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date: 03 December 2022

The Caribbean Visual Palettefree

The Caribbean Visual Palettefree

  • Patricia MohammedPatricia MohammedInstitute for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine


From the 15th century onward, the Caribbean has been populated with different ethnic groups, cultures, flora, and fauna in a way that is constantly changing the visual sensibilities of the space. The mixture of ethnic and nation groups that had settled by the 20th century produced a range of iconographic symbols, use of colors and forms that would signify the Caribbean aesthetic. This included a style of Caribbean painting which is referred to as Caribbean expressionism, the latter which included the group of artists known as intuitives or primitives. With few formal schools or institutions for instruction or opportunities for critical review, the Caribbean visual palette was established largely through the creativity of those involved in various festivals or ritual practices. Artistic expressions resemble performance or installation art rather than the classic forms of painting or sculpture. This work is somewhat iconoclastic in the interpretation of a Caribbean aesthetic and focuses on the homegrown artistic expressions that merge, collide, contradict, and emerge to create originality in this cultural space.


  • History of the Caribbean
  • Cultural History
  • Social History

Framework for a Caribbean Aesthetic

The Caribbean is generally considered to encompass the islands and territories bounded on one or more shores by the Caribbean Sea, containing the archipelagic stretch of islands from the straits of Florida in the United States to the tip of the South American continent, and including the mainland territories of Belize, Suriname, and Guyana.1 A Caribbean palette incorporates a taste, a way of looking, a value system of what is considered beautiful, representative, or pleasing, an aesthetic sensibility and feel for these territories, not just the ways in which art and artistic works represent form, color, and texture. It includes the expectations that the viewer, whether internal or external to the region, has come to associate with Caribbean peoples. The term “visual palette” is also being used to refer to an expectation of color and artistic expression that is associated with the region as a result of its geography and climate, tropical flora and fauna, the mixing of its ethnic and racial groups, and their religious practices. All of these have accumulated to a range of iconographic symbols derived from festivals, producing values, conventions, variations of shade, shape, and sound that over time have transmuted into a Caribbean aesthetic. Like all living cultures, however, the Caribbean aesthetic continues to evolve each day.

The historical process by which culture has been created in this region, by European colonial settlement of relatively unpopulated land, displacing the indigenous grouping from the 15th century onward to the present, has affected the way in which the Caribbean has been represented over time. Postcolonial relations of dominance among and between the racialized groups in the different Caribbean territories have signaled ideas that have greater demographic appeal. At the same time, there is no unified or shared acceptance of taste or formal values of what is fully representative of the Caribbean visual standpoint either within societies or between them. In an area that contains Anglophone, Hispanophone, Francophone, and Dutch Antillean languages and countless dialects, there are barriers to communication that make for inhibited fluidities or sharing. Nonetheless, owing to commonalities of history and topography, there has evolved a uniqueness, perhaps of color or subject matter, that resonates with the Caribbean visual experience. Highly selected elements of the different aesthetics produced within this region are examined here, with a focus on how these elements have emerged to create a sensibility understood loosely as Caribbean.

Art history and artistic production have been covered by many writers, some dealing directly with fine art production, and others with specific productions at an historical juncture. Among these writers and their principal works are Sally and Richard Price, Maroon Arts: Cultural Vitality and African Diaspora (1999); Veerle Poupeye, Caribbean Art (1998); Geoffrey MacLean, Cazabon: The Harris Collection (1999); David Boxer and Veerle Poupeye, Modern Jamaican Art (1998); and Valerie Facey and Jackie Ranston, Belisario Sketches of Character: A Historical Biography of a Jamaican Artist (2008).2 Art in the Caribbean: An Introduction by Anne Walmsley (2010) presents a virtual gallery of art produced in the region from the 1940s to the 2000s, situating them in historical context and influences from pre-Columbian times to the present day. The narrative timeline and text provide a wide overview of mostly Anglophone Caribbean artists within this period. More recently published is The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery by Judy Raymond (2016). Her work revives interest in the work of Richard Bridgens, an English-born artist whose legacy of drawings and sketches of slave society in Trinidad provide an everyday account of the lives of enslaved peoples that was rarely captured by other artists of the 18th or 19th century in the region.3

Other works have examined the emergence of performance art traditions. Among these are Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti; Laennec Hurbon’s Voodoo Truth and Fantasy; and Errol Hill’s The Trinidad Carnival.4 Two valuable contributions to understanding Caribbean aesthetic values and appeal are made in Krista Thompson’s An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean, which examines the stereotyping of the region’s tropical picturesqueness, and Mimi Scheller’s Consuming the Caribbean. European views of the Caribbean.5 Both Thompson and Scheller focus on the way European representations of the Caribbean framed both a way of seeing and appropriating the region’s natural resources and goods. Scheller explored how such representations served the Old World’s hierarchical ordering of culture by creating comparative taxonomies of the New, and Thompson polemicizes how the Caribbean becomes viewed as a site for tropical holiday rendezvous and other leisurely pursuits at the expense of the values being forged within the region. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century by Richard J. Powell (1997) covers the more expansive, wider array of artistic production produced as a result of the African diaspora in the West. In doing so, this book situates two Caribbean artists, Jean Michel Basquiat, of Haitian origin, and Wilfredo Lam, of Cuban origin, as significant artists to have emerged in black fine art traditions.

Both the foregoing works and the ideas and material contained in Imaging the Caribbean: Culture and Visual Translation (2009), a study that is philosophical, regional, and historical in its scope, inform the present discussion. Imaging the Caribbean and a series of seven related documentary films entitled A Different Imagination, applied a disciplinary promiscuity to an understanding of how the Caribbean has been imaged by both outsider and insider. These works used the methods and materials of history, sociology, art history, filmmaking, anthropology, literature, and gender studies, among others, to provide a visual map of Caribbean artistic production. Imaging the Caribbean attempts to read and interpret images and artifacts that were made within and outside the Caribbean region for the last 500 years in order to decode some of the visual metaphors that have been produced and view how these metaphors were deployed both politically and aesthetically to define Caribbean identity and sensibilities.

