Could you briefly introduce yourself?
In the context of the Caribbean creative community and diaspora I was born in Haiti during the era of Francois Duvalier (Raoul Peck’s 1993 superb film “L’homme sur les quais” expresses the tone of that time accurately. I wept when I saw it – as if I were that little girl). My family took refuge in the USA where I went to elementary school (relearning what I had already done in Haiti) and studied architecture at the renowned Cooper Union and later Columbia University in New York City. I have been engaged in art making since my childhood in the Caribbean then formally in the USA as a parallel activity until I moved to Europe in 1999 for the millennium change. I was awarded for more than a year a splendid atelier in Paris and began my practice exclusively with art at that point. The gravitational pull of Berlin arose when I began my German based projects and recognized the complexities of empire in the Parisian context and culture. My work ventures to be intimate and generally not autobiographical – I am concerned with re-staging the obvious and conspicuous invisibility of experience and knowledge.
For the Who More Sci-Fi than Us exhibition, you created a special artwork, belonging to your Goddess project. This Goddess constellation uses Josephine Baker as a central motive and represents the positions of stars in the sky above Haiti during the 2010 earthquake. What is the message of this piece?
“The Goddess Constellations / Sky above Port-au-Prince Haiti 18°32’21”N 72°20’6”W 12 Jan 2010 21:53 UTC” is about belief, either in science or superstition or more. It is a kind of “momento mori” of sorts with its hundreds and hundreds of stars configured in the perfect constellation echoing that of the 12 of January 2010 in the instant that some near three-hundred-thousand people would lose their lives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.
The several planets along the solar horizon, notably Mars, are in gold rather than silver. This work captures a structure we have imbedded in our collective memories and imaginations and thus is not decorative – but rather a carefully plotted map rendered as a relic one might discover in a museum of curiosities. Butterfly boxes and the presentation of ancient archeological treasure have inspired its final forms. Josephine Baker, a black American woman in self-imposed European exile stands in as the all-seeing Goddess, a black Madonna of sorts that many Haitians would be familiar with from our pantheon of Love goddess variations of Erzuli.
You use emblematic iconography a lot. Sometimes you subvert it, reuse it, or modify it (ex: Josephine Baker, the Bavarian traditional costume, some decoration artifacts…). For which reasons do you like to use those symbols? Are you deciphering and going beyond some stereotypes?
Emblematic iconography almost always assures that I am speaking in, close to, universal terms with a broad audience. Various iconographies may be viewed as a vocabulary for creating visual essays that are both precise, yet still open-ended in their fluctuation symbolic meanings. There is Josephine the woman and Josephine the icon, I am interested in the latter and how it can be used as a vehicle for larger conversations. We all engage in the construction of stereotypes it is easy and familiar. The Negerhosen2000 work (the Bavarian traditional costume you mention) reproduces a familiar image that harkens back to Grimm’s or La Fontaine’s fairytales like Hansel and Gretel, but substituting the body of an adult black man while retaining the traces of blond hair and white skin in its details- it is as much an act of defamiliarizing within Germany as it is elsewhere when we accept racial exclusivity to culture be it whiteness or négritude, both deeply problematic concepts that have been internalized in our society.
It is for the way in which I problematize these symbols that Brooklyn Museum curator Tumelo Mosaka chose for his ground breaking Infinite Islands exhibition two different works from my studio – The Negerhosen2000 and The Burqa Project: On the Borders of My Dreams I Encountered My Double’s Ghost where the strong iconography of flags are reconstructed and defamiliarized into the image of what Edward Said foregrounds as the oriental in colonial discourse.
During the opening of the KAdE, you created a special passport for the Creative Caribbean Community. Why are you interested with passports? Is it a way of mocking borders? You already addressed in you are the Seventh Secretary General of the UN this object.
Indeed various themes continue to emerge and remerge in my works, sometimes unexpectedly. The restrictive consequences of legal borders that define nations and its citizenry are inescapable today more than ever. Mass travel, for holiday or otherwise, triggers a vast network of agreements and treaties between nation states that require this document to validate ones presence. It is for me the elephant in the room that must be spoken of in the context of a show like Sci-Fi.
Many have died and will continue to die to protect and to transgress those artificial lines in nature, such as that which divides the island of Hispanola and is never spoken of as articulated by Sara Hermann in her book on the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection in which my work is discussed. Past a certain point in “international waters», Cuban natives are rescued and absorbed into the US while Haitians are incarcerated and repatriated to their shores. In this instance I wanted to create something that was very familiar, in the spirit of my other everyday multiples like the hand-fan or beer-coasters, that might trigger thoughts towards the non-geographical limits of citizenry and allegiances that are inferred with the potential of such a passport. The Caribbean nations are rendered as a constellation of stars in parity with my main installation. The Trophies series which is a work created around Kofi Annan commissioned by Isolde Brielmaier of the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum for Jack Shainman Gallery, articulates the diplomatic privilege of the office of the Seventh Secretary General of the United Nations.
The titles of your pieces are always full of humour or very descriptive. Are they as important as the artworks themselves?
Yes, my titles are important; they serve as a key or a lens from which to begin the journey of seeing/looking. Sometimes they are relatively straightforward and blunt. Negerhosen2000 is both amusing (as a word game) but deeply serious; I both use its futility and optimism. I like some titles to function at times like a short précis of the intended visual essay such as in “The hip decadence of reductive glamour“. My projects usually have over-arching titles such as The Goddess Project and the Negerhosen2000 followed by the individual artworks that constitute that body of work such as, respectively, The Goddess Constellations (with its own subordinate projects) or The Travel Albums.
These are my rules, my methods and perhaps the way I think and work. BlackOut is a recent work – that I think is rather blunt, yet refers to when a region goes dark with a loss of currency for illumination.
Do you consider your art to be politic?
I consider being an artist a political act within society but not necessarily the art itself. This question pre-supposes everyone has the same definition of politic, and this would be an incorrect assumption. I keep away from making work that is intended as political propaganda- this is uninteresting to me and it is not my mission as an artist. Though I have my own political interests, I generally do not make them explicit in my works. I cannot be part of the global Haitian diaspora without being touched by the politics of history and empires. My personal biography and American education in the elite schools of New York speak to a politic in action as I recognize my privilege, not in wealth, but in opportunity and experience. To go further I would say that my perspective as a queer man further expands the political significance of my practice as an artist originating from the Caribbean where such identities are eschewed or validated through beliefs.
What are your projects?
I am in need to create various book-projects in the context of my artistic-practice. The groundwork to begin and to establish writers and foundation sponsors and an appropriate publisher awaits me. Currently there are a variety of works at play, which are perhaps continuations, and expansions of earlier proposals. The “Goddess Projects”, pending appropriate venues, will orbit around The Goddess’ Temple and “the ABCs of My Private Life” will expand beyond the current four and will continue in French, Creole, English and German. As of this writing I will be participating in a large survey exhibition by senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver at the CAMH (Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) in an exhibition entitled Radical Presence in which my Negerhosen2000work is contextualized within the context of performance based works in the US and in Europe.
Headline picture’s credits : Jean-Ulrick Désert, Negerhosen2000,Travel Albums (Venice), 2007 – Imaginary Travel diary Postcards during 2000/2001 performance action © Jean-Ulrick Désert