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date: 09 April 2020

Haiti, Republic

  • Dolores M. Yonker,
  • C. C. McKee
  •  and Eva Pataki

Country in the Caribbean. Occupying 26,000 sq. km of the western part of the island of Hispaniola (see fig.), it is volcanic in origin and mountainous. Intense cultivation of mountain slopes has caused severe erosion, and despite attempts at reforestation, Haiti is virtually barren of forest cover. The principal agricultural regions are the lowlands of the northern plain, the central plateau, the valley of the Artibonite River, and the Cul de Sac plain in the south. Over one hundred rivers and streams flow from mountain headlands into the Atlantic to the north, the Gulf of La Gonâve to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the south. The largest cities are the capital of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien in the north. The majority of Haitians speak French Creole and practice the religion of Vodoun.

Map of Haiti

I. Introduction.

  • Dolores M. Yonker, revised by C. C. McKee

Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492, making it a Spanish colony. In 1664 Louis XIV placed the territory of Haiti under the control of the French West India Company and, renamed Saint-Domingue, it was ceded to France in 1697 by the Treaty of Rijswijk; Spain retained control over Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) in the east of the island. French hegemony over Saint-Domingue created a wealthy colony with a productive plantation economy built on the labors of African slaves, the Amerindian population having proved too recalcitrant and too physically frail for the grueling work and maltreatment meted out by their Spanish overlords. A Dominican priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, appalled at the dreadful toll suffered by the Amerindians, suggested the importation of African labor. As a result, Africans arrived in ever-increasing numbers from the beginning of the 16th century until the Haitian Revolution of 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. Slaves were briefly freed following the French Revolution (1789–1799), but slavery was subsequently reimposed, and it was not until independence was declared in 1804 that they were finally emancipated. Despite the country’s small size, the nature of its terrain has produced a rich variety of regional differences. The north has tended to retain more vestiges of its colonial past.

Since it became the first independent republic in the Caribbean, Haiti has suffered a troubled history, particularly in the 20th century. Between 1915 and 1934 the country was occupied by the USA, and in 1950, following a military coup, Dr. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier became president, marking the beginning of a period of dictatorship that lasted until 1991. After another brief period of military rule, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was re-installed as president in 1994. The agronomist René Préval was elected president in 1995 and served a five-year term, until Aristide returned to office in 2001. Préval again served as president from 2006 until 2011, when the popular musician Michel Martelly was elected and served until 2016. On January 12, 2010 Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Its epicenter near the capital left the country’s infrastructure devastated and a cholera epidemic erupted in its wake. While Haiti continued to rebuild, in 2016 Hurricane Matthew swept through Haiti, leaving the southern peninsula devastated. The businessman Jovenel Moise was elected president in November 2016 and took office in February 2017 despite controversial allegations of election fraud.


  • Tertre, J.-B. du. Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les Français. Paris, 1667.
  • Labat, Le R. Père. Nouveau voyage aux îles de l’Amérique, 8 vols. Paris, 1742.
  • Moreau de Saint-Méry, L. E. Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’Ile de Saint-Domingue, 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1797.
  • Madiou, T. Histoire d’Haïti, 4 vols. Port-au-Prince, 1848–1922.
  • Courlander, H. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People. Berkeley, 1960.
  • James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins. New York, 1963.
  • Corvington, G., Jr. Port-au-Prince au cours des ans, 6 vols. Port-au-Prince, 1970–.
  • Stebich, U., ed. Haitian Art. New York, 1978; Ger. trans., 1979.
  • Dayan, J. Haiti: History and the Gods. Berkeley, 1995.
  • Trouillot, M. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston, 1997.
  • Dubois, L. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, 2004.
  • Dubois, L. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804. Chapel Hill, 2004.
  • Fischer, S. Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham, 2004.
  • Renda, M. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940. Chapel Hill, 2004.
  • Scott, D. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, 2004.
  • Smith, M. J. Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict and Political Change, 1934–1957. Chapel Hill, 2009.
  • Glick, J. The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution. New York, 2016.