Eschewing the notion that culture and traditions become owned or fixed for any nation or group within nations, it is proposed here that the Caribbean visual palette is fluid, and constant only it its consistent changeability. “The Caribbean sensibility is not marinated in the past,” writes Derek Walcott (1994). “It is not exhausted. It is new. But it is its complexity, not its historically explained simplicities, which is new.”6 If the Caribbean’s new world evolution dates from the 15th-century encounter, then Walcott’s metaphor of a nonmarinated complex culture is apposite. The image he conveys of Caribbean cultural expressions is that it is shaped by old tastes that are spiced with new ingredients. Even while appearing to be immersed in dialogues with the Old World, with parent cultures from Europe, Africa, India, and China, this relatively youthful space has begun to create new aesthetic signs and signifiers. The historiography of the region has conceded that out of the contingent shifts in shared historical experiences, fought over and divided up between different European powers for over four centuries, a kind of cultural unity was also born. Franklin Knight (1978), as well as Gordon Lewis in The Growth of the Modern West Indies (1968), establishes the distinction that unites and at the same time divides the Caribbean.

The concept of the Caribbean … emphasizes cultural commonalities rather than political chronology, without neglecting the importance of the latter. All the societies of the Caribbean share an identifiable Weltanschauung, despite the superficial divisions that are apparent. The differences in beliefs, values, and attitudes of the Trinidadian, and the Guyanese, are perhaps no greater than those between the English, and the Welsh, or Castilian and the Andalucian.7

In defining Caribbean aesthetic sensibilities, one seeks to remain true to the differences of the historical settlement, geographical resources, economic possibilities, and political chronologies that are specific to each island or territory of the region. Several questions inform the way in which this palette is derived. What have climate and natural geography contributed to depictions of landscape, flora, and fauna? How did early colonial history chart this gaze of the region and how has a postcolonial lens challenged or confirmed the gaze? What has history contributed to cultural differentiation and settlement of each island or territory and the fusions that emerge? What has emerged in the present as phenomena to be celebrated as dominant ones in the textures and hue of its palette? In setting out the elements of a Caribbean visual palette, five primary visual characteristics can be identified: (1) the necessary binary opposition between the European/colonial/outsider gaze and the postcolonial and national agendas in relation to fine art values; (2) the layering of indigenous cultural icons that allow each sedimentation of culture to surface; (3) the emergence of different forms of Caribbean expressionism, ranging from intuitive/primitive and narrative elements typifying color and form to abstraction that resonates with the region’s ontology; and (4) the importance of the transient product, through performance, or festival space as the site of greatest creativity. Finally, there is the invisibility of some elements that have still not emerged in the definition of the Caribbean.

European Brushstrokes

The Columbian quincentenary exhibition held in 1992 agreed that what had taken place between the Old World and the Caribbean and Americas at large was an encounter of sets of cultures, each with its own internal belief systems and integrity. This was another interpretation of the same events that occurred in 1492 and the centuries that followed. From the 15th well into the 19th century, the Caribbean remained a cockpit of international rivalry among the great western European powers. Countless images have been produced from the 16th century onward of the first encounter and landing. These images invariably place Christopher Columbus—whether or not he saw himself as victorious—in the midst of disbelieving or fearful sailors, staking European control through flags and banner. The aborigine populations are largely depicted as side attractions, peeping out hesitantly from behind the foliage, although this representation in Figure 1 gives the Cuban cacique, or chief, more agency than is generally represented in the historiography of the period.

Figure 1. Columbus meeting the Charaibes. From Bryan Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial of the British West Indies (London: T. Miller, 1801, 1818, 1819). University of the West Indies Library, Mona, Jamaica.

The region presented a fundamental problem to the European mind. The people encountered or brought from other cultures into the Caribbean were deemed to be pagan and uncivilized. Christianity and European writing culture were considered the civilizing brushstrokes to be applied to the wild and unrecorded landscape, flora and fauna. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo’s Natural History of the West Indies, first published in 1526, constitutes one of the earliest systematic and en plein air8 visual records of the natural vegetation, peoples, and ethnography of the region.9 In 1687, Hans Sloane, who was appointed physician to the new governor of Jamaica, collected specimens over the period of his sojourn there and in 1707 published a document dedicated to the British Queen.10 In Barbados, Reverend Griffith Hughes, acting tutor at Codrington College, published A Natural History of Barbados in 1750, a parallel exercise in 10 volumes. The function of these heavily illustrated books is not one of artistic rendition, although there is that merit to the works; rather, it is primarily a scientific categorization of people, plants, and animals, all of which are part of a “picturing empire,” the phrase employed by James Ryan (1999).

The naming and framing of these exotic species configured the difference of the Caribbean region and created the archetypes of space and place that still dominate the popular visual imagination of the region from those abroad and, as Anthony Pagden (1993) theorized and Mimi Scheller further demonstrated, sealed the modern Western principle of possession. This is well illustrated by one example from Hughes’s 1750 sketches (Figure 2)—the coconut palm, which is now ubiquitously associated with tropical islands. Hughes’s work is dedicated to the Princess of Wales, a kind of patronage that was the widespread practice at the time. By the 19th century, both the classical and romantic schools of European landscape painters were extended a similar reading as recorders of topography, flora, and later built environments. J. B. Kidd was a prominent founding member of the Scottish Academy of Art. Inspired by descriptions of his brother Thomas who had settled in Falmouth, Trelawny, in north Jamaica, Kidd visited the island in 1835, produced a large number of paintings and by 1836 held the first art exhibition on the island of Jamaica. Kidd’s paintings served several purposes: they are composed primarily as a record of the palm tree (see Figure 3), which is dominant in each frame. The related scenery, set in a pastoral style, establishes the picturesque state of the land now combining the original fauna with the new set of peoples who have come to inhabit the space and are ostensibly at peace with it, having civilized the landscape into pastoral acceptability. The emancipation of the African slaves was still to come in 1838.11

Figure 2. Griffith Hughes, “The Coconut Tree,” dedicated to “Her Royal Highness the Princess scene with cocoa nut trees in the foreground.” From The Natural History of Barbados in 10 Books (London, 1750).

