What Do We Know About Caribbean Art ?

September 27, 2016

The culture of one of the most beautiful places on the planet, the Caribbean islands, reflects the region's history and a plethora of influences. Caribbean art, and its production of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture, suggests an existence of different streams inside one big river. This comes as no surprise since the term Caribbean art defines the production of all the islands and artists whose heritage returns them back to the region. Influenced by its past, and its geographical position, the rich production, similarly to the production of the African artists, is still considered as mysterious and unexplored by the major art players.

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Unknown author - Example of the painting produced in the Dominican Republic . Image via locagringa.com

All the Islands of the Caribbean

As mentioned above, the term Caribbean art defines the art of artists who live or who are from the Caribbean. This includes the islands of Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Curaçao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, Saba, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and the United States Virgin Islands.

The identity of each island is unique yet shaped by the influences of European colonialists, the African heritage of slaves and the legacy of the native Indian tribes[1]. Such mix of cultures, its diaspora and shifting socio-political realities make influence and help to shape the Caribbean history and identity.

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Barrington Watson - Washer Women. Image via nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com

The Variety of Influences – Different Faces of Caribbean Paintings

From the production of the indigenous Arawak people to the variety of influences by the many settler nations, Caribbean art reflects the region’s rich past and the various waves of migration. Incorporating different styles of European art with its own culture, Caribbean paintings need to be read as a collage of all the different periods of island's heritage[2]. Formed from the colonial time and its first settlers, through to the influences of European style painting, along with the Spanish and French culture, the traditional production of the islands was surprisingly slow. With the exception of the art of the Haiti island, critics suggest that it was only in the 20th-century that we witness evidence of the local creation. During the 1950’s and 60’s a small group of Caribbean artists was focused on the re-invention of the traditional Arawak production[3]. Known for their stone carvings, pottery, and figurines, Arawak creations form an important part of islands’ tradition.

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Kehinde Wiley - Untitled Down (with bullet). Image via kehindewiley.com

Important Subject Matter of Caribbean Art and Its Artists

Seen as one of the major influences for the creation is of course the beautiful nature of this part of the world. Its many colors are reflected back in the watercolors, paintings, and mural paintings which decorate the streets of Kingston. The influence of many shapes and shades found in nature is more than evident in the creations of Heleen Cornet. Originally not from the Caribbean, the move to Saba transformed this artist. Influenced by the rain-forest, the underwater scene, and religious symbolism, Cornet is known for her oil and watercolor production.

Much of the islands production embraces the African heritage and celebrates the production of Edna Manley. Known for her sculptures which depict black figures, Manley is named as ‘the mother of Jamaican art’. Even though much of her sculptures were highly personal, inevitable was her connection to politics. Today, many young artists, working on the islands, or in other parts of the world, reflect political trials and tribulations. This is particularly evident by the artists from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. The production of Jamaica is particularly rich and quite possibly led by Ebony G. Patterson. Recently named on the Huffington Post Top 30 black artists under 40, Patterson is celebrated for her creativity across an array of art disciplines focused on reflecting upon the issues surrounding the questions of identity and the body. Deeply rooted in highly political concerns, Patterson is just one of the names of acknowledged artists of this region. Also important is Barrington Watson who is seen to stand at the forefront of Jamaican art since the post-independence era of the 1960’s.

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Ebony G. Petterson - 72 Projects. Image via anniepaul.net

The Placement of Caribbean Painting

There has been much debate over the existence of a cohesive style in the Caribbean culture and its art.  With one stream focused on keeping the tradition alive and the other defined by the need of young Caribbean artists to keep up with the major trends of contemporary art, production is quite eclectic and versatile. In the recent years, the difference between the notion of high art and popular art has also been blurred, making it that much harder to pinpoint major trends and styles. Not helping the situation is also the vastness of the region and the unique identity of all the islands.

Honoring its African heritage, during the 1980’s and 1990’s Afro-Caribbean art started to depict post-modern concerns of identity and cultural diversity[4]. This has helped to attract the interest of some of the major art centers of the world and such interest continues till today. In the last years, the region has come to be known as the birthplace of some of the most interesting art events. The Fine Art Fair in Barbados, Jamaican Biennale, CafaFair, and the growing number of galleries locally and internationally help to celebrate and bring closer the versatility of this culture. Seen to celebrate life, color, nature, tradition, and to reflect on the pressing issues of today, the migration of artists from the islands and to the islands has helped to create this elaborate production. With this article, we aimed to bring just the surface of this glorious culture that reminds us of its elaborate heritage.

Editors’ Tip: Art at the Crossroads of the World

Described as one of the best books reflecting the modern time of the Caribbean through the artistic production, the writings take us on a journey of styles and influences.Beginning far back as the 18th-century through to the 21st-century it offers a detail study of the history and major influences. Examining, not only the individual production of the islands but also the richness of the coastal area and the vast diaspora, the writings explore some of the important issues of the region. Essays by the important scholars reflect the question of the artistic production, the colonial time, and the role of art in shaping the region’s identity. If Caribbean culture interests you, make sure you invest in this book as it is described as the definitive volume of this culture for many decades to come.


  1. Anonymous, Visual Arts , Caribya! [September 23, 2016]
  2. Poupeye, V., Caribbean Art , Thames and Hudson, 1998
  3. Turner, J., Encyclopedia of Latin American & Caribbean Art, Grove, 2006
  4. Archer, P., Afro-Caribbean Art - 1914 to Present, Petrine Archer.com [September 23, 2016]

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Haitian Art, Haiti and Port Au Prince. Image via pinterest.com; Anonymous author - Example of Dominican Republic Art. Image via locagringa.com