II. Cultures.

1. Amerindian.

  • Dolores M. Yonker

The earliest migrants to arrive in the Caribbean were the Amerindians known as Ciboneys. They came from either Venezuela, Yucatan, or Florida, or perhaps from all three regions. Motifs carved on their hemispherical stone vessels, axes, and other objects resemble those found on stone bowls and early pottery from Florida, particularly in the striations incised on the rims of pots. Forms of flint implements, however, suggest Cuban connections. The finely polished petalloid celts are found throughout the Caribbean, and they appear with clay griddles that coincide with the development of agriculture. When Columbus landed on the north shore of Haiti, most of the inhabitants were Arawak-speaking Tainos, who are believed to have emigrated from the Amazon Basin. Sometimes they are also referred to as “Ceramic Indians” from the red slip-painted pottery that they produced. They decorated the handles of their vessels with modeled zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures, probably of religious significance. On his second voyage Columbus brought the Spanish priest Ramón Pané to make a record of the island’s culture. Pané noted that these saucer-eyed creatures with relief appliqués represented deities, or zemis. Zemis were also carved in wood, stone, bone, and shell. They presumably served also as amulets or small, personal altars; funeral remains were also packed into baskets elaborated with figures of zemis. Such objects were sometimes preserved in caves, which evidently served as shrines; petroglyphs and paintings of zemis have also been found in caves. Pané explained the zemis as intermediaries to the all-powerful deity. Columbus recorded in his diary that Taino chiefs (caciques) had small houses reserved as zemi shrines where ceremonies were led by priests in narcotics-induced trances.

Few objects carved in wood have survived, but these exhibit a high level of skill and aesthetic sensibility. The largest, taken from the Ile de La Gonâve, is a squatting figure carved from a hollowed tree trunk, which may have served as the body of a drum. Several examples of dujos (squat, four-legged stools with curved seats carved with an animal or human head at the front) are preserved in the Museo del Hombre Dominicano (formerly the Museo Nacional), Santo Domingo; the Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian, New York; the British Museum, London; and the Musée de l’Homme, Paris. One has its gold inlay intact, a rare surviving example of Taino goldwork. A terracotta vessel in the form of a head, with characteristic discoid eyes (Paris, Mus. Homme), was used to hold cohoba, the narcotic powder inhaled through tubes to induce trance during religious ceremonies (see also South America, Pre-Columbian, §I, 3(ii)). One curious and common form is the trigonolite, a triangular stone carving that often bears rudimentary human features, the function of which is unknown but could relate to the custom recorded by Columbus’s son that each cacique had three ritual stones for use in ceremonies for fertility or rain.

Columbus instituted a scheme called repartimientos or encomienda: a system of distributing land to European settlers that included the Amerindians living there. Within decades of European arrival on Hispaniola the Amerindian population was virtually annihilated, but encomienda survived and continued as the foundation of the subsequent plantation economy. The influence of Arawak dwelling-types can be seen in the palisaded walls, porches, and lashing building techniques still used in some areas of Haiti.


  • Rouse, I. Prehistory in Haiti. New Haven, 1939.
  • Mangones, E. and Maximilien, L. L’Art pré-colombien d’Haïti. Port-au-Prince, 1941.
  • Rainey, F. G. Excavations in the Fort Liberté Region, Haiti. New Haven, 1941.
  • Aubourg, M. Haïti préhistorique. Port-au-Prince, 1951.
  • Braunholtz, H. J. “The Oldman Collection: Aztec Gong and Ancient Arawak Stool.” BM Q. 16, no. 2 (1951): 54–55.
  • Rouse, I. “Areas and Periods of Culture in the Greater Antilles.” SW J Anthropol. 7 (1951): 248–265.
  • Rouse, I. “Prehistory of the West Indies.” Science 1 (1964): 419–513.
  • Cruxent, J. E. and Rouse, I. “Early Man in the West Indies.” Sci. Amer. (Nov 1969): 42–69.
  • Maggiolo, M. V. Arqueología prehistórica de Santo Domingo. Singapore, 1972.
  • Rouse, I. “Roots: Pre-Columbian.” In Haitian Art, edited by U. Stebich, 22–25. New York, 1978.
  • Hodges, W. “L’Art rupestre précolombien en Haïti.” Conjonction 143 (1979): 5–38.
  • Charles, C. P., ed. Christophe Colomb, les Indiens et leurs survivances en Haïti: Etudes historiques, linguistiques, sociologiques réunies, présentées. Port au Prince, 1992.

2. Afro-Caribbean.

  • Dolores M. Yonker, revised by C. C. McKee

After the annihilation of the Amerindians it became imperative for the Spanish to find an alternative source of labor to support their evolving colonial regime. Bartolomé de Las Casas’s proposal to import Africans, since he believed them more resistant to the tropical climate and more accustomed to fieldwork, was attractive to the Spanish government. Nicholas de Ovando, the first Governor of Haiti, ordered the importation of the first Africans; by 1520 they constituted almost all of the labor force. By 1521 the Spanish interest in the Caribbean waned, after they conquered Mexico and tapped the gold and silver reserves of South America. The population dwindled and the northern coast fell prey to French and English pirates.

