Markets as cultural intersections I: Reflections of nationality in Haitian and Dominican paintings

When I started fieldwork in Santo Domingo in 2004, I was struck by how Dominican public spaces appear to act as a middle ground in which Haitian transnationals sell their art to foreign tourists. With few tourists to sell to in Haiti, dealers buy art and bring it across the border for the much larger Dominican market.

Dominicans appear to have little to do with this transaction, since most of the paintings are produced and distributed by Haitian nationals. Furthermore, Dominicans rarely buy Haitian-style paintings as they prefer their own national aesthetic. Their role seems limited to attracting tourists and allowing Haitian dealers to use Dominican public space.

For those of you who are familiar with Dominican-Haitian relations and recent deportations of Haitians from Dominican territory, this situation seems rather curious.

The visibility of Haitian paintings on Dominican streets is striking given that the Dominican State has always been very keen to promote its own, European-centred nationalism over what they see as Haitian primitivism and disorder. It raises a host of questions about the motivations and interpretations of the three main actors in the trade of the paintings; that is, Haitian transnationals, Dominican nationals, and foreign tourists.

For example, how does each group interpret the paintings symbolically? And to what extent are the paintings cultural products or commodities?

I suggest that there are two levels of meaning that must be examined. Firstly, the paintings and the trade site are physical entities with certain material properties and exchangeable values.

Secondly, their meaning is socially constructed in accordance with the cultures and practices of the actors involved. The trade site and the objects traded reproduce and modify the social meanings of the relations between transacting groups.

A Haitian art market in Santo Domingo 

Figure 1 above is of an American tourist shopping for a painting at an art market on Santo Domingo's waterfront. This particular site no longer exists; the paintings were displayed on the temporary walls of a construction site, which has long since been completed and the sellers have moved elsewhere.

Almost all of the paintings you see in this photograph are Haitian; the sellers are Haitian; and the men who guard the paintings overnight are also Haitian.

To examine the trade site, I draw upon Setha Low’s (1996) division between the social production of place and the social construction of place. In her definition, the social production of place is the physical creation of the material setting, whereas "the social construction of place is the actual transformation of space—through people's social exchanges, memories, images, and daily use of the material setting—into scenes and actions that convey symbolic meaning."[1]

As socially produced places, the sites in which Haitian dealers sell paintings are parts of the Dominican streetscape. They are part of a built environment that was produced to govern pedestrian traffic through the use of paths and barriers, and their designers did not anticipate their use as trade sites.

Like the vast majority of street vendors, Haitian art dealers, who trade on the street, have virtually no control over the production of the space they occupy. Trade sites are not so much physically constructed as they are assembled.

Art dealers choose sites that are in the path of potential buyers, that have a wall on which paintings can be displayed, and are semi-abandoned, such as the walls of construction sites so that the dealers are unlikely to be evicted. Dominican officials permit these trade sites because they are a tourist attraction and inject cash into the city’s economy.

As socially constructed places, these trade sites are defined by their presence in Dominican national territory. There is a long history of spatial conflict between Dominicans and Haitians, the contemporary manifestation of which is of course deportations of Haitian migrants from the Dominican Republic back to Haiti.

For Dominicans, Haitian migrants who work on the streets of Santo Domingo are misplaced spatially, culturally, and politically. They particularly seem out of place in tourist areas, as Dominicans associate Haitians with Africa, whereas the Spanish colonial architecture that attracts tourists represents Dominican allegiance to Europe.

For Haitians, Dominican street spaces are an opportunity to engage in economic activities that are not available to them in Haiti because of the lack of a market.

For tourists, the display of paintings on the streets of Santo Domingo adds an exotic flavour that compliments rather than contradicts the surrounding landscape.

Most of the paintings that are sold on the streets of Santo Domingo are produced by Haitians. Because there is little tourism in Haiti, the primary market for the paintings is in Santo Domingo. Haitian art dealers travel back to Haiti to buy paintings, or they buy them from Haitian and Dominican artists residing in the Dominican Republic.

They regularly deal with the same artists, and they depend upon kinship networks to help source the paintings, transport them to Santo Domingo, and sell them. They insert themselves and the paintings into the informal economy as a way of reaching the tourist market without having to expend a great deal of capital. Operating in the informal economy is effectively their only option as they are usually illegal immigrants.

Also, the risk of deportation is a disincentive to accumulating fixed capital, so trading on the street is a compromise.

Haitian paintings 

The Haitian national style is often referred to as ‘primitivist’ or ‘naïve’. In the art that is sold on the street, the market and the harvest are the two most common scenes depicted. Figure 2 above depicts 'madame Sarahs', market women, selling in a marketplace. They are dressed in peasant clothing and the blackness of their skin is emphasized against their colourful dress.

