Absence and Atmosphere:
An Introduction to The Kingdom of This World, Reimagined
By Lesley A. Wolff
In July of 1944, five years before he published The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier wrote a column for the Gaceta del Caribe on the work of Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, lauding his countryman’s ability to render a convincingly “tropical atmosphere.”[i] For Carpentier, the “tropics” only revealed itself once the artist traveled away from home and returned with fresh eyes. Carpentier cited Lam’s “prolonged absence” from Cuba (the artist spent over 10 years working in Europe, much like Carpentier himself, who lived in France during the 1930s) as a generative process of memory-making, one that honed Lam’s Caribbean artistic sensibility. In Carpentier’s view, achieving a successful artistic “atmosphere” or “environment” was thus a product of migration, unfolding across the distance of time and place; through physical absence, the artist gains newfound perspective on how to re-present, or re-imagine, a land once left behind. Although very distinct in approach and sentiment from the circumstances of migration historically imposed on Afro-diasporic people in the Caribbean, who were the victims of human trafficking and its reverberating aftershocks, Carpentier nonetheless homed in on the profound impact necessitated by exile and absence and how it shapes one’s relationship to place and culture.[ii]
Fittingly, Carpentier published this treatise mere months after his first trip to Haiti in 1943. While there, Carpentier “breathed in the atmosphere of Henri Christophe,” traversing the fabled kingdom of the revolutionary ruler on a sojourn that would inspire him to write The Kingdom of This World in the image of what Carpentier called Haiti’s “marvelous reality.”[iii] It was Carpentier’s own “marvelous” interpretation—his re-imagining of a Haitian history through a diasporic lens unbound by linear time or realism—that readers and critics soon lauded as a vital literary horizon for the modern Caribbean. Carpentier anchored his Haitian revolutionary narrative on the inspired and mythical “return” of Mackandal, the 18th century African-born maroon who had been ostensibly executed by the French, but whose mythical and spiritual presence gained traction upon rumors of his otherworldly revisitation. From this rumored homecoming, sparked the early battles of what would become the Haitian Revolution.[iv] The “news and rumor” of Mackandal’s presence and powers spread—as did so much information during that era—through the rural environs that seemed to be absent of human voices and bodies; these areas in the mountains of Saint Domingue, Cuba, and Jamaica, among other islands, were in fact rife with communal survivance and maroonage knowledge production.[v]
Critiques of absence and the teleological problems of a “tropical atmosphere” pervade the artworks of The Kingdom of This World, Reimagined. Each artist harnesses Carpentier’s story as a formal and historical point of departure to explore the ways in which the Caribbean’s past—with its long history of subjugation, resistance, and rebellion—reasserts and reinvents itself in the present. For these artists, time need not be linear to be true; a radical questioning and unsettling of narrative is not only possible but can be more real than the stories told by Eurocentric histories. Just as The Kingdom of This World broke free from the dogmas of European literary realism in search of silenced truths, so, too, do the artists in this exhibition manifest speculative and spectral worlds.
I first encountered The Kingdom of This World thanks to Edouard Duval-Carrié, for whom the novel proved a formative lens into his own Haitian heritage. Duval-Carrié initially read the novel as a child living in Puerto Rico after fleeing Haiti’s violent political regime. According to Duval-Carrié, this book was “[my] first contact with Haiti.” Ever since, the novel’s vivid imagery and hyper-stylized presentation of historical events has resonated with Duval-Carrié’s artistic imagination. One sees this literary influence permeate his compositions, which refract the Caribbean present through speculative visualizations of the region’s geopolitical past, creating dynamic “atmospheres” and “marvelous realities” that dialogue with Carpentier, Lam, and many other creative intellectuals who share in a Caribbean diasporic history.
My first contact with Haiti came through my own memory work, through the stories passed down by my family—stories that I never read about in books or saw reflected in paintings, stories that to me seemed to possess their own surreal and unthinkable qualities. My grandparents, French Jews imperiled by Hitler’s invasion of Paris, were granted Haitian citizenship thanks to a decree by President Sténio Vincent, one of a select few world leaders to open his nation’s doors to Jewish refugees at that time (his intentions were later stymied by US leadership who feared Jewish migrants pouring into the US by way of Haiti). This newfound label my grandparents had so fortunately secured, “Haitian,” unlocked their pathway to safety while also revealing the precarities and contingencies of citizenship, belonging, and freedom. The Kingdom of This World, Reimagined thus emerges from Duval-Carrié’s fascination with Carpentier’s narrative, but also from our shared fascinations with Haiti as a locus of diasporic rupture and promise. As David Craven’s historiography of the term reveals, a “revolution” signifies both a turning over and a return, a stirring and transcendence of one’s fate.[vi] The term indeed found new meaning in the late 18th century—the moment of the Haitian Revolution—as the political characteristics of human nature came to be defined in and through struggles for national and corporeal sovereignty.
