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What Defines Haitian Folk Art?

What Defines Haitian Folk Art?

Haitian Folk Art emerged on the international art scene in the 1940s. For such a rich and complex culture, it feels like long-overdue recognition. 

But the history of Haiti contains a perfect storm of enslavement and oppression. And the first gallery in Haiti, Le Centre d’Art, didn’t open its doors until 1944. 

So what have we been missing this whole time? Only a two-hour flight from Tampa, Florida, exists an entire art world we’ve barely discovered. 

Hop on board and explore Haitian Folk Art with us! 

What Is Haitian Folk Art?

Outsider Art and Folk Art teach us that an art movement doesn’t need a museum to exist. Haitian Folk Art is no exception. American watercolorist DeWitt Peters moved to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the early 1940s. 

The former French colony, impoverished by reparations paid to France, lacked a formal art culture. Instead, art existed everywhere. Local artists covered sidewalks, buildings, tap-taps (taxi buses), and religious artifacts in art. 

Peters opened Le Centre d’Art as a gallery and school to encourage and sell existing artists’ work. The center gave artists access to government funding, plus tools and materials they couldn’t afford. 

Then, the Museum of Modern Art purchased René Vincents Le combat des coqs (Cock Fight) in 1944. Up to that point, Indigenist art was largely unknown outside of Haiti. Indigenist artists responding to the American occupation (1915-1934) created work unique to Haiti. 

But before Le Centre d’Art existed, Haitian art existed. Le combat des coqs predated Peters’ move to Haiti by two years. Haitian painters and artisans before Le Centre d’Art created work in several distinct categories. 

Painters created colorful scenes of life in the island nation and designs inspired by their enslaved ancestors. Artists also created drapo Vodou, religious flags used in the practice of their religion. Sculptures, crafts, and wooden art round out the categories of Haitian Folk Art.  

Why Is Haitian Folk Art So Important?

The uniqueness of Haitian culture expressed through art is what makes it so important. The cultural legacy of enslavement and colonization fed the art scene for seventy years. Artists expressed their cultural identity and religion through art in response to generations of oppression.

In 2010, after a massive earthquake that destroyed museums and Le Centre d’Art, Haitian artists rebuilt. They used the rubble around them to make new sculptures. Grants from international institutions helped rebuild.

Today, the Haitian Folk Art scene is thriving again. Artists are creating new work to fill the void left by the quake’s destruction of over 12,000 pieces.  

What is Haitian Vodou Art?

Haitian Vodou art is a subgenre of the Haitian Folk Art movement. These pieces, sculptures, drapo Vodou, and other religious objects, all play a role in the practice of Vodou. Primary differences between folk art and Vodou art lie in the function the piece plays. Folk art exists to tell a story or commemorate an event.

Vodou art objects serve a role in religious practice. A drapo servis is not just a work of art. These intricately beaded and embroidered flags celebrate an Iwa (spirit) or Catholic saint hoping to gain favor. Once collectors started buying them in the 1950s, priests made art flags for sale without the religious function. 

What Is the Difference Between Haitian Folk Art and Outsider Art?

Outsider Art and Haitian Folk Art have significant differences. Outsider Art exists outside of an established artistic tradition. If you’re an artist in America and did not come up through a formal art training program, you’re an Outsider artist. 

Anyone, regardless of their cultural legacy, can be an Outsider artist. Only Haitians and the Haitian diaspora can create Haitian Folk Art in the Haitian Folk tradition. However, they can also be Outsider artists.

Who Are Some Famous Haitian Folk Artists?

These Haitian artists left a legacy of Haitian Folk Art. Sometimes called Naïve Art, these artists came from non-traditional, little formal training backgrounds. It sounds like Outsider Art to us, but you be the judge. 

Rigaud Benoit

Born in 1911, Benoit worked as a shoemaker and taxi driver before becoming a painter. Early in the Naïve Art movement, Benoit’s work made collectors’ “must-have” lists almost immediately. In the 1950s, the Episcopal Cathedral of Sainte Trinité asked a group of thirteen artists to paint the interior. 

Benoit’s mural, Nativity, took the place of honor behind the grand altar. Sadly, the cathedral was destroyed in 2010. Narrative paintings and surrealist meditations characterize Benoit’s work. His surrealist work is precise, drawn with muted colors, and portrays Iwa and Vodou scenes. Benoit died in 1986 in his cottage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. 

Hector Hyppolite

Third generation Vodou priest, Hyppolite is considered the Grand Maître of Hatian Art. Born in 1894 in Saint-Marc, Haiti, Hyppolite became a shoemaker and house painter in his early career. Like his future son-in-law Benoit, he took up fine art painting using cardboard and chicken feathers. 

Le Centre d’Art provided Hyppolite with access to materials and an audience for his Vodou-inspired paintings. European Surrealists felt a connection to Hyppolite’s paintings and included him in their fold. 

Hyppolite painted from his experiences as a Vodou priest. As a result, his work was more realistic and religious than surrealist. Before his death at the age of 54, he started painting some of the darker aspects of Vodou. 

Gesner Abelard

Like the other artists on our list, Abelard did not come to art as a first career. Born in 1922 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Abelard was a care mechanic and detective in his early years. After studying sculpture at the Ecole Industrielle, he joined the Centre d’Art and began painting. 

In 1949 he won a bronze medal for his work celebrating the founding of Port-au-Prince. Lush jungles and birds characterize his work, but he also includes village life among his subjects. This Haitian Folk Art master is believed to be deceased, but there’s no concrete information about when or where. For all we know, he could still be alive!

Where Can I See Haitian Folk Art?

Seeing Haitian Folk Art in person is the best way, in our opinion. The vibrant colors and intricate details have more impact face-to-face. And you can feel the energy pouring out of the Vodou pieces. Just be sure to treat the Iwe with respect, and maybe you’ll reap the rewards. 

Indigo Arts Gallery

This gallery focuses primarily on Modern and Contemporary Art and is packed with Haitian artists who are still working today. Located in Philadelphia, PA, the Indigo Arts Gallery is the perfect place to view Haitian, Mexican, Nicaraguan, and Cuban art. 

You’ll find the usual paintings, flags, and religious objects, plus you’ll be able to expand your knowledge with their vast collection of art books. 

Figge Art Museum

The Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, has one of the largest collections of Haitian Folk Art in the United States. Primarily donations from Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger, the collection features work from the 1940s to the present. 

You’ll be able to view paintings, a large number of sculptures, and drapo servis. The sculptures are particularly fascinating because they depict the darker side of Vodou. Most pieces feature the common narrative style, but the sculptures are surreal and terrifying.

Outsider Folk Art 

In addition, we have some Haitian Folk Art in our personal collection, which you can see at Outsider Folk Art on Instagram. Celebrating folk and outsider artists, the gallery gives voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when.

Support Your Local Haitian Folk Artist

You can’t deny the similarity between Outsider Art and Haitian Folk Art. However, as a school of art, Haitian Folk artists have more in common than your typical Outsider artists – a shared heritage that informs their work. Spend some time getting to know the grand masters of Haitian art and find ways to support living artists if you can.

Do you have a favorite Haitian Folk artist we should highlight? Let us know in the comments!

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