|Written by Nancy Beth Jackson Photographed by Maggie Steber
From his expansive terrace high above Port-au-Prince, Georges S. Nader’s home boasted panoramic views of the harbor and the bustling Bord-de-Mer business district, where this son of struggling Lebanese immigrants had worked his way up from stock boy to general manager of La Belle Créole, Haiti’s first and most luxurious department store. Founded by Palestinians who arrived in the late 19th century, La Belle Créole symbolized the commercial prowess of Arab–Haitians, who had not always been welcome in the country.
n the 1960’s, Nader walked away from his mercantile success to take a chance on a very different kind of merchandise: Haitian art, already a popular souvenir for the tourists who arrived on cruise ships three times a week. He opened one small shop downtown, and then another, and he rewarded taxi drivers for bringing clients to his door. By 1992, when he built his three-story mansion on the hill—it also housed his Galerie Nader and the Nader Musée d’Art—he had become one of the nation’s best-known dealers and collectors. “On top of the town, top in the arts” read the sign outside the 35-room structure in the hilly neighborhood of Croix des Prez. His personal collection of 12,000 Haitian works of art, including pieces by naïf masters Hippolyte, Obin and Benoit, was considered the largest in the nation and perhaps anywhere.
Nader (pronounced nay-daire) was not the first to realize the potential value of Haitian art. Credit for that is generally given to Dewitt Clinton Peters, an American who opened the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince in 1944 as a school and gallery. But it was Arab–Haitian art merchants, primarily Nader and the late Issa El Saieh, whose half-brother Élias Noustas owned La Belle Créole, who made the international market. “First it was the Centre d’Art. Then came the Arabs,” says Axelle Liautaud, a Centre d’Art board member and Haitian art historian.
Kent Shankle, executive director of the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Iowa, which—thanks in part to Arab–Haitian art merchants—has the largest collection of Haitian art in the United States, remembers being overwhelmed when he visited the Nader museum some years ago. “The storeroom had racks and racks and racks of paintings by the great masters. Not just a few pieces, but whole racks. The place was a real treasure, chock full of all these great paintings that they were basically just safeguarding, and that very few people had ever seen.”
But on the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Georges Nader’s world literally crumbled in 35 seconds. At 4:53, a 7.0 earthquake shook the city, its epicenter only 25 kilometers (16 mi) west of the capital. The human tragedy was indescribable, but the earthquake also struck at the heart of Haitian culture. The tectonic shift destroyed the gallery-museum. Irreplaceable Haitian art, estimated to be worth anywhere from $30 million to $100 million, was buried in the rubble.
The first thought was to rescue the people inside. Neighbors rushed to pull Nader and his wife, Marie, both then 78 years old, from the only two rooms still standing. His leg was injured; she later suffered a heart attack. Despite his protests, they were evacuated to Miami by way of the Dominican Republic, leaving his sons Georges Jr. and John to see if anything could be salvaged. First reports were grim. The Wall Street Journal headlined, “Art Trove Is Among Nation’s Losses.” Only a handful of canvases from the museum and about 3000 canvases stored in a satellite gallery in the Pétionville suburb remained. “I’ve lost my life’s work,” Nader said at the time, for so it seemed.
Because Arab immigrants have long dominated Haitian commerce, it should not be surprising that Arab–Haitians have been among the most influential art dealers in Haiti: What is surprising is that they are in the country at all. The “Syrians,” as the Haitians called all Arabs regardless of origin, have long been the business backbone in a nation that has never encouraged immigration. Indeed, Arabs are Haiti’s only ethnic minority, originating mostly in Bethlehem and mountain villages in northern Lebanon near Tripoli.
The first “Syrians” arrived in the late 19th century, each individual coming almost always by chance. Fleeing political and economic turmoil in the Ottoman Empire, they were often content to board any ship headed to “America.” Sometimes they arrived in the Eldorado of their dreams, but many found themselves debarking, largely unwelcomed, in Latin American nations. Those arriving directly or indirectly in Haiti were at first received with sympathy and not a little fascination, as former farmers from the Middle East took to the countryside to peddle the wares they carried on their backs or on overloaded donkeys.
“They were considered like indigents or traveling acrobats,” writes Joseph Bernard, Jr., in his 2010 Histoire des colonies arabe et juive d’Haiti. Some peddlers were accompanied by bears or monkeys that danced to cymbals and flutes, he adds.
Soon the exotic newcomers were opening small shops and introducing the concept of credit to Haiti. Fascination turned to hostility as enterprising “indigents” began to dominate retailing and enter the import-export business, dealing mostly with the us. As early as 1894, a law was enacted in Haiti barring Arabs from the country, but they continued to come and to stay, ignoring threats of fines, imprisonment and expulsion. “Quite a tenacious group of people,” observes Mario L. Delatour, a Haitian filmmaker who documented the challenges the immigrants faced in the 2005 film Un Certain Bord de Mer (An Unwelcomed Lot). Around 1903, as many as 15,000 “Syrians” were living in Haiti, but only a handful had been able to obtain Haitian citizenship, according to Bernard.