By the 17th century the population of Saint-Domingue was estimated at 6000 adult white and mulatto males and c. 50,000 black slaves. By 1775 the slave population had increased to c. 250,000, and whites and mulattos numbered c. 30,000. These statistics do not, however, include the “maroons,” escapees from slavery or servitude who sought and maintained asylum in isolated mountain valleys, building their own society based on African rather than European models. Although they periodically raided plantations, the maroons were of only peripheral concern until the years preceding the Revolution. Maroon chiefs formed warrior bands in the mountains and established contact with counterparts in the plantations and towns. The revolutionaries considered themselves as Africans, enlisting the aid of spiritual entities derived primarily from the cultures of Dahomey (see Benin Republic) and the lower Congo Basin. The complex of beliefs, customs, and ethical standards that united them was called Vodoun, a term deriving from the Fon language of Dahomey, as does much of the terminology and practice of Vodoun.

The 18th century was a crucial period in the development of Haitian culture. A rapidly increasing demand for fieldworkers for sugar and indigo plantations coincided with an influx of Congolese immigrants. Afro-Caribbeans of Dahomean origin tended to look down on the more recent, Congolese arrivals, referring to them as bossale, a term used in Vodoun to designate an uncontrolled and often violent possession of the spirit. Vodoun is the religion practiced by the majority of Haitian people. An essential objective is the invocation of the loas (spirits), which constitute a pantheon of 401, all facets of an all-powerful deity referred to as the “Bon Met” (Fr. Creole: “Good Master”). During the ritual these spirits are believed to “mount” their “horses,” that is, possess the devotees. The loas are divided into groups or “nations,” two of which are dominant: the Rada loas, believed wise and essentially beneficent, are named after Alladah, a Dahomean town; the Petro loas have linguistic and symbolic connections to the Republic of Congo and to Angola. The Rada spirits reside over such domestic rites of passage as marriage, initiation, and naming; the Petro loas are spoken of as tough and fiery, ready to meet the demands of a devotee given the appropriate remuneration. The pantheon of Vodoun reflects sources of other African peoples’ migrations: Mande, Bamana, Yoruba, Ewe, Igbo, and Akan.

The influence of Africa survives in Haiti in manufacturing techniques, cooperative labor, and the construction and design of dwellings in lakous (traditional compounds). Such social institutions as the decision-making hierarchy, polygamy, kinship ties and obligations, veneration of ancestors, and child-naming have African prototypes. As in some traditional African societies, women play the crucial role in commercial transactions. Certain assumptions are held in common with African ones, including the accessibility to divinity by means of mediating spirits in anthropomorphic form. Music and dance are central to any gathering in Haiti, and both are heavily influenced by Africa in the instruments, dances, songs, and ritual objects used, for example the iron standards (asens), deriving from Dahomey, and the power objects (paquets Congo). Creolized with sequins, ribbons, and feathers, these resemble the minkisi medicine bundles of the Congo and Zaïre. The tradition of linked terracotta bowls honoring twins is found in various African societies, especially the Fon and Bamana.

Before most ceremonies, geometric ground drawings (vèvès) are executed in flour, brick dust, ashes, or colored powders. Sifted skillfully on to the earth floor of the temple (houmfort) by a priest or priestess, they are intended to invite spirits to attend the ceremony and possess their devotees. Each loa has a particular vèvè, and the complete ensemble of hundreds of drawings constitutes a symbolic set. Similar drawings are made in Angola, Zambia, Zaïre, and Nigeria; some authorities have suggested Amerindian prototypes. The emblems and the ceremonies have appeared in the paintings of Haitians who are also adepts (see §IV below). The influence of Vodoun on arts also applies to such colorful ritual objects as the sequined flags emblazoned with sacred vèvès, shrine objects, sacred wall paintings, and regalia. The complex symbolism used in the service of the loas directs the use of certain colors, musical rhythms, dance movements, odors, and tastes. The ceremonies are multisensory in their appeal.


