Caribbean Dreams, Lush Imaginations,

and Theories of Freedom

by Jerry Philogene

 

 

“Now it is a matter of seizing and admiring a new art,

which…opens up to the artist unsuspected possibilities

however, in the very spectacle of things ignored and silenced.”[1]

 

 

In the collection of her celebrated essays, The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945), Suzanne Césaire, one of the founding contributors to Négritude, Black modernism, and surrealism, and a co-founder of the Martinican literary and cultural journal, Tropiques, Césaire “reveals a shift in her analytical focus from the legacy of French colonialism in Martinique to the possibilities of a Pan-Caribbean belonging expressed through political practices and artistic creation.”[2] During her five-month stay in Haiti in 1944, as a member of a cultural delegation of the French government, Césaire claims to have gained “total insight” into the “presence of the Antilles, more than perceptible, from places in which, like Kenscoff, the view over the mountain is unbearably beautiful.”[3] As her gaze moves over the mountainous view of Kenscoff during her visit to the “cradle of Negritude’s revolutionary spirit,”[4] Césaire “shift[s] her focus from the colonial relationship between Martinique and France to the Caribbean archipelago as a generative space within which an Antillean cultural and political renaissance could take place.”[5] She theorizes “a Caribbean renaissance,” which includes “Haiti, Martinique, Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean as interconnected spaces that are also the site of a new Caribbean civilization.”[6] While her geographical focus may have been Martinique, what echoes across several of the essays is the desire for Antillean autonomy and self-actualization that celebrates the complex and multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multilingual archipelago. These rich and generative essays foreshadow the antillanité or tout monde of Édouard Glissant, the créolité of Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant, and the transgressive subconsciousness evident in Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of This World (1949). Correspondingly, the Dominican-born, New York-based interdisciplinary visual artist Scherezade García, whose practice includes drawing, painting, collage, soft sculpture, mixed media, and site-specific multi-media installations, brings together a visual framework for thinking about colonialism, aesthetics, and identity; one that is based on the similar creative forces and imaginations that compelled Césaire’s reflections on magical realism, surrealism and the formation of a decolonial project.

 

The seed for writing The Kingdom of This World grew during Carpentier’s 1943 visit to Haiti and the ruins of Palais Sans Souci and la Citadelle Laferrière, a few months prior to Césaire’s visit and her “total insight.” The Kingdom of This World offers the opportunity to imagine the potentialities of revolution and liberation despite incongruities in the material conditions of liberation.[7] It is a work of magical realism or marvelous realism or what Carpentier called “lo real maravilloso” that chronicles a select and fictionalized retelling of the events of the Haitian Revolution through the lens of the Haitian people and its cultural and religious traditions. Specifically, the events, and their aftermath, are narrated through the eyes of the enslaved young man, Ti Noël whose character looms large as a refutation of European colonialism while centering a specific Latin American/Caribbean Black subjectivity. The same sort of presence of thehistorical self is deeply ingrained in the three artworks by García in the exhibition, The Kingdom of This World, Reimagined. Her work, like Césaire’s essays, “opens up avenues of inquiry pertaining to the relationships between the Caribbean island and the great circum-Caribbean region,”[8] and like Carpentier, her work evokes the African presence in the Caribbean.

Using conceptual approaches, García has produced an engaging body of work focusing on the interplay among culture, history, memory, and gender. Through a rich variety of mediums—drawing, painting, site-specific installations, and printmaking—she has developed critical strategies that have become distinctive markers of her art. García takes as her subject the fraught and turbulent histories of the Dominican Republic and the Americas, thus her works reside within the significant tensions created between historical narratives and racialized power. What we see in her artistic practice are swirls of color, organic shapes, familiar female allegorical images, and intricate layering of materials and textures that create formal and material spaces to explore the history of colonization and enslavement. Bound by dominant theories of culture, modernity, globalization, these works are inspired largely by her experiences as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic living in New York City. In particular, I am interested in how García’s work allows for a contemplation of aesthetics as both theory and praxis--as art pieces that visualize and articulate both empowerment and freedom.