For this exhibition of contemporary art, Carpentier’s fictionalized history served as a call and response prompt that elicited new work by eleven artists with ties to the Caribbean. Each artist drew upon the mytho-historical world of the book to think through the Caribbean’s potential history, which scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay defines as, “a form of being with others, both living and dead, across time, against the separation of the past from the present, colonized peoples from their worlds and possessions, and history from politics.”[vii] To engage with potential history means to speculate about otherwise worlds, to “unlearn,” in Azoulay’s terms, the linear narratives of the Western historical canon and to consider how to make space for those people, places, and events that have been silenced across the centuries. In works such as Leah Gordon’s photographic recreation of William Blake’s eighteenth-century allegorical engravings, Scherezade García’s invocation of proto-nationalistic portraiture entangled with tropical mythologies and landscapes, and José Bedia’s monumental rendering of Vodou praxes, these artists render their compositions as critical mediators of the iconography they evoke, ultimately transforming absent histories into extraordinary artistic sights. While these artists were given no specific prompt beyond a request to respond to The Kingdom of This World, it is telling that each of the artists in this exhibition produced work that considers Caribbean history from angles anew, revivifying past events and national heroes, but doing so through a speculative lens that leaves open and visible the wounds of historical erasures and silences.
[i] Alejo Carpentier, “Reflexiones acerca de la pintura de Wifredo Lam,” Gaceta del Caribe (La
Habana, Cuba), no. 5 (July 1944): 26–27. ICAA, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – Record ID 1125607. The translation to “atmosphere” is my own interpretation of the Spanish “ambiante” in the context of this writing. Notably, ambiante is most literally translated as “environment,” which likewise conjures many possibilities and dialogues in relation to Suzanne Césaire’s mid-century ecopoetical writings on tropical environments.
[ii] Fittingly, Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz published his seminal work, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar in 1940, which first set out to examine and define the terms of transculturation, which seems very pertinent to Carpentier’s considerations of social and ecological integration.
[iii] Alejo Carpentier, De lo real maravilloso americano (México: DF: UNAM, Dirección General de Publicaciones y Fomento Editorial, 2003), 11. This publication emerged from Carpentier’s initial writings for the first edition prologue of El reino de este mundo [The Kingdom of This World], in 1949.
[iv] See Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 286-7.
[v] Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (London: Verso, 2018), 12. Scott notes that late 18th century networks, known as cobreros (in the Spanish Atlantic) or fugitives, operated through subversive networks across the colonial Atlantic world to give voice and space, en masse, to resistance and rebellion against enslavement.
[vi] David Craven, “Introduction: Definitions of the Word ‘Revolution’,” in Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910-1990 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 1-23.
[vii] Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2019), 43.
Lesley A. Wolff, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Art and Design at the University of Tampa, specializing in global modern and contemporary art history and museum studies. Her interdisciplinary research on visuality, foodways, and decoloniality in the Américas has been published in journals such as Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture; International Journal of Heritage Studies; Humanities; African and Black Diaspora; and Food, Culture & Society, and is forthcoming in Gender and History. Her in-process monograph on food and art in post-revolutionary Mexico City is under contract with the University of Texas Press and has been supported by funding and fellowships from institutions such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, the Humanities Center at Texas Tech University, and the William R. Levin Award for Research in the History of Art, from the Southeastern College Art Conference. She is co-editor of the forthcoming Special Issue of the peer-reviewed journal Arts dedicated to “Rethinking Contemporary Latin American Art” and is co-editor, with art historian Hannah Ryan, of the forthcoming volume Nourish and Resist: Food and Feminisms in Contemporary Global Caribbean Art. Additionally, Wolff is an active curator, organizing exhibitions on Latinx, Indigenous and Diasporic art and heritage at institutions across the US. From 2019-2022 Wolff served as Assistant Professor of Latinx and Latin American Art History at Texas Tech University. For more about Wolff’s research: www.lesleywolff.com.
The Kingdom of This World, 2018
© 2021 Artists Rights Society, New York / ADAGP, Paris