  • Price-Mars, J. Ainsi parle l’oncle. Paris, 1928; Eng. trans., Washington, DC, 1983.
  • Herskovits, M. Life in a Haitian Valley. New York, 1937.
  • Courlander, H. Haiti Singing. Chapel Hill, 1939.
  • Maximilien, L. Le Vodou haïtien: Rite Radas-Canzo. Port-au-Prince, 1945.
  • Deren, M. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York, 1953.
  • Rigaud, M. La Tradition voudoo et le voudoo haïtien. Paris, 1953.
  • Métraux, A. Le Vaudou haïtien. Paris, 1958; Eng. trans., London, 1959 and New York, 1972.
  • Courlander, H. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People. Berkeley, 1960.
  • Bastide, R. Les Amériques noires. Paris, 1967; Eng. trans. as African Civilizations in the New World, London, 1971.
  • Romain, J. B. Africanisme haïtien: Compilations et notes. Port-au-Prince, 1978.
  • Thompson, R. F. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York, 1983.
  • Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles, CA, Fowler Mus. Cult. Hist., 1995. Exhibition catalog.
  • Cosentino, D. J. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles, 1995.
  • Martínez Montiel, L. M., ed. Presencia africana en el Caribe. Mexico City, 1995.

III. Architecture.

  • Dolores M. Yonker, revised by C. C. McKee

Indigenous architectural forms were a composite of available materials and technologies suitable to the climate and life values of the populace. Several types were published by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in 1526 (see bibliography). An early type, the caney, was hexagonal in plan with a single door: cane strips or twigs were lashed to heavy corner posts, often trunks of the royal palm; the roof was steeply pitched for drainage. The more common rectangular-plan form with a veranda-like porch, a single doorway, and several small windows was probably based on Yoruban prototypes. Like its modern successor, it was thatched with palm leaves or guinea grass, the wattled walls filled with mud, then plastered. It was grouped with storehouses, cookhouses, and a community vodoun temple (houmfort) in a compound (lakou) that stems from African models. Adapted to the Spanish urban grid, this house type, timber-framed, extended three or four rooms deep. High ceilings and heavily shuttered doors and windows with iron fittings reflected a colonial influence. The veranda, providing cool shelter and allowing for social interaction, also evolved in the West Indies.

Columbus ordered earthwork fortifications at once for Hispaniola’s vulnerable north coast. Sizable coastal cities were subsequently protected with more durable fortifications. Typical of the coastal forts was St. Louis, constructed in an irregular pentagonal plan around an open court, with five bastions at the corners. It provided a model for subsequent constructions. France was forced to fortify forty more sites, using designs inspired by Sébastien Leprestre de Vauban, which abandoned easily targeted high walls and towers for a more expansive series of earthen walls surfaced with heavy masonry, taking advantage of topographical features.

Henri Christophe’s Citadelle de la Ferrière (inaugurated 1816) remains the ultimate example of West Indian military architecture. Covering one hectare atop a mountain, it is a four-sided fort with a prowlike bastion soaring c. 15 m above ground. Below it, the Palais de Sans Souci (c. 1813; designed by an English officer, Ferrière) is an imposing three-story neoclassical edifice. The pedimented facade is approached by a monumental double stairway. A remarkable water-system supplied the buildings and irrigated the elegant gardens and its fountains.

In the 18th century the designs of residential buildings were based largely on English Georgian traditions. English pattern books provided examples of classically symmetrical facades, with pediments and engaged pilasters that were adapted to urban as well as plantation houses. The shops and town houses in Jacmel and Cap-Haïtien typify the more modest urban structures. Heavy, masonry ground floors with doors opening on to the street support lighter and often overhanging second stories, with decorated balconies of iron or turned wood. Exuberantly scrolled ironwork was imported from France and Germany and inspired iron markets to be set up in the major town centers.

Few examples of early churches remain. The Old Cathedral, Port-au-Prince, a timbered barrel-vaulted, slate-roofed, five-aisle example, was built in 1720 and was under restoration until destroyed in 1991. The Baroque pedimented facade, with a central tower flanked by curved volutes, was typical. In the 19th century the simple town-house form in Port-au-Prince became transformed with fanciful towers, fretwork, and ornamental colonnades. The development of machines capable of producing decorative multiples challenged Haitian creativity and produced the “gingerbread” house style. Like the popular louvers and jalousies, fretwork was not only decorative but provided natural ventilation from the prevailing trade winds.