Figure 3. Plate 16, “Mountain Cottage of Wales” by J. B. Kidd, 1750. From West Indian Scenery. University of the West Indies Library, Cave Hill, Barbados.

While the European-trained painters came to the Caribbean with a Eurocentric viewpoint, they were seeing a different environment, and what they depicted, despite embedded biases, was this newness. The medium they most employed, that of fine art production, required the artist to provide the evidence of “seeing,” which depended on the artist’s eye and his individual preoccupations (there are no known female painters of the time) and, based on his training, on the rules pertaining to composition, form, and the possibilities dictated by the materials being used, be it pen, ink, paper, oil, or canvas. Artists in the later 18th century produced a veritable feast of images from which to decipher an unfolding narrative, many of them used by those arguing different ideological positions on enslavement and abolition.12

The categorization and aesthetic definition of flora and fauna was extended to human populations. If beauty and value were attributed to plants and animals, and their resemblance or difference from the north was observed, so were human beings categorized and labeled. Perhaps the most compelling, yet most problematic, production of images about the Caribbean by European or European-trained artists was that which evoked a collective imagination of the colonized landscape—the Caribbean as pastoral. The disruption of cultures, the violence and poverty meted out for centuries, the distance between the landed gentry and peasantry were not evoked in the romantic image of undulating farmland worked by a people beaten into submission. The land, flora, and fauna had been ordered and civilized for the highest production yields. Such painters who visited the Caribbean were not painting in the style of contemporary painters, who sought to demonstrate their individuality or unique style, but rather to fit into a tradition that was European-influenced. There was a notion of conformity of taste all around, and what was considered “culture” was definitely a European style universally accepted. Selden Rodman notes of Haiti in the early 20th century that the walls of the entire bourgeoisie featured the prints of European painters or North American scenes.13 The original works provided the basis for lithographs and engravings, and later were published widely to satisfy European interest in images of the Caribbean. Among settlers in the Caribbean, European values and traditions were premised as the hierarchically superior ones, with all others that would come after to be located lower down on a Western scale.

The project that was later undertaken in the Caribbean was not by any means a coherent or consolidated one between and among all the regional entities in its advancement out of a colonial governance to independence. Instead, the purpose was to produce an insider’s New World perspective that encompassed a Caribbean ontology, one that accommodated different cosmologies, diverse ritual practices, and varied ways of seeing and expressing cultural production. British-born and -trained painter Rex Dixon, who has lived, taught, and worked in Jamaica and Trinidad from 1984 to the present, has framed this conundrum of the outsider/insider gaze in a painting entitled “Doing the Intuitive Shuffle” (1998; Figure 4). The view from the outside or the outsider has not ended, just as the painterly traditions in Western art continue their influence on the region. But how does the contemporary painter in the Caribbean unlearn the European gaze of the past? While one may fault many of the European interpretations for what they conceal rather than reveal, the earliest sketches and lithographs, engravings, and paintings provide a visual record of these societies which would not have existed without these efforts. Western art itself as a polemic against which contemporary art in the region continues to be relevant and valuable to the advancement of artistic creativity.

Figure 4. “Doing the Intuitive Shuffle” by Rex Dixon, acrylic on board, 1999.

Courtesy of Rex Dixon.

Unlearning the Gaze

Original markings of Amerindian populations on the landscape in petroglyphs, pottery, and patterns of domesticity are venerated as the relics of an earlier civilization. Very little of this aesthetic of the first peoples has influenced current art practices in most of the islands. Some surviving evidence of Taino inhabitation may be viewed in such societies as Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Nonetheless, the Caribbean palette is not reconciled to their invisibility, as is evident, for instance, in the literary traditions of Wilson Harris or in numerous museum displays. Lawrence Waldron writes: “The museums of the Caribbean house thousands of vessel sherds and anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and hybrid adornos.”14 Waldron, for instance, has pointed to Saladoid art’s characteristic curviform or geometric painting of white on red typical of pre-Columbian design, the use of local material, and the zoomorphic references of turtles and frogs that have become iconic of the cosmologies of the period.

The last few decades of the 20th century witnessed a proliferation of studies attempting to understand the cosmology and material practices of the aboriginal populations from their point of view. While introducing new sets of data, most of these works have relied on and redeciphered the scripts left by the late 15th-, 16th-, and even 17th-century European scribes. Hughes’s A Natural History of Barbados referred to earlier, illustrated for the first time examples of prehistory pottery and shell tools from Barbados. Henry Petijean Roget, conservateur at the Musee Schoelcher in Guadeloupe, also observes that, while at present the first source of knowledge is the work of archaeologists based on ancient village site excavations, the secondary and still key sources are the “descriptions and information reported by men such as Christopher Columbus, Friar Ramon Pane, Bishop Las Casas, and the French Chroniclers of the 17th and 18th centuries.”15 Others have employed very detailed iconographic deconstruction of Amerindian myths: for example, the seminal study of Bernadette Bucher (1981), Icon and Conquest; Peter Hulme’s Remnants of Conquest: The Island Caribs and their Visitors, 1877–1998 (2000); the historical anthropology of Irving Rouse’s The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus (1992); and Arie Boomert’s archaeological history, “The Arawak Indians of Trinidad and Coastal Guiana,”16 which resuscitates the peoples and customs of the ancestral past that predates more recent immigrant histories.

