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The lwa of my life.

The fascinating island nation of Haiti, just 700 miles off the coast of Florida, got its name from its original inhabitants, the Taino Indians. In their language, "Haiti" means "land of the mountains." After 1492, Christopher Columbus and his Spanish colonizers exterminated the Taino Indians and began importing slaves from Africa. Over half a million African slaves were brought to Haiti in this "Middle Passage." They were worked to death and acts of rebellion grew as the Haitians fought for freedom and independence. It is believed that the Lwa spirits, found in traditional Haitian beliefs, helped the people to survive slavery.

Spirits Called Lwa

Lwa is the term given to spirits who are believed to act as intermediaries in the lives of Haitians. Many Haitians call upon the lwa daily for their problem-solving abilities. There are both benign and not-so-benign spirits who are a result of mixed African and Creole traditions. There are hundreds of lwa in Haitian culture. Here is just a sampling:

Azaka: patron of agriculture, a good-natured man from the mountains, often called Papa or Cousin.

Agwe: captain and protector of ships on the sea.

Ezili Freda: goddess of love and luxury.

Danbala: the patriarchal serpent, a water spirit associated with rain, wisdom, and fertility.

Ogou: warrior spirit who fights for justice, takes care of everything made of iron, including cars.

Bosou: three-horned bull, a bodyguard invoked for protection.

Marosa: sacred twins or triplets representing abundant life.

Lasiren: mermaid who brings luck and money from the ocean's depths.

Traditional Haitian Artwork

Haitian sculpture makes use of recycled materials, reflecting Haiti's dire economic conditions as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Dwom (drum) sculpture is made out of old oil drums or barrels which Haitians use to carry all kinds of cargo, including oil or fuel. Despite its poverty, Haiti has the most colorful and vibrant art traditions of the Caribbean. The unavailability of traditional art materials has never stopped Haitian artists from working!

Choosing a Lwa

The goal of any artist is to be one with his or her own artwork. When working with young art students, this is the key to keeping them on task. For this reason, an important step in this lesson is the child's creation of his or her lwa concept. What aspect of the child's life is important to him? What concept would she like to focus on? Does he love sports? Does she care about world peace? Is he a technology buff? Is she a dancer? Is he a nature lover? Does she love her toy-filled room? Is he dedicated to his pets? Is she scared of the dark? Does he treasure going fishing with his dad? Whatever the theme chosen, it should be the love of his or her life.

Scavenger Hunt

This step is as important to the art of seeing as the studio time itself. The students are instructed to go home and search for junk around their homes they might not have noticed before. An ideal place to start is the garage. There could be usable nuts and bolts, pieces of an old bike, or broken objects that no longer have a name. Then the child can wander to the bedrooms to find broken doorknobs or puzzle pieces. Then in the kitchen, container lids, a bent fork, or egg containers are all usable pieces for a sculpture. Keep looking for the beauty and possibilities from all kinds of things.

Studio Time

Each student's junk should have its own brown paper bag labeled with the student's name. Otherwise, the artroom could dissolve into a junkyard of absolute chaos.

Students must begin their sculptures with an armature or some kind of a framework. This is not easy to convince students of, as they are eager to begin gluing together their collected objects. Convince them that their sculptures will fall apart unless held together by some kind of skeleton, just as our bodies all need a skeleton to hold us together or we would all be big balls of mush. The armature works best visually when it is one of the larger pieces of junk, rather than trying to build an armature from wrapped cardboard, for example.

Piece by piece, students bring form to their lwa concepts, their fascination deepening as they build their conglomeration of objects. Focus on the art elements and design principles in order that these projects not devolve into the junkyard pieces I alluded to earlier.

Gluing Hints

Have older students use glue guns for the best, most stable, and immediate results. Station the glue guns in various corners throughout the room. Stress cooperation when using glue gun stations. Do not let glue gun wires hang down on the floor. Keep the heat on low and have ice packs on hand (the long-lasting lunchbox kind). An alternative is for you to use the glue gun at the instructions of students.

Have younger students use tacky craft glue for the best, most stable results. Elmer's glue bonds very well but it takes awhile to dry and the pieces will slip around until then. You can avoid this shifting if you lay the sculpture down flat instead of vertically, working one plane at a time per class.

A Solid Ending

Spray painting the sculpture one solid color drives home Louise Nevelson's point that a solid colored piece of positive shapes and negative shadows brings together a whole new universe. I adhere to the fundamental spray paint colors of black, silver metal, granite, or gold. Do not let any student spray their own sculpture. You should spray outside only, in open ventilation, wearing a mask and gloves. You will find the need to turn the work in many directions to catch every surface for spraying.

Critiquing the Masterpieces

We follow the Feldman format of art criticism (description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment) for an oral critique of the finished work. For description, we review all the media and processes used. For analysis, we discuss which art elements and design principles we used and why. For interpretation, we discuss the students' choice of lwa and what that lwa means to them. We also discuss what it means to watch junk turn into an entirely new entity. For judgment, we discuss the students' success in visually communicating what they intended the lwa to be. After the completion of this project, students will never look at "junk" the same way again!

Cautions and Safety Tips

Remind students to ask their parents for permission to use any of the pieces of junk selected. Remember, just as we are teaching them that one man's junk is another man's treasure, what they view as junk may be a sentimental antique scrap of Grandma's memorabilia.

Instruct students to also avoid sharp objects. Broken glass or metal scraps are intriguing but not safe. Likewise, avoid objects that must be cut or broken to use, such as chicken wire or tile pieces, unless your students are mature enough to wear protective eye and hand gear.

Alternativa Concepts to Lwa

Instead of the concept of the lwa spirits, teachers may prefer to stay within the Western parameters of using recycled materials to make art. Louise Nevelson is an ideal artist to start with, as well as other sculptors such as Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp. In a powerful quote, Louise Nevelson stated, "When you put together things that other people have thrown out, you're bringing them to life--a spiritual life that surpasses the life they were originally created for."


Burrus, Allison and Battaglia, Gonzalo Adrian. Lespri Endependan: Discovering Haitian Sculpture. Miami: Patrice and Phillip Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, 2004.

Feldman, Edmund Burke. Varieties of Visual Experience. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.

Walkup, Nancy and Judy Godfrey. Haitian Visions: A Diverse Cultural Legacy. Tucson: CRIZMAC Art & Cultural Materials, 1993.


Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.


Haitian Metal Gallery, www. hp.asp?page=METAL GALLERY

Tracy Ellyn is an art teacher at South Miami Elementary School in Miami, Florida and a contributing editor for SchoolArts Magazine.
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Title Annotation:Haitian spirits
Author:Ellyn, Tracy
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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