Not all came as farmers-turned-peddlers. Some arrived to explore business opportunities. Issa El Saieh’s maternal grandfather and uncle, who had immigrated to New York from Bethlehem, arrived in Port-au-Prince in the late 1880’s, looking for the iron framework of an exposition building, which had gone missing in transit to South America. When they found it, rather than return it, they offered to sell it to Haitian President Lysius Salomon and create a market surrounded by shops.
Family lore has it that Salomon became incensed at the thought of foreigners in commerce. “You will control the economy and control my country,” he supposedly said, and threatened jail. The businessmen’s us citizenship saved them. In the end, the structure was erected as Marché Salomon, and the uncle—Antoine Talamas—moved to Haiti and became a millionaire. His niece, Issa’s mother, arrived as a teenager at the turn of the 20th century.
Invoking the protection of a powerful neighbor nation was one way Arabs in Haiti survived repeated anti-“Syrian” campaigns, but by 1911, The New York Times estimated that only about 500 remained in Haiti, with 114 merchants paying the equivalent of $150 a year for a business license. At least a dozen claimed us citizenship. “Syrian merchants in Haiti do most of the importing for the island, taking over the business, particularly in provisions and dry goods,” The Times reported. The Haitian government had again ordered Arab traders to depart. Mobs were attacking shops and assaulting shopkeepers. Brooklyn Syrians appealed to Washington “for protection of their countrymen.”
As World War i neared, the plight of the Arabs in Haiti took on new significance for the us government. Officials feared Haitian elites with strong commercial ties to Germany might bar shipping from New York dry goods jobbers and Chicago meatpackers to Haiti. In July 1915, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched 330 Marines to protect the interests of us corporations. The Arab–Haitians would fare well in the 19-year occupation that followed, but anti-Arab measures resurfaced when the Marines left. Only after François Duvalier seized control in 1957 did doors begin opening for Arab–Haitians, although many joined the Haitian diaspora.
Unlike Arab immigrants in other parts of Latin America, Arab–Haitians did not form cultural organizations or become part of the local political fabric. They remained a class apart, generally marrying within their group, and they maintained their own networks through family and village ties. Georges and Marie Nader are the children of Lebanese immigrants who sailed to Haiti on the same ship in 1920. Issa El Saieh’s twice-widowed mother, related to the Handal clan said to be descended from German Crusaders, sent Issa’s elder half-brother Élias Noustras to Jamaica when he was 12 to be schooled in business by relatives.
Élias learned his lessons well. By 1941, he was applying for a 20-year trademark on the word voodoo, which he planned to use in marketing handbags, sandals, perfumes and beauty products. He and his mother soon opened La Belle Créole, an elegant department store downtown, which took up a whole block near the port and introduced the soda fountain, Rolex watches and Hermés scarves to Haiti. Haiti was entering what is called its Belle Époque period, an explosion of culture that had gone dormant under the us occupation. In a time when Port-au-Prince rivaled Havana as a tropical destination, Élias supplied Canadian ships, operated hotel shops and opened a restaurant called Le Pêchoir clinging to Boutellier Mountain, a kilometer (3300') above the city.
Élias Noustras mentored both Georges Nader and his half-brother Issa, who became so well known that everyone called him by his first name. Older than Nader by a dozen years, he studied English and played in the school band in a military academy near Boston. Returning to Port-au-Prince in the early 1940’s, he seemed to be headed for the family trade when he started manufacturing underwear, but his passion for music won out. He created the Issa El Saieh Orchestra, and its big-band sound cut across color lines and genres well into the 1950’s. Honored by Lincoln Center in 1997 as a giant of Haitian music, the maestro recorded albums on his own “La Belle Époque” label that are available on the Internet today.
The Centre d’Art that Dewitt Clinton Peters founded was the main outlet for fledgling Haitian artists, but in the 1950’s Issa decided to try marketing art in his brother’s restaurant and department store. Nader remembers Issa asking him to invest his $1000 La Belle Créole bonus in a promising new venture. When he discovered his money was being used to acquire the art Nader himself was merchandising, he opened his own gallery above his wife’s downtown gift shop. Issa, too, opened a shop near the port before moving his gallery in 1964 to a family mansion up a steep hill near the Hotel Oloffson, popular with celebrities like Graham Greene, who may have modeled Hamid, the Syrian shopkeeper in The Comedians, on Issa.
Both galleries thrived as the two men followed the Centre d’Art model of cultivating artists. “Every time I sold one painting, I bought two,” Nader says. People familiar with his collection believe he underestimates. The Arab art merchants not only sold the artwork but also often provided the artists with food, medicine and encouragement. Artists regularly gathered at Issa’s to work, discuss art, eat communal meals and receive constructive criticism from the maestro, who had a good eye as well as a good ear. Issa told Roger François, a prominent wood sculptor, that he should try painting and handed him a box of paints. The artist found even greater success as a painter.
