Two Visionary Haitian Artists in the Ruby
The Rubenstein Arts Center hosted two visiting artists in September and October as part of Visionary Aponte: Art & Black Freedom, an exhibition on view at the Power Plant Gallery through November 17, 2018.
This fall, Duke University’s Power Plant Gallery and Forum for Scholars and Publics, in collaboration with a number of campus and community partners, presented a series of events exploring the histories and stories behind the exhibition Visionary Aponte: Art & Black Freedom and its timely meditations on slavery, Black incarceration, revolution, and artistic expression.
With support provided by the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts—Duke Arts, the Rubenstein Arts Center hosted residencies by two Haitian artists that contributed to the exhibition. Édouard Duval-Carrié and Tessa Mars are both wide-ranging, inventive artists with an active, disarming sense of humor. It was an illuminating and convivial pairing of two generations of the Haitian art world.
The residencies were enriched by a new series of lunchtime art talks—Ruby Fridays—which allowed both artists to give presentations on their work to an audience of students and community members.
About the Exhibition
Visionary Aponte considers a legendary but lost book of paintings by José Antonio Aponte, “a free Black carpenter, artist, and former soldier who was also the leader of an ambitious antislavery movement in Cuba during the Age of Revolution.” His revolt was tragically brief, and when the authorities came to arrest him, they found a book of paintings he had made and were astonished by its ambition and scope. At his trial, he was interrogated at length about each image, and although the book itself is lost, an extensive trial transcript survives.
For the exhibition, co-curated by Duval-Carrié and Ada Ferrer, artists were invited to recreate or respond to those descriptions. It originated at New York University, where Ferrer is on the history faculty, and then travelled to Miami, where Duval-Carrié is based. Now on its third stop, it is on view at the Power Plant Gallery through November 17.
Duval-Carrié’s association with his host at Duke, Laurent Dubois—Haiti scholar, professor of history and Romance Studies, and faculty director of FSP—goes back more than a decade. In 2010, Dubois brought the artist to Duke to participate in the Haiti Lab, the first of the Franklin Humanities Institute’s interdisciplinary Humanities Labs. An enduring product of that time is an artwork, Haiti: History Embedded in Amber, created by students under Duval-Carrié’s direction, which has brought a glow to the Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall in Smith Warehouse ever since.
Duval-Carrié created a set of four paintings for the first showing of Visionary Aponte. While in residence at the Ruby, he is working on a fifth image for the set. Mars is a new addition to Visionary Aponte, and began work on her contribution to future iterations of the exhibition while in the Ruby’s painting studio. She used her Ruby Friday talk as an opportunity to put the piece in the context of her evolution as an artist. It is part of a body of work based on an alter ego she created and named Tessaline—a pun on Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Haiti’s founding fathers.
Evolution of an Alter Ego
Mars introduced herself as the product of a middle-class family, educated in French schools in Haiti and then in France.
“I left as a kid and came back as an adult, so I had to discover what life was really about in Haiti,” she explained. “And I was also discovering the contemporary art scene. The people that were making art at that time were mostly male artists, doing mostly explosive, aggressive, powerful work. But I felt like there was not much humor to it.”
“Also, the image of women that was being transmitted through this art was not my story.”
One lesson for her in the reality of life in Haiti was the return in 2012 of the dictator, “Baby Doc” Duvalier. After 30 years of exile in Paris, he wanted to spend his final days in the homeland he brutalized.
“People—YOUTH!—went to the airport to acclaim him,” Mars says. “They were joyful, saying things were better when Duvalier was around. It was mind-boggling!”
In response both to the shameful public displays and the more private horror of having to encounter the man himself on trips to the supermarket, Mars created a piece called Invite a Dictator to Tea. It was the first time she represented herself in her work, and one of her first overtly political pieces.
“The people that were making art at that time were mostly male artists, doing mostly explosive, aggressive, powerful work. But I felt like there was not much humor to it. Also, the image of women that was being transmitted through this art was not my story.”
Mars began questioning the relationship of Haitians to history. How, she wondered, could the voices of protest be so completely erased in a country so proud of its birth in the New World’s first successful slave revolt?
That line of questioning let her to create Pop-up Haitian Hero. “It started almost as a joke, with the idea that, no matter what conversation you’re having—talking about real issues, right now—somehow they would be namedropping heroes and what they had done back in the days,” she explained. “Let’s not talk about poverty because… Dessalines!” is essentially how those conversations would go. So, she found a portrait of Dessalines and put her face on it, and Tessaline was born.
“From the moment that I named her, and it became a reality, I had to think about what it meant that I was doing this, what this character could bring into my life,” Mars says.
It has brought quite a lot. The alter ego has allowed her to reimagine and reframe personal trauma—a childhood sexual assault—as well as national trauma. Playing with power and paradox, Birth of Pepper (Red Hot) depicts Tessaline as the “female father of the nation,” proudly showing off a pepper she just gave birth to. This past spring Mars created another Tessaline work for the 10th Berlin Biennale—The Good Fight, which explores “the potential for monstrosity in each of us,” among other things.
The commission for Visionary Aponte was an opportunity for her to consider a heroic male figure who was not bound up in the churn of Haitian politics and mythology. Unlike Duval-Carrié and the other artists who created work for the initial launch, she could also consider how her work would fit into the existing collection. She liked the works she saw in the show, but it gave off a lot of masculine energy. “I felt it needed a bit of softness—something that’s less about grieving and more about finding strength in Aponte’s existence.”
One of her first steps was to look into the representation of women in the descriptions of Aponte’s book. If women were depicted at all, it was as muses or goddesses. Her role, then, was to inject a different kind of female presence. In Mars’s painting, Tessaline is holding Aponte’s decapitated head, contemplating him as a brother, saying “Behold! Women as warriors, too!”
The University as a Space for Dialogue and Preservation
Reflecting on the origins and future of Visionary Aponte, Dubois explained, “This exhibit has always been a scholarship-art dialogue. It was born out of university settings, and the curators are a historian and an artist. For me, as a historian, the artists are imagining all kinds of things and that allows us to think about the history differently. I think, for the artists, being able to dialogue with the specific history is a nice grounding for the work.”
“I’ve been thinking about Duke more specifically,” Mars added. “There’s such a wealth of information pertaining to Haiti that is being studied and made available here.” For instance, before she came for the residency she listened to material from the Radio Haiti archive—thousands of hours of audio tape that are part of the Rubenstein Library’s Human Rights Archive.
“I’m not trying to disparage what’s happening over there in Haiti, but if you want something to perpetuate, it often has to leave the island for better conservation, or maybe just to be studied and for that study to be made available,” Mars says.
For Duke, the Visionary Aponte residencies in the Ruby demonstrate the capacity for the arts center to deepen the impact of campus engagement in the arts—for the collaborating presenters and partners, for visiting artists who benefit from exceptional spaces in which to create, and for audiences.