If the historical script is increasingly imagined, what is more valuable in the narratives and sketches are the records of metaphysical beliefs, artifacts, customs, and rituals, which are the legacies left by the aboriginal peoples. Many of these records go back as far as the early 16th century through Francisco de Oviedo. Apart from his interest in the newly encountered flora and fauna, Oviedo was also fascinated by the American languages and reported words that are now accepted in global usage, including canoa (dugout, canoe), huracan (hurricane), maiz (maize, Indian corn), barbeque, and hamaca (hammock). Interestingly, items such as barbeque and hammock have come to be associated with leisure and lifestyle rather than with cooking and sleeping to which they originally referred. In the case of the hammock, it is associated with the iconographic image of a laid-back and relaxed atmosphere, sold as the leisurely pace of the Caribbean to the assumed stress-ridden tourist of the North.

While the aboriginal footprints are still honored, though sparsely distributed, the region is associated primarily with binary contrasts and differences between black and white, between a European gaze that created perceptions during colonial settlement and the dominance of African ways of life, cultural practices and belief systems of the majority population of the territories that were introduced under a system of slavery from the 16th to the 19th century. Africans were primarily celebrated in plantation society in comic and musical entertainment, as they were in the early minstrel shows of the United States. Alternatively, Africans were feared for their superstitious practices which were aligned to witchcraft. To the European mind, black performance was synonymous with the blackened face that appeared in the medieval mummers’ plays, characters that led pageants and cleared away crowds. In Elizabethan dramas, Shakespeare’s Othello is an example of a play that contained a central black role. While black music and associated festivals would by the 20th century be recognized as primary among the creative contributions of Africans to New World culture, during and after the slave trade, religious observances with accompanying music, particularly that of the African drumming, were not appreciated as cultural practices important to the metaphysical existence of the migrants and their offspring. There was a residual fear derived from incidents of revolt during slavery that such occasions allowed the opportunity for dissension and for consolidation of group identity. Most misunderstood about black culture were its religious belief systems. African prayers and ritual practices that engaged the body in ecstatic states of expression were antithetical to the practices of Christianity, which, distancing itself from the previous paganism among early European populations, largely eschewed physical expression. If the Amerindian gods were simply dismissed as irrelevant to the New World, then those brought by the Africans were seen as not only dark and heathenish, but, even more problematic, as dangerous.

Caribbean Expressionism

An indirect outcome of this fear of not complying with the European gods of Christianity and the need for subterfuge to continue familiar religious practices leads to another fragment in the formation of the region’s visual taste. Comprising both a literary and visual narrative, a school of painting emerged that was referred to as “primitive” or, more complimentary, “intuitive.” Many Haitian artists—among them Hector Hyppolite, Andre Pierre, and Lafortune Felix—before becoming painters, started out as Vodou priests. The most dominant form of painting that is recognizably Caribbean is what is referred to popularly as Haitian art. There is a definable look and feel of color, line, repetition, form, and filling of space that is easily understood as “Haitian art,” although one must separate the popular from a contemporary, far more sophisticated, set of conventions in artistic practice that has now evolved in Haiti and elsewhere in the region from these early roots.

The emergence of the primitive or intuitive in Haiti (and there are expressions of the same in Jamaica and Cuba) is generally attributed to the practice of Vodou. This expressive religious belief system provided Haitian society with an avenue through which the African soul survived in syncretic form, blending African and Catholic gods and cosmologies. The vèvè, or the ground drawings made by the houngan, the Vodou priest or assistant (serviteurs), to invite and propitiate the loas or divinities provided the early training ground for the first Haitian artists.17 Selden Rodman (1974) and Alfred Metraux (1972) among others have convincingly demonstrated that the transmission of the skills of executing the vèvè over generations of Vodou practitioners itself provided informal schooling for art and artistic sensibilities.

Figure 5. Patricia Mohammed’s simulation of flour vèvè for Erzulie left, Legba north, Dambalah right, and Agassou south on picture plane.

Photographed by Rex Dixon.

Vèvè refers to the symbolic design representing the attribute of a loa or lwa. These drawings, traced on the ground with maize flour, ash, coffee grounds, or brick dust by the Vodou priest, reveal the presence of the god in recognizable symbolic form. The vèvè fulfills the functions elsewhere devolving upon statues and images and serves as religious graffiti if one likes, recognizable to all devotees (Figure 5). They invite and propitiate the god or gods who are being invoked at the particular religious ceremony. While the presence of Vodou and the phenomenon of the loas as divinities have been understood and appreciated as deriving from African culture, the vèvè and the visually artistic creativity surrounding this religious tradition remained secondary.

The drawn outline of the vèvè served as a signal to the worshippers, first, to show which gods were being appeased or invoked, and second, to identify the characteristics that bodies should exhibit, which, when possessed by the specific loa who had been summoned, was then manifested in dance. For instance, if the loa Damballah had appeared, the dancer’s body took on the writhing qualities of a snake. The aesthetic space created around the poteau mitan, or central axis of the prayer ground, would eventually be transferred from the ground to walls and on to canvas and paper. The artwork alone did not summon the loa; the drumming was music to the ears of the loa, and thus he or she would appear in dance possessing the body of a devotee. In other words, the entire package could be understood as installation and performance art in a Western contemporary art context. The mastery involved in the blended performance of all of these forms was not appreciated as art and, frankly speaking, still is not. Nor did the participants perceive the ritual as performance or installation. Outsiders would begin to see it differently. Maya Deren, for instance, notes that “[t]he drawing of the vevers requires real technical skill. A small amount of flour is picked up between the thumb and the fore finger and let sift on the ground while the hand moves in the line of the form which the vever is to take. The first thing drawn is a circle around the base of the poteau mitan. From this center the vevers radiate. Sometimes, when the service is for a specific loa, the vever may be drawn at the entrance to his particular chamber.”18 Deren draws attention to the detail of this repertory that is known to the houngan or serviteur. Her recognition of materials signals a Caribbean propensity to make use of material that is available to create art—the houngans used coffee grounds or ash, and those who decorated their temple walls later used house paint or homemade dyes. This practical use and application of what is easily available are perhaps relevant to all cultures at a particular stage of development, but what such ingenuity generates is a capacity to employ the objects and materials that are cheap and available for aesthetic purposes. So, for instance, if one looks around at the decoration of houses and gardens, working-class Caribbean householders make use of raw stone and found materials on beaches to decorate gardens and pave pathways rather than purchasing manufactured objects such as garden gnomes or bricks.

