Riddles of Identity: Tessa Mars in Context

Tessa Mars exhibition flyerThis essay was written as a commission by Le Centre d’Art for the catalogue of the exhibition by the Haitian artist Tessa Mars titled “île Modèle-Manman Zile-Island Template”, at the Maison Dufort in Port-au-Prince, May 31-June 29, 2019. It was translated into French for the catalogue. The original English version is posted here, with permission from Le Centre d’Art (all rights reserved by Tessa Mars, Le Centre d’Art, and Veerle Poupeye)


Haitian campaign
Tessa Mars – Any Other Island – Toutes et N’Importe Lesquelles (2019)

 

Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, [identities] are subject to the continuous “‘play”‘ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere “‘recovery”‘ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

 – Stuart Hall[1]

One of the defining characteristics of Tessa Mars’ work, is the way in which she reflects on her positionality in the histories and art histories of the Caribbean and specifically, of her home country Haiti.[2] This is exemplified by those works that feature her alter ego, Tessalines, which she introduced in 2015 while on a residency as Alice Yard in Trinidad and which has appeared in many of her works since then. In these works, she playfully claims space among the heroes of revolutionary Haiti as a quasi-mythical, horned warrior woman, armed with a machete or dagger, who is at the same time fearsome, comical, provocatively sexual, and vulnerable, and who is always recognizably Tessa herself, even though the details of the figure’s visual appearance constantly change. Through the figure of Tessalines, Tessa Mars inserts herself symbolically into a male-dominated historical narrative of revolution and self-liberation that is central to Haiti’s official national identity, while making space for ambivalence and subversive re-readings of collective and personal relevance.

Tessa Mars - Dress Rehearsal
Tessa Mars – Dress Rehearsal, November Ritual (2017)

Representations of iconic figures and scenes from the Haitian Revolution are pervasive in Haitian art, to the point of being commonplace, as nationalist historical references that are often also intermixed with the iconography of Vodou, which is the other main pillar of Haiti’s national identity constructions and which also appears in Tessa’s work. There are other contemporary Haitian artists who have cited these representational histories with a comparable sense of identification, irony and critical intent, such as Edouard Duval-Carrié and Vladimir Cybil Charlier, and there is also a tradition of satirical engagement with Haitian history and politics in the popular culture. What sets Tessa Mars apart, however, is the manner in which she inserts her own image and personal identity into this narrative.

References to the Haitian Revolution, Vodou, and related events and beliefs elsewhere in the African Diaspora, have become part of the visual vocabulary and ideological strategies of many artists of the Global Caribbean. The manner in which Tessa Mars inserted herself into the narrative of revolution and liberation, for instance, reminds of how the Jamaican-born artist Renée Cox took on the persona of Queen Nanny, the part-historical, part-mythical female freedom fighter and spiritual leader of the Windward Maroons in 18th century Jamaica and the sole female among Jamaica’s official pantheon of National Heroes, in the series of photographs collectively known as Nanny of the Maroons (2014). While some of the photographs in the series are more intimate, and even eroticized, its most powerful image is The Red Coat, in which Renée Cox/Nanny poses with her machete and defiantly wears the red uniform coat of her arch-enemy, the colonial militia, to become a militant icon of historical and contemporary black female empowerment and resistance.

Le Bon Combat
Tessa Mars – The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018), detail

While the similarities are tantalizing, the fundamental differences must be noted: in the adventures of Tessalines, there are no iconic heroic stances or definitive ideological positions; instead, her ironic play-acting and changeable appearance complicate and subvert the very notion of fixed identities, positions and historical narratives, and represent a different kind of identity politics. Tessalines is, as Tessa Mars insists, a more personal icon, that speaks first and foremost to issues of personal freedom and subjectivity, and serves as an avatar through which her self-identity is negotiated, questioned and explored. Tessalines not only re-interprets key events from the Haitian Revolution, as part of a national imaginary to which Tessa is negotiating her own relationship; the avatar also appears in Tessa’s symbolic, introspective conversations and battles with her own self, as in The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018). The Tessalines narratives are often violent, which is not surprising, given the references to a revolutionary war, but in some instances this may appear to be self-directed, as in the recurrent image of stabbing her own chest with a dagger or machete. This self-directed violence is symbolic and cathartic, however, and serves as a tool for self-inquiry and -affirmation, rather than for self-harm. And it also references certain ritual practices in Vodou, where such actions have similar symbolic implications.

tessa-mars-Conversation-avec-Hector-H
Tessa Mars – Conversation avec Hector H. (2015, not in this exhibition)

