Restoring the Spirit - Celebrating Haitian Art


The devastating earthquake that reduced much of Haiti to rubble also struck a tremendous blow to the small island nation’s vibrant cultural heritage. Irreplaceable works of art that once graced the walls of the government buildings, churches, art museums and other cultural sites of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, were badly damaged or destroyed during the earthquake.

As the home of one of the oldest collections of Haitian art, the Figge has benefited from the creativity and vitality of the Haitian people. The exhibition Restoring the Spirit—Celebrating Haitian Art pays homage to Haiti’s longstanding visual traditions and the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people in the face of adversity.

Haiti has been no stranger to tragedy. The death and destruction left in the wake of the 2010 earthquake was exacerbated by the already fragile social, economic and environmental conditions of Haiti. Since the Spaniards first claimed the island for Spain in 1492 and decimated the native population of Taino and Arawak Indians, Haiti has endured a turbulent and often bloody history. Seventeenth-century plantations owned by the French brought the country great wealth but much of the prosperity was dependent upon West and Central African slaves, who were forced to work the land.

In 1804, Haiti earned the distinction of becoming the first black republic to win independence. Slavery was abolished but life did not improve for many Haitians. A series of dictators replaced colonial rule and plunged the nation into constant political upheaval while war reparations to France depleted Haiti’s financial resources. American occupation from 1915 to 1934 was soon followed by two of its most infamous rulers, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose corrupt and exploitative regimes left this once luscious land prosperous nation destitute and vulnerable to environmental disasters.

Despite, or perhaps in response to such hardships, Haiti has developed a flourishing artistic tradition that speaks to the vitality of Haitian culture and the courage of its people. Works of art range from vibrant paintings and sequin-covered textiles, to sculpture created from discarded oil drums or carved from wood. Brilliant in color and often abstract in form and composition, Haitian art has been classified as “primitive” and “naïve,” terms that misleadingly suggest a lack of sophistication in style and content. But the broad spectrum of individual styles and choice of subject matter belie such simple categorizations.

Some artists document historical events and heroes from the past while others represent details from small town or rural life and record everyday events such as visits to market, social gatherings or communal festivities. The imagination frequently serves as the source of inspiration. Particularly arresting are the fantastic paintings of verdant, lush landscapes populated by exotic animals. These images make reference to the belief shared by many Haitians that their island was a paradise before the arrival of the Europeans and allow them to escape the reality of Haiti’s environmental woes.

Much of Haitian art also must be understood in the context of vodou beliefs and practices. An essential part of Haitian culture since the early 16th century, vodou developed from several African religions brought to the island by slaves. Over time, West and Central African beliefs were mixed with aspects of other religions, namely Catholicism, to form what is now known as Haitian vodou. Paintings frequently depict the various vodou deities and other complexities of vodou beliefs and practices.

Support has been provided by the Iowa Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, and Ralph and Jennifer Saintfort

This exhibition continues through February 1
9, 2012.





images: Pierre Edugene, The Feast, n.d., oil on canvas, gift of the Estate of Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger, 2007.16; Edouard Duval-Carrié, Endless Flight (detail), 2000, mixed media. The elements of Endless Flight are gifts of Mireille Chancy Gonzalez, Kenan Siegal, David Wallack and Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger, MD, 2000.14; Préfète Duffaut, Ville Imaginaire (Imaginary Town), 1966, oil on canvas, gift of Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger, M.D., 1967.0007