In more recent times, an unfolding Caribbean art history in the region pointed to other key Haitian influences, as for instance the reference to the graffiti-like quality of the imagery of Jean Michel Basquiat, “who has been a notable influence on contemporary Caribbean expressionism” (Poupeye, 1998). Caribbean expressionism encapsulates a broad range and for the purposes of this visual palette includes intuitive painting. It is manifested in different ways in the territories, although there is a family resemblance among many of the popular artistic forms that are recognizable. Typically, one might find a juxtaposition of bright primary colors, a disproportioned representation of the body and of objects drawn on paper, canvas, or walls in a variation of cloissonnism (see Figure 6). Unlike the nuances of shading or detail found in this post-impressionist style of Paul Gauguin, however, the Caribbean intuitive expression tends to employ flat color and a simplification of natural form in order to maintain a highly patterned surface. Dark faces and bodies are given depth with large objects elaborated through cross-hatching and recurrent motifs. Many canvases executed by the early Haitian artists dealt with religious or political struggles within the island and retain a strong narrative content of how this nation has internalized its ongoing history. This is not of course true of all Caribbean expressionism or intuitive painting, and there are many variations, such as those by Leonard Daley of Jamaica whose work evokes the unconscious or dreamlike, an almost troubled profusion of shapes and form devoid of the bold colors that have come to signify the region. In addition, intuitive works are not always to be found on canvas in galleries and drawing rooms, but in shopfront surfaces, wall murals, temple fronts and interiors, and on furniture.

Figure 6. “Haitian Painting” by Andre.

Courtesy of Patricia Mohammed.

In the region, the profusion of “local” art affordable to the tourist and generally haggled down to indecent prices is perhaps the most noticeable outcome of the overproduction that has come out of Haiti and Cuba as their art has been further commoditized. The visual experience of Haiti is perhaps the most surprising one. Where sidewalk art in other Caribbean countries comprises wooden intuitive sculptured forms, or handicrafts made from local objects, in Haiti and the neighboring Santo Domingo where many are transported for sale, paintings literally exude from the cracks in the concrete and woodwork (Figure 7). Hundreds of repetitive canvases can be found on sidewalks and open fields, or kitsch ones in many of the galleries of Petionville in Haiti, along with highly decorated tap taps—the latter are the highly decorated private buses in Port au Prince vying with each other for passengers—and iron works in Croix de Bouquets, all as part of the art market that has developed from Caribbean expressionist forms.

Figure 7. Sidewalks in Santo Domingo with Haitian paintings for sale, brought over by Haitian vendors.

Courtesy of Patricia Mohammed.

Transient Caribbean Art

As a result of the Caribbean artist’s palette, a range of creative expressions that are constituted as artistic has evolved. Based on European and Western conventions, people assumed that art would be found only in certain places, on the walls of generally upper or middle-class households, or in churches either in three-dimensional sculptured form, murals on walls or stained glass windows. Complex tattoo designs traced to Old World cultures had added art on the body as another accepted form. What did the Caribbean bring to New World conventions on how aesthetic form was created and absorbed within a culture, if not necessarily produced for the marketplace. People did not conceive of art as that on dirt floors and walls of huts, made with substances like flour and ashes on the floor. Because the drawings of the vèvè were transitory, they foreshadowed later international art movements such as that of the work of Ana Mendieta,19 a Cuban artist who drew her reference points from Santería to create in the 1970s, temporary installations on beaches and other surfaces that she then photographed. The temporariness of the original vèvè played out on the floor to be trampled on and destroyed prefigured concepts in later 20th-century art movements that would focus on performance, earthworks, installation, and the transient nature of the art object.

Among these forms can be located other art forms that by definition embody the performative and transient in Caribbean art. Another synthesis of the early European masked bacchanalian traditions, Catholic pre-Lenten carne vale (good bye to flesh), slave traditions of canne brulee or burning the canes, and street performance of theater has evolved into a colorful spectacle of a street masquerade and a host of musical and stage performances that absorb the time engaged in creative projects of large sections of the population for the entire year. The two-day event of Carnival, a wide variation from the Brazilian Carnival, is launched with the early morning jour ouvert (from the French meaning opening day) featuring body painting and masking and unmasking of society. It is a time when ambiguities, including sexual ambiguities, are allowed to show themselves, half disguised under paint or the cover of dawn, the slurred watchfulness of darkness, and yet coming to light as the value of such performance traditions must allow for disguise with reparation (Figure 8). This performance of art is not just revelry for its own sake, but as in the practice of the British mummers plays, jour overt or jouvay, as it is colloquially known in Trinidad and Tobago, continues the confrontation between respectability and the disreputable, between the sacred and the profane, and between upper and lower classes, defying the binary of good and evil to embrace the presence of both in any society. This is also resonant of the dress style of women and space referred to as dance-hall culture in Jamaica. And, too, it is a continuous confrontation between Christianity and African spirituality in the Caribbean setting, with Christianity premised on Cartesian logic and a mechanistic interpretation of physical nature and African spirituality allowing for indistinctness and paradox. African spirituality in all of the islands and territories whether Vodou (Haiti), Santería (Cuba), Candomble (Brazil), Shango and Orisha (Trinidad and Tobago), and Pocomania or Pukkumina (Jamaica) are persistently involved in the same tension of settling with a company of gods, establishing the validity of new cosmologies that have emerged and the rituals that must appease both as evidenced through the artistic frame.

