The Foundational Workshop

On March 5-7, 2020, HADC hosted a workshop to discuss digital archives and Haitian art. The workshop  invited thirteen guests, with the expectation that each guest prepare an informal presentation related to a specific topic, and address a set of questions regarding that topic, provided in advance (see below). Our workshop sought to gather information about digital archives and Haitian art in order to better understand the lay of the field as we consider directions for our Haitian Arts Digital Crossroads database and web interface project. For many who attended, the HADC was our last time traveling and gathering prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The workshop provided a precious opportunity to discuss Haitian art in person, including an extensive engagement with the WCA’s collection.

We opened our workshop in Grinnell, with an afternoon keynote speech by Jerry Philogene, titled “Death Freedom Epistemologies: The Labour of Haitian Visual Aesthetics.” Following Jerry’s speech, a reception was held to celebrate the permanent installation Visualizing Abolition & Freedom, directed by artist Edouard Duval-Carrié ( Our thematic panels took place on the second day of the workshop at Grinnell College. During lunch on our second day of the workshop we also hosted a panel with Grinnell faculty, who shared how they incorporate the topic of Haiti into their teaching and/or research. The panelists included Gwenola Caradec (French), Tess Kulstad (Anthropology), Doug Hess (Political Science), Vadricka Etienne (Sociology), and moderator Sarah Purcell (History). This panel highlighted the broader interest in Haiti within our campus community, and connections our database could potentially make across disciplines.

Our morning panel on digital archives was moderated by Mark Christel and included four guests: Laura Wagner (Radio Haiti Archive Project), Elizabeth Pierre-Louis (Fondasyon Konesans ak Libète, Haiti), Stephanie Chancy and Hadassah St. Hubert (Digital Library of the Caribbean). While each guest shared about their own project and work, we also provided the following questions in advance:



What particular challenges exist on the ground with establishing and maintaining digital archives?

How do your institutions/projects establish best practices?

How do you think of your publics, language, and accessibility? 

What institutions have you collaborated with?

What are the limits and potentials of collaboration?
What steps do you take to make a more sustainable model?

What challenges exist for the longevity of your digital projects?

These questions addressed specific concerns and questions we had regarding the project, and allowed us to learn from experienced archivists, librarians, and scholars, especially during the Q&A discussion following the four presentations.

Our mid-morning panel  on Haitian art collections was moderate by Peter Haffner (Centre College) and included Chawne Paige (Curator, WCA), Elizabeth Andrews (Registrar, WCA), Axelle Liautaud, and Edouard Duval-Carrié to discuss their knowledge of Haitian art.  Peter Haffner served as moderator for the panel. We also invited Sydney Jenkins, Director of the Art Galleries at Ramapo College of New Jersey, who unfortunately could not make it to the workshop last minute due to health issues. For our panelists, we provided the following questions:

What role do collectors and institutional benefactors play in the establishment of Haitian art collections?

What challenges exist with documenting the provenance of Haitian art collections?

How do you define your collection – what aspects of Haitian art does it reveal? How does it relate to other collections in your region?

What relationship do you have with private galleries of Haitian art? What role do private collections and private galleries play in relation to museum collections?

How does your collection relate to varied publics?

In our panel discussion, we considered the role of craft and work by artisans, the position of the artist, and the importance of work with Haiti and its publics.

Lastly, our afternoon panel on Haitian art history took place at the Grinnell College Museum of Art, and included panelists Katherine Smith, Fredo Rivera and Erica Moiah James. Jerry Philogene served as our moderator, and the following questions were provided in advance:

How do you define Haitian art history?

What comprises Haitian art? What narratives are understudied or missing within the field?

How do disciplinary approaches impact the field of Haitian art? What is your disciplinary training, and how does it relate to interdisciplinary approaches to the study of Caribbean and African diasporic art?

What are the biggest challenges in the field? What is needed to better support research on Haitian art?

This panel was especially rich as it built off the earlier two panels, to consider how the mechanisms of databases and museums provide prisms through which Haitian art remains undervalued. Our discussion included often inaccurate or inaccessible information on Haitian art, including within many museum databases and archives. Katherine Smith asked a specifically alarming question about the future of Haitian art and its current precarity, providing the example of the private collection of Marilyn Houlberg – a superb, important collection of Haitian art and artifacts that was not properly maintained following her passing. Overall, our panels considered significant disparities within the field,

The third day of our workshop took place in Waterloo, as we spent half the day touring the WCA gallery spaces and vaults and discussing their Haitian art collection in person. We closed our workshop with an afternoon group discussion, summarizing our panels from the previous day and considering the future of the HADC project. The following morning the HADC team met with board members and invited guests to produce a list of outcomes from the workshop. We concluded the following: First, that Grinnell College Libraries has the commitment and capacity to host an expandable database, and we will move forward with applying for grants for implementation. Second, that we become members of the Digital Library of the Caribbean, and have access to their resources and support. Third, that we seriously and thoughtfully engage with partners and publics in Haiti and its diaspora, as we create a database that considers language and access to technology. Fourth, that we build a sustainable database, not dependent on the presence of a singular faculty member of expertise on campus. We also discussed future potential collaborations, including publications. Overall, the workshop was an incredible success, and set the foundation for moving forward.