Utopian Dreams from This Side of the Atlantic I (2018) and Utopian Dreams from This Side of the Atlantic II (2018) are intricately layered and boldly composed mixed-media works on paper that draw on a variety of sources. They incorporate abstraction and representative images that are both translucent and opaque. Their built-up surfaces are createdthrough the overlaying of drawings, colored paper cutouts, and ink jet-printed images of figures taken from previous paintings. These dynamic compositions reflect how themes such as the history of colonization and enslavement, the history of silenced traumas, the performative nature of gender, and the aesthetics of beauty--are intricately interwoven and reproduced in her artworks. In Utopian Dreams from This Side of the Atlantic I (2018) the silhouette of Ulises Hilarión Heureaux Leibert (1845-1899), also known as Lilís, a former president of the Dominican Republic, whose father was born in Haiti to a French man and enslaved woman, and his mother from Saint Thomas. Surrounded by palm trees and swirls of white and gray clouds and colored-paper cutouts, Lilís’s figure dominates and steps out of the composition, taking center stage, compelling us to remember the violence perpetuated on Haitians in October 1937 by Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s Dominican government that continues today to affect the very people whose culture is connected to Lilís. The inclusion of Lilís’s image creates a visual archive of a moment in history and demands that we think of moments in the present. 

In Utopian Dreams from This Side of the Atlantic II (2018), García features two female figures: one placed at the bottom center of the canvas and the other placed upside down at the center top. Both images are taken from previous works of art. This repurposing of images and ideas are integral to García’s practice. They speak to the continuity so important in familial memories and historical narratives. There is a friction between the overlaid images, and it is within the interstices that significant tensions about representation and belonging emerge and bear witness to history, placing these histories and visual elements directly in the Caribbean—drawing a transatlantic circle that begins in Europe, crosses over to Africa, and resides in the Americas. Together these two pieces complete a compelling image of complex and intricately busy compositions, creating a layered visuality that reveals as it conceals.

Her work incorporates both historical and cultural narratives to explore the ways in which, through beauty, one “conquer[s] the oppressor, and with an enticing seduction, colonizes the colonizer.”[9] Her works are conceptually rich, visually stunning, and inventively intricate, imbued with vivid colors, swirling shapes and forms, and compelling silhouettes. They have, in essence, a sensual and tactile quality, which is perhaps best seen in Caribbean Dreams (2019), in its formal quality as portrait and part of a representational tradition. Dressed for the Carnival masquerade, the female figure’s elaborate dress belies the status such a woman, a mulatta, would have, or perhaps not, in late 18th and early 19thcentury Saint-Domingue. Loose, gestural brushstrokes create a gown of peacock feather-like ruffles that cover her brown skin, her right hand holds a fan while the other is coquettishly placed on her lap. She regards the viewer with a seemingly all-knowing gaze. Her sagacious nature is reflected in her penetrating gaze and the theatrical placement of her fan, and the elaborate hairstyle and tignon fashioned by swirls of blues, yellows, and black.[10] In the abstract background, rich blues, and sparks of gold and white illuminate areas of black to create an iridescent backdrop for the tones of browns of her face and hands, which signal the presence of Africa. This figure’s elegant, self-assured gaze, reveals through formal rigor and painterly skill all that she represents within and against the “tradition of British and French aristocratic portraiture of the eighteenth century” as well as ideas about traditional standards of beauty.[11] The shadowy presence of three individuals stands as perhaps this artwork’s most significant compositional element. To the left of the female figure reside two silhouetted profiles of dancing figures, entranced in the music of Carnival. In the shadows to the right of the main female figure resides the silhouetted profile of a man—perhaps another appearance of Lilís—dressed in an imperial royal costume and plumed hat, as he too, imaginably, participates in the sartorial splendor and frolic that is part of the carnivalesque.

Caribbean Dreams speaks to García’s desire to challenge and refute the “formulas of erasure” so essential to the colonial histories and contemporary racialized power structures that have participated in the abjection of certain Caribbean nations and the tropicalization of others.[12] In an interview with art historian and curator, Olga U. Herrera, García says,

As a woman and artist whose art is grounded in history and its silences,

I am interested in representation. My work with politics of culture and

colonialism, race and the persistence of racism, migration, and the

expansion of borders reflects this interest and my own heritage.[13]

Swirls of deep blues, violets and oranges and areas of light and dark shadows and the elaborate swirls and ruffles of her dress, fan, and intricate hairstyle illustrate the baroque aesthetics of creole identity. The figures drawn and printed on the three pieces serve as a sign of the presence of the past and as evidence of difference, a difference that is rendered through phenotype and lived out through the social and cultural material conditions of history. These works demand that the viewer take in multiple and competing histories to understand the various conceptual and artistic elements that create her sensorial works. Moving freely between diverse mediums and artistic practices, her creative works bring to light the intertextual and intermedial sphere of the intimacy of history, creating an extensive and rich body of work. A keen and astute student of history and culture, her works are multilayered and provocative interplays between history, material, and process. García belongs to a transnational contemporary Caribbean art practice, one cognizant of the importance of a diasporic imagination that necessitates a certain freedom in going beyond the simplistic nature of a ubiquitous figure, one that encompasses the Caribbean as an archipelago, not bound to a specific island a singular history.