Figure 8. J’Ouvert Morning, 3 Canal Band, Port of Spain, 2009.

Courtesy of Patricia Mohammed.

Carnival costumery, masks, and performance have never lent themselves easily to the preservation or display in archives,20 galleries, or museum setting. Within the last five years, curators Claire Tancons, born on the island of Guadeloupe, and Krista Thompson, born in the Bahamas, have teamed up to produce a museum display entitled “En Mas: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean.” The exhibition was organized and presented by the Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, and by Independent Curators International, New York. Carrying forward the dialogues of what constitutes carnival not only in Trinidad but in the wider Caribbean, this exhibition “EN MAS’ takes into account performance practices that do not trace their genealogy to the European avant–gardes of the early twentieth century but rather to the experiences of slavery and colonialism through to the mid–nineteenth century, the independence struggles and civil right movements of the mid–twentieth century and population migrations to and from the former colonial centers for most of the last century.”21

The aim of the curators is to move Carnival beyond its rooted beginnings and to demonstrate its influences on contemporary performances and art practices outside of the Caribbean itself.

Popular Stereotypes

Not unrelated to the Caribbean palette is the more obvious aspects of a Caribbean sensibility that may be gleaned from visual spaces such as the vernacular architecture. The typical image of Caribbean architecture is the low-rise colonial wooden building decorated with ornate fretwork, shuttered French windows, and wide cool wrap around verandas. If such houses were associated with the upper- and middle-class lifestyle, more modest housing such as the chattel houses of Barbados22 and shantytown shacks of urban ghettos were viewed as working class, their houses made with rusty zinc and uneven wooden panels. Although concrete, glass, and steel have become the 21st-century materials of choice, the above stereotypes still dominate the architectural imagination of the region. The idea of naturally ventilated houses and verandahs that allow for an open-air lifestyle is the most prevalent one to those who live outside of the Caribbean, an acknowledgment of the climatic difference between temperate and tropical climes. While the British adopted the word “verandah” from its architectural use in India, this association of verandah living has become closely associated with Caribbean housing, hotels, and institutional workplaces, although there are vast differences to be currently found by class, society, and period of construction.23

Perhaps the most popular construction of the Caribbean, however, is found through contemporary advertising, one that is continuously reinforced by the cinematic lens. These advertisements sell and package archetypal images that fire the imagination of the region as leisurely, revolutionary, or violent. Yet the most dominant cliché is the cruiseship liner heading into Caribbean waters, with cloudless sunlit blue skies meeting limpid and lucid pools of aquamarine waters edged with coral white sand and dotted with elegant swaying coconut or palm trees. White tourists are served colorful drinks decorated with pineapple slices by black bartenders or curvaceous brown-skinned waitresses. These complete the dreamscape holiday retreat images of sun, sand, sea, and sex that signify a Caribbean location. That location, climate, and people are representative of a truth that is typical of the region must not be discounted in the visual palette of the photographer, painter, and filmmaker alike. How this becomes the highest grossing advertising package, however, over the vast range of aesthetic properties is problematic. It continues to inform scholarly thinking and writing about the region’s beauty, self-affirmation, and value in the global environment. This notion of the clichéd Caribbean served on a platter for a tourist market has led to the proliferation of derivative handicraft and touristic products in each of the societies that of necessity thrive on an indiscriminate market.

Invisible Components Waiting in Line

If a lost and no longer threatening culture of indigenous peoples is held in venerated limbo and the dialogue continues between the “western Christian” enterprise and the African presence within the region, there is one other element of the visual palette that is increasingly adding its tonality and yet retains an invisibility. The Asian impact on the continuing evolution of the Caribbean aesthetic remains unmapped, waiting to be “discovered” as befell the Haitian intuitive traditions, as part of this still evolving New World culture. Along with Africans who were introduced from the 17th century, smaller populations such as the Chinese continued to be brought into the colonies until 1890, before the onset of a large East Indian immigration scheme that ended in 1917. While there continues to be movement inward of new groups such as mainland Chinese now being viewed as the latest arrivals, the migrants from the 15th to the early 20th century have created the subterranean foundation of the Caribbean visual culture. The majority of Indians who came between 1845 and 1917 were settled in the southern regions of Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. They were primarily agricultural workers and did not bring with them the rich or highly skilled traditions of fine art from India. Unlike the harsh brutality of African slavery, although indentureship was by no means overly sympathetic to culture or custom, Indians were nonetheless able to transport and reengage spiritual elements of religious culture and festivals that presented sonically and visually different markers on the landscape. Hinduism, the religion of the majority of Asians in the region, also brought with it a new set of gods, with a different worldview. While both African and Indian followers of Islam introduced the austerity of Islamic art and ritual practices and the Chinese proceeded with a quietly insistent presence in the arts of design, watercolor, and photography, the dominant Asian influence flourished in villages away from the urban centers of influence.

There is a family resemblance between the arts produced by the Indians and those arts that arose as a result of African spirituality that remains under the surface of recognition as Caribbean aesthetic reinterpretations of culture. Tadjahs, or small-scaled ornate temples, are built and carried in street theater accompanied by drums to reenact the dramatic Islamic festival of the battle of Karbala and mourn the violent altercation between two warring brothers Hassan and Hosein, the grandsons of the Prophet Mohammed. The annual festival is referred to locally as Hosea or Hosay in Trinidad, Hussay in Jamaica and Taziya or Tadjah in Guyana . On the final day, the beautiful tadjahs, as with other transient art forms, are destroyed.

