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Haitian 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 of artwork.

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 of iron.

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.

Source: Haitian Visions: A Diverse Cultural Legacy by Nancy Walkup Reynolds with Judy Godfrey and Stevie Mack (1993: CRIZMAC Art and Cultural Education Materials, Inc.)



Discussion Questions:
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 their efforts.