Culev Diary

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In 2010, American artist Swoon co-founded Konbit Shelter to bring sustainable home construction to Haiti following the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake that shook the country earlier that year. She and a crew spent two months that summer building a community center in the village of Bigones, Barriere Jeudi. The crew returned later to build a one-family house using the same technique.

Day 1   Arrive. Make plans. Take it easy.

Day 2 7 a.m., go to Barriere Jeudi. Devise a plan to hire everyone who applies. Start digging. There aren’t enough tools. The kids make zombie faces at my camera. I put honey pea flowers behind their ears.

Day 3 The river rose, then we got stuck in it. Then some other guys got stuck in it. Then a really angry man brought a machete, started screaming and swinging it at another man, who got a machete too. Everyone held them back. Then Harry grabbed the angry man’s machete and we hopped on a backhoe that drove us down the river and all the way through town, where all the kids jumped up and down and waved at us like we were in the Mardi Gras parade.

Day 4 Two giant tarantulas, at least as big as my hand, hiding in dark places. Still digging. I found out why my name is so funny to people: it sounds like calezonio courez, which means, in some nonsense way, peeling onions while running.

Day 5 I’m thinking today was all about spontaneous detachment. First, without a breeze stirring, a huge tree limb popped clean off of its trunk, ejecting itself onto Raul, who was walking by with a wheelbarrow, and also entangling the little girl I call Mack Truck. The Mack truck was fine, but it dislocated Raul’s shoulder. Then the tire flew off of Fritz’s truck on the highway, and he and Tod had to put it back on in the rain. Then KT broke her toe. I guess she’s lucky it stayed on.

Day 6 I mull over the value of what we are doing here. So far, all I can say for sure is that we have created thirty jobs for four weeks, and for that, people seem happy. We started, of course, wanting so much more. We’ll see.

Day 7 Found another tarantula in the woodpile. Two bulls started fighting and then charged a man. Then one bull ran off with his mouth wide open and his tongue sticking way out of his mouth straight as a Popsicle stick, screaming a low wheezy scream at the top of his lungs in a show of frustration that I was helpless but to find totally hilarious. There was a turning today. A warming up as we become more able to communicate what we will create. People seem excited. The rubble started arriving from the three broken houses we are demolishing down the hill.

Day 8 The little black-and-red magic seeds from my childhood are all over the ground here and every rope is a snake. Fritz and Kanep say that no Haitian likes a snake, but what about Damballah-Wedo,  the pinnacle of the voodoo Loa, who has a snake as his maidservant and symbol? And what about Santa Maria la Dominadora, with her wild hair and her fistfuls of snakes looking for all the world like Kali?

Day 9 I made a karate-chop sound as I was hoeing away at the rocky dirt, and Annuncio said, “Why did you do that? What does it mean?” “It’s just a joke,” I said. “Like I’m in a karate movie, kicking ass.” “Oh” he said. “Why does your friend never joke with us? We are only people, working so hard; we need her to laugh with us.”

Day 10 Whoever invented this day-off thing was a fucking genius. I have a whole new perspective on what it means to do manual labor and how, in some way, it changes you. Building and digging day after day these last months, when I get home my ideas are gone. Drained right out of me.

Day 11 No comment.

Day 12 Chickens picking through rubble.

Day 13 This funny thing happened where we aren’t allowed to use tools anymore. As soon as the digging stopped and the building started and the work got interesting, we became completely superfluous—couldn’t get our hands on a tool or a job if we tried, and started making sweet outfits out of the polypropylene tubing just to keep busy.

Day 14 Stayed up all night making door forms out of what must be cut-down palm trees and imported plywood, with a two-man 1850s push-pull saw by headlamps.

Day 15 We all four have the malaise. How do people here do it? In this crumbled, beautiful place, no one seems held down. I know this is absurd to say, but since I never saw Haiti before the quake, and since the everyday bustle and intense insistence of life have returned in such full force—people living in and around broken city blocks, tent on the roof, goods for sale on the fractured balcony—there are slivers of moments when it looks to me like it’s always been this way. Like it’s a page from Italo Calvino, a city where every building’s foundation is poured then crushed, slabs are laid on at angles that will topple in the next strong wind and chickens for centuries have had dominion over the heaping piles of rocks at the sides of the highways. In some ways the tension of living life this way is shoved down so deep you can barely even see it.

