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Black Expressionism from the Caribbean Today

© Sébastien Mehal, Portrait # II / Diptyque

Four French Caribbean artists express their world visions through portraits

For the first time, four French Caribbean artists and photographers – Robert Charlotte, Mirtho Linguet, Sébastien Mehal and Shirley Rufin – are being presented jointly in a gallery in Miami, the Lélia Mordoch Gallery in Wynwood. The gallery already represented Sébastien Mehal among its artists, but discovered the three others through the Tout-Monde Festival, the first Caribbean contemporary arts festival launched in Miami in March 2018 by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the USA, in partnership with the France Florida Foundation for the Arts, and curated by Claire Tancons and Johanna Auguiac.

For the first time, a contemporary art gallery is associating the Caribbean with Expressionism. At first view, this artistic movement born in Germany after World War I may seem without ties to the contemporary Caribbean. Expressionism certainly spread to other countries and continents and later evolved towards more contemporary expressions through abstract expressionism and neo-expressionism. But what does black expressionism in the Caribbean mean in this context? Does it make sense to draw comparisons between emerging contemporary practices in a specific region and modern post-war art? Does it make sense to group such different artists under one European umbrella? A conversation with each artist gave us insight to unearth potential links.

European expressionists loved to travel, at least through books that modeled imaginary and “exotic” representations of the overseas. In fact, few did actually travel overseas, and some, like Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde, did travel, but to the Pacific not the Caribbean. Having said that, Emil Nolde’s “Tropical sun” (1919) could have very well been painted in the Caribbean.

© Robert Charlotte, Garifuna series n°7332

From an aesthetic point of view, the subjective expression of nature or human bodies through provocative, intense or distorted shapes and colors, and the often mystic translation of minds and emotions, which are typical in Expressionism, do indeed resonate with many Caribbean artists. Robert Charlotte’s photography series on the Garifuna people may be the most representative of the modern aesthetic - the camera’s focus on facial expressions or the unusual angles certainly translates a strong subjectivity, whereas intensive color blocks are often contrasting with a more melancholic backgrounds. In Sébastien Mehal’s portrait series, reality is also fooled through paintings superimposing several facial photographs of different people in one single portrait. The aesthetic goes beyond the portrait and mixes with abstract expressionism and pop art - faces are often placed in a series next to abstract monochromatic squares and tarnished by patches of painting, recalling Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. In a similar abstract and radical way, Shirley Rufin also distorts reality by deconstructing human bodies and representing them through bright color lines contrasting with a black background. For Shirly Rufin, the explosion of shapes or colors in Caribbean art reflects a common belonging to a particular history or faith. For her, this explosion in forms corresponds to a collective scream. This scream of collective suffering is reflected in Mirtho Linguet’s “Mentalcide N°3”, a series representing black women in trans trying to escape reality through substances or mystic ceremonies. Twisted body positions, disturbing angles, and artificial blue and green lights highlighting black bodies resonate with green and blue distorted bodies of expressionist painters such as Ludwig Kirchner or Karl Schmitt-Rottluff. But Mirtho Linguet refuses to be categorized or limited to a specific artistic movement, in particular a dominant European movement.

© Mirtho Linguet, Mental-Cide Nº3 - 2014

From a sociological point of view, expressionists rejected dominant artistic, social or politic structures and establishment in general. Between the two wars, their art often expressed an ambient social tension and collective anxiety due to a particular strong historical context. Between two continents – South America and Europe – historically marked by a third continent, Africa, and socially influenced by a fourth, Asia, the Caribbean is certainly a region of tensions and contrasts, but in a constructive way as would put it Edouard Glissant. Many Caribbean artists address these tensions by challenging dominant influences and structures. Mirtho Linguet’s statement is very clear in that sense: his series “Black dolls” openly criticizes a dominant Western capitalist culture imposing its codes and rules on others, in particular the black population. Linguet cites two examples: the black-tie costume and art institutions both have imposed for centuries their codes and ideals in such a way to leave little room for other trends. The Expressionists, tired of impressionist dominant rule, couldn’t have agreed more and wanted to express a new world vison. Sébastien Mehal also criticizes dominant social hierarchies in the Martinican society: homophobia, gender inequality, and social barriers between wealthy and poor neighborhoods have been building up over decades and have become the accepted norm. Through his superimposed faces resulting in androgynist portraits, Mehal offers a new face of the Martinican society. In a similar way, Rufin challenges social taboos in the Martinican society by photographing naked bodies of strangers to highlight their forms and transcend the emotion of shame.

© Shirley Rufin, Mythologie 4 Véda

In their work, the experience through the Other is key. Through the spectator, Rufin’s colored body shapes acquire a complete different meaning, free of any embarrassment. “The models often do not recognize themselves, and this is freeing”, she says. “You cannot even recognize if it’s a male or female body, and even I lose track”, she adds, alluding to the social discomfort around transgender sexuality. Through a broken mirror, Mehal directly integrates the spectator into his art work forcing him to have a closer look at social accidents and discomforts, such as high mortality and suicide rates – phenomena which are easily ignored in a Caribbean world largely dominated by the sea-beach-and-sun image. Robert Charlotte seeks the Other elsewhere - to better understand themselves, the French Caribbean territories should look at a different history of the region, a mirror history, those of the Garifuna population. Originally Arawak Indians from St Vincent, this “Black Carib” population was forced by colonization to migrate to Central American countries such as Honduras, Belize and Guatemala, before settling in American cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1940s. “This Other History of the Caribbean”, often forgotten in the French territories, “is essential for our understanding and process of overcoming the violence of our own history”.

But here end the similarities between the four artists and the Expressionists. The artists of the show have one major difference and particularity: they are Caribbean, and in that sense, they are universal. As a matter of fact, if all four artists are Caribbean, none of them lays claim to one particular territory or origin. Shirley Rufin, born in Paris from an Martinican father and St.Lucian mother with english origins, grew up and studied in Martinique, and feels both Caribbean and European, and beyond. Sébastien Mehal, born and raised in Martinique to a Caribbean mother and a mixed father with English parents, chose to move to Paris to be more connected with different cultures, and calls himself “a child of the world” who nourishes his art from a Caribbean diversity. For Robert Charlotte, cultural and "racial mix" (“métissage”: the word in French avoids the idea of race) is synonymous to an opening, to the future. Interviewed during his first stay ever in Africa (in Ghana), Charlotte feels an endless opening-up that teaches him about his deeper origins. And finally, Mirtho Linguet, is born, raised and living in French Guiana, yet doesn’t feel particularly Guianese, Caribbean, or Black. “The fact I was born in French Guiana is a random fact, as much as I am Black…Hence, I don’t want people to see me as Guianese, as a Black man or even as an artist, but as a human being. Similarly, people should not be judged by where they are from or what skin color they have, but how they act as individuals, and how they interact with others in a society. Because this is all what counts: how we act.”

Click here for information on opening event on October 23rd