling scallions on the Seguin route.
Covering his heart with his hand, Daleus said, “When I saw the pain in her face, I ached for her.”