Haitian Art

Haiti is one of those countries that we seldom here about except when something goes wrong. Take for example the earthquake that just occurred several years ago at Port' O Prince. Since that fateful day in January 2010, the world has become much aware of this small Caribbean nation that shares the old Spanish island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. You might say that the January 10th shake put Haiti map. Before that the nation's main exports were sugar cane products along with some poverty and Voodoo. Unfortunately, during the catastrophic events of 2010 much loss of life and property damage ensued.

Now as the nation slowly rebuilds and recovers, the world community might also be able to focus on other aspects of island life. One of these might be Haitian art, a real-life undertaking that has intrigued the outside world since at least WWII. Surprisingly, the largest collection of Haitian art is found among the cornfields of central Iowa.

For those interested in paintings from this Caribbean country, a visit to the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa could serve as a simple reminder of how unique and refreshing some of the contemporary art efforts can be. In this collection, the much talked about about Voodoo, is bypassed for a colorful artistic expression and style that lies somewhere between the primitive and modern.

The art of Haiti first got some important outside recognition during World War II, when Dewitt Peters, an American artist on wartime assignment traveled to the nation and eventually ended up starting a casual-styled art school among many of the country's self-taught artists. Essentially, what Peters did was to establish a place, where painters and sculptors who come together, compare works and interact with each other. Since Peter had good art contacts in Europe and America, he was able to channel interest to the workings of the island artists to collectors living in other countries. Since that time, interest in Haitian Art has grown considerably.

The art being made in Haiti during the years of the 20th and 21st centuries is hard to define. At first glance, it shows some similarities to American folk art, but also has some affinity to the great modernists, especially artists like Henri Rousseau, Charles Chagall and Paul Klee. Upon further analysis, other influences like the pre-Columbian murals of the Taino Indians, the African belief system of the large slave population and the European ideals of the French, who once possessed Haiti as a colony, come together in the island images. Mixed together, these ingredients form a rich “gumbo”, which can be appreciated by all, who view the artwork.

After viewing the Iowa collection, several things stand out. One is the color. To say that these paintings are very colorful would be an understatement, but as a body of work, they display their color in a way that is neither gaudy or irresponsible. Many of the paintings, at least the ones on display in Waterloo, portrayed scenes of Haiti. Others pictured wild African animals, popular cultural heroes or something as simple as a still life composed from local items. What is so inspiring about the work is how the art school or style has stood the test of time without becoming campy or redundant.