Through an effective use of imagery, she places painting as central to her artistic practice while challenging its formal assumptions, as illustrated in the three-dimensional layeredness of her paintings. Her work is a studied and concentrated reading of art histories and histories that pertain to the Black Atlantic. She mines an array of archives (visual, literary, and historical) with meticulous details to time and process, at times distorting and moving them beyond their conventional meaning, as seen in the female figures that she highlights. Her oeuvre strives for a certain embodiment and theatricality enmeshed in the materiality of history and subjectivity. Combining the language of pan-Caribbean visual aesthetics, she draws cross-cultural connections, joining Africa and Europe to the Caribbean and eventually to North America. In these works, García maintains a language that expresses what Gina Ulysse’s calls rasanblaj that “blurs genres, shifting location, time, and space to double-dutch the line between the sacred and the profane”[14] to create works influenced by local idioms as well as transnational aesthetic grammar. Through her dually ingenious material invigoration of form and texture, sparked initially by historical references, García follows a creative path of her own making. I describe this aesthetic strategy as the sculpting of an intelligible visual history. Furthermore, García offers intriguing insights into what Kobena Mercer refers to as the “creative energies of…cut-and-mix-aesthetics.” Such an aesthetic allows for “improvisational aspects of the black vernacular, which selectively appropriates what is given or found in one’s environment and transforms it into raw material for one’s distinct stylistic signature.”[15]

Theorizing García’s use of the Dominican Republic and Haiti’s entrenched political history of racialization allows for a rich and provocative iconological analysis that suggests the ways in which she captures the palimpsest of obscure and uncanny experiences as simultaneous aspects of her alterity.[16] García’s bold embrace of the interplay between history and the aesthetic quality of materials enables her to explore the visceral spaces between representation and abstraction, between belonging and alterity, between subjectivity and identity. She embraces the contradictions of living in the aftermath of colonial encounter and transatlantic enslavement. In imaginative ways, she counters the historical silences and erasures at the essence of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s argument that the Haitian Revolution has been written out of the history of the Age of Revolution simply due to Haiti’s radial conceptualization of liberty, equality, and humanity fundamentally challenging Eurocentric notions of modernity and enlightenment.

In her writings, Césaire contributes to necessary discourses about how we might imagine a world that speaks to freedom and equality and the potentiality of art and the creative process in that (re)imagination. She shares with Carpentier the possibilities of an Antillean future devoid of neoimperialism and neocolonialism, albeit for Carpentier, his is captured through the prism of the magical real. Likewise, García’s work demands capacious and prescient analysis to imagine a different way of world-making, a different way to know Black and brown bodies in that world, and a different future for the Caribbean, especially at this moment in time.

 

Bibliography

Aranda-Alvarado, Rocío. “Bodies of Color: Images of Women in the Works of Firelei Báez and Rachelle Mozman.” Small Axe 21, no. 1, (March 2017; No. 52): 57-69. Print.

Césaire, Suzanne, The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945), edited by Daniel Maximin, translated by Keith L. Walker. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012. Print.

 

Dardashti, Abigail Lapin. “El Dorado: The Neobaroque in Dominican American Art,” Diálogo 20, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 73-87.

Herrera, Olga U. and Scherezade García. “A Conversation with Scherezade García.” Public Art Dialogue 11, no. 1 (2021): 98-107.

Herrera, Olga U, ed. Scherezade García: From This Side of the Atlantic. Washington, D.C.:Art Museum of the Americas, Organization of American States, 2020. Print.

Joseph-Gabriel, Annette K. Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2019. Print.

Mercer, Kobena. “Diaspora Aesthetics and Visual Culture.” In Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices Since the 1980s, 227-247. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. Print.

Paravisini-Gerbert, Lizabeth. “The Haitian Revolution in Interstices and Shadows: A Re-Reading of Alejo Carpentier’s ‘The Kingdom of This World.’” Research in African Literatures 35 no. 2, Haiti, 1804-2004: Literature, Culture and Art (Summer 2004): 114-127.

Philogene, Jerry. “Actes de Transformation: Mixing and Mapping Haitian Aesthetics.” In Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, edited by Tatiana Flores and Michelle Ann Stephens, 191-203. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. Print.

Tal-mason, Ali. “Voyage to the Marvelous: A Traveler’s Guide to The Kingdom of This World.Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 7, Issue 1 (January 2020): 50-68.

Ulysse, Gina Athena. “Vodou as Idea: On Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s ‘Ezili’s Mirrors’.” Los Angeles Review of Books (September 28, 2018), https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/vodou-as-idea-on-omiseeke-natasha-tinsleys-ezilis-mirrors/ (accessed September 2021).