In Hinduism, dramatic interpretations from the Ramayana, the Ramlilla or the story of Ram and Sita and their banishment into the forest provide the basis for a festival that is performed with costumed characters each year and that ends with the burning of Rawan, a larger-than-life effigy made to be destroyed. Caribbean Nobel Laureate poet Derek Walcott (1998) commented on the different interpretation that the outsider and generally the non-Indian population had of this festival of the Ramlilla. “They believed in what they were playing, in the sacredness of the text, the validity of India, while I, out of the writer’s habit, searched for some sense of elegy, of loss, even of degenerative mimicry in the happy faces of the boy-warriors or the heraldic profiles of the village princes. I was polluting the afternoon with doubt and with the patronage of admiration. I misread the event through a visual code of History—the cane fields, indenture, the evocation of vanished armies, temples, trumpeting elephants—when all around me there was quite the opposite: elation, delight in the boy’s screams, in the sweet stalls, in more and more costumed characters appearing; a delight of conviction, not loss.”24

There is a great similarity between the latter two festivals and Carnival. All three depend on ornate costuming, construction of elaborate props, masking, and performance, at the end of which the artistic product is discarded, to be reinvented the following year with new artistry. The aesthetic of Indian festivals has seeped imperceptibly into the region’s performance and plastic arts. One example was that adopted by masquerade bandleader Peter Minshall in his Carnival “mas” band (The River, 1983).25 His masqueraders were dressed completely in white, and while crossing the performance stage streams of colored dye were splashed over the entire band, staining the River People and his Washerwoman queen, signifying the sullied embodiment of purity and harmony. The method and inspiration for this performance resonate with the annual festival of spring celebrated by Hindus, called Holika or Phagwa. This is a similar activity of sprinkling abeer or multicolored dyes mixed with water. This festival of spring pays homage to the colors and profundity of nature, both in its vegetation and in its continuing promise of fertility, the latter expressed by the masculine and feminine interplay of the sexes. Phagwa allows open and ribald gestures between the young men and women who squirt each other in playful gestures (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Simulated festival of spring, or Phagwa, for the documentary film Coolie Pink and Green, 2008.

Courtesy of Patricia Mohammed.

Like the vèvè made for the Haitian Vodou ceremony, these rituals of Carnival, Hosea, and Phagwa symbolize the impermanence, yet constant rejuvenation and recreation, of culture, the invocation to nature for resilience, the triumph of joy and goodness over evil, the supremacy of light over darkness, and a celebration of the vibrancy and healing powers of color, music, and dance. These are the primary spaces in which artistic creativity and energy are directed. In cultures with few formal institutions for fine art instruction, performance traditions are the training ground for some of those who will emerge as artists. Even within these societies, this imperceptible connection is rarely if ever acknowledged. Such resonances between cultural practices and belief systems are absent in the knowledge shared between societies within the region and thus limit how these might become an immanent part of an expanding Caribbean aesthetic.

Local Coloration

This rendering of the Caribbean visual palette is not confined to the critique of fine art and rules pertaining to artistic production. While an integration of Caribbean art production into Western art history undoubtedly preoccupies a growing section of a trained, sophisticated, or informed art circle, for the majority of persons, art is found in the nooks and crannies of everyday life, in ritual festivals that dot the annual calendar, expressed in the way in which they dress their bodies and houses and use materials that are available for easy consumption. One can argue that with increasing access to cable television and cheaper synthetic materials from abroad—including tinsel, feathers, and paper, or fabric and paint, original homespun ideas are fast eroding. Nonetheless, the informal rules of an aesthetic retain a hold on people’s creative psyches. Thus, instead of symmetry and ordered landscapes, houses, and gardens, the conventional picture of a Caribbean residence or street is chaotic and unplanned, worked around disorder. The presence of long hot days, sharpness of light, and onset of sudden darkness resulting from shortened twilight, affects moods and temperaments just as long summer nights influence northerners, and these moods are captured in the Caribbean interpretations whether in song and dance, on paper, or in performance. Few painters have surfaced as water colorists to absorb the lightness of a Caribbean sunshiny day, as brightness and shade are stark and one cannot strain these nuances of light subtly through the irises. Dark skins also adopt different colors in which to dress themselves. There is a preference for vivid colors rather than pastels, so that a Caribbean gathering of peoples appears more flamboyant on screen or paper. Performance and transient art allow for involved participation in a work of art. While the viewer might not be a paid-up member of a masquerade band, or a full devotee in the Shango feast, or merely an onlooker on a Hosea parade, music and dance invariably incite an emotional response to a visual feast, and nowhere in the Caribbean are the viewers outside of the installation—unlike a voyeur facing a canvas on the wall. This is another set of rules that informs the Caribbean visual palette, which the makers of artistic products perhaps intuitively understand.

There is a sense in which the Caribbean visual palette retains a necessary paradox. As noted earlier, the European gaze has come full circle to present itself back to the tourist through advertisement and cinematic or filmic support of the Caribbean picturesque and tourist art and artifacts. Hotels and the tourist industry offer the archetypes of colors and form that satisfy the visitor. At the same time, there is an art industry that strives for recognition with art centers of London, New York, and Paris and competes to join the visual traditions and conventions of fine art. Although this latter aspect of the Caribbean visual palette is not treated here, its importance must not be underestimated. It deserves full analysis as a separate component. While much contemporary fine art is understandably concerned with individual creativity and a desire for the practitioner’s work to outlive his or her own existence, in small societies where legacies of loss and disruption are still the dominant refrain, performance art and transience are necessary responses in the face of larger global economic and social forces. The visual world of carnival, performance, and transience, of ritual representations at Vodou, Orisha, and Shango feasts, and at Hindu prayer gatherings and festival rituals remains dominant as the everyday expressiveness of a space. So familiar is this to the inhabitants of the region that it is invisible and ephemeral as a recognizable component of the Caribbean visual palette. Perhaps for this reason it is a dynamic visual space, a constantly changing parade of tastes accommodating greater nuances by not being confined to traditional boundaries or barriers of conventions that have stymied the freer development of regulated art forms and practices.

