An artist in the Village Artistique de Noailles shows a completed piece. (all photos by and courtesy Maksaens Denis)

A historic village at the center of Haiti’s metal art scene has been overtaken by warring gangs, resulting in dozens killed and wounded over the last month. 

The Village Artistique de Noailles, located in the southern commune of Croix-des-Bouquets, was once home to more than 300 families of artists and metalsmiths working in a tradition passed down over four generations. Over 70 workshops and storefronts were operating seven days a week to produce decorative and functional metalworks cherished the world over.

On October 12, however, armed clashes broke out between two rival gangs known as 400 Mawozo and Torcel, forcing the majority of survivors to leave behind their only source of income. At least 15 villagers have been killed since then and 200 displaced, with seven people reportedly killed in one day, on October 17. In a press release earlier this month, Haiti’s Ministry of Culture stated its intent to protect villagers and rehabilitate the site along with its Permanent Delegation to UNESCO, but those on the ground claim their efforts are slow to start. 

“The Ministry of Culture condemns the actions of armed groups that constitute a crime against cultural heritage and in particular against this site of primary importance in the production of cut-metal art, classified since 2020 as Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Republic of Haiti,” the Ministry of Culture said in an October 20 statement.

Artworks from the Village of Noailles on display at the Community Museum Georges Liautaud in Haiti

The 400 Mawozo gang first settled in Croix-des-Bouquets in 2018 but gradually moved closer to Noailles over the years, with villagers regularly reporting incidents of stealing, looting, and intimidation. According to Maksaens Denis of the AfricAmerica Foundation, who works closely with the artists, Torcel’s recent encroachment sparked a turf war around Noailles, and the village’s future now hangs in the balance. 

“From six o’clock in the morning, the sound of hammers on metal would start here and there, at first timidly, and then crescendo into a daily symphony throughout the village,” Denis told Hyperallergic. “Today, the sound of big guns has replaced those of artists working peacefully.”

Haiti is frequently described as the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” partially due to ongoing US intervention. Last year’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse — which allegedly involved two US citizens — bolstered gang control over the region, resulting in fuel and food shortages. The United Nations Security Council has since enforced sanctions, and the Biden administration is still weighing further military intervention despite activist opposition. 

Denis also lamented that on October 12, 2021, exactly one year before firefights erupted, members of 400 Mawozo assassinated renowned assemblage artist Jean Anderson Bélony in the courtyard of his home — which is one of the oldest Voudou sanctuaries in the area. 

One of Marie Guerlande Balan’s award-winning pieces

Noailles’s artistic reputation dates back to the 1940s, when metalsmith Georges Liautaud began fashioning scrap metal into crosses for a local cemetery. A chance encounter with American painter DeWitt Peters, who founded Le Centre d’Art Haiti, inspired Liautaud to explore metalworking as an artform, incorporating Vodou symbolism with human and animal imagery. 

Liautaud quickly garnered commissions throughout Haiti, leading him to train fellow villagers such as Murat Brierre, Serge Jolimeau, Gabriel Bien-Aimé, and Jean Sylvestre. In the following decades, enough artists remained in Noailles to grow this burgeoning guild industry into a renowned tradition known as bosmétal.

Noailles artists typically burn and flatten metal pieces into panels, then use chisels and hammers to imprint their compositions — accomplished by breaking away the negative space and pounding on the verso for dimension. While they originally sourced metal exclusively from 55-gallon steel oil drums found at the Port-au-Prince harbor, artists now incorporate pieces of cutlery, curtain rods, and car parts into their resplendent designs, as well as other materials such as animal bone and wood.

Artworks by Serge Jolimeau in his workshop

In 2008, Denis helped found the Community Museum Georges Liautaud, which curates exhibitions of Noailles artists and awards them for their contributions. He lamented that many award-winning artists have been forced to seek refuge elsewhere or go into hiding.

Marie Guerlande Balan, who comes from a family of women artists, had her house and workshop completely burned,” he continued. “Another artist working with a traditional forge dating from before Haiti’s independence had to leave his home with only the clothes he was wearing.”

At the moment, it is unclear whether anyone will be able to return to Noailles. So far, Denis claims, the Ministry of Culture has sent one armed National Police vehicle to “timidly” patrol the area. In the absence of further aid, however, everyday people are stepping in to help the displaced artists.

“We would like to have the assurance of permanent protection that is adequate to the situation, but that is not yet the case,” Denis said. “In the meantime, people of goodwill in Haiti and supporters from around the world are getting together to carry out solidarity actions in material goods, tools, and financial aid.”

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.