Before the earthquake in 2010, the major public buildings in Port-au-Prince exemplify variety and eclecticism. The Roman Catholic cathedral (completed 1915; destr.), a confection of pink and white stone, was a Romanesque Revival building. The glistening white Palais National (reconstructed in 1918; damaged 2010; demolished 2012) on the Champ de Mars was designed and built by Georges Baussan during the American occupation (1915–1934). Albert Mangones and Robert Baussan (1908–1979), as well as the younger Pierre-Richard Villedrouin, have contributed to the development of Modernism in Port-au-Prince with apartment blocks, office buildings, and restaurants. Unfortunately, after the earthquake many of these buildings, including the cathedral and Palais National, were severely damaged.

The Haitian architects Albert Mangones and August F. Schmiedigen were seminal in the design and execution of buildings during Haiti’s International Exposition held in Port-au-Prince from December 1949 through June 1950. The International Exposition held during the presidency of Dumarsais Estimé celebrated the bicentennial of the founding of Port-au-Prince. Also called The Festival of Peace, there was significant international participation by foreign nations who constructed temporary architecture and commissioned sculpture; these nations included the USA, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, San Marino, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala, Chile, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica. The exposition was an opportunity to bolster Haiti’s burgeoning tourism industry—particularly with the USA—and assert Haiti’s modernity while also valorizing the African diasporic culture of vodoun. The exhibition cost over $4 million of the $13.4 million national budget. From this international interest and significant funding, a distinctly Haitian form of Modernist architecture emerged on the exposition site, called the Cité de l’Exposition or Cité Dumarsais Estimé. Many of the buildings featured the strong angular lines and curvilinear forms characteristic of the International Style and became fixtures of the Port-au-Prince built landscape. These buildings included the tourist pavilion, the Presidential pavilion, the agricultural pavilion, the post office pavilion, the Fontaine Lumineuse, and the Théâtre de Verdure. The Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, located on the central Champ de Mars in Haiti’s capital, owes its blue-tiled conical roof fantasies and semi-buried design to the French architect Alexandre Guichard and the Haitian architect Mangones. Upon entering the museum, one perambulates first through a central, circular rotunda and then through a series of two semi-circular galleries. Construction was initiated in June 1975 and the building was inaugurated as a mausoleum to the fathers of Haitian patrimony in May the following year. The building became a public museum on April 7, 1983 and acquired the collection of the former Musée National. As a result of its partially underground construction, the museum sustained only minor damage during the 2010 earthquake.

Also located on the Champ de Mars, the as-yet-unfinished Bicentennial Monument is one of the most recent additions to the architecture of the central plaza in Port-au-Prince and also survived the earthquake. The pyramidal concrete structure has a large stained-glass tableau of the Haitian flag at the entrance and is topped by a massive ornamental torch. The monument was constructed for the festivities celebrating the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Unpublished sources

Port-au-Prince, Inst. Sauvegarde Patrm. N. [various documents].

  • Didier, D., Elie, D., and Lubin, P. E. Evolution du système de défense en Haïti. 1983.


  • Fernández de Oviedo, Gonzalo. Natural History of the West Indies. Originally pubd Toledo, 1526; Eng. trans., Chapel Hill, NC, 1959.
  • Phillips, A. A. Gingerbread Houses: Haiti’s Endangered Species. Port-au-Prince, 1975.
  • Vlach, J. The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Cleveland, OH, Mus. A., 1978, 122–138.
  • Gosner, P. Caribbean Georgian: The Great and Small Houses of the West Indies. Washington, DC, 1982.
  • Crain, E. E. Historic Houses in the Caribbean. Gainesville, 1994.
  • Gosner, P. Caribbean Baroque: Historic Architecture of the Spanish Antilles. Pueblo, CO, 1996.

IV. Painting, sculpture, and other arts.

  • Dolores M. Yonker and Eva Pataki, revised by C. C. McKee

Wealthy colonials were eager consumers of art from abroad, and the construction and furnishing of plantation houses and town houses created a demand for luxury items and decorative objects. Foreign artists satisfied most of the demand for portraiture; furniture, ceramics, glassware, jewelry, and textiles were imported from France and elsewhere. The Revolution, which terminated slavery and French hegemony, marked the founding of a black republic. The history of Haitian painting and sculpture is documented principally from that time.

After the assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1806, the nation was divided between Henri Christophe in the north and Alexandre Pétion in the south, both former revolutionary generals. Henri Christophe, crowned King in 1811, set out to build a monarchy modeled on that of England: the creation and appreciation of art was to be the province of royalty. Christophe’s portrait was painted by the English painter Richard Evans (1784–1871), whom Christophe had invited to Haiti to begin a program of art education. Christophe’s pose and the setting are derived from English portrait traditions. One of Evans’s students, Numa Desroches (?1802–?1880), painted intuitive but informative renderings of Christophe’s Palais de Sans Souci at Milot. Alexandre Pétion developed a similar artistic culture and system of art education in the south under the French artist J. Barincou fils (see §V below).

