Under the Hammer

In a Haitian village, metalworkers bring shape and meaning out of mangled loss

By / August 2016

A steady rapping of metal punctures the dense heat. Chink-chink. Chink-chink. My ears trace the noise to a dusty courtyard behind a single-story concrete structure. Chink-chink. Before me, sunlight baptizes the low-hanging and waxy leaves of an ackee tree, the fruit of which resembles red bell peppers. Beneath, a man crouches on the ground, hammer and chisel in hand.

The ancestors of them both—the man and his shade tree—were uprooted centuries ago from West Africa to be brought here. To Haiti, the mountainous island nation discovered by Columbus and named the Pearl of the Antilles for its striking beauty and lush vegetation, a land subsequently stripped by the French to create lucrative sugar cane and coffee plantations, a business that made this one of the wealthiest of all European colonies by the end of 18th century.

I have come to the Village Artistique de Noailles, itself once a sugar plantation and now part of Croix-des-Bouquets, an eastern suburb of the Haitian capital buzzing with motors and colorful tap-taps. Today around 70 artisans work in the village re-purposing oil barrels and turning them into fer decoupe, Haitian metal sculpture.

The process begins with cutting open the barrels and burning away impurities. The metal is flattened, and a stencil used to trace the design. A craftsman cuts out the pattern with rapid strikes on a sharp chisel. Something like an awl is used to accentuate the figure with points. A hammer then adds a textured third dimension to the surface. Finishing touches come through sanding and varnish, resulting in a piece of décor simultaneously ornate and bucolic. A Haitian version of shabby-chic.

Serge Jolimeau is a celebrated contemporary artist in this metalwork movement. Walking through the gallery, it is easy to see the mishmash that is Haiti’s cultural history. On the back patio, a wide copper gate waits to be cut, the outline of Adam and Eve drawn onto its surface. Throughout the gallery, similar images of biblical origin hang alongside explicitly pagan symbols. I even spy veve, a pattern used to summon the spirits in Vodou worship.

These spirits, known as loa, are commonly depicted in fer decoupe. Perhaps the most prolific figure is that of a mermaid. There are also images of the sun, moon, birds and trees, some of which are strikingly intricate. On the exterior wall of the atelier courtyard, and in the shadow of a nearby Mormon steeple, I see serpents and Santa Claus, crosses and winged creatures with long, interwoven hair.

When Columbus and the Spaniards set foot on this island they wiped out the indigenous peoples. West Africans were then transplanted via slave ships to replace the population and provide field laborers. They brought with them African tribal religion, but Europeans required conversion to Catholicism. The result was a cross-breeding of worship and practice that is modern Haitian Vodou.

In 1803, African Haitians won their independence from France through armed rebellion, emerging as the first black republic in the world. However, France immediately imposed taxes as reparation for the loss of land and slaves. In what must be one of history’s strangest ironies, the slaves of Haiti had to pay ransom for a freedom they won. Their bill was 90 million francs, and payment was made primarily through the clearcutting and export of Haiti’s remaining forests, including virgin mahogany.

Today, from an airplane or Google Earth you can make out the border of Haiti with the Dominican Republic simply by the tree line. Perhaps the most surprising reality of Haiti’s geography is that some of its valleys have become barren desert. Green mountains reveal white erosion scars. Flash flooding has emerged as one of Haiti’s greatest dangers. Only 1.2 percent of the country is shaded by trees.

This knowledge makes the ackee tree that I’m standing under a precious commodity, especially given the 90-degree heat. Along with the extreme national poverty, it also reveals why Haitian craftsmanship is at times limited to recycled metal.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this humble art form has become a symbol of national pride. Metalwork such as this is certainly peddled to tourists. But craftsman are also targeting local buyers. Throughout Croix-des-Bouquets you can find wrought iron sculptures gracing lampposts, decorating restaurants, filling out banisters and used as window covers. I’m told that featuring the local craftsmanship on homes and businesses is a way to demonstrate a kind of patriotism, a representation of Haiti’s homegrown creativity and strength and endurance that stretches all the way back to Africa.

As such, I think fer decoupe is much more than a passing fad. Fads know nothing of tradition; they are born from luxury. These Haitian designs owe to necessity more than fashion. Haiti does not need to create the whimsy of distress. She lives it daily. This is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. But Haitians well know how to upcycle, how to transfigure what’s been broken.

Which is why I believe this trend has tapped into the collective consciousness of a nation. It reflects Haiti’s cultural and religious diversity as much as anything. Most of all, it is a metaphor of bringing shape and meaning out of a mangled loss. It’s a symbol of the life of this island nation where earthquakes, oppression, hurricanes, despots, and floods just keep hammering away.


Brian McKanna is an EthnoTraveler contributor.