What do you think of when you hear “Haitian art”?
Depending on your level of familiarity with Haitian art, you may think of folk art paintings on canvas. Or you may think of nothing at all.
If you haven’t heard of Haitian metal drum art, you’re in for a delight. Metal drums, the 55-gallon ones used for transporting oil or other products, are transformed into fanciful designs ranging from trees and flowers, birds and animals, to people, angels, and Biblical scenes.
Although some pieces are made from new oil drums, usually they are recycled ones purchased near the port in the capital city of Port-au-Prince and brought to the neighboring town of Croix-des-Bouquets by handcart or on top of a “tap-tap” (taxi). Croix-des-Bouquets is the center of the Haitian metalwork movement, and many metal drum artists have their workshops there.
Metal drum art in Haiti began in the early 1950s with blacksmith Georges Liautaud. In his humble shop, Liautaud had been making and repairing tools and creating simple metal crosses for the graves in the Croix-des-Bouquets cemetery.
American teacher DeWitt Peters, who opened Le Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince in 1944, encouraged Liautaud to expand into the creation of decorative metal sculptures. A few talented men apprenticed under him, and the tradition has continued; a metal drum artist will apprentice others, who will branch out and go into business themselves. Peters provided exhibition as well as instruction space.
To create these works of art, the artist first removes the top and bottom of the drum and places them inside the cylinder along with dried banana or sugar cane leaves. He sets the leaves on fire to burn away any paint or other residue from the drum. After the metal has cooled, the artist cuts the cylindrical drum from top to bottom, then pounds it into a flattened rectangle of approximately three by six feet.
The artist draws the design onto the metal sheet with chalk, then cuts it out with a mallet and chisel. Using these and other simple tools, he pounds the various decorative patterns into the metal, including areas that are concave and convex; he creates intricate patterns by hammering in bumps of different heights. Some pieces have three-dimensional designs. Some are very colorful, while others remain metallic in appearance.
The detail on these works of art must be seen and touched to be appreciated.
The artist signs the finished design and coats it with a protective varnish. Many art lovers prefer the art to be aged with rust, then sealed afterward. In either case, the pieces can be displayed indoors or out.
Used oil drums made into beautiful works of art. Who’d have thought?