“So many of the great artists of Haiti would not have been able to work continuously without the personal and business support that allowed them to create this Haitian legacy,” says Shankle of the Waterloo Center for the Arts. “Issa and the Naders supported artists on a continuing basis. They were constantly buying and holding their work, sustaining them.”
Many of the masterpieces in the Waterloo collection came indirectly through Issa and Nader, purchased by tourists who became major Haitian art collectors because of them. The two were conduits for some of the greatest names in Haitian art. Philomé Obin, probably the greatest of them, painted almost identical portraits of himself with each of the men, whom he identified on the canvases as his good friends.
The Belle Époque ended when François Duvalier came to power in 1957. Issa’s brother André, who had backed the opposition, fled to the us; Issa himself was briefly jailed. After Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier’s thugs, began frequenting La Belle Créole, Noustas shuttered the famous department store and moved to Canada. Other Arab–Haitians fell victim to the Duvalier regime, including Antoine Talamas’s son and Yvonne Hakim-Rimpel, a feminist and journalist, who was silenced after she was abducted and abused.
Yet Duvalier also courted Arab–Haitians for their skills. One was named to a cabinet position as minister of health, and another was elected mayor of Port-au-Prince. For the first time, Arab–Haitians began to be integrated into Haitian life, and today they are influential in the economy and politics of the nation.
After a new international airport opened in 1965, tourism continued to flourish as American vacationers and such international jetsetters as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mick Jagger discovered the country. Issa and Nader managed to do business at home and abroad throughout the Duvalier dictatorships, the us embargo and natural disasters, establishing Haitian art as more than a quai-side novelty.
Issa, a natty dresser, charming conversationalist and natural bon vivant, hunkered down in his hillside studio, surrounded by artists, entertaining the clients and celebrities who found their way to his door by word of mouth. “He created a world of art for himself,” says his son Jean Emmanuel. Like the early peddlers, the younger El Saieh and his family “carried art with us wherever we went” after they left Haiti for the us.
Issa shipped art throughout the Caribbean and traveled to Europe, where he sold naïf canvases and bought tailored suits. His grandson Tomm, a Miami art dealer, remembers the ritual surrounding the packing of Issa’s leather suitcase, filled with artwork and gifts of Arab pastries and Haitian coffee for his clients. He always carried a shopping list of art supplies and medicines to buy for the painters who frequented his studio. Beneath his charm, however, was a keen business sense. “He would say, ‘How wonderful! How beautiful! How much?’” his son remembers. Issa died in 2005; his son and daughter-in-law now run the gallery, which Tomm is helping to reorganize. In Issa’s day, it more resembled a wholesale warehouse than the premier art gallery it was.
Nader was the natural salesman, who made art a family business. “He’s a good seller. No one can beat him,” said Georges Jr., one of the four of Nader’s seven children who became art dealers. His daughter Myriam runs an on-line gallery, www.naderhaitianart.com, from New York. His Dominican-born nephew Gary, who decided at age six to sell art after visiting his uncle’s gallery, specializes in contemporary Latin American artists like Fernando Botero, Roberto Matta and Wifredo Lam in a Miami gallery whose display space is the size of a football field.
Nader didn’t wait around for people to discover Haitian art. He printed up postcards, which he mailed to clients all over the world, and he published glossy art books. He participated in international conferences and auctions, sponsored competitions and launched Haiti Art, the only journal dedicated to the subject. The Naders have operated over 10 galleries over the years in the Dominican Republic, Miami, Atlanta and New York. His eldest son, Ralph, a Miami cardiologist who worked in the family trade as a youth, remembers the celebration when gallery sales in Haiti surpassed $1 million for the first time in the early 1970’s.
As the story turns out, Georges Nader did not lose his life’s work in the earthquake. Thanks to a retrieve-and-restore project by the Smithsonian Institution and efforts by the Nader family, a good part of the collection was salvaged, although restoration may not be complete for a decade. Fortunately, storerooms were on the top floor, and the Hector Hippolyte collection on the floor below.
Almost three years to the day after he left Haiti, Georges Sr. moved into a Pétionville penthouse in a building his son owns a few blocks from the family gallery and across the street from the Expressions Art Gallery owned by his daughter Katia and her husband, whose family comes from Bethlehem. Another Nader gallery is planned in a restaurant that Georges Jr. is opening in a picturesque old house in the resort town of Jacmel.
The Nader patriarch has been revitalized by returning to Haiti after his reluctant exile to Miami. Picking out which of his favorite canvases would hang in his new home, he explains why he chose to be an art dealer instead of a department-store executive: “First it was the market,” he says. “Then it was the heart.”
Nancy Beth Jackson, Ph.D., ([email protected]), is a journalist based in Illinois. She has taught journalism at The American University in Cairo and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi as well as at Columbia University and the University of Missouri. Her article “A Walk Through Historic Arab Paris” appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Saudi Aramco World.
Maggie Steber ([email protected]) is a widely published documentary photographer who has worked in Haiti for more than 25 years, as well as in 62 other countries. She has published Dancing on Fire: Photographs From Haiti, which can be viewed at www.audacityofbeauty.com. Her awards include the Leica Medal of Excellence.