Wolff, Lesley A. “Café Culture as Decolonial Feminist Praxis: Scherezade García’s Blame … Coffee,” Humanities 10, no. 1 (2021): 35, Gender, Race, and the Material Culture Special Issue, 1-18.

Notes

 

[1] Suzanne Césaire, The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-45), edited by Daniel Maximin and Translated by Keith L. Walker (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 17.

[2] Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire (University of Illinois Press, 2019), 28. These seven short essays were published earlier in the Martinican cultural review Tropiques between 1941 and 1945. Tropiques (1941-1945) was founded in 1941 by Suzanne Césaire, Aimé Césaire, René Ménil, Lucie Thésée, and Aristide Maugée.

[3] Césaire, in “The Great Camouflage,” in The Great Camouflage: Writing of Dissent (1941-1945), edited by Daniel Maximin and Translated by Keith L. Walker (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 40-41.

 

[4] Aimé Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Paris, 1956 edition), 44.

 

[5] Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation, 36.

 

[6] Ibid., 40.

 

[7] Lizabeth Paravisini-Gerbert writes that The Kingdom of This World was written after Carpentier returned to Cuba from France in 1939 and, like many disillusioned Latin American and Caribbean writers and intellectuals, according to Roberto González Echevarría joined a “widespread movement whose purpose was ‘a search for origins, the recovery of history and tradition,’ the foundation of an autonomous American consciousness serving as the basis for a literature faithful to the New World.” Lizabeth Paravisini-Gerbert, “The Haitian Revolution in Interstices and Shadows: A Re-Reading of Alejo Carpentier’s ‘The Kingdom of This World,’” Research in African Literatures, Summer 2004, Vol. 35. No. 2. Haiti, 1804-2004: Literature, Culture and Art (Summer, 2004), pp. 114-127. See Roberto González Echevarría, Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home (Cornell University Press, 1977), 107. 

 

[8] Lesley A. Wolff, Exhibition Overview, The Kingdom of This World: Reimagined, 2021.

 

[9] Olga U. Herrera, “A Bridge Between Beauty and Tragedy: An Interview with Scherezade García,” in Olga U. Herrera, editor, Scherezade García: From This Side of the Atlantic (Art Museum of the Americas, Organization of American States, Washington, D.C. 2020), 33.

 

[10] Tignons, a hair covering, were forced upon Creole women of color, whether enslaved or not, to prevent them from showing their beauty and thus not compete with white women for the “attention” of white men. This compulsory measure also functioned as a controlling directive to regulate the bodies of these women of color. However, many women found ways to make this forced sartorial mandate a becoming and expressive part of their racial and cultural identity.

 

[11] Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, “Bodies of Color: Images of Women in the Works of Firelei Báez and Rachelle Mozman,” Small Axe Volume 21, Number 1 (March 2017, No. 52), 57–69.

 

[12] See the work of Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995) and Krista A. Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Duke University Press, 2006) for detailed discussions on these ideas.

 

[13] Olga U Herrera and Scherezade García, “A Conversation with Scherezade García,” Public Art Dialogue 11:1 (2021), 99. 

 

[14] Gina Athena Ulysse, “Vodou as Idea: On Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s ‘Ezili’s Mirrors’.” Los Angeles Review of Books (September 28, 2018), https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/vodou-as-idea-on-omiseeke-natasha-tinsleys-ezilis-mirrors/ (accessed September 2021).

 

[15] Kobena Mercer, “Diaspora Aesthetics and Visual Culture,” in Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices Since the 1980s (Duke University Press, 2016), 227, 232 and 234.

 

[16] Jerry Philogene, “Actes de Transformation: Mixing and Mapping Haitian Aesthetics,” in Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, Tatiana Flores and Michelle Ann Stephens, editors (Duke University Press, 2017), 195. 

**

Jerry Philogene, PhD, is associate professor in the American Studies Department at Dickinson College. Her research and teaching explore the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in contemporary visual arts; interdisciplinary American cultural and art history; Caribbean art history and visual arts; (with an emphasis on the Francophone Caribbean), black cultural politics; and theories of the African diaspora. Her work has appeared in Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism; BOMB Magazine; Contemporary French and Francophone Studies; Radical History Review; MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States; the Journal of Haitian Studies; Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago; and The Image of the Black in Western Art: Latin American and the Caribbean. She co-edited a special issue of Small Axe (2017). Her awards include an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for The Socially Dead and Improbable Citizen: Theorizing Visual Transformations of Haitian Citizenship (2020); the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellowship at the National Gallery of Art, Center for the Advanced Studies of the Visual Arts (2019); and a Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellowship at Duke University (2017-18).

Scherezade García, Utopian Dreams from This Side of the Atlantic I, 2018. © 2021 Scherezade García