Haitian Metal Art from the Collection of the Waterloo Center for the Arts
Kristin Wigley-Fleming Fine Arts Gallery, Center for the Arts
January 4 - February 10, 2006
This exhibit is on loan from the Waterloo Center for the Arts, which holds the largest public collection of Haitian art in the United States.
The arts of Haiti are now justly famous, but this has not always been
the case. A pivotal date is 1943, when DeWitt Peters was instrumental in
establishing the Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince. Gradually the genius of
Haiti's self-taught artists came to light. Haiti quickly became known as
a fertile island of creative genius in the Caribbean, an island with a
strong historical and spiritual connection to Africa.
Haiti was first colonized in 1492, by Christopher Columbus. His
subsequent influence led to the annihilation of the indigenous
population of Arawak and Carib Indians. The first Africans were brought
to Haiti in 1506, as part of the infamous slave trade. In 1804, after first being
colonized by the Spanish and then by the French, Haiti became
the first independent black republic in the western hemisphere.
The Haitian religion of Vodou, known and distorted through the popular
media as "voodoo," is a blend of African religions, Catholicism, and a
strand of influence from Freemasonry. The term "vodou" derives from the
Fon word "vodun" meaning spirit, deity or mystery. The Fon brought their
religion with them from Dahomey, now the Republic of Benin in West
Africa, where it combined and recombined with the religions of many other
African groups, among them the Yoruba and Igbo of Nigeria, the Kongo of
Zaire and Asante of Ghana.
The arts of Haiti are indelibly tied to Haitian historical themes and to
the religion of Vodou. Surprisingly, given the African roots of the
Haitian people, there is practically no fine wood sculpture to be found
in Haiti. Art forms commonly employed by Haitian visual artists include:
easel painting,mural painting, elaborately beaded and sequined ceremonial
banners, other ceremonial arts, paper mache, and distinctive metal sculpture.
Renowned for their genius in transforming the discarded into dramatic
works of art, Haitian artists discovered that cast off oil drums could
be recycled into unique metals cut-outs.
This technique was probably first exploited by Georges Liautaud. He had
worked as a blacksmith for the Haitian-American Sugar Company,
maintaining the railroad tracks. He became highly sought-after for the
elaborate cemetery crosses which he would forge in his spare time.
Liautaud likely began to use the discarded oil drums as a material
because the drums were plentiful and available for free. His work
inspired others to experiment with the medium and such outstanding
artists as Murat Brierre, Gabriel Bien-Aime and Serge Jolimeau emerged.
Haitian metal artists craft their works by hand, using simple tools. To
prepare a drum for use, the artist or his apprentice removes the ends
which are used for smaller sculptures. A vertical slit is then cut along
the length of the cylinder with a hammer and chisel. Next, the drum is
stuffed with straw and paper, and set on fire to burn off any paint or
chemical residue. When the drum cools down it is flattened. To do this
the metalworker will climb onto the body of the drum and use all his weight
and strength to open it up. The flattened drum becomes a rectangular sheet
approximately four by six foot wide. The metal is then hammered to
make it softer and easier to cut. Any excess charred oil, paint or rust is
rubbed off before the artist draws his designs on the metal sheet using a
piece of chalk. Then the figure is cut out with a hammer and chisel. The
finished piece is signed by the artist and coated with varnish.
Most Haitian metal artists live and work in the Noailles district of
Croix-des-Bouquets, situated on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The
symbolic significance of the material appeals to these artists. Metal is
considered sacred to Ogou, the Haitian loa of war, whose assistance
helped lead the Haitian people in their fight to gain independence from