Such conversations with Haitian history and culture occur throughout Tessa Mars’ work and, in doing so, she also engages with Haitian art history and, more generally, with the manner in which Haitian history and culture have been represented in art. One such example is her 2015 painting Conversation avec Hector H. (not in this exhibition), in which she interprets Hector Hyppolite’s famous Maîtresse Erzulie (1948) and replaces the figure of Erzulie with the image of her own nude body. Unsparing (in terms of the unidealized representation of her body) but as enchanting as the original painting, Conversation avec Hector H. is a tribute to one of Tessa’s favourite Haitian artists.[3] It also, and more explicitly than with Tessalines, inserts her image and person into the mythological universe of Vodou and the complex notions of gender and sexuality that are being negotiated in that context. Tessa is herself a Vodou believer and its beliefs, symbols and ritual practices are part of her lived experience. More broadly, the work is also a meditation on personal identity, womanhood, the female body, beauty, and sexuality, and on the representational codes that surround these subjects.

Works such as Conversation avec Hector H. and those that feature Tessalines are part of Tessa’s strategies to interrogate and claim the multi-layered puzzle of her identity – the riddle of identity, as she called it in a recent interview[4] – and also her place in the scheme of things as a young Haitian woman who comes from a family that has helped to shape modern Haiti’s intellectual and literary traditions, and some of the very understandings of Haiti’s history and popular culture with which she engages. Jean Price-Mars, whose pioneering essay Ainsi Parla l’Oncle (1928) launched the Indigenist movement in Haiti and validated Vodou as part of the national culture instead of as a problematic superstition, was her great-grandfather and her mother, Kettly Mars, is a well-known Haitian poet and novelist. This family history adds another layer to her complex relationship with Haiti’s core narratives, and is referenced in works such as the portrait series Those I Know, Those I Don’t KnowSa M Konnen, Sa M Pa Konnen (2018-2019) — a tribute to the more enigmatic but equally important legacies of her female ancestors, particularly her great-grandmother, who was not married to Price-Mars but who may have been a significant influence in his life and work.

Dreaming of the ancestors
Tessa Mars – Dreaming the Ancestors – Sa m konnen, sa m pa konnen (2017)

The trilingual title of the present exhibition, Island Templateîle Modèle – Manman Zile, is significant: between the three languages, there are some very interesting and revealing shifts in meaning, and the very act of moving between languages, which is also evident in the titles she gives to her works, adds to the open-endedness of her artistic statements.  In English, the exhibition title appears to allude mainly to the physical, historical and ideological replication of the “repeating islands” of the Caribbean, and the implications of reductive, externally imposed ideals. One of the new works in this exhibition, Any Other Island – Toutes et N’Importe Lesquelles (2019), speaks to this, and to how for the foreign powers that have sought to conquer and control the Caribbean, and specifically Haiti, its islands are nothing but generic and replaceable pieces on the chess board of history.

The French title has similar implications but, more importantly, references the utopian models and ideals that have driven Haiti’s national self-image, of which the concepts of national and personal freedom are arguably the most central and commonly invoked, but also the most contradictory and threatened ones. This troubled question of liberty, and its existential relation to identity, is a core theme in Tessa Mars’ work and appears in most, if not all of the works in this exhibition. It is arguably its unifying theme, and a theme that takes on special urgency in Haiti’s current social and political crisis.

The painted portrait series P(r)aying for the Visa – Priyè a Monte (2018), for instance, comments on the alienation of the young, especially males, who are seeking to migrate and seek their fortunes elsewhere, in ways and places that seem to contradict national core values. The installation Justice Populaire (2019) which responds to a mob justice incident that was witnessed by Tessa, reflects on the appearance of violent, impulsive and possibly unjust popular interventions where formal security, justice and governance processes fail. And works such as the paintings La Faune et La Flore (2019) and the installations Invite a Dictator to Tea – Un Dictateur Au Thé (2014-2017) and We Are Here – Nous Somes Ici – Nou La (2016) speak to the adaptations and survival strategies that make daily life possible in Haiti and in its diaspora, even though these may sometimes involve questionable accommodations, as well as the stabilizing and under-recognized role of women.

Tessa Mars - Invite a Dictator to Tea
Tessa Mars – Invite a Dictator to Tea – Un Dictateur Au Thé (2014-2017)

The Kreyol title of the exhibition, Manman Zile, finally, has more explicitly gendered, mythical and affective associations. It invokes imagery such as the mother island, the island as woman, and the female body as island, and of being close to the heart, and the associated sentiments of belonging, safety and stability, and of being strong and self-contained but also vulnerable to various violations, from foreign invasion to environmental degradation. It also has the strongest visual resonances of the three versions of the title, with its references to the body and the landscape, as the territory on which the “war games” of Haitian history, society and individual identity are fought, and the theater in which Tessa Mars’ unfolding personal mythology manifest itself. It is the version of the exhibition title that most effectively captures what her work is about.

