Shaping The Kingdom of this World  in the Mother of all Lands: Visual Sovereignty in Haïti under Epochal Ungovernance

 

(A cursory overview of a selection of works commissioned and produced for The Kingdom of this World, Reimagined)

 

by Claire Tancons

 

…and so he hops and hobbles his way down the cobbles, no stones…the cobbles, no stones, this is no city this is country…this is no city this is country, no tame sidewalk but wanting fortress…no lame sidewalk but wanton fortress…which city could it be, which country could it be…which city could it be which country could it not be…no country but land, inland and island, mother of all lands…

 

He erupts into the midtopic landscape[i] of conic cannonball stockpiles against a mountainous and maritime landscape that has become emblematic of Sitadèl, King Henry Christophe’s deferred fantasy for unfulfilled warfare with the French. A ship crowns his head atop a straw-hat complementing the military jacket of this captain-peasant, lone wanderer in a tropical vagabondiana of British memory[ii]  and mayhap Trinidadian make, reminiscent as it is of that island’s Fancy Sailor carnival character, replete with a beggar’s cane in lieu of a sailor’s stoker…[iii]

 

As he enters the citadelle and furthers his precarious motion downhill through steep stairs, with the swager of the crutch and the cane, all-too knowing of the crippling life and cruel landscape, he sings his redemption[iv]:

 

Ayiti Cheri

Pi bon peyi pase ou nan pwen

Fòk mwen te kite w’

Pou mwen te kapab

Konprann valè’w

Fòk mwen te kite w’

Pou mwenm te kap apresye w’

Pou m’santi vrèman

Tout sa ou te yep ou mwen

 

Gen bon solèy

Bon rivyè e bel brevaj

Anba pye bwa

Na toujou jwenn bon lonbraj

Anba pye bwa

Na toujou jwenn bel fréchè

m’santi vrèman

Tout sa ou te yep ou mwen

 

In the work of British-born and honorary Haitian artist Leah Gordon’s Wayòm nan Mond Sa-a | The Kingdom of this World (2019) series, he appears in the super-8 video Sitadèl as well as in the photograph Vagabondaj Mawon: Sitadel (2019) from a triptych in which he is flanked with a British homologue set against the Welch foundry factory of Blaenavon in a linguistic and visual English translation as Maroon Vagabondage: Blaenavon (2019). Together both limping runaways, re-embodied members of the Atlantic motley crew frame a rendition of the Three Graces trope rescued from classical eternity with the depiction of an aged Europe surrounded by her traditional but still gracile faire-valoirs of Africa and America in Europe Supported by Africa and the Americas: A Prophesy (2014).

We are at the confluence of modern history between the British Isles and the Caribbean islands they once sought to govern alongside or against fellow Enlightened European despots, among which the French. We are in Haiti, on the great island of Quisqueya (“mother of all lands” in Taïno), shared with the Dominican Republic. We are also in The Kingdom of This World the book written by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in 1959 and the eponymous exhibition, The Kingdom of this World, Reimagined envisioned for the 70-year anniversary of the book (1949-2019), by curator Lesley A. Wolff for audiences in Florida, the southernmost American peninsular proximate with Caribbean archipelagic sensibilities.

 

I am looking at the works from France, the colonial empire who extended its dominion over Haïti, as a native of Guadeloupe, a former sugar island and current French department, still in the grips of colonialism and currently under one of its periodic turmoil of governance provoked by a refusal to Covid vaccination by a small but solid minority of Guadeloupeans. I am thinking against the historical framework of the French and Haïtian revolutions, trying to apprehend this era’s own brand of lo real maravilloso beyond literature, between the reign of Haïti’s first monarch and the murder of its last President, and the murder of France’s last monarch and fin de règne of its sitting regalian President. I am thinking about Susan-Buck Morss' Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), Yarimar Bonilla’s Non-Sovereign Futures (2015) and David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity (2004), Aimé Césaire La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963) and C.L.R James’ The Black Jacobins (1938) as well as, reading in French, for the first time, Le Royaume de ce monde, alongside Emmelie Prophète’s Les villages de Dieu (2021). As I cope with the critical task of inhabiting a black French consciousness today, it strikes me that the artists in The Kingdom of this World, having set their sights on specific episodes from the novel, and generally rendered the aura of lo maravilloso in myriad ways, are wresting with forms of visual sovereignty no less sophisticated than these Caribbean writers and critics are striving to dismantle the by now misguided myth of emancipatory politics. At a time when countries like Haïti can no longer be thought of in terms of ungovernability but of ungovernance – the active dismantling of the very notion of governance, rather than the circumstantial underperformance of government – in keeping with early-onset occurrences of post-revolutionary maladies that have affected its direct and indirect colonial undertakers.[v]