Figure 3 is a more stylized painting that uses repeated motifs of people and vegetables. The people lack facial features. These paintings are produced in multiples according to a template. Haitian paintings that are sold in galleries are more likely to be one-offs. They have a wider range of themes and styles and are produced by better-known artists.

The paintings sold in the street are almost exclusively bought by tourists from Europe and North America. Some of the sellers I spoke with told me that Haitian paintings are particularly popular in Italy, and that Italian buyers will occasionally purchase up to a hundred paintings and export them back to Italy to resell.

In my observation, Dominicans normally only buy Haitian art to display in businesses that cater to tourists, and will not display it in their homes. Interaction between Dominicans and Haitians at the trade site is therefore limited to gazing or perhaps the type of casual conversation that is common in Dominican city streets.

A Haitian painting of a marketplace
Figure 2: A Haitian painting of a marketplace

A stylized Haitian marketplace
Figure 3: A stylized Haitian marketplace

 Dominican paintings 

Whereas Haitian paintings are stylized and largely two-dimensional, this landscape has distinctly European influences in terms of composition, perspective, and subject matter. Figure 4 is a typical Dominican landscape with a flamboyan tree.

While Dominican paintings also show rural scenes, they depict romantic landscapes with houses and perhaps a few people performing a cultural activity such as dancing or playing an instrument. Skin colour and dress are not emphasized here.

Haitian paintings, on the other hand, depict larger groups of people, and especially crowds, engaged in productive activity. Haitian culture is suggested by skin colour, dress, and agriculture.

Figure 5 depicts another type of Dominican-style painting that is sold on the streets. It depicts a scene in Santo Domingo’s colonial zone, which is the old city built by Spaniards.

This style reflects the official version of national history in which Spaniards created the nation and its people. Common motifs in this style are the built and natural environment without any reference to slaves or indigenous people.

There is nothing distinctly Caribbean about it either, apart from the fact that it represents real buildings in Santo Domingo. It could easily be a scene from the Mediterranean.

From the conversations I have had with tourists it would appear that they buy this style of painting to reminisce about the aesthetic experience of their trip to the Caribbean. Paintings of the colonial architecture function as romanticized but realistic representations in that they remind tourists of their visual experience of ‘being there’.

Conversely, Haitian paintings remind tourists of a purely imagined reality that was not part of their tourist experience.

Dominican landscape with a flamboyan
Figure 4: Dominican landscape with a flamboyan
A Dominican painting depicting colonial architecture
Figure 5: A Dominican painting depicting colonial architecture

So, how are the paintings interpreted? Firstly the paintings are part cultural object and part commodity, for all of the actors involved. For Haitian dealers, the paintings depicts national culture, but their primary importance is as commodities. The objects are produced quickly according to a template with the intention of being sold at a profit.

For Dominicans, the paintings are a tourist attraction and therefore a commodity. But Dominicans’ reluctance to purchase Haitian art marks the paintings out as cultural objects. The paintings symbolize Haitian national culture, which Dominicans associate with voudou and Africa, and therefore also with poverty and lack of power.

In contrast, Dominicans imagine themselves as Catholic and as part of the Western world. Dominicans avoid being mistaken as Haitian nationals or their descendents. So Dominicans will accept Haitian art as a commodity to be exported, but they will disassociate themselves from the cultural object by refusing to purchase it or display it in their homes.

An abstract Haitian painting
Figure 6: An abstract Haitian painting

Another abstract Haitian painting
Figure 7: Another abstract Haitian painting

Cultural intersections

Trade sites and the paintings sold there are objects of cultural communication and miscommunication. Each group of actors has a completely different understanding of the constructed space of the trade site, and the cultural meaning of the object itself shifts depending upon the gaze of the viewer.

On the one hand, it is possible to argue that Haitians are communicating successfully through their artwork if their intention is to make a particular product that reflects certain aspects of national culture, and pass that object on to westernized subjects, through using Dominican space as middle ground.

However, though the transaction is successful, the significance of the paintings as Haitian cultural objects can be lost on some tourists. There is a sense in which trade sites reproduce cultural difference and misinterpretation, as they provide insufficient information about the meanings of the objects and the spaces in which they are traded.

There is a practical sense in which trade sites act as cultural intersections that facilitate relations between disparate cultures and modify cultural meanings. By working as art dealers, Haitians have found a niche in the Dominican economy and so their presence in the Dominican Republic is tolerated.

In fact, Haitian art dealers may be accepted in a way that Haitian labourers are not, because the Dominican artists and dealers I spoke to did not view the Haitian dealers as undercutting jobs for Dominicans, but rather as expanding the market. Further research on the role of the trade site as a cultural intersection would generate some interesting questions regarding cultural communication.

Update: As of April 2014, I have published a full-length version of this paper in the journal Visual Studies.

[1] Low, Setha M. 1996. Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica. American Ethnologist 23(4):861-879.