Fauna and Flora 2019
Tessa Mars – from the La Faune et La Flore series (2019)

There is a lot in Tessa Mars’ work that is specific to Haiti, and her relationship with Haiti and Haitian art and culture, but she is one of a small number of contemporary artists who are permanently based in the country, and one of very few women, which may create a sense of isolation. The community of Haitian art is, however, not the only context in which her work belongs: it is, in many ways, better understood in relation to that of other young contemporary artists from the Global Caribbean, who engage in similar ways with questions of identity and the cultural narratives that were articulated by the earlier generations of Caribbean artists and cultural producers. Most of the artists in question are women, who interact and exchange ideas with each other at those exhibitions and residencies and online exchanges that have created a strong sense of community, and indeed a sisterhood, in the Caribbean art world in recent years.

Kelly Sinnapah Mary, a Guadeloupean artist of Indian descent, for instance, uses comparable strategies to explore her positionality in Caribbean history, culture and identity politics. Her mixed media series Notebook of No Return to the Native Land (2016-2017), with its disavowal of Aimé Césaire’s famous title, one of the canonical texts in modern Caribbean culture, challenges the notion that Caribbean identities are aligned with diasporic origins and can be securely defined. In these works, Sinnapah Mary constructs enigmatic, hybrid self-images in which her body is present but her features are concealed by masks and erasures, and places these figures in contexts that suggest that they are part of stories that are alluded to but not quite told. There are tantalizingly familiar references to Indian-Caribbean history and culture but these do not lend themselves to any comfortable or comforting explanations or definitions, which are implicitly denied.

The unruly female body, that refuses to be harnessed or labelled, also takes centre stage in the work of Firelei Báez, whose multiracial identity is, like that of many Dominicans, complicated by her part-Haitian ancestry and perhaps even more so by living in the USA, where reductive racial binaries are the norm. In Báez’s work, the female body morphs and merges with tropical flora and fauna, and indeed with the land itself, to produce baroque, hybrid creatures that perform carnivalesque fables of Caribbean history and identity but deny us any clear clues on how to decode them.

Such metaphorical engagement with the female body and the land/island also appears in the work of Sheena Rose from Barbados, particularly the drawings she produces in her sketch books, which map out a mythical universe in which the history and contemporary dramas of the Caribbean are enacted. And, like Tessa, she provocatively brings her own, recognizable image into these images, in contrast with the strategies of concealment used by Baez and Sinnapah Mary. What all of these artists have in common, however, is that the narratives they present resist definitive interpretations and maintain a degree of opacity. I am also reminded of Ebony G. Patterson’s “night gardens,” which are haunted by discarded male and female bodies, adult and child, that were subjected to various acts of violence. Patterson’s engagement with the politics of visibility and invisibility and the associated cultures of hyperbolic “bling” fashion, which in her case represents an urgent invitation to recognize and validate lives and identities that are commonly ignored and devalued.

I could discuss other Caribbean artists here, such as Oneika Russel from Jamaica, April Bey from the Bahamas and the USA and or Nasaria Suckoo Chollette  from the Cayman Islands, and several male artists too, such as Ewan Atkinson and Adam Patterson, from Barbados, and Leasho Johnson from Jamaica, who produce comparable personal mythologies that subvert ideas about fixed or prescribed identities, in ways that focus on the politics of the body, the land, and of gender and sexuality. That this discourse is dominated by female artists is not surprising, since women have conventionally been relegated to the margins of the dominant narratives and definitions of identity with which these artists are arguing. Nor is it surprising that it is openly queer male artists such as Atkinson, Patterson and Johnson produce comparable work, as their lives and identities are subject to similar dynamics.

What these young Caribbean artists all have in common is a refusal to take up their prescribed place in the dominant narratives. Instead, their work navigates the uncharted waters of Caribbean identities and much of its power derives exactly from the fact that these territories resist any exact or definitive mapping.

Endnotes

[1] Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” (1994). Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Williams, Patrick and Laura Chrisman.  London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 225.

[2] My insights on Tessa Mars’ work are indebted to an extended Skype interview with her, which was conducted on March 16, 2019.

[3] Ali, Shereen. “Tessa Mars: full free / Closeup.” Caribbean Beat, May 2018 (available from https://repeatingislands.com/2018/05/31/shereen-ali-reviews-tessa-mars/ , accessed March 15, 2019)

[4] Ibid.

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