Until well into the 20th century, painting was dominated by European styles, mainly French and English Romanticism and French and Italian Baroque. Alexandre Pétion, President of the southern Haitian Republic (1807–1819), was determinedly Francophile, patronizing such French painters as J. Barincou, who arrived in Haiti in 1816 and was listed in the Philadelphia City Directory in 1839. His paintings of generals adorned the Palais National. Thimoleon Dejoie (?1800–1865) received commissions from President Boyer (1818–1843) for historic paintings celebrating his rule: one of his most notable works represented Boyer entering Cap-Haïtien with his generals. Little more than the names of two sculptors important at the time are documented. The quality of the works produced by Jayme Guilliod (1800–1870) can be estimated in a drawing for a figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture in chains, which dates from 1851. Louis Edmond Laforesterie (1837–1894), who was also noted for heroic portraits, had studied in Paris and later returned there when political turmoil threatened his livelihood. It was the Emperor Faustin Soulouque who appointed and titled the court painter Baron Colbert de Lochard (1804–1874). Seven of his religious paintings (1851–1853) hung in the Old Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. For Lochard and others the French portrait painter Hyacinthe Rigaud served as a model. By the late 19th century the popularity of the new medium of photography had gained significant traction in Haiti, but the demand for painted portraits and historic subjects continued. The Haitian painter Louis Rigaud (?1850–?1915) became a notable portraitist during the presidency of Lysius Salomon (1879–1888) and continued his career until his death in the early 20th century. Rigaud exhibited a portrait suite of seventeen canvases depicting Haitian heads of state from L’Ouverture to Salomon in New Orleans during the 1884 World Cotton Centennial.

In the 20th century the centennial of Haitian independence in 1904 marked a significant year for the production of history painting. Rigaud’s large canvas La bénediction des drapeaux (c. 1904) records the ceremony in Gonaïves and places President Nord Alexis at the center of the composition. The Haitian president is similarly a central figure in Le sermant des ancêtres, another history painting celebrating the centennial by the woman artist Lorvana Pierrot Logojanis. Edouard Goldman (1870–1930) won a medal at the Exposition Universelle in Brussels (1910) for his interpretation of the Discovery of America. Unfortunately the destruction of the original Palais National in 1912 destroyed the entire national collection of paintings, including the historical series.

Until the advent in the 1920s of the Indigenist movement, which stimulated a new interest in Haitian culture, Haiti’s art was based upon academic models; talented students were sent to Paris for instruction in drawing and painting. However, the literary movements of 1890 and 1915 paved the way to a uniquely Haitian art. The excesses of the first years of the American occupation prompted Goldman in 1920 to paint the caco (rebel) chief Charlemagne Perrault crucified. The same subject was to be taken up again by the Cap-Haïtien painter Philomé Obin, whose aim was to be the creator of a visual history of his country. In 1944 he sent the representation of Roosevelt’s lifting of the American occupation to the newly opened Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. At this time a flowering of Haitian arts began. Three generations of artists have emerged from the center, including Petion Savain (1906–1973) and his pupils George Remponeau (1916–2012) and Maurice Borno (1917–1955). Some, such as Luce Turnier (1924–1995), Antonio Joseph, and Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue (1930–1996), worked in international styles; others known as “‘primitives” were essentially self-taught, including Obin, Castera Bazile, Wilson Bigaud, and Rigaud Benoit. The latter were the principal artists selected to contribute murals (executed in tempera) to the project at Sainte Trinité Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Artists who are also priests of Vodoun, such as Hector Hyppolite, André Pierre, and LaFortune Félix (1933–2016), and those who claim to be only observers, such as Benoit, Bigaud, and Gérard Valcin, have depicted the dramatic ceremonies of their religion, representing loas in imaginative forms.

Sculptors in Haiti have developed a unique medium using scrap metal to cut and pound into figure compositions. Oil-drums have also been transformed into decorative, lacelike representations of everyday scenes, Vodoun archetypes, or mythical images of African origin. The drums are processed into flat plates, with designs traced in chalk and then cut out with hammer and chisel, and finished by polishing. Artists working with this form include Georges Liautaud, Serge Jolimeau (b 1952), Murat Brierre (1938–1992), and Gary Darius (b 1969). Several artists have produced notable woodcarvings, but threats of terrible retribution during the centuries of colonial domination effectively stifled the African legacy of carved masks and figures. Other sculptors have produced brightly painted papier-mâché works, including figures with a carnivalesque gaiety.

