Haiti may be the
poorest country in
the western hemisphere, but fans of its art say it is the Caribbean’s most culturally wealthy nation.
From the intricately crafted tap-tap buses that clatter through Port-au-Prince to the explosively colourful paintings that once adorned the walls of its many art galleries, it is impossible to miss the creative spirit of the world’s first independent black republic.
While there are records of art schools dating back to the early 19th century, Haitian artists only began to gain international recognition in the 1940s following the creation of Port-au-Prince’s Centre d’Art. Dozens of “naive artists”, among them voodoo priests and small-time farmers, gathered there to depict Haiti’s turbulent history in unmistakably colourfu1 and often surreal paintings and patchworks of “voodoo flags”.
The centre’s role in promoting Haitian art is disputed. Some say it discovered and nurtured a generation of talented but untrained artists; others say it merely helped already skilled artists make contact with overseas buyers, bringing much-needed funds to the local art scene.
Through the centre, Hector Hyppolite, a one-time shoemaker and voodoo priest, became Haiti’s most internationally revered artist, leading a generation of local painters whose instantly recognizable canvases featured religious imagery and scenes of the country’s life.
More than 60 years after his death, Hyppolite’s works fetch six-figure sums while several other Haitian folk artists, including Philome Obin and Wilson Bigaud, have become well known. The Haitian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a one-time collaborator of Andy Warhol, often alluded to his Haitian roots in his paintings, which have been sold for millions at auctions.