Day 16 There is a huge, beautiful brown snake that lives and suns itself on the same tree every day, right along our path. And today I found this, the voodoo creation story:

“In the beginning, it is said, there was only the Great Serpent, whose seven thousand coils lay beneath the earth, holding it in place that it might not fall into the abysmal sea. In time, the Serpent began to move, unleashing its undulating flesh, which rose slowly into a great spiral that enveloped the Universe. In the heavens, it released stars and all the celestial bodies; on earth, it brought forth Creation, winding its way through the molten slopes to carve rivers, which like veins became the channels through which flowed the essence of all life. In the searing heat it forged metals, and rising again into the sky it cast lightning bolts to the earth that gave birth to the sacred stones. Then it lay along the path of the sun and partook of its nature.

“Within its layered skin, the Serpent retained the spring of eternal life, and from the zenith it let go the waters that filled the rivers upon which the people would nurse. As the water struck the earth, the Rainbow arose and the Serpent took her as his wife. Their love entwined them in a cosmic helix that arched across the heavens. In time their fusion gave birth to the spirit that animates blood. Women learned to filter this divine substance through their breasts to produce milk, just as men passed it through their testes to create semen. The Serpent and the Rainbow instructed women to remember these blessings once each month, and they taught men to damn the flow so that the belly might swell and bring forth new life. Then, as a final gift, they taught the people to partake of the blood as a sacrament, that they might become the spirit and embrace the wisdom of the Serpent.”—Wade Davis, anthropologist, ethnobotanist, “The Serpent and the Rainbow.”


Day 17 Sick.

Day 18 I think Jean Gaudi told that guy to kill the snake that lives in the tree every day. Could that be?

Day 19 I just don’t know if we are in the right place. It’s nice what we are building, it’s nice what we are doing, but in no way does it get to the heart of the problem, and more and more that’s starting to bother me.

Day 20 One birth, one death. I didn’t even know Monique was that pregnant. She just came around on hiring day with little Mack Truck in tow and said, “I’m pregnant with no one to take care of me. Please give me a job.” Then, last night, a baby girl.

Ben said he saw her squatting behind Fritz’s Grandpa’s crumbled house yesterday and wondered if that was her water breaking. Did she stay at work after her water broke? She is two years younger than me. It amazes me, when I look into her face; I feel like a child compared to her. What’s that look that mothers have? Ferocious tenderness. Worry and troubled sweetness. Then the death: one of the little pigs, run clean over. I haven’t told Ben yet.

Day 21 I wonder what Cheoline meant when she said that Monique wanted to give us the baby. I hope she didn’t mean give us the baby.

Day 22 Mud. Mud. Mud.

Day 22 OK, so everyone said we had to build a public structure first. When we were here the first time—to introduce a new style of architecture, they said, you must first give everyone space to own it and be a part of it. It’s working, and I love that, and I love being here. The pressure of the need that surrounds us is so much, though. Here we are, working in this community whose structure is essentially intact, building a brand-new building that no one will live in, when there are thousands and thousands of transplanted people in camps just down in Léogâne. I know that we are just four people with some money we raised ourselves and a mission we could fit our hands around, but I feel it down in my bones that there is a deeper need that we can’t even touch, and it aches and aches.

Day 23 Fishy spaghetti. Puke breakfast.

Day 24

Day 25

Day 26

Day 27

Day 28

Day 29 So then what? It got really dark. My arms were falling asleep all day, every day. I wanted to throw up. Couldn’t think, couldn’t want, stopped writing it down.

Day 30 They didn’t kill the snake and Ben didn’t run over the pig (though the pig is dead). We are just the kings and queens of misunderstanding Jean Gaudi. Today in the tree, not one snake but two. A he snake and a lady snake, says Jean Gaudi.