Haiti’s contemporary sculptors often follow in this transformative tradition. Perhaps most notable among them is Atis Rezistans (Artist Resistance), a group of artists led by André Eugene that first coalesced after 2000 as the Pluribus e Unum Musée d’Art. These artists lived and worked in the Grand Rue neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Using a method that many of the artists call “recuperation,” the sculptors of Atis Rezistans transformed urban detritus into mixed-media sculptures that include carved wood, broken electronics, automotive parts, discarded toys, and human bones from a cemetery where they were scattered by grave diggers. These sculptures, particularly those executed after the 2010 earthquake, often represent the Gede family of vodoun lwa—spirits commonly associated with funerary and mourning practices and who encapsulate the cyclical nature of life. These sculptures can be seen not only as mechanisms for contending with the trauma of death, but the evocation of Bwon Samdi also takes on political resonances in the wake of the François Duvalier’s dictatorship. Duvalier adopted the lwa’s sartorial accoutrements—sunglasses, a top hat, and a black suit—during his rule. Bwon Samdi (Baron Saturday) is a prominent lwa of the Gede family who is intimately related to death, but performs (often vulgar) humor that calls attention to his phallus and reproductive sexuality in order to draw life close to death. The sculptures of Atis Rezistans have been exhibited widely and materialize the profound connections between politics, vodoun, and everyday life in Haitian culture. The group and their compound on the Grand Rue are also at the center of the Ghetto Biennale (see §V below).

The collaboration after c. 1944 between fine artists and craftsworkers is exemplified by painted screens and room dividers, the results of a successful union between the local popular painters and cabinetmakers. Most are mass produced, but some are painted by such artists as Fernand Pierre (1919–2002), Adam Leontus (1923–1986), and Ghandi Daniel. They depict brilliantly colored scenes of enchanted landscapes or jungles with fantastic flora and fauna. Wooden storage boxes of various sizes, painted with similar decoration, have become popular with tourists and collectors. Artists who have painted these include Bernard Touissant, Vierge Pierre (b 1945), and Jackson Charlot. The painted decoration on “tap-taps,” small open buses used for public transport in Port-au-Prince, includes religious subjects and colorful animals and flowers. Vodoun flags and ritual paraphernalia are also mass produced for the tourist market, for example painted calabashes or gourds, intended as offerings to loas. André Pierre has elevated this medium to an art form. Pottery, weaving, and basketwork are also produced by skilled Haitian artists.


  • Moreau de Saint Méry, L. E. Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’Ile de Saint-Domingue, 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1797.
  • Thoby-Marcelin, P. Panorama de l’art haïtien. Port-au-Prince, 1956.
  • Thoby-Marcelin, P. Art in Latin America Today: Haiti. Washington, DC, 1959.
  • Artists of the Western Hemisphere: Art of Haiti and Jamaica. New York, 1968.
  • Williams, S. Voodoo and the Art of Haiti. 1969.
  • Apraxine, P. Haitian Painting: The Naïve Tradition. New York, 1973.
  • Rodman, S. The Miracle of Haitian Art. New York, 1973.
  • Drot, J.-M. Journal de voyage chez les peintres du voudou. Geneva, 1974.
  • Christensen, E. I. The Art of Haiti. New York, 1975.
  • Hoffman, L. G. Haitian Art: The Legend and Legacy of the Naïve Tradition. Davenport, IA, 1975.
  • Stebich, U. Haitian Art. New York, 1978; Ger. trans., 1979.
  • Anquetil, J. Haïti, l’artisanat créateur. Paris, 1982.
  • Nadal, M.-J. and Bloncourt, G. La Peinture haïtienne: Haïtian Arts. Paris, 1986.
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  • Black Ancestral Legacy. Dallas, TX, Mus. A., 1990, 87–96. Exhibition catalog.
  • Fourbet, A. Voodoo Blacksmiths. New York, 1990.
  • Déita. Objets au quotidien: Art et culture populaire en Haïti. [Port-au-Prince], 1993.
  • Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Edited by D. J. Cosentino. Los Angeles, CA, Fowler Mus. Cult. Hist., 1995. Exhibition catalog.
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  • Farquharson, A. and Gordon, L. Kafou: Haiti, Art, and Vodou. Nottingham, 2012.
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V. Patronage and art institutions.

