Mirlande Jean-Gilles

Mirlande Jean-Gilles

Someone had joked that Mirlande and I were probably the only two Haitians living in Baltimore. “You two have to get together,” the person said to me. For months Mirlande and I tried, but mommyhood, deadlines, and our hectic schedules prevented a meeting.

When we talked on the phone finally, it was as if we’d had thousands of conversations before. The following is an InnerView into the life of this sister whose passion for her family, art, and Haiti is profound.

Mirlande is busy reimagining a new Haiti through an amazing series of collages called “Market Women.”  These ladies with stuffed baskets perched on their heads negotiate the harsh terrain of Haiti’s bare mountains with unmatched elegance. Although it’s been many years since Mirlande lived in Haiti, it seems the two remain inseparable.

Katia: Mirlande, are we really the only two Haitians in Baltimore?

Mirlande: Actually, I met two other Haitians not too long ago. I was at a party and overheard someone speaking Kreyòl. I’d never heard anyone speak Kreyòl in Baltimore before. I was so excited. I went to them and introduced myself. It was this guy, who was a yoga teacher and his mom. It was soon after the earthquake in Haiti so we had a lot to talk about.

Katia: I remember the first time I heard someone speak Kreyòl in Baltimore. It happened at an outdoor market a few years ago. I ran toward the lady and her grandchildren. I must have scared them. She said it was great to find a compatriot in this town, too.

Mirlande: We can tell our own. We know one another.

Katia: That’s  true, Mirlande.  Did you grow up in Haiti?

Mirlande: I was born in New York. I am the first one in the family born in the United States. My parents sent me to live with my grandmother in Gonaives, Haiti when I was little. There were many of us living there: my brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and various students going to school in the city. My grandmother took care of all us. She raised her six children by herself after my grandfather passed away when they were young. My grandmother passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, but that woman was a powerful force until the very end.

Katia: Everyone I’ve talked to says his or her mother and grandmother are the strongest women they know. I can say the same about my own mother and grandmothers. Why do you think these women are thought to be so strong?

Mirlande: Haitian women are forced to step up. My mother didn’t speak English when she came to the United States. She didn’t know how to get around in the city, but she got a job. She made a way for herself and her siblings back home who depended on the money she would send. She worked very hard to take care of everyone. That’s amazing to me. When I think about my mother and grandmother’s lives, I feel like there’s nothing I cannot do.

Katia: Tell me about your childhood in Haiti.

Mirlande: I remember everyone being like family back in Gonaives. Everyone looked out for everyone else. I was four years old, but I could go anywhere without fear that something bad would happen to me. If one person had food, that person shared a plate with someone else. I don’t know if people could have survived in Haiti without that. People shared; that was just how it was. That’s how my grandmother lived. She loved to feed people. We didn’t have a lot, and I never felt poor.

Katia: What do you think about the cliché: Poorest Nation in the Western Hemisphere?

Mirlande: I never believed that. I know the country too well, you know. Money is great, but money is not everything. The United States is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world, but for the most part people here are alone. Is there wealth in being alone? There is no sense of community. In some cities and neighborhoods you can live next door to someone for ten years and never know their name. In some neighborhoods, if you are very lucky, you have a sense of community. In Haiti the doors were always open, even at the height of instability. I was a kid so I’m not sure how aware of the turmoil I would be, but I don’t remember feeling danger. We would sit on the porch and play oslèts—you know that game children play . . . like jacks.

Katia: I have a set of oslèts at home. A little boy gave them to me a few years back in Haiti. He’d heard me say that I wished I had a set of oslèts. Just before I returned to the States, this little barefoot boy in old, torn clothes managed to find a set and gave it to me—just to make me happy.

Mirlande: Yeah. That’s us. That’s what we do. I get sad about how the displaced people in Haiti are being treated. It’s not right that we’re not taking care of the people still living in tent cities. It’s been almost a year and a half since the earthquake and people are still in those tents. Something about that setup is just so strange to me. People need real shelter.

Katia: Explain what you mean by ‘strange.’

Mirlande: Look at Chile. They had an earthquake last year. New Zealand had one this year. Nobody gave the people who lost their homes a tarp and four sticks and told them to call that home. What is that? What the heck is a plastic tarp and some sticks? And that’s going to be your home for two years or more. I can’t imagine a mother with her kids under a tarp during a rainstorm. And there are people preying on innocent women and children in those tent cities. Those criminals are like wolves. There’s no security in the tent cities. Anyone can get in.

Katia: I have a mission to give a hand-cranked flashlight to every woman in a tent. In the darkness anything can happen. The flashlight is not a gun, it’s not a weapon, but it might help a little. Even in this country we put lights around our houses at night to keep undesirables away.

Mirlande: I love that idea. I’ll donate flashlights. Just let me know how many and when you want them. Whatever you want I’ll give. Art. Flashlights. Anything. After the earthquake happened, I felt so helpless. I wrote a lot. I wrote a collection of poems called Haiti A.E. (Haiti after the earthquake).

Katia: Listen to how generous you are, Mirlande! We’ll talk about the flashlights in a little while. What I’d like to know now is how important you think artists are to the reconstruction efforts.

Mirlande: Extremely. All kinds of artists: sculptors, drummers, dancers, musicians, singers, filmmakers. I think the entrepreneurs living in tent cities are really important, too. They’re creative. How else do you open a beauty salon, an eatery, a cyber cafe, or a nail shop in a tent? Artists, for the most part, are not corrupt. We want only to express ourselves and share with the world the beauty of Haiti. True artists have a sort of purity. They’re not trying to get something out of this tragedy.

"Heart" by Mirlande Jean-Gilles

Katia: I think you are right.

Mirlande: Artists are extremely important to rebuilding Haiti. I’ve seen some of the art created after the earthquake. It is thoughtful and profound. Haiti has its own Bermuda Triangle in a sense. Time moves in a different way. Something that should take one year to get done takes five. Something that should take ten takes twenty. But art moves at a different pace. Artists don’t get caught up in the molasses of bureaucracy. They’re too busy creating and articulating the frustration everyone has.

Katia: What about the oral tradition? What part is that playing in reconstruction?

Mirlande: We need to talk to the elders. They have so many stories, so much history and knowledge that will be lost if we don’t include them. We need the artists to participate in the change. Some people go to Haiti to count victims. They’ve got the numbers right. The statistics, but what can they do with the lines between myths and facts? That’s the artist’s realm. The storytellers allow the lines blur. The stories and myths are part of Haiti. Art fills me with inspiration. Just thinking about those stories makes me want to create.

Katia: I love your work. It’s vibrant and a serves as a great bridge to the New Haiti.

Mirlande: Thank you so much for this special opportunity to share my thoughts, my writing, and my art.

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For more of Mirlande’s work, visit www.aziarts.com

2 thoughts on “Mirlande Jean-Gilles”

  1. Jah Love Katia.

    This is a great interview. I had read a lot of it before and I was so happy to hear from another transnational second generation Haitian born in New York. And she’s an artist who does great work so I was really happy and impressed. You’ve found a great and wonderfully talented group of artist to include on this site. This is an amazing accomplishment. I commend you for the time, love, courage and effort that it must have taken. This is truly visionary. It’s my new favorite artist website. Before I used to go on the galleries that sold art now I can feast with my eyes and feed my soul too.
    Thank you so much for allowing me to be part of it. I feel incredibly honored and humbled to be included among this great collection of talented folks. They’re amazing!
    Jah bless.

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