 

Owing to the trauma of Mackandal’s accidental loss of one arm at the sugar mill and tragic death at the stake, a central episode in Carpentier’s novel, counter-imagery offering visual remedies to the maimed body runs throughout the artists’ works in the exhibition. From Simryn Gill’s succinct summary of the novel into a necklace of beads rolled from its pages to José Bédia’s rebus-like concatenation of its most salient episode and Edouard Duval-Carrié full divulgation of its secrets, no adornment can be intricate or precious enough to remedy the dismemberment of his body and (his)story. 

 

Simryn Gill’s necklace of paper beads, carries its material entitlement to bodily adornment of utmost value in its metonymic title Pearls…, (Pearls: Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World, translated by Harriet de Onis. 1975(reprint 1980) Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2019) salvaging the metempsychotic memory of the historical body expanded in the void around it as lack in excess. 

 

José Bedia’s Wayom Lemond (The Kingdom of This World), 2021, bejewels the visual representation of Mackandal’s body in white vévés etched into his chalkboard black skin against a gold background befitting a king, elevating the animals into which Mackandal transformed into icons of his sovereignty over the spiritual realm he inhabited as lizard, kabritt, papillon, kok and chyen, between the lwas to whom he sacrificed more than kochon , but himself entirely. The resulting effect is that of a roadmap to self-governance over one’s body through the myriad detours one can take in avoiding subjection through transmutation into species undetectable to political witchcraft – to a point, a point of retour. In Mackandal’s final flight to freedom rendered in the smallest of saynètes, l’ekzekisyon, the mosquito is only the vessel through which his spirit can evade annihilation to reincarnate into the large body of mystical might apportioned in size within the frame of the work to its place in the contemporary Haïtian radical imagination at the crossroads of powerful myths of redemptive returns.

Likewise bejeweled are the pages/plates of Edouard Duval-Carrié’s artist book with their generous preciosity calling to mind the refinement of eighteenth-century French decorative arts, summoning the finesse of camées and the lushness of enamels. The white-colored drawings, bidimensional visual reliefs emerging from their nightly blue-black background, in all their unabashed decorativeness, act as much as a remedy against the violence of representation as it does a fresh forward throwback to the age preceding the bling fashion favored by a younger generation of Caribbean and Afro-diasporic artist seeking similar effects of affirmation.

 

Maybe still, even greater dominion over the codes of representation of Haïtian history through the heroic body of one of its iconic protagonists is achieved by Dudley Alexis with an economy of means belying an equally precious approach to visual embezzlement through a sort of minimalist baroque. With Ancestral Sacrifices the descending lines of golden blood of the sacrificial pig of the Bois Caïman sarment ceremony are countered by the ascending manes stemming from the edged bottom of the work, while the arresting image of a Christlike representation with an inverted triangle for the body pinned onto the Cross, the head a vévé inserted in a beaming areola, rises. No mosquito there but could it be…Mackandal?

Notes

 

[i] In my essay Midtopic Mysteries: An Ambulatory Museum Theory published in Open Space, SFMoMA’s online journal,

https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2016/05/disembodied-states-midtopic-mysteries/

 I had already borrowed the notion of midtopia to Ellen C. Caldwell in “Myth, Midtopia, and Mapping: Frohawk Two Feathers and the Making of the Frenglish Empire,” in Frohawk Two Feathers, You Can Fall. Exhibition catalogue for the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey and Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art. Published August, 2013 to account for the historical demise of the postcolonial and the enduring promise of the imagination in setting forth afro-diasporic futures.

https://issuu.com/artcenternj/docs/frohawk_two_feathers_-_you_can_fall/16.

