Exploring Haitian art and vodou in Port-au-Prince

Media accounts of Haiti gloss over its vibrant visual arts, music, and cultural scene. Even practicing vodou is used as a way to frame Haiti’s “difference” from better-known islands in the Caribbean.

Those who breeze past Haiti’s art will be sad about what they’re missing. Whether going on some kind of mission or simply to experience and enjoy the country, seeing Haiti through its visual arts is not optional. To understand the country, how it has overcome slavery, survived political instability, occupation, and natural disasters is to miss out on vital explanations of Haiti’s resilience. To say that Haiti’s art and culture is unique is an understatement, and I was thrilled to fit so much of it into my last full day in Port-au-Prince.

The future of fine art at El-Saieh Gallery

haiti port au prince harbour viewBefore our rum punches at Hotel Oloffson, we headed straight up one of the steep hills that surround Port-au-Prince, straight to El Saieh Gallery, a legendary gallery that has been a part of the art scene since the 1960s. From the parking area, we even enjoyed a sweeping, unobstructed view of the Port-au-Prince harbour.

haiti port au prince el-saieh gallery artWe were warmly welcomed by Sharona El-Saieh, whose family has owned the gallery for decades. Important and highly-regarded champions of Haitian art, we were given free reign to explore the ample, airy space.

The mission: discover the diversity, whimsy, dedication, and impressive range of well-crafted Haitian art. Every room revealed a new treasure. Every conceivable painting style, sculpture, metalwork, even mosaics, taking me right back to Jacmel only a week before that.

There is really something for everyone here. I was taken with the bright works of France Valmidor, a relatively new artist championed by the El-Saiehs. The quality and consistency of Valmidor’s work charmed me completely and I could not leave the country without taking a piece home with me.

I made a great choice. My Valmidor owls greet me every morning and help me start the day with a smile.

haiti art france valmidor owls

Noailles, Croix-de-Bouquets: metalwork and vodou

The big finish was a stop I had been wanting to make since long before my trip. Haiti is home to a particularly unique style of cut, shaped, and carved metalwork called fer découpé (en français) or fè dekoupe (kreyol). Pieces are cut from steel oil drums and turned into impressive detailed pieces by generations of artists who live the Noailles area of Croix-de-Bouquets, a community located in the further reaches of Port-au-Prince. The metalwork pieces show up everywhere in Haiti, from hotel walls to markets in every town. It’s easy to find, but for the best selection and best prices (haggling encouraged), go right to the source.

On arrival, you know you are somewhere different. From the ornate metal statue greeting visitors, to the solar-powered streetlights with fè dekoupe designs, Noailles has a different feel from other parts of Port-au-Prince. First, the noise. There’s the usual din of political speeches on the radio, kreyol hip-hop, and children running around. On top of that, is the clang of metal-on-metal. Art is in progress.

Metalwork is everywhere in Noailles, and has clearly evolved over time, as newer generations of artist not only perfect their craft, but push the boundaries of the form. In a short time, I bought A LOT of metalwork. My goal was to find a mermaid, a common symbol in Haitian folklore and in vodou practice. My mermaid spoke to me immediately and was the perfect size (approximately 30cm tall) for bringing home to Canada.

As I explored the small, compact streets with houses that serve as both the homes and workshops of the artists, I found a young man with a small table of pieces that were a little more unique. Small pieces of metal, shaped and carved the same way as the wall pieces, were, in fact, jewelry, and my particular affliction, cuff bracelets.

The final stop of the day was meet and explore vodou with Jean-Baptiste Jean Joseph, a renowned artist who makes extraordinary beaded vodou flags, and is a practicing vodou priest, or houngan. We presented him with a gift of a bottle of Barbancourt rum to thank him for his time and welcome, and made our way into his home, studio, and peristyle or vodou practice area. [Read all about the BBC’s visit to his house and how vodou is helping rebuild Haiti]

Jean-Baptiste was charming and patient. He took our questions for 20 minutes about his art and vodou, then gave us ample time to explore the small, interconnected rooms showing his work. I wanted nothing more than to take one of the large, beaded pieces home, but, unfortunately, they were priced well beyond my budget that day. If I’m lucky enough to return to Haiti, I’ll be better prepared next time.

After looking at the art, Jean-Baptiste showed took us to his peristyle and described the various rooms used for his vodou practice. Vodou is wildly misunderstood, and the spiritual practice we learned about that day was complex and has far more to do with helping people improve their lives than anything you’ve seen or heard elsewhere. It is deeply connected to the spirits from Africa, which played an important role in the revolution that led to Haitian independence, and continues to influence the entire country today.

In a trip of many highlights, getting a survey course in Haitian contemporary art was educational, challenging, and inspiring. I brought home pieces that delight every day, and have only made me more motivated to return and continue this exploration.

This day marked my last day of activities, but I’ll have one more post about my experience – the outcome of many months of processing my reflections about Haiti – how it has changed me as a traveler, and how it has completely, fundamentally, changed how I view the rest of the world. Stay tuned!

All about my trip to Haiti

For more about my G Adventures trip to Haiti, check out my Haiti travel section:

Krista Spurr bitesized travel Haiti travel blog posts

If you’re extra curious, explore my detailed Google Map of everywhere I visited in Haiti:

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