44. Made of Metal
Chloé Mukai: How old are you and how long have you been working in fer battu (metalwork)? Mickerson Jean: I’m 30 years old and I started when I was 12 years old, so it has been 18 years. What led you to this profession? I learnt out of curiosity. I’ve always lived here, in Croix-des-Bouquets. My father died when I was 6 years old and my mum when I was 11. From when I was about 12, I started commuting back and forth from the Croix-des-Bouquets area, and this is when I noticed there was lots of fer battu work going on here. Were all these artisans already working here back then? Not as many as now, but there were many already. I got my face known by some of the ateliers and started spending time watching their work. Then, I started imitating what they were doing and this is how I came to love this work. Who taught you in the beginning? At first I learnt alone, out of curiosity, by just observing. But then love for this work pushed me to integrate a workshop. I was lucky: one of the best artisans in Croixdes-Bouquets, Serge, helped me to refine my skills. So Serge (Serge Jolimeau, the godfather of fer battu) was like your mentor? Yes, although I was part of several workshops, the key workshop - the one that helped me become the person I am today - was the Serge Jolimeau workshop. He is the oldest guy around and represents the fer battu sector here in Haiti. I’ve learnt a lot from him, not just his skills but also his behaviour, how he acts with clients, his open-mindedness etc. He has been a great inspiration to me in so many ways. What do you like about fer battu? I like it because I live thanks to it, and of course I enjoy the process of designing and producing metal pieces. Could you explain the whole process of working with fer battu? In order to produce one piece of fer battu, there are 7 crucial steps. First of all the purchasing of the raw material: oil drums that we buy in Port-au-Prince. Then, you must burn the empty drums to remove the colours on them, because barrels are always coloured (yellow, blue, brown etc.) and we cannot work on them when there are colours. Then we cut them in half and make them flat and clean them to make sure there is no metal dust left on them. After this, it’s time to draw the design – from a sample or from pure inspiration, onto the flattened, half-pieces of metal. Finally, we can start with the cutting: take the “negative” out, this part is called “débourrer”. But the richness of the design is not only about the cut-outs, but also about the textures we put into the metal that we emboss with different tools. What tools do you use? The punch and chisel are important. We use a hammer to bend the drums and sandpaper and varnish for the finishing. Do you mostly work for people like Stella Jean, who ask for specific items? Do you still make your own creations? I work for people like Stella who want specific things, but also from my own inspiration. My speciality is
Haitian metalwork artist Mickerson Jean talks to Chloé Mukai about learning his art in Croixdes-Bouquets, his respect for fellow artist Serge Jolimeau, the difference between spirits or ‘Iwas’ and signs or ‘vévés’ and above all else, his passion for work. Photos: Romel Jean-Pierre
masks. Do you research them, or do your ideas come out of imagination? I research about masks and about voodoo religion, because I link the masks with voodoo. I research African masks to see what they produce there, especially since my masks originate from Africa. My work is different from traditional African masks, but they inspire me. Are there no masks in Haiti? There are, but I don’t want my work to be like what we already have in Haiti. I don’t want to make what I see in Africa either. But it is my inspiration: I appreciate African masks, especially those from Congo. So do you do research on the internet, in books? I research a lot on the internet. There is this French guy who buys my masks and one day he brought me a book about African masks. I avoid making exactly the same thing, but try to get inspired by these photos. I also feel the link with voodoo. In reality, Haitian and African voodoo have a lot in common. When you see Haitian voodoo, you can also see Africa, because many of our lwas (the spirits of Haitian voodoo) come from Africa. This is why there is a very strong link between the two. Voodoo in my work is mostly perceptible in my masks and in the vévés (religious symbol commonly used in voodoo), because each of our lwas has a vévé illustration. So the vévé and lwa are two separate elements? The vévé is the sign which designates a lwa. When we see a vévé, it is the symbol of a lwa, like Agwé, Ambala, Simbi. So for example when we see this vévé (points at a small metalpiece), we know that it represents Simbi. Whereas this one (points at another piece) is a Kuzesaka, the spirit of cultivators. Now let’s talk a little bit about you. What can you share about yourself asides your work? Not much… I work all the time. Even when I’m not working, work is on my mind. It’s a slightly crazy idea but I wish I could die at work. Sometimes I listen to music and I occasionally drink a beer, but never two. Do you have children? I have two: a boy of 11 and a girl of 3. Do you think your son will work here? Would you like him to? I can see in him the ability to become an artist of some kind, because he likes to draw. I would like him to work in fer battu, here or elsewhere. I love my job so it would make me proud to have him follow my steps.
Above: Mickerson Jean, fer battu artisan, in his workshop Top right: Serge Jolimeau, one of the most respected metalwork artisans in Haiti Bottom right: 3. Fer battu artisans transform metal drums into intricate designs