Haitian Art: Exploring Cultural Identity

By Hayes, Anne Marie; Robinson, Michelle | Art Education, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Haitian Art: Exploring Cultural Identity


Hayes, Anne Marie, Robinson, Michelle, Art Education


Introduction and Historical Background

Haiti is located in the Caribbean, and along with the Dominican Republic makes up the island Hispaniola (Fig. 1). Two-thirds of the country is mountainous. Most of the population (95%) is Black and poor. In the 15th century Spanish explorers and soldiers conquered the indigenous peoples, and in the early 16th century, Spain began transporting slaves from Africa to search for gold. The French took control of Haiti in 1697 and named the colony Saint Domingue. The French colonists established prosperous sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations that depended upon the African slaves for labor.

In 1791 the African slaves rebelled against the French, whom they outnumbered nearly 11 to 1, and years of fighting ensued. Although Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the first successful slave revolt in history, was captured by French troops sent by Napoleon in 1803, Haiti achieved independence on January 1, 1804. The only other republic in the Western Hemisphere at that time was the United States. From 1915-- 1934, U.S. troops occupied the island after concerns over political stability arose. This period of U.S. occupation was followed by the brutal dictatorships of Francois Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude. Elections were subverted until 1990 when Jean Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, was elected President. In 1994 U.S. troops returned to Haiti to support Aristide's government following yet another revolution.

Haiti's historical events have influenced the way in which Haitians view themselves. Haitian artists come from varied social backgrounds and have different life experiences and artistic training. The four paintings discussed here express Haitian concerns, including politics and the role of Vodou in daily life. Vodou, a religion that is practiced by the majority of Haitians, is an important aspect of Haitian culture. However, it is perhaps one of the most misunderstood religions because of how it has been sensationalized in Hollywood movies.

Hector Hyppolite Haiti, 1894-1947

Le President Florvil Hyppolite (President Florvil Hyppolite), ca. 1945-47 Oil and pencil on paper 30" x 24"

Museum purchase, Friends of Art Permanent Endowment Fund with assistance from the Beaux Arts Fund Committee, Inc., 92.13

Discussion

Declaring independence from France in 1804 was a great victory, but maintaining political stability has been, and continues to be, a challenge for the government of Haiti. The first Haitian leader was assassinated 2 years after taking office, which resulted in the country being divided under two leaders until 1818. From 1843-1915, Haiti had 22 heads of state, 14 of whom were deposed by revolution. President Florvil Hyppolite's term (1889-1896) took place during these decades of instability. (The artist is not related to the President.)

This painting differs significantly from traditional Western portraits of heads of state, both in its intent and its appearance. Haitians would undoubtedly recognize that this portrait is structured after the Haitian coat of arms (Fig. 2). President Hyppolite replaces the palm tree that appears above the six wings. The palm tree is an important icon because it represents the strength and resiliency of the Haitian people. Red and blue, the colors of the Haitian flag, appear throughout the painting--as a decorative band encircling Hyppolite, on his clothing, and in the floral elements. (Red and blue are also symbolic colors of Ogou, a Vodou spirit associated with military power.) Formal portraits of heads of state, as a rule, do not have decorative elements. In this portrait, the colorful hibiscus blossoms, layered over the red and blue band, enliven the pictorial space and compete for attention with Hyppolite. Decorative flowers appear in many Hyppolite paintings, but the symbolic meaning is unknown. The significance of depicting Hyppolite's eyes as those of a snake rather than as human is also unknown. …

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