Day 31 A puppy showed up. So little she can squeeze through the space around any door. She hides under the bed and pays us no mind. Harry got really drunk and started crying. I wonder why the cement mixers insist on wearing a hard hat but no respirator. Sure, everything is broken, and we run out of everything every day, but all things considered this is nothing. It’s working.

Day 32 Herbi started putting the little black-and-red magic seeds in his mouth. I got him to spit them out, and then brought them to Ducken, always having suspected them of being poison. I asked, explaining that Herbi had had them in his mouth. “No,” he said, “don’t let him eat those, and be careful where you plant them in the ground. You don’t know what will come up.” The vine that produces this seed is everywhere around here, though; what could this mean, “You don’t know what will come up?”

Day 34 Not going home yet. So much for four weeks. So much for those non-negotiable plane-ticket vouchers.

Day 33 Her name is Pop Tart now, the little puppy. She has ears like a bat. Huge. Like to fly with. Everyone laughs at us for snuggling and playing with her, just points and laughs and laughs. It’s a good thing I’ve never had anything against being laughed at; life would be a lot harder here.

Day 35 KT called me a sucker at breakfast today. I didn’t take it well at all. There is nothing wrong with being nice to people, and I am holding a lot of tension around that subject besides. I do wonder how it came to be this way, though, that anytime someone wants something they come to me. The baby needs milk, the cousin wants a job; always, since day one, they ask me. Is it some look that I wear on my face that says, “Got a problem? Step right up, saying no breaks my heart!”  Why was that so clear from the get-go?

Day 36 Tired tired tired. We’re falling apart a little. All the skin is peeling off my hands. I want to cry most of the time. My arms won’t stop falling asleep. KT’s whole leg is infected. A blistering heat rash has taken up residency in my armpit. Whatever the hell is going on on Ben’s foot is just scary.

Day 37 I have to get out of here. I just do.

Day 38 Really.

Day 39 You know, all I want to do is snorkel. We can’t leave. We can’t go anywhere, but sometimes, just for an hour on Sundays, with the mask that Heather sent me, I can become weightless and float through another world. It’s the closest thing I get to escape.

And that fisherman who took us out the first day. He said that he went to Miami in a tiny little homemade sailboat like the one we were on. And do you know what I said? I said, “Oh, you’ve been to Miami?” like I forgot what fucking planet we’re on. Like a Haitian man in a homemade sunfish just up and sails to Miami for vacation. And he says, “No, I only made it to Guantanamo. I sailed for ten days. Just offshore from Miami they torpedoed my boat and took me to Guantanamo; now I’m back.” How do I get to be such an idiot sometimes?

Day 39 Gibson, Ducken and really the whole Exod dynasty are experts now. They are gods to us at this point. Bigones is so rich with this family. And Walki, I’m sure when I get home I will draw Walki, just to try and figure out what it is in his face. He’s a naughty ten year old just like every other naughty, rascally, prank-playing ten year old, but at almost any given moment his face looks like a basin filled up with the light of the world—drinking it in and radiating it back outward. To be honest it makes no sense to me. In the most irrational recesses of my mind I imagine that if I imitate it by drawing it, I can find out where it comes from. Like if I could make my mind and my hand move like the light moves, I’ll meet it there, at its source.

Day 39 Harry says that Fritz’s grandpa could heal anyone, and could see the future, and that’s why that family has so much land, and that’s why we can build what we are building on his land.

Day 40 I think we are gonna go home. The building isn’t finished, but it’s so, so close, and all that is left are parts that people work rings around us doing; we have nothing left to teach. They will finish it without us. This in itself is a small triumph, I guess.

Day 41 So the old man who makes the smoke behind the tiny house, the ancient one who never, ever acknowledges me no matter how many times I say hi to him, not even when I tried to sit with him one day while he made the smoke—today Fritz said that he was his grandfather’s right-hand man, and he’s the only one who still knows all of his secrets. The old man told him about the tree limb that fell on Raul; he said that he had intervened on Raul’s behalf, that if it wasn’t for his temperance the tree would have killed Raul. He said that after the quake, Raul became a Christian and started slandering the spirits of the trees on the land where we were building. “If you are so powerful, why did you let the earthquake happen?” he had been demanding, saying they had no power after all.

