This month, acrylic paintings, direct from the markets of Haiti, line the walls of La Tasca, 943 Mass. The everyday images of people working the land with animals and of nature enveloping communities may seem foreign to many city-dwelling Americans.
Yet, the Haitian artists create an optimistic and romantic snapshot of their culture that's familiar to anyone who has visited a Caribbean community.
"In a country where they lack material objects, they have something far more rewarding, and it is reflected in their smiles," said Katie Griggs, a Kansas University senior who has brought the art to Kansas from her travels.
"But their history is grim and the present is grim," Griggs said of the 8 million denizens living in the destitute conditions on the small island.
Griggs, who has traveled to Haiti seven times, said that with the country's disarray of political leaders and precipitous population booms, "General order does not really exist in Haiti."
In coordination with the Haitian Episcopal Learning Project or HELP, a nonprofit organization of 12 Kansas City parishes that provide ongoing aid to Haiti through a partnership with 12 Haitian parishes, Griggs is selling the art this month at La Tasca.
Purchased from markets in the three villages of Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, and Les Caye, the styles of the artists range from bold abstract to realism. Prices vary from $45 to $80. All proceeds go directly to the Haitian people. HELP has been selling art at various Kansas events, mostly in Topeka, to raise money, but this is the first time it has sold work in Lawrence.
Griggs and her father organize an average of two groups of seven to 13 people twice a year to work on specific projects in health, education and agriculture in the villages of southern Haiti.
"Instead of dumping American products, we help them make use of what they already have," Griggs said, noting that the group adopted such an approach so the country would become self-sustainable and less dependent on foreign aid.
The biggest problem is "too many people and no good land," she said. Haiti must import products because its quality land has been zapped by deforestation and insufficient crop rotation.
Thirteen people, including four KU students, went on HELP's trip in December. Volunteers built 65 school benches and eight teachers' desks for a school.
"We take table saws and hand drills and teach other people how to use them so they can continue to use the tools after we leave," Griggs said.
Griggs first decided to visit Haiti, a country that's only an hour and a half away by plane from Miami, her senior year.
"On my first trip, I was in tears the entire time," she said. "I was crying for the situation of the people and for being so selfish."
'The human family'
Griggs said proceeds from the art sales directly benefit the Haitian people.
"Instead of the money going to some large being, the money in HELP goes from A to B," she said. "There is more of an accountability of the money and where it goes."
Kiran Jayaram, KU graduate student and instructor of the Haitian language department, said if people had a specific interest in Haiti, there were many ways to help other than through missionary work.
Due to colonization by the Spanish and then the French, Catholicism is the dominant religion in Haiti, representing 60 to 80 percent of the population. Voodoo is also an important spiritual component of Haitian beliefs. Because traditional Catholicism and voodoo are based around ancestral and nature worship, the two have been able to coexist.
However, Jayaram said, "In order to convert in a confession of faith (to evangelical Christianity), you have to renounce all voodoo," which he says has caused many families who are divided in their beliefs to split up.
Jayaram said the best way to help independently is to find someone familiar with Haiti and "go through an established connection, which doesn't necessarily mean an organization or missionary track."
|What: Haitian artwork at La Tasca.When: Through March.Where: La Tasca, 943 Mass.Prices: $45-$80.|
Katie understands people might be wary. She volunteers through the church as her source of mobilization. "I'm not religious, so I try to keep the focus off the religious aspect," she said.
Her travels have given her an international perspective.
"Every time I go back, I touch base with what humanity is," she said. "We are all part of the human family, and we have to look out for each other."
-- Monica White is a Kansas University journalism student.