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To tack, you just flip the bird

Back in the fall of 2007, two men — admirers of Haitian sloops — met for lunch at the Boatyard Bar and Grill in Annapolis, Md.

One was Geert van der Kolk, and the other was me.

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Van der Kolk was describing his idea for the Sipriz expedition, though the boat had not been built yet, let alone named. He said he hadn’t figured out what to do about sails, meaning what material to use. Haitians make their sails out of anything, from vinyl stadium banners to sewed trash bags. They can be quite colorful in a patch-quilt way.

“Haiti has goods artists. Why don’t you have them paint something on a big canvas for you? Besides drawing attention to immigration issues and traditional Haitian boatbuilding, it would say something about the culture as well.” Of course, I don’t remember if that’s what I said exactly, but it was something like that. Even though it was not an effort Haitian sailors would ever make on their own, van der Kolk said he liked the idea and knew some painters in the town of Jacmel, near Ile a Vache.

Besides excellent rum, one of the few Haitian exports are paintings, most of which are schlocky pastoral scenes sold to vendors not by the piece but by the meter, like ordinary cloth. Though hand-painted, most pieces are copies of copies of copies. But at the core of this industry are some very talented artists, many now living in New York, Montreal and Paris.

When I saw the pictures of Sipriz under way, the painting on the mainsail was bigger and better than I would have guessed. I had expected an image of the sun or a big flower. Instead, artists Marcarti and Papouch had painted an enormous mythical bird on scrounged Dacron. I doubt the folks at North Sails ever imagined some of their “canvas” would be put to such a use.

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Depicted was the Sankofa, which, according to legend, flew behind the slave ships and then returned to Africa to tell their families what had become of them. The Sankofa had the ability to face backward while flying forward. It inhabits the dreams of the dispossessed. As such, it is the perfect symbol for today’s Haitian diaspora as well.

See related article:

- Miles away in one sense, light years in another

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.