Haitian Art - Celebrating the Spirit of Joyfulness in Hard and Tumultuous Times

December 15, 2015

"What is Haiti? Haiti is the eldest daughter of France and Africa. It is a place of beauty, romance, mystery, kindness, humor, selfishness, betrayal, cruelty, bloodshed, hunger, and poverty."

-Robert Debs Heinl-

When it comes to the first black republic established in the world – Haiti, art is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. In the midst of centuries of the nation’s struggle with dictatorships, natural disasters, poverty and other hardships, it is Haitian art and spirit of the people that truly overcome and transcend these crippling circumstances. The 21st century has been a tumultuous one for Haiti; political upheaval, devastating hurricanes, a cataclysmic earthquake, epidemics and continuous instability have rocked the nation. Currently, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a far cry from its economic condition in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when it was one of the richest colonies in the world. However, despite all of the turmoil and hardships that keep affecting the development and growth of the country, Haitian art remains as a reflection of the beauty hidden behind the misery, poverty, natural disasters, despotic military regime and destructions. There is much more than just Voodoo and primitive, religious paintings hiding in the arts of Haiti. Unfortunately, not all is preserved due to the devastating earthquakes, but what was documented and what remains, serves as a continual reminder of the joyful spirit of this island nation. Let us explore the vivid explosion of colors and influences that make up Haitian art.

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Louis Joseph - artwork

History of Haitian Art

The history of Haitian artistic activity can be traced back centuries ago. Even though most Haitian arts historians consider “Centre d’art” as the birthplace of Haitian Art, there is no denial that it existed even during and after colonial times. In the early 1800s, an art school was founded in Port-Au-Prince by a French artist, some 30 years later, in 1846, Faustin Soulouque founded the “Imperial Academy of the Arts” which produced one of the most famous painters from the school - Desroches Numa. But, realistically, it was only with the foundation of the Centre d’art in 1944 that Haitian art truly started to blossom and spring forward. Founded in Port-Au-Prince by Dewitt Peters, the center enabled the artistically untrained painters to finally develop their skills and better express themselves. By creating an environment where they could receive proper training and guidance, the artists quickly received international recognition, becoming known as the first generation who earned the admiration of the western world. The talented self-taught artists who rose to prominence were Wilson Bigaud, Philome Obin, Hector Hyppolite, Castera Bazile, and Rigaud Benoit.

The center effectively produced a market and inspired many primitive and undefined artists to pursue their passion and talent. The acknowledgement of the country and forming of the market gave legitimacy to painting as a profession. With many artists isolated by mountains and restricted by poverty, they got to develop their own styles, free from the accepted rules of famous painters from around the world. Voodoo was the most commonly depicted subject in their early works, and once the Centre d'art became a success, other art schools were founded in other parts of the country, spreading new inspiration and opportunities for local creators. School of Cap-Haitian, School of Jacmel and Foyer Des Arts Plastiques are just some of the institutions which grew later, and brought us the second generation of great painters from Haiti. Figures like Seymour Bottex, Wilmino Domond, Andre Pierre, Prefete Duffaut and others would go on to form many other artistic movements. Eventually, hundreds of talented painters thrived on this small island and contributed greatly to the development of Haitian Art.

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Left: Jose Morillo - artwork / Right: Payas - artwork

Haitian Art Styles: Naïve vs Modern

Establishing of the Centre d’Art brought along international attention and sparked a widespread enthusiasm for the “naïve” and “primitive” styles of popular and religious Haitian art. Even though entirely new styles and techniques have been undertaken and developed by Haitian artists since the 1950s, collectors from Europe and the United States mostly sought out the so-called primitive and naïve work. The ones who pursued the abstract modes or other progressive forms saw their work ignored or discarded as not being proper “Haitian.” Many artists completely left behind their “indigenous” roots and pushed the boundaries of not only Haitian art, but of modernism itself. Their modernistic aesthetic strayed far from the standard “primitive” works that became the frame for popular conception of Haitian art. Thus was born the general division in Haitian paintings and arts into two categories: naives and moderns.

The naives are also known as primitives, and they’re often described as a style lacking of artistic education and discipline while the modern painters have come to view the term naïve as a negative connotation regarding the evolution of Haitian art. But, when examined more thoroughly, the term naïve has more to do with independence from academic tradition, more leaning towards artistic innocence. The focus of the western world was keen on the untrained artists and their traditional depictions of voodoo or simple village and market scenes depicted with vivid colors. Coincidently, this practice fostered a stereotype of Haitian art as primitive and naïve.

So, which painters were considered as moderns? Generally, it was the ones who received artistic education and training from other masters on how to refine their crafts. They got a chance to travel abroad even and take upon European influences and styles from abroad while still maintaining Haitian elements in their work. Today, the modernism of Haiti transcends into vivid colors, displaying influences from various styles such as surrealism, pointillism and impressionism. Even though these artists are a far cry from the boundlessly free, creative and innovative naives, their subjects often remain familiar, depicting landscapes, people and the culture of Haiti.

Haitian Voodoo art list  print louis
Haitian Voodoo art

Devastating Earthquake of 2010 and its Irrevocable Damage

January 10, 2010, a devastating earthquake of massive proportions hit the small island of Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people were lost, countless homes, properties and constructions were irrevocably destroyed. Galleries were demolished and thousands of paintings were lost. Pieces dating back as far as 1905 have been lost in the rubbles of the collapsed churches, galleries and museums. Disaster of such magnitude struck a knockout blow to the heart of Haiti’s vibrant arts community. The summed up losses could not be replaced with any amount of money, unfortunately, the biggest collection of Haitian art, not only in Haiti but in the world, was irrevocably lost. Alas, the human spirit is an element resistant of almost any natural disaster, material loss or disastrous event. It is in human nature to rise above the devastations and continue to work on producing a better world for us all. Haiti may be the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but a lot of critics and fans agree that it’s the Caribbean’s most culturally wealthy nation. The world’s first independent black republic is still vivid with colorful and explosive art, showcasing the creative spirit of this small nation. The surviving artists and creators strived to find some inspiration in the surrounding events and needn’t look further than at the hopefulness and strength of the Haitian people. At that point, for many artists, their work became an aspect of survival, both as a means to heal and to provide.

Haiti after earthquake list  print louis
Haiti after earthquake

The Paradox of Haiti

One of the greatest paradoxes seen in Haitian art is the omnipresent sense of joy. Despite the misery and poverty which ravaged the country throughout its history, Haiti art is brimming with at least some elements of happiness, joy and positive sensations. The artists always seem to find a way to include the joyfulness of the people in their work. Either through religious depictions of dreams and voodoo, or paintings of people, landscape and everyday life, symbols of joy are celebrated. Perhaps, this could be accredited to the nature of Haitians, where the average citizen can, no matter what, find satisfaction with the little he/she may possess. With a strain of rebellion embedded in their DNA, dating back to the times of colonization and slavery, people find a sense of pride in being able to find happiness when there’s no obvious reason to be happy. It appears that nothing can break the resilience of Haitian art which still breathes with beauty, vibrant colors and joy, captivating the heart and soul of Haiti.

All images used for illustrative purposes only