“What do shotgun houses, Creole-speaking Cajuns, and vodun rituals in Louisiana have in common with Haiti? Everything!” Students, teachers, museum visitors, and docents all made this discovery through an innovative cross-cultural, interdisciplinary exhibition, Haitian Cultural Legacy: From the Caribbean to Louisiana. Developed and presented by the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, the exhibition was made possible through the generosity of one man. Dr. Jean C. Bierre, and a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Dr. Bierre, a native Haitian and Shreveport doctor, began collecting the art of his homeland in 1944, building a personal relationship with many of tlie artists over the years through trips back to Haiti. The majority of his collection of 160 paintings and 50 sculptures formed the nucleus of the exhibit.
Through research on both the works in the collection and Haiti’s artistic traditions, it soon became apparent that Haiti and Louisiana shared a number of diverse historical and cultural influences. Native Indian, Spanish, African, French. and American values and traditions have been synthesized in similar ways in both Haiti and Louisiana. To emphasize these shared cultural and historical traditions and to provide a meaningful interdisciplinary experience, the exhibition was arranged by themes: The Land and Its History; Haitian Life; Cultural Heritage; Religion; and Diverse Visions.
These themes also formed the basis for discussion as eighteen docents led 2,370 students on tours during the three-month exhibition. Inquiry teaching was used to further an examination of such issues as: the “discovery” of Haiti by Columbus; the institution of slavery as practiced by the Spanish and the French; and the development of the synthesis of African religions and Catholicism known as vodun.
Docents asked questions of visitors to encourage the development of aesthetic response, critical thinking, and active involvement with works. Because many of the art works in the exhibition depicted emotionally-charged themes and issues such as slavery and vodun, it was also important for docents to be accepting of varied responses and to be able to deal dispassionately and objectively with difficult or controversial questions and statements.
Aesthetic discussions focused on Haiti’s rich and active art traditions, primarily characterized by vibrant color and mystical imagery. The approach to questioning on docent tours was often suggested by the characteristics of a work itself.
“What do you think is happening in the painting?” was a question Rae Ogier asked to gel students involved in a discussion about a work depicting the creation of the Haitian flag. This simple question led the students into a complex investigation of the symbolic meaning of a flag.
The red and blue Haitian flag was created from the French tricolor of red. white, and blue. The white middle band was torn out to symbolize the end of white French domination over the country that became the first black republic and the first to achieve independence as the result of a successful slave revolt. For student tours, Rae made a flag with a white insert attached with velcro. Students were actually able to “rip” out the white, emphasizing the symbolic action represented by the colors of the flag.
Docents indicated clearly what they wanted students to focus on in a work of art. While a group stood in front of a predominately blue, monochromatic painting, Barbara Gramling asked a quiet child in her group, “Does this make you feel warm or cool?” The shades of blue in this surrealistic work prompted responses from even the shyest student. Barbara followed up with the question, “What emotion or idea do you think the artist was trying to convey?,” which elicited various comments ranging from “lonely” and “scared” to “dreamlike.” The discussion continued for some time from just these two specific opening questions.
Compare and Contrast Questions
The variety of work in this exhibition offered many opportunities for compare and contrast questions. For instance, paintings showing women with baskets on their heads were the overwhelming choice of students asked, “Which art work do you think best represents or describes Haiti?”
Following this, Barbara Gramling engaged students in discussions comparing differences in Haitian and American life-styles: shopping traditions; leisure time; clothing; government; religion; and freedom — virtually every aspect of the heritage, cultural values, and traditions depicted by the art.
A more emotional reply was given to this same question, “Which art work best represents Haiti?,” when asked by docent Mary Koch of a student who selected a monochromatic sepia wash of a harbor. His reason was that, for him, it depicted what life for Haitians must really be like, as it had such a somber look and the water and boats symbolized the best means of escape.
Descriptive exercises were sometimes used as an entry into questioning strategies. Standing in front of a painting showing a laborer carrying a huge stalk of bananas on his head, docent Barbara Dupree asked her group of sixth graders to “Describe what you see in this work as completely as possible.” This question led to a discussion of banana trees, the fact that bananas are picked green, and the way in which the fruit grows.
Barbara then asked if anyone was familiar with Harry Belafonte’s song “Day-0,” a song about harvesting bananas. Those students who knew the song usually did not know what it meant. Through further discussion, students learned its meaning, as well as a new word, “tally.” They sang the lyrics:
“Hey, Mr. Tally-man,
Tally me bananas,
Daylight comes and
I wanna go home.”
Thus a painting, which held little initial interest for the class, became one of their favorites.
Another descriptive exercise led to some serious thoughts about ecology. While a group discussed deforestation in Haiti, one third grade boy said, “I didn’t know you could cut down all the trees in a country. Is that what they’re talking about when they talk about destroying tlie rain forest?” At the end of the tour, this same student motioned for the docent to follow him. He pointed to a forested landscape and said, “That’s my favorite ’cause I know now what can happen to our trees if we cut them all down.”
To provide a specific example of the contributions black Haitians made to the culture of Louisiana, the development of the “shotgun” house was traced through its roots in Africa, adaptation in Haiti, and expansion from New Orleans throughout the Southern United States.
Docent Barbara Chitman took pride in telling her 8th grade tour group that she grew up in a shotgun house. Using the paintings as a catalyst, she led students into a discussion of the significance of the architectural style. Shotgun houses were the most common type of dwelling among free blacks.
Connections were also emphasized between Haitian and Louisianian carnival (Mardi Gras) traditions. There is a similar adoption of a Plains Indian costume by blacks in both places. “Black Indians,” as they are called in New Orleans, have adapted native Indian costume, embellishing them with intricate sequin and feather designs similar to costumes appearing in Haitian paintings and festivals.
Two hands-on activities, festival masks (elementary level) and cut paper designs based on metal cutouts (secondary level), were provided in the teacher packets as a culminating art production activity. Other information in this interdisciplinary packet for teachers included an exhibition brochure, historical information, a map of Haiti, vocabulary, information about shotgun houses, Haitian heroes, and a historical timeline.
The use of appropriate questioning strategies and interdisciplinary connection by docents contributed greatly to the quality of the museum experience and encouraged critical thinking and thoughtful response among its visitors and students.
Questioning allowed for discovery learning, open investigation, and thoughtful response by students. The traditional constraints of subject area were disregarded in favor of a meaningful program that celebrated the full range of creativity inherent in the human spirit.
Judy Godfrey is the director of the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana. Nancy Walkup Reynolds is project coordinator of the North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts in Denton, Texas, and educational consultant to the Meadows Museum of Art in Shreveport.
Godfrey, Judy. “From Haiti to Louisiana: A Cultural Legacy,” The Docent Educator 2.2 (Winter 1992): 14-15.