Haitian Art: History, Style & Facts

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Bright colors and glittering sequins; paintings of voodoo spirits; metal oil drums turned into sculpture; what country produces such unique art? In this lesson, explore the history of Haitian art and learn about styles and facts related to it.

Where is Haiti?

Haitian art comes from a complex mix of influences, including African and European cultures, the legacy of slavery, and colonialism.

First, let's review basic facts regarding Haiti. It's located on Hispaniola, the second-largest island in the Caribbean region. Haiti shares the island with another country, the Dominican Republic. First inhabited by indigenous peoples called the Taino and Arawak cultures, the French later colonized the area that became Haiti. They forcibly brought African slaves to Haiti to farm crops like sugar, coffee, and cotton.

A series of slave rebellions began in the mid-eighteenth century, and eventually Haiti gained its independence through revolution in 1804. But it remained influenced by a blend of French and African customs. One of these customs was the development of a religion known as voodoo, a mix of of traditional African beliefs and Catholicism.

Haitian Art History

We know that the Taino and Arawak cultures made art objects, but little of their culture survived the French arrival. For much of its early history, Haitian art was strongly influenced by the customs of French art, even after independence. By the 1820s, more than one art academy in the European style had been founded in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, and known Haitian artists included people like Thimoléon Déjoie. The artists who studied in academies painted in a style similar to academic painting in Europe, which focused on accurate renderings of human forms and subjects like portraiture and still life scenes.

Another style of art, much more colorful and self-expressive, was also practiced in Haiti. Sometimes called naïve or outsider art, these works were done by artists not trained in the manner of European art academies. They created their own imagery, using bold colors and lines and exploring subjects like religion--including Haiti's voodoo religion--and everyday life in a manner far different from academic painting.

Haitian Painting in the Twentieth Century

This work wasn't seen much by people outside of Haiti until after 1944 when DeWitt Peters, an American artist stationed in Haiti during WW II, established the Centre d'Art, a cultural center, in Port-au-Prince. Dedicated to art by the Haitian people, the Centre's goal was to provide gallery space, materials, and access to the art world. These elements allowed the vibrant work of Haitian artists to be seen by larger audiences.

Among the many creative self-taught artists were Hector Hyppolite (1894 - 1948), a painter and houngan or voodoo priest. Voodoo symbolism often figured in Hyppolite's work, as in his painting Damballa La Flambeau.

Hector Hyppolite, Damballa La Flambeau, ca. 1946
painting by Hector Hyppolite

In this image, a winged snake with a human head and shoulders curls, ready to strike. Surrounding it are pulled back curtains and a field of flowers. Damballa was a powerful loa or spirit in voodoo, and the phrase ''la Flambeau'' conveyed flame-filled eyes and power. It's an image expressly connected to Haitian religion.

Bold, colorful painting remains important in modern Haitian cultural life, and exhibitions of Haitian paintings have been featured around the world. But other forms of Haitian art are also gaining attention.

Other Styles of Haitian Art

Haiti has a troubled past that includes war, poverty, economic instability, and natural disasters like earthquakes. But its people are resilient and they've used whatever was around to make art. One style of art that represents this is Haitian metal art.

Example of Haitian metal art. This one includes a girl walking in a garden
Example of Haitian metal art

Traditionally made from sections of oil barrels that brought supplies into the harbor in Port-au-Prince, artists flattened and compressed the sides of the barrels and punched them with chisels and hammers to form intricate wall hangings. Popular subjects included nature, animal scenes, landscapes, and floral subjects.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account