Haiti's history, her people and way of life are depicted in its art. Therefore, one cannot begin discussing painting in Haiti without first understanding the people involved. If the land could speak it would tell of tragedy and violence, of abuse and bloodshed, of power and greed. Why does the country stand apart from its neighbors? The answer lies in the turbulent history of this tiny nation. Haiti is a country of 27,750 square kilometers (10,714 sq mi.), about the size of the state of Maryland
Christopher Columbus arrived in this tiny island he called, "La Isla Espanola" on December 5, 1492 (The name was later latinized to Hispanola-little Spain). Local Arawak Indians who referred to their home as "Hayti", meaning mountainous land, inhabited the island. The Spanish build the New World's first settlement at La Navidad on Haiti's north coast. They used and abused the native Arawaks to the point of near extinction. A rich, lush land with a strategic location, Haiti has often been viewed as a valuable piece of real estate and constantly sought after by Britain, France and Spain. Finally, by 1697, Spanish control over the colony ends with the Treaty of Ryswick and the island became a French colony. Under French rule Haiti flourished. Haitian products were in great demand in the European market and the tiny island became invaluable as a resource for cocoa, cotton, sugar cane and coffee. Unfortunately, the great demands for these products also created a demand for inexpensive labor. Because the whites could not tolerate hard work in the hot climate, they imported Negroes from the west coast of Africa. The French, as well as the Spanish before them looked to Africa as a solution to the labor problem.
Haiti became one of the wealthiest regions in the world by 1780. France kept the slave traffic going, making large profits by doing so. This created a number of problems that would later affect the future of Haiti. First, the slaves brought with them the religious practices of voodoo, which for them was more a lifestyle than a religion. Second, the slaves underwent unusually harsh treatment by the French, thus creating hatred amid an already resentful environment. Third, a class of mulattos arose from the relations of the slave owners and the slaves. There arose a class system, still present today, with a minority of light skinned, sophisticated, Catholic, French-speaking Haitians at odds with dark-skinned, voodoo worshipping, Creole-speaking masses.
In 1791, the first major slave rebellion took place, initiated by Boukman, a voodoo houngan leading to protracted a 13 year war of liberation against Napoleon's army. General Toussaint Louverture commanded the slave army. His officers eventually betrayed him, he was captured and subsequently shipped to France in 1802 where he died while imprisoned in a cold jail cell in Fort de Joux. The Haitian blue and red flag is devised at Arcahie, by taking the French tricolor, turning it in its side and removing the white band. The Battle of Vertieres marks the ultimate victory of the former slaves over the French.
General Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the colony at Gonaives on January 1, 1804 and gave it back its native name of Haiti, or Ayiti in Creole. The first republic in the world to be led by a person of African descent was thus born. He declared himself emperor, but his reign of terror lead to his early assassination. Henri Christophe, an illiterate ex-slave who ruled in the north and Alexandre Petion, a mulatto who ruled in the south, followed him. When Christophe died the north and south united. In 1844, the island split into two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The tiny country of Haiti was in a state of anarchy, poverty was rampant and there was no one with the support or ability to rule and govern fairly. A history of bitter political and military struggle followed. From 1843 to 1934, Haiti saw 22 heads of state, most of whom left office by violent means. Rivalry continues among the whites, the mulatto elite and the blacks. The class system was ever present with the wealthy at one extreme and the poor at the other.
When the Americans left in 1934 the country was still in shambles. From a small church in a slum a parish priest emerged from the Catholic church, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He preached about the need for a lavalas, a flood to cleanse the country of corruption and make it new. His church was burned to the ground, but his message captured the spirit of the oppressed masses. He was elected president of Haiti in December 1990, but the underlying structure of the society and its long tradition of violence, control, and retribution had not changed. There continued to be strong and sometimes violent opposition to Aristide and his followers. Aristide at times used very strong rhetoric, which has been interpreted by some as encouraging violence against the rich and the opposition; he also reportedly sought to oust the military and control the judiciary system. The military and the wealthy, however, still wielded power, and in September 1991, the army staged a coup d'etat, forcing Aristide into exile.
After Aristide's departure, many Haitians fled the island nation, some for economic reasons, others in fear for their lives. Conditions were quickly reaching a crisis state in all sectors. The U.S. policy of interdiction at sea did not seem to stem the flow. The Governors Island Accord of 1993, in which General Raoul Cedras agreed to step down in preparation for Aristide's return, was not honored. The United States then applied pressure in the form of a trade embargo, making life intolerable for the majority of Haitians. After threats of a U.S. invasion, a U.S. negotiating team persuaded the military leadership to step aside so that the democratically elected Aristide could return to his rightful position. To ensure stability, U.S. military troops were sent to Haiti as a peacekeeping force. The military leaders went into exile, and on October 15, 1994, Aristide returned to power to begin the long, arduous task of rebuilding Haiti.
Today, Haiti is rebuilding its land. The people take refuge in their religion; Catholicism and Voodoo, which is merely a way of life, rather than religion. Haiti's tradition trace back to the religious practices of West Africa blended with French customs, Catholicism. Haitian painting reflects Voodoo, everyday life, past and present.