The tabletop-sized canvas spread across the floor of the Elegba Folklore Society on East Broad Street is a window to a place that ceased to exist a month ago.
The picture captures market day in a Haitian village: The vibrant, sun-licked oranges of women's dresses are cast in sharp relief against their sad, silhouetted faces, heads cast downward, features obscured in near-black shadow of a tropical island paradise.
The painting is one of more than a dozen original pieces of art that Elegba Folklore Society's director, Janine Bell, plans to sell this month as a fundraising effort for the island nation. Already suffering from desperate poverty and worldwide indifference, Haiti was devastated by a Jan. 12 earthquake that killed as many as 200,000 people.
Bell hopes the sale will provide Richmonders with a personal connection that doesn't necessarily come from collecting soup cans or watching a star-studded telethon.
“We want this opportunity to donate to inspire as well as to contribute something to people here in Richmond,” she says. “Whoever acquires this art, they will have a piece of the heart of the people of Haiti in their homes, [and] they will also know there will always be a connection.”
Haiti is a bit more than 700 miles from the continental United States — less than the distance from Richmond to Miami. But that distance is measured in light years to most Americans, who were oblivious to the poverty that ruled there almost since the country won its blood-soaked independence from France in 1804.
Bell says the distance is much closer. Toussaint l'Ouverture, a Haitian leader of the late 1790s, served as an inspiration to Gabriel Prosser, who led a failed Virginia slave revolt that planned an armed march on Richmond. Prosser was hanged here in 1800 at the city's old jail and negro burial ground on East Broad Street.
The artwork Bell plans to sell was acquired just weeks after the quake; she followed through on an already-planned trip to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. When Columbus first landed in the New World, it was upon that island.
“When I got there and I talked to people from Haiti. … and it was a flash,” Bell says: “Let's acquire some art.” She says buying art from struggling people “helped in that way, right away.”
Regarding price, Bell says the largest artwork likely will cost less than $200: “We want this opportunity to donate to inspire as well as to contribute.”