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Haiti: Women & the Spoken Word (Part 1)

Francesca Andre is a Haitian photographer living and working in the United States. She is involved in an ongoing project (via the Fanm Kanson Network) about Haitian women: key elements include interviewing various women about their experience, raising funds and facilitating writing, literacy and photography workshops in an effort to help the subjects tell their own stories and heighten awareness (both on-island and throughout the Haitian diaspora) about their everyday reality – a project that was already in train before the devastating 2010 earthquake.

An organic off-shoot of that project is a new video about spoken word artist Melissa Beauvery, which Andre has directed. In this post, she speaks to Global Voices about her work, how this video fits in to the bigger picture of amplifying the voices of Haitian women and the significance of Haitian art and culture.

Haitian photographer Francesca Andre

Haitian photographer Francesca Andre

A follow-up post will focus on the perspective of the spoken-word artist herself, Melissa Beauvery.

•••

Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): How did you and Melissa meet and what inspired you to direct this video?

Francesca Andre (FA): I met Melissa through a mutual acquaintance. I first worked with [her] on a documentary that I directed titled ‘Our Wombs, Our Voices', [which was] subtitled ‘Four Women'. It is a short documentary that highlights the lives and talents of four Haitian women poets: Michele Voltaire, Jennifer Celestin, Keren Charles Dongo and Melissa Beauvery. The documentary shows snippets of their personal lives, in correlation with the writing process and inspiration. It also examines how poetry helps them identify themselves in the diaspora. During that time that I became more acquainted with ‘My Grandmother’s Tongue', Melissa’s current project, and the idea of doing a short video on the project came to light.

Spoken Word Artist: Melissa Beauvery from Victor Oliveira on Vimeo.

JMF: Was the transition from still photography to video challenging for you? How did you use the medium differently to tell the story?

FA: It wasn’t challenging at all. it actually made Fanm Kanson Network’s mission even easier…we want to tell stories; inspiring stories, uplifting stories…and ‘My Grandmother’s Tongue’ will take you [on] that journey…the different complexities and dimensions of Melissa’s project could only be enhanced by moving images. Listening to her poems on ‘My Grandmother’s Tongue’ created very vivid images and awakened memories and sentiments about Haiti that are worth celebrating and cultivating.

Haitian woman; photo by Francesca Andre

JMF: What did you want this video to achieve? What is its primary message and how are you using the power of social media to get it out to the people you want to see it?

FA: The purpose of the video was to show a little bit about Melissa’s life, her upbringing, her project, the process of working on ‘My Grandmother’s Tongue', the inspiration behind it and to give the audience a little taste of what to expect from the album. The key message is to promote a more positive image of Haiti. It is to acknowledge the power of words, the power of storytelling in our culture and how it could transcend in other cultures as well – how words can close bridges and create understanding between cultures, peoples and mentalities. Facebook, Twitter and blogs are very important in establishing a presence online…I do intend to post it on various active Facebook groups as well as asking others to spread the word in order to continue this dialogue.

JMF: Explain a bit more about how Melissa's video fits in to your flagship project about Haitian women.

FA: All these projects have one thing in common: Purpose. Whatever project we tackle has a similar purpose – to create a dialogue, raise understanding, promote arts, respect, humanity, love and to celebrate who we are as women as well as defining our own territories, voices and purposes in this world. ‘My Grandmother’s Tongue’ was inspired by Melissa’s grandmother, [but] it pays homage to all women. It tells stories of a people, of many people, of a Haiti that the world doesn’t see. It tells stories of women whose names the world won't pronounce, won't remember. However, they hold power to resist poverty, cruelty and to create changes and that is Power! And this is why it is important [for] Fanm Kanson Network to highlight a project such as ‘My Grandmother’s Tongue’ and an artist such as Melissa Beauvery.

Fanm Kanson women, Haiti; photo by Francesca Andre

JMF: As a member of the Haitian diaspora, what do you think the main challenges are for your country – and how do you think your art – and the wider elements of Haitian culture (music, painting, etc.) are having a positive impact?

FA: A lot of times when I am asked to share my sentiments about Haiti, I am always proud to talk about resiliency and then I realize that the people will always be resilient as long as they are fighting negative forces such as poverty, corruption, political instability, lack of consciousness,
exploitation and so on. My views of being resilient have changed over the years…I really wish the people didn’t have to be resilient.

The only thing that is keeping Haiti ‘kanpe', which means ‘up', is the culture…the artists. The artists represent the soul of the people…they are the spirits that communicate with God and they are the heart of the people, the blood of the people. If you want to understand the people, study their art, listen to their music, listen to their words, learn their tongue and you will discover so many beautiful things about them, so many sensibilities that are often dismissed by others. This is how the culture is keeping Haiti alive.

Look at the story of Melissa: she was not born in Haiti, but here she is talking about Haiti in English and in her grandmother’s tongue, which is Haitian Creole. This project personifies hope, survival of culture that is changing and the audacity to celebrate it and to keep creating a better Haiti through words, music and images.

All photos used in this post are by Francesca Andre, used with permission.

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