The New Narratives of Fabiola Jean-Louis
By ANDREA BELL, SEPTEMBER 2018
Fabiola Jean-Louis has always thought of herself as a time traveler. Because she conceives of the artist’s job as responding to and shaping reality, she cultivates an historian’s obsession with the way that narratives are told, and the way that telling the past constructs the present. In her recent and ongoing series Retelling History, the Haitian-born artist celebrates Black womanhood as central to the telling of history, not as incidental to it. One considers the silencing that Black women have had to endure in the history of western art – the black servant in Manet’s Olympia springs to mind as only one of many possible examples: unnamed, unacknowledged, just another attribute of the main subject. About her interest in history, Jean-Louis says “We’ll always look to the past for guidance. That’s why we keep memories and have mementos. It’s why we look at old photos and we love them so much. We look to the past for some sort of comfort, to help us answer “’how did we get here?’” Much more than inserting new characters into old narratives, Jean-Louis’ work poses questions about how these narratives could have been written differently in the first place if the agency of Black and Brown women had not been expunged.
After giving up medicine for art, Jean-Louis was drawn to a lyrical style of conceptual photography constructed from a reimagined system of cultural mythology. Each series from her early work, made up of a handful of photographs, hints at larger stories, at once recognizable and enigmatic. This world-building is at the heart of Jean-Louis’ practice, which constantly imagines different histories, alternative narratives, and the possibility of a complex and diverse, rather than a normative, cultural mythology. Beyond the ways in which photography can be manipulated by digital technology – her first image, Traveling Through the Rings of Space and Time, which is a self-portrait of the artist nearly levitating, was taken on a blackberry taped to a chair – Jean-Louis’ interest immediately expanded into making elaborate costumes for the construction of these alternative worlds.
While conceptual photography had offered possibilities limited only by the artist’s imagination, Jean-Louis describes herself as a “maker” and her process as one of “learning how to create within a space of limitations.” She points out that “the best things that our society has made were created out of a need, or a necessity.” For her first costumes, she quickly realized that she couldn’t afford the expensive silks and laces to make replicas of historical fashions. And so, beginning with an image that appears at the very end of her early series titled Sòsyè, Haitian for ‘witch,’ Jean-Louis fashioned her first gown out of paper. The remarkable dress, appointed with a stomacher depicting a lynched black man, would become Jean-Louis’ point of transition into her acclaimed Rewriting History series.
Rewriting History has already garnered international attention. The series has been shown in New York and more recently in Chicago, thanks to the efforts of curator Clineé Hedspeth of Hedspeth Art Consulting, who brought it to the DuSable Museum. It takes 3-4 months of painstaking work to fashion each dress, and Jean-Louis has no assistants, nor does she do any preparatory sketching. The series is a prescient response to the age of Trump and of Black Lives Matter, in which revisionist history has often been coopted to fashion narratives of nationalism, racism and exclusion. By sourcing paintings from the Early Modern, European, Old Masters, Rewriting History travels back to the high point of the slave trade and to the origins of Western ideas about subjecthood: who qualified as fully human and who did not. It is no coincidence that the Haitian Revolution, one of the major revolts of the Early Modern Period, and the only successful slave and anti-colonial rebellion, is often written out of history despite its profound impact on the global Revolutionary Period. Therefore, Jean-Louis considers the kinds of people who had the power and leisure to sit for painted portraits – people like Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Pompadour, whose portrait by François Boucher Jean-Louis reimagined as Marie Antoinette is Dead, purposefully conflating two infamous French women of the monarchy. “Who would have had the time and the ability to sit for something like this?” Jean-Louis questions. How did the very practice of art-making itself necessarily leave most people, specifically black women, out? Sitting in her paper dress, a perfect copy of Boucher’s, the model looks sidewise past the camera, both bored by our voyeurism and absorbed with her own internal musings.
And so, when the dress from the Sòsyè series reappears in Rewriting History as the profound Madame Leroy, this time it is stripped of the fanciful background of pink foliage found in the original series. Now the paper dress stands out against a deep black background, devoid of context or clues saved the lynched man swinging from a tree as though seen through a small window on the bodice.
Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Queen Charlotte metamorphoses into Jean-Louis’ painting titled They’ll Say We Enjoyed It. A forlorn queen, exquisitely dressed in paper, gazes beyond a scene of two white men raping a black woman, which Jean-Louis has inserted into Gainsborough’s insipid neoclassical garden. Queen Charlotte’s original, placid, mask-like expression, so characteristic of all of her portraits, hides the true nature of her character, which was to be symbolized and read only at a remove, through the attributes distributed around her. But Jean-Louis’ models – her friends and even her daughter – bring a complexity to their confrontation with the viewer that reclaims their agency as subjects. As painterly as the photographs are – and they are painted, the artist makes liberal use of Photoshop paint – Jean-Louis’ affecting portraits hinge on what photography can achieve that painting cannot: photography can capture the momentary, fleeting complexity of real emotion.
Thus, her models look both in and out, both back and ahead. There is a sense of their complex inner landscape, the burden of the long, brutal history of colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary racism, all complicating and deepening their humanity. White members of her audience, myself included, should recognize that we need Jean-Louis’ portraits more than they need us. Her subjects are never victims, they are not asking to be rescued and no heroic intervention is required. Rather, they confront the viewer with a complexity of expression that demands the depth of their experience be acknowledged beyond the mere fact of their beauty, and the agency of their subjecthood restored. WM
Andrea Bell is an art historian, critic and writer. She received her PhD from NYU and has held fellowships in both Europe and the United States, including at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Drawing Institute. Based in New York City, Andrea teaches Art History and Criticism at Parsons School of Design
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