One of the artist-intellectuals significantly involved in what could be called the "pre-history" of the justly famous Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince has just passed away at the age of 85.
Albert Mangones, then a young man recently returned from his studies in Europe and the United States, was a quiet and unwavering voice urgently proposing a center where painters and sculptors
would have a gathering place and studio space. The diligent collaboration of the small group of Haitians, of which he was an active member, finally was able to attract funding from outside the country and subsequently from the government of Haiti. Mangones appears in many of the photographs of the founding era; from others present we know that his ideas were thoughtful and influential. When the fascinating works from what Jean Price-Mars and Jacques Roumaine had called "Aiti Toma" appeared, Mangones was an enthusiastic supporter. He remained so throughout all the contentions over the valuations of these artists and their works. He remained also a friend and supporter of the Centre d'Art to the end of his life. Researchers studying that institution found him to be knowledgeable in every detail, fair-minded, generous with his information and helpful in assisting with arrangements to confer with others associated with the visual arts in Haiti. He is probably best known for the statue of Neg Mawon, a work that is iconic for Haiti and has in recent years become a symbol for freedom and independence across the Caribbean.
As an architect, he brought advanced ideas learned at Cornell University to Haitian building. In the 1980's he would be honored by the American Institute of Architecture for his works. His considerable engineering expertise would be notably put into service for the preservation of
historic sites, especially the Citadel and Palais Sans Souci in Milot,
Province du Nord. As director of ISPAN (the Institute for the Safeguarding of the National Patrimony) he restored other monuments as well, the last of these being the Old Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. He brought more to these tasks thantechnical expertise. Steeped in Haitian history and culture, including some of the least-known, arcane aspects at all levels of rural and urban life, his
approach to the monuments was to be the technician of the nation's soul.
As a youth he had thought to become an agronomist. He became instead an architect and sculptor, but his ideas about the importance of the land, its flora and fauna, continued to shape his life. He turned the grounds around his own home in Martissant into a botanical preservation site like some Eden. Whenone thinks of the innumerable paintings of a lush, tropical paradise that is a major theme in Haitian painting, one should know that at least one artist tried to make that Eden happen again. He saw the preservation of Citadel and Sans Souci in that light: "It should be a national park...," he said. "It is very important to try to preserve and conserve that whole area
surrounding the historic sites. It is endangered. It must be preserved." ISPAN and the indefatigable biologist, Dr. Florence Sergile, made common cause and the Citadel Historic Site is indeed now a National Park.
When a UNESCO team came to account for the support they had provided for the Citadel project, I observed that they were highly pleased to see the jewel in its biological setting. When they went over the paper reports they were impressed with precise accounts that showed a productive frugality. Moreover, there were additional gains in Milot and vicinity. People had learned new, transferable skills. The roads were improved, and there were now channels to accommodate the devastating waters of tropical rains. The village as a whole showed signs of modest prosperity.
This remembrance of Albert Mangones comes from someone who went to Haiti just to write one article for Art International many years ago. I thought I would just run down there and do that and come back to my central academic enterpriseof studying how art means something. Within twenty-four hours of arrival, my notions of what constitutes art and what constitutes meaning were called into
question. A salutary earthquake. The art simply could not be approached
over the same routes I'd used to understand everything from Giotto to Picasso.
It was going to be a long term study. I was grateful to be able to have the overview of someone who already had all that information in his bones and blood. I was grateful to receive my initiating instructions from an artist, engineer, patriot
and careful, de-mythicizing poet-historian. I will try to preserve his instruction; try to make sure it continues to generate a properly ecological and social study of the arts of Haiti.
Hone', respe', Albert.
From LeGrace Benson/Arts of Haiti Research Project
29 April 2002 email@example.com