Further Reading

  • Boxer, D., & Poupeye, V. Modern Jamaican art. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1998.
  • Bucher, B. Icon and conquest: A structural analysis of the illustrations of de Bry’s Great voyages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Cosentino, D. J. (Ed.). Sacred arts of Haitian Voudou. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.
  • Fernandez Mendez, E. Art and mythology of the Taino Indians of the Greater West Indies. San Juan, Puerto Rico: El Cerni, 1972.
  • Knight, F. The Caribbean: Genesis of Fragmented Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Lewis, G. K. The growth of the modern West Indies. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968.
  • Metraux, A. Voodoo in Haiti. Trans. Hugo Charteris. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.
  • Mohammed, P. Imaging the Caribbean: Culture and visual translation. Oxford: Macmillan, 2009.
  • Mohammed, P., & Paddington, L. (dirs.). The Sign of the Loa. Documentary Film. Trinidad and California, 2007.
  • Pagden, A. European encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Poupeye, V. Caribbean art: The world of Art Series. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
  • Rodman, S. The Miracle of Haitian Art. New York: Doubleday, 1974.
  • Walcott, D. What the Twilight Says. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
  • Walmsley, A., Greaves, S., & Cozier, C. Art in the Caribbean: An introduction. London: New Beacon, 2010.
  • Wynter, S. “Jonkunnu in Jamaica: Towards the interpretation of folk dance as a cultural process.” Jamaica Journal 4.2 (1970, June): 34–48.
Additional Readings
  • Boomert, A. “The Arawak Indians of Trinidad and Coastal Guiana.” Journal of Caribbean History 19.2 (1984): 123–148.
  • Powell, R. J. (1997). Black art and culture in the 20th century. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Ryan, J. (1999). Picturing empire: Photography and the visualisation of the British Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


  • 1. The author is more familiar with the work of the Anglophone Caribbean and of the Francophone, with the art of Haiti. Thus, the work is less geared to the Hispanic or Dutch Antilles and represents a partial view of the region.

  • 2. Veerle Poupeye, Caribbean Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998); Geoffrey MacLean, Cazabon: The Harris Collection (Trinidad and Tobago: MacLean, 1999); Valerie Facey and Jackie Ranston, Belisario—Sketches of Character: A Historical Biography of a Jamaican Artist (Kingston, Jamaica: Mills Press, 2008); and David Boxer and Veerle Poupeye, Modern Jamaican Art (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1998).

  • 3. Anne Walmsley, Stanley Greaves, and Christopher Cozier, Art in the Caribbean: An Introduction (London: New Beacon, 2010); and Judy Raymond, The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery (Coconut Creek, FL: Caribbean Studies Press, 2016).

  • 4. Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Documentext (New York: Mcpherson, 1953); and Errol Hill’s The Trinidad Carnival (London: New Beacon Books, 1997).

  • 5. Krista A. Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); and Mimi Scheller, Consuming the Caribbean (London: Routledge, 2003).

  • 6. Derek Walcott, “The Muse of History,” in What the Twilight Says (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 54.

  • 7. Franklin Knight, The Caribbean: Genesis of Fragmented Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. xv.

  • 8. En plein air refers to the artist experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape, in front of the subject rather than within the walls of a studio. While this had been observed before, it was the French Impressionists who made the practice into an art form as they wanted to capture natural changes in light and dark on the canvas or paper.

  • 9. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, The Natural History of the West Indies, trans. Sterling A. Stoudemire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959).

  • 10. Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher and Jamaica: with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Fourfooted Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, &c. of the Last of Those Islands (London: printed by B. M. for the author, 1707–1725).

  • 11. In Jamaica, the Institute of Jamaica and the National Gallery of Jamaica are two repositories that house a wealth of archival material on Jamaican arts and artists. The Barbados Museum and Historical Society in Barbados is also a rich resource for Barbadian and Eastern Caribbean art and artifacts.

  • 12. See Mohammed, Imaging the Caribbean, Chapter 7, The European Gaze, and Chapter 8, The Invention of the Caribbean Picturesque.

  • 13. Selden Rodman, The Miracle of Haitian Art (New York: Doubleday, 1974).

  • 14. Lawrence Waldron, “By Unseen Hands: Regarding the Gender of Saladoid Potters in the Ancient Lesser Antilles.” Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, 5 (2011).

  • 15. Henry Petitjean Roget, “Notes on Ancient Caribbean Art and Mythology,” in Samuel M. Wilson (Ed.), The Indigenous People of the Caribbean (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997), p. 100.

  • 16. Arie Boomert, “The Arawak Indians of Trinidad and Coastal Guiana,” Journal of Caribbean History, 19.2 (1984): 123–188, at 149.

  • 17. See the documentary film The Sign of the Loa (2007), runtime 17 minutes, directed by Patricia Mohammed and Luke Paddington. Story Teller Patricia Mohammed on Website Humanity Explored

  • 18. Deren, Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti, pp. 204–205.

  • 19. Ana Mendieta: 26 artworks, body and shows

  • 20. The West Indiana Division of the University of the West Indies Libraries of St. Augustine, Trinidad houses collections of carnival costume sketches by Carlisle Chang, Trinidadian artist.

  • 21. See

  • 22. See images and descriptions of chattel housing of Barbados.

  • 23. For examples of Trinidadian vernacular architecture, see

  • 24. Derek Walcott, “Fragment of the Antilles,” in What the Twilight Says: Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), p. 67.

  • 25. See various references to the work of Peter Minshall, Trinidad masquerade designer, including