Visions: A Diverse Cultural Legacy
Haiti has a rich and unique artistic tradition shaped by its history
of diverse cultural influences. These influences find expression
in Haitian music, religion, and art.
The name Haiti means “mountainous land.” Haiti occupies
the western third of the tropical Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
When Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492 on his first
voyage to the New World, he claimed it for Spain. Columbus and his
crew were met by the peaceful Taino, the native Arawak people who
lived on the island. As the Spanish developed plantations to grow
sugar cane, cotton, and coffee beans on the island, they needed
a workforce and the Taino were pressed into service. Many of the
Taino died from the forced labor and cruel treatment. With the numbers
of Taino diminished, the Spanish began importing slaves from Africa
to replace them.
In 1697, France gained control of Haiti from Spain, and controlled
the slavery-based plantation economy for the next 100 years. French
became the official language of the colony, which was then called
Saint Domingue. For a time, it was the richest French colony in
the New World, but the riches were gained through abuse of the slaves,
many of whom died during the 100 years of slavery. In 1791, the
slaves, led by Pierre Toussaint L’Ouverture, began a revolt,
fighting for their freedom against the troops of Napoleon. The French
were defeated and Haitian Independence was declared in 1804.
Although Haiti is an economically poor country, it possesses a rich
tradition of artistic creativity that has been shaped by native
Caribbean, Spanish, French, African, and North American influences.
The Haitian people are innovative and industrious. They often make
much out of little, using seemingly ordinary materials in the production
Haitian artists are known for their flat metal sculptures made from
recycled oil drums. Metal also connects Haiti to its African roots
as metal is a sacred material in Africa and thought to possess special
powers. For example, Gu, an African diety of iron and war,
personifies iron’s cutting edge, and Ogoun, one of
the most powerful loas or spirits, is the loa
To produce the metal sculpture, the oil drums are cut and flattened,
then cut again into shapes. Chisels, hammers, and shears are used
to create the designs.
While some Haitian artists cut into the metal directly, others plan
their designs on paper before transferring them to the metal for
cutting. Favorite themes include mermaids, devils, birds, and people.
The colorful recycled jeeps known as “Tap Taps” that
provide public transportation in Haiti are also popular subjects.
Haitian artists often paint their sculptures in bright, tropical
colors, however, some artists prefer to leave the works unpainted.
Paintings by Haitian artists are also very popular. Many artists
use vibrant colors to paint about Haitian history, daily life and
religion. The market serves as a center of activity for many Haitian
communities, and artists often sell their work alongside the fruit
and vegetable vendors.
Visions: A Diverse Cultural Legacy by Nancy Walkup Reynolds
with Judy Godfrey and Stevie Mack (1993: CRIZMAC Art and Cultural
Education Materials, Inc.)
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte
by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)
Why is artwork significant?
• Is Haitian artwork significant because of what it teaches
about the culture?
• Is Haitian artwork significant because of the feelings,
ideas, or themes it expresses?
• Is the work significant because of your response to it?
If so, why?
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