The Influence of Native American and African Encounters on Haitian Art

By Nesin, Barbara | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Native American and African Encounters on Haitian Art


Nesin, Barbara, Journal of Haitian Studies


In higher education and elsewhere, divisive polarizations between ethnically and culturally different people persist despite the efforts in academia to expand discourse in order to achieve true plurality and inclusiveness. For example, cultural and artistic expression in Haiti is commonly regarded as a strictly African-European nexus, disregarding the contributions of indigenous Americans.

Not much has changed since Jack D. Forbes wrote his book, Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, over ten years ago. Forbes articulated what had become obvious, yet incredible: that writers, scientists, historians and artists have largely dismissed the multiple mixture of cultures and races that characterizes the Americas.1 He encouraged further study of the confluences between African and Native people in all disciplines. Little has been done to study this subject from the discipline of the visual arts, even while art is widely celebrated as one of Haiti's most significant achievements and exports.

The visual arts mirror the past, present, and future of a society. The negation of the contributions, real and potential, of those who are simply (albeit vastly) outnumbered prevents us from knowing the whole truth about ourselves and about others. Time has shown us again and again that the human spirit persists, adapts, and survives, even through its bleakest moments and across generations, even if only in the subtlest of visible forms. In Haiti, this spirit not only survived, but its rich African heritage flourished. Sometimes art can help to uncover more truth, or at least provide a starting point from which to extend what artist Newton Harrison has called the "conversational drift" of our time.

The Native American legacy in Haitian art was largely ignored until the mid-1990s when an art exhibition-marking 500 years since the first European contact with Haiti-was presented at the Chicago Cultural Center.2 That exhibit seems to have spurred other artists in Haiti and the Diaspora to make this forgotten aspect of Haiti's history visible, though within the prevailing notion that all native people-and their cultural influence-in Haiti were "wiped out" in the 16th century, soon after the arrival of the Spaniards.

The earliest evidence of people in the Caribbean around 4,000 BCE comes from Taíno sites in Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.3 Thus, much of the scholarship in this area concerns the Taíno people, but little of that work has addressed their presence in Haiti proper. This paper will also look to common elements in the history, culture, and art of the Dominican Republic and Cuba. In addition, Haiti at one time included the eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola that it now shares with the Dominican Republic, and the eastern portion of Cuba is home to many Haitian descendants. While other nations of the Greater Antilles have also studied Taíno culture, Cuba and the Dominican Republic seem most relevant to the aim of discovering the far-reaching contributions of the relationship between African and Taíno people to Haiti and to her art.4

Historical Background

Island Arawakan people, including the Taíno and Caribs, who inhabited the Caribbean at the time of European arrival in 1492, constitute part of the triad of Christian, African and Amerindian sources that provide a common basis for most Caribbean religious systems, including Haitian Vodou and the Santeria of the Spanish-speaking islands. Each is widely acknowledged as a creolization of West African religions originating in the lands of Dahomey, Yoruba, and Kongo (among others) and crafted to coexist covertly alongside Christianity under the noses of the particular colonizing culture.

Questions of national identity can become all-consuming when a nation is struggling for survival. The Négritude movement generated pride in both individual and national identity; in the process, perhaps it also blotted out some of Haiti's reality. …

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