  • Dolores M. Yonker, revised by C. C. McKee

An infrastructure to provide opportunities for artistic training and art sales did not develop beyond the rudimentary stage until the second half of the 20th century. During the colonial period the taste of wealthy planters for luxuries and decorative objects created a market for these arts, but most of it was probably from abroad. Fire, pillage, and earthquakes, however, have destroyed the evidence to support this theory. Foreign artists also often served as teachers. The Church, usually a source of dependable patronage, was entirely absent from Haiti during the 19th century until the Concordat of 1860, which strengthened the bond between Rome and the Haitian government and church. Some political leaders believed that the presence of art and artists was essential as an index of civilization. Henri Christophe summoned the English artist Richard Evans (1784–1871) to establish an academy of painting and drawing at the Palais de Sans Souci, Milot, and to plan for including painting and drawing in the schools. At the same time, in southern Haiti from 1807 to 1818, Alexandre Pétion authorized the purchase of French works more in keeping with his Francophile taste, and he encouraged French painters, particularly J. Barincou, to establish an art school in Port-au-Prince; he also ordered that the visual arts be included in the school curriculum. Most commissions to Haitian artists were for portraits, although there were a few of historic themes and fewer still of landscapes. From time to time such Haitian painters as Baron Colbert de Lochard (1804–1874), appointed court painter to Emperor Faustin Soulouque (reg 1849–1859), created grand historic tableaux for public edification. Unfortunately, public buildings were often victims of the most violent political eruptions; when they were destroyed, works of art inside also suffered the same fate.

Developments in the 20th century included the foundation of the Académie de Peinture et de Dessin in 1915 by Archibald Lochard (1837–1923) and Normil Charles (who also opened the Académie de Peinture et Sculpture after 1927). There is little evidence of the existence of an art museum in Haiti previous to the museum attached to the Bureau of Ethnology, founded in 1941 by Jacques Romain (1907–1944), Haitian ethnologist, poet, novelist, journalist, and diplomat. In 1944 the Centre d’Art was established in Port-au-Prince, offering both exhibition facilities and classes. By 1947 it had mounted forty exhibitions of pictorial art and one of sculpture, two exhibitions in Cap-Haïtien, one in the USA, and one in Paris. A branch of the center, planned as only the first of five in smaller towns in the country, was opened in 1945 under the directorship of the painter Philomé Obin. In 1958 the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was set up in Port-au-Prince. In 1962 the Musée d’Art Haïtien opened under the patronage of the Episcopal College St. Pierre. Together the center and the museum have organized Haitian representation in European and US museums and galleries. A government-supported Institut National de la Culture et des Arts Haïtiens in Port-au-Prince opened in 1983 with an exhibition of the first generation of Haitian naive artists. Support for the production of works representing Haitian themes came largely from the USA and Europe. Important collections outside Haiti include the Richard and Anna Flagg Collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin; the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery, Iowa; and the Astrid and Halvor Jaeger private collection in Neu-Ulm, Germany. The Musée d’Art Haïtien in Port-au-Prince retains a foundation collection, as formed by its late Director, Pierre Monosiet.

Founded in 2009 by André Eugene and the British artist Leah Gordon, the Ghetto Biennale has emerged in the Atis Rezistans compound on Grand Rue as a generative force in Port-au-Prince for the exhibition of contemporary art by Haitian artists, for bringing foreign artists to Haiti, and for engendering artistic collaboration between the two. The project emerged after the Haitian sculptors were repeatedly denied visas to travel to the USA and Europe where their works were being exhibited. During the third iteration of the biennale in 2013, the curators asked: “What happens when First World art rubs up against Third World art? Does it bleed?” These pointed questions and the event’s provocative moniker encapsulate the mission of the Ghetto Biennale to expose the inequalities of the increasingly globalized exhibition structure encompassing issues of race, class, gender, and geographic location. The biennial event has garnered increasing international interest over its four iterations and stands to continue challenging the structural inequalities of the contemporary art world.


  • Savage, P. “The Germ of the Future?: Ghetto Biennale: Port-au-Prince.” Third Text 14, no. 4 (2010).
  • Oren, M. “Biennials that Promote an ‘Emancipatory Politics.’” World Art 4, no. 2 (2014).
  • Fischer, S. “Atlantic Ontologies: On Violence and Being Human.” Caribbean Rasanblaj 12, no. 1 (2015).
  • McKee, C. “Fourth Ghetto Biennale.” Art Forum (Mar 2016).