Day 33 OK, fine, I admit it: it was the snakes and those seeds that felt so much like clues that this was the place we should build the first time we visited—that stitched me right into certainty that this is where we would begin. All summer I had been dreaming of snakes and seeing their movements out of the corners of my eyes. Then that vision under the sea, about an undulating movement, a snake with a dozen heads rising up from the bottom of the sea to shake the land. On our first visit to Bigones, I couldn’t believe it when I looked down and in the riverbed was a single seed—red and black, the kind my dad used to keep one of wrapped in a clean white handkerchief next to the teeny baby from the king cake, and which he would hover ceremoniously over our boo-boos to cure what ailed us. I picked it up and put it in my pocket, and we followed that trail up the hill to meet the old couple who minds the temple. I was staring intently at the post outside the temple, which held up the shade structure, though I couldn’t quite make out why, when Fritz said, “You see it? It’s a snake.” And there it was, painted, plain as day. I got goose bumps all over. Later, at dinner, Fritz began describing how the earthquake had been like a snake, undulating through the land, and I felt how sometimes there is a language below language, a set of dreaming symbols that I find myself following even while I’m awake.

Day 42 I’m gonna miss Pop Tart and Sleepy Eyes the most. Sometimes I think this will only have mattered if we can come back and build houses. I’m probably just being negative in those moments, though.

Day 45 Home. The baby is named Bessie. I named her, sort of by accident, after an American queen. When I ride through Brooklyn I can’t help but transpose the damage of Port au Prince and Léogâne onto New York City. Every other building flattened. Brownstone after brownstone, factories, warehouses, apartment buildings, the Williamsburgh clock tower, the Bushwick dorms, rubble, rubble, rubble. Would people carry on amid the rubble the same way? There is no kind of tenacity like the one I’ve just seen. I want to build a house for Monique and Bessie and the Mack Truck. Ben wants to build a house for the old couple who minds the voodoo temple and can’t much walk. Funny thing is that their house never fell down; it just leaned over real bad and then somebody pushed it back up for them, and now they get rained on all night. Thing is that if you are really poor, your house was never built out of materials that crumble; it was built out of sticks and slats. It’s true that this was not our mission, building structures with people who never lost their houses. We were shaken by the earthquake, by the lunacy of the cosmic unfairness that a place that had received so many blows could possibly absorb such a ghastly tragedy. That five hundred miles of the coast of my home state made these folks my neighbors and that maybe we were ready and able to help, because, by the pictures, no one could be expected to deal with that alone.

What happened instead, I guess, is a bond with this one place, Bigones, a tiny little niche inside a tiny little fold, across two rivers and up the mountain. Stone carvers and farmers who hoe their fields in the most beautiful unison and have known each other their whole lives. The teenagers teaching themselves Spanish and English and everything they can do to participate in the world outside of Bigones. Ben and I left New York wanting to help Haiti in general; now we feel committed to these people. It’s hard still to understand precisely where your energies are best focused. It feels right in my gut, it’s just my mind (never shuts up), which has been arguing since the beginning and is still arguing for some larger contribution than a few structures in one small village.  Screaming and hollering, really—“But what about those grueling camps, where will they go?! Nothing is happening! When?! Women are getting raped in the bathroom lines, and the floods are coming!” Take a deep breath, little one. You can only do what you can do.  I do feel so lucky to be home and resting. I do. I know it.

Swoon is an American artist known for her life-size portraits of family, friends and people she meets on her travels. Inspired by historical and folk sources ranging from German Expressionist wood-block prints to Indonesian shadow puppets, she is a master of using cut paper to play with positive and negative space in a conceptually driven exploration of the experience of the streets. Swoon is a founding member of the Miss Rockaway Armada art collective and her work has been shown at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Deitch Projects, Art Basel, MOMA and the Brooklyn Museum.

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