 

[ii] Vagabondiana is a direct reference to Leah Gordon’s replication of an illustration of an injured black British former sailor from John Thomas Smith’s 1817 book, Vagabondiana. In Gordon’s dual rendition of a black and a white sailor figure, the context of Whitechapel’s streets where Smith’s beggar is depicted is replaced by Citadelle in the case of the former, in echo of the plight of The Kingdom of the World’s main protagonist Ti Noël, and by a 19th century iron foundry in the case of the latter, in a tour de force of proletarian transatlantic imagery on par with depictions such as can be found in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

[iii] The Fancy Sailor is a traditional mas character from the Trinidad Carnival said to date back to the British, French and American naval presence in the island in the late 19th century. His fantasy sailor costume is usually outfitted with a stocker which resemble and is used like a cane, especially my the masquerade’s typically older mas(wo)men.

http://www.ncctt.org/new/index.php/about-ncc/departments/regional/trad-carnival-characters/330-traditional-mas-characters-fancy-sailor.html#:~:text=The%20Fancy%20Sailor%20was%20an,embellishments%20to%20match%20the%20headpieces.

[iv] In Leah Gordon’s Wayòm nan Mond Sa-a | The Kingdom of this World (2019), the character with the ship headpiece sings his own truncated, idiosyncratic version of the song which I transcribed in the body of the essay. Its lyrics differ slightly from the song’s original as written by Othello Bayard in 1925. A translation of the film’s version could be:

Haiti, my beloved, no other land is more beautiful than you

I had to leave you, in order to better understand how valuable you are

I had to leave you, for me to appreciate you

So I could truly feel all that you were for me

There is sunshine, nice rivers and great drinks

Underneath the trees, you'll always find great shade

Underneath the trees, you'll find some cool
So I could truly feel all that you were for me.

 

[v] I discovered the notion of ungovernance as I started to perceive the inadequacy of the older notion of ungovernability. As described by Deval Desai and Andrew Lang, ungovernance operates within the gaps of (un-)governability and “function to facilitate collective action by diverse groups of stakeholders within these particular and contentious institution-building projects.” This in turns strikes me as bearing resemblance with Yarimar Bonilla’s description of power struggles for governance in non-sovereign overseas territories of France such as Guadeloupe. Deval Desai & Andrew Lang (2020) Introduction: global un-governance, Transnational Legal Theory, 11:3, 219-243.

**

Claire Tancons is a curator and scholar invested in the discourse and practice of the postcolonial politics of production and exhibition. For the last decade, Tancons has charted a distinct curatorial and scholarly path in performance, inflecting global art historical genealogies with African diasporic aesthetics as well as decentring and othering curatorial methodologies as part of a wider reflection on global conditions of cultural production. Tancons was recently a curator for Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber (with Zoe Butt and Omar Kholeif), which opened in March 2019. Over the last decade, she has curated for established and emerging international biennials such as the Göteborg Biennial (2013), Biennale Bénin (2012), Cape Town Biennial (2009), Prospect.1 New Orleans (2008) and Gwangju Biennale (2008). As a curator of performance, Tancons organised the first solo New York exhibitions of artists Robin Rhode and Ralph Lemon at Artists Space (2004) and the Kitchen (2007). As the artistic director of large-scale public performances since 2008, Tancons has collaborated with artists/directors Delaney Martin and Mohamed Bourouissa, musicians Christophe Chassol and Arto Lindsay and architect Gia Wolff. Over the last decade, the processional performances that have become a hallmark of her practice have transformed such iconic public spaces as diverse as Gwangju’s May 18 Democratic Square, Cape Town’s Company Gardens, Göteborg’s Götaplatsen and Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue, Venice’s streets and squares and New Orleans’s backstreets as well as Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and into sites of participatory experiments and civic interventions. For more about Tancons, visit https://www.clairetancons.com

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Leah Gordon, Wayòm nan Mond sa a: Vagabondaj Mawon (Kingdom of This World: Maroon Vagabondage), 2019. © 2019 Leah Gordon