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Haitian Visions: A Diverse Cultural Legacy

As the relief efforts continue in Haiti following the devastation of the earthquake that struck on January 12th, we are haunted by the many compelling stories of these resilient people. Hardship has long been a way of life for the Haitian people, but the challenges they now face in rebuilding their country are greater than ever before.

The country of Haiti occupies the western half of the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic is to the east) in the Caribbean Sea. The name, “Haiti,” means “mountainous land,” in the native language of the Taino people, who were the original inhabitants of the island. The name is an apt description of the island’s rugged topography.

As a result of European influences, French is the country’s official language, and the official religion is Catholicism. However, most Haitians speak Creole, which is a blend of languages, and practice Vodun, which is based on African tribal religions with an overlay of Catholic ritual and imagery.

Although Haiti is economically poor, it has a rich tradition of artistic creativity. As with their language and religion, Haitian art is an expression of the people and represents a blend of Indian, Spanish, French, African and North American influences. For years, artists in Haiti created primarily for their own enjoyment, incorporating images from family life and island festivities, which they used to decorate their houses and temples.

This began to change in 1944, when the American artist, DeWitt Peters came to Haiti. He founded an art center that provided art lessons, exhibition space, and income through the sale of art. This was the beginning of a flourishing art scene that still exists in Haiti. Over the years, Haitian art has grown in significance and importance, as it has been increasingly recognized by the international art community.

Seemingly ordinary materials are frequently used in the production of artworks. Traditional art forms include festival masks and ritual banners, but perhaps the best known works are metal sculptures, which are cut from old oil drums. A popular medium for Haitian artists, metal also connects the people to their African roots as metal is a sacred material in Africa, believed to possess special powers.

To produce a metal sculpture, oil drums are cut and flattened, then cut again into the desired shapes. Some Haitian artists cut into the metal directly, without benefit of preliminary sketches, but others carefully plan their designs on paper before transferring them to the metal for cutting. Although some sculptures are left unpainted, more commonly, they are painted in bright, shiny colors. Popular themes include traditional history or religion. Everyday life also provides sources of inspiration, such as the colorful tap-taps, recycled jeeps that are brightly painted and used as forms of public transportation in the cities.

Haitian art is an example of the vital and unwavering creative spirit that has helped these people triumph over the most adverse conditions of human life and will undoubtedly assist them in persevering through the current tragedy.


Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

In what ways does the artwork tell us about the time and place in which it was made?

• Does the subject matter of the work suggest something about its origins?

• Do the materials or techniques suggest something about the place in which the artwork was made?

• Is the artwork similar to artworks made by others who lived in this place?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.