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Haitian Art – A Font of Creativity




The small country of Haiti, which has been beset by more than it’s share of natural disasters and political upheaval, is the source of a remarkable artistic tradition. 

 

Indeed, it may seem callous to focus on Haitian art at this time, while Haiti is in a dire humanitarian crisis brought on by the assassination of it’s president in 2021 and continuing political instability, with violent gangs assuming control of large portions of the country.  The crisis in Haiti is horrific and I urge everyone to read up on this situation and to contribute, if possible, to respected charitable organizations such as Partners in Health.  But Haitian art is a marvel that should be acknowledged.

 

A brief history before turning to folk art.  Haiti is a country that occupies the western portion of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic occupying the larger eastern part of the island.  The countries differ dramatically in their history, geography, language, and culture.  While both countries were colonized by European countries and their people subjugated and forced into slavery and dictatorships, their histories have diverged significantly.  The larger island was first settled by Columbus for Spain, but the western portion of the island was ceded to France in the 17th century.  African slaves were brought by the French to the island to work plantations, producing one of the most vibrant economies of the time for France.  However, years later, a 13-year rebellion was successful and Haiti became an independent country in 1804 marking the first successful slave uprising.  The Dominican Republic gained independence from Spain, was briefly ruled by Haiti, and gained its ultimate independence in 1844.  While both countries have struggled with dictatorships, the Dominican Republic has had the more successful economy and higher standard of living in recent years.  Natural disasters such as the earthquakes, floods, and pandemics have hit Haiti much harder due to its geography as well as its poverty. French creole, the language adopted by the slaves in Haiti, is the dominant language, increasing Haiti's isolation, while Spanish is spoken in the Dominican Republic.  At one time, Haiti was the wealthiest country in the Caribbean and it is now the poorest.

 

Art has been an important part of Haitian culture since African slaves were brought to the island.  Haitian art draws on its African heritage as well as indigenous Taino Indian culture and other sources.  An important element of Haitian art is Vodou (the appropriate spelling, not "voodoo"!), a syncretic religion that has its roots in African traditional religions with assimilated elements from European and Latin American traditions and other religions such as Catholicism.  Vodou is practiced by the majority of Haitians.  The most distinctive Vodou art form is the prayer flag, (“drapo voudou”) an embroidered fabric decorated with sequins or beads and often used in religious ceremonies.  Vodou gets a bad rap in horror movies that inaccurately portray it as synonymous with black magic or sorcery.  In fact, Vodou is a practical religion focused on healing and care for its people.  Adherents view the universe as inhabited by deities who are intermediaries between humans and god, much like Greek mythology.  Many of the symbols contained in prayer flags depict these deities, such as Agwe, the lord of the ocean and protector of ships, or Lasiren, his wife, often depicted as a mermaid holding a trumpet. 


Among my most treasured purchases are a large prayer flag and smaller mermaid flag bought from the shop at the American Visionary Arts Museum.





Sequins are also used to decorate bottles which are used in religious ceremonies.




Haitian art is also known for brightly colored paintings, typically of everyday scenes of markets, farming, or other daily activities.  It may be considered “primitive” or “naïve” and is often created by self-taught artists using simple shapes and a multitude of colors.  An example in my "collection" is at the top of this blog.


Haitian art also reflects the resilience or resourcefulness of its people, with art made from available materials such as metal and wood.  Haitian metal cuts, made from recycled oil drums, are one such example that are widely known.  The technique of transforming recycled cans and drums into art was first used to make grave markers but later expanded to cut metal wall hangings depicting religious themes or scenes from everyday life.  “Bosmétal” became a signature art form of Haiti with artists adapting the technique to their own style, sometimes adding color.  I have both a larger piece and two smaller metal cuts (both mermaids, one of which is painted).







Haitian art differs dramatically from that of the Dominican Republic, just across the border, reflecting their very different history, people, and geography, but also creating an interesting comparative study in the development of artistic traditions.  Haitian art is less schooled, more primitive or naïve, and more vibrant and syncretic than that of the DR, which draws on more formal European traditions and is taught in the many art schools within the country.  Art is a more dynamic and ubiquitous pastime in Haiti, as opposed to the more formal nature of much of DR art (admittedly an overstatement as folk art does exist in the DR, just not as plentiful).  As a lover of primitive or folk art, my preference is clear.

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