Riddles of Identity: Tessa Mars in Context

Tessa Mars exhibition flyer

This 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 at 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and scenes from the Haitian Revolution are pervasive in Haitian art, to the point of being commonplace, as nationalist historical references that are often also intermixed with the iconography of Vodou, which is the other main pillar of Haiti’s national identity constructions and which also appears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. (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.

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The More Things Change: Haitian Art in the Western Imaginary

Hector Hyppolite – Damballah La Flambeau, c1946 (Image source: Wikimedia)

Two troubling documents came to my desk recently and, well, they put a few more bees in my bonnet (it’s becoming a bit of a hive in there!). One was a promotional article on a concurrent suite of three “Frieze Week” exhibitions of Haitian art in London that appeared in the Telegraph; the other was an e-newsletter about what is curiously named a “Ghetto Tarot Retreat,” which is to be held in January at a beach resort in Haiti.

Combined, these two documents reminded me that when it comes to the representation of Haitian art, and the very problematic imaginaries about Haiti and Haitian culture that have surrounded this, it always seems to be “one step forward, two steps backward.” Frustratingly, it appears that any attempt at pushing the critique and at leveling the playing field (and there have been some serious and sincere efforts in recent years) is predictably followed or accompanied by efforts, witless or deliberate, to  reestablish the old, patently problematic narratives. And what bothers me about these two instances, is that they illustrate that it is first and foremost the Euro-American market of Haitian art which seems to crave and produce such narratives, and swiftly reproduces them whenever they seem to slip away. If they have every really slipped away, that is.

The Ghetto Tarot Retreat strikes me as belonging to the “witless” category, not that this is any less damaging, no matter how it is couched in glib rhetoric of healing and goodwill. When I initially heard about the Ghetto Tarot deck, which was produced in 2015 by the artist Alice Smeets and which is now marketed online, I rather naively thought it was a cool project and a witty, visually and culturally interesting photographic re-interpretation of traditional Tarot, that built on the work of the Atis Rezistans and Ghetto Biennale, two initiatives that are based in the inner cities of Port-au-Prince. Looking back, I recognize that this project was from the start very problematic, as it fetishizes notions about the “ghetto” and co-opts and trivializes the cultural and artistic practices depicted, to produce an exotic commodity for the thriving Euro-American “spiritualism industry.”

And if there was any shred of doubt left about the problematic nature of the Ghetto Tarot project, this was removed by the description in the Ghetto Tarot Retreat announcement. Alice Smeets, who is originally from Eupen, Belgium, but apparently spends significant time in Haiti, describes herself as a photographer, artist, and life coach, as well as a “psychonaut” and “status-quo challenger.” In her bio, she claims that, having moved away from producing photographs that depicted poverty and hopelessness, as this was apparently too depressing, she now uses”photography art as well as photojournalism to help transform our world, but this time [focuses] on the solutions instead of the problems.”

And apparently, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat, which is organized by Smeets and her best friend Kerrie O’Reilly from Ireland, another life coach (although more florid terms are again used),  is part of those solutions. The tagline for the event is: “palmtrees, white sand, fresh coconuts,” and the rest almost reads like satire. Candidate participants are advised that:  “The Ghetto Tarot cards were created to bring you in touch with your deepest truths. We will use the cards as a tool to discover our purpose in life, our suppressed self and the reason behind feeling lost, depressed or unhappy;” and: “To make it extra fun we will visit the artists of the Ghetto Tarot in their Ghetto Art Gallery in Port-au-Prince.” So yes, by spending time on a beach, doing Ghetto Tarot readings and such things, and by participating in a “fun” guided excursion to the actual “Ghetto,” participants will be tapping into their “deepest truths,” recover their happiness and overcome depression. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry but, then again, I just read today about Melanie Trump wearing a pith helmet on her official visit to Kenya, so cultural insensitivity is apparently the order of the day. And of course, I was immediately reminded of the tarot-reading virgin psychic Solitaire in James Bond’s Live and Let Die (1973), which is not coincidentally set in the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique and presents a filmic narrative that is riddled with lurid allusions to Haiti and Vodou.

I have not contacted Alice Smeets (she is welcome to comment, though) and only have sketchy, third party information about the business arrangements involved, but I have to question if and how the “ghetto” community has benefited from this, financially and in terms of how it reflects on the community’s own art initiatives. I have sought and received the following statement from Andre Eugene and Leah Gordon, the organizers of the Ghetto Biennale: “As the joint directors of the Ghetto Biennale we simply want to state that this set of tarot card photographs and subsequent vacation project are in no way linked with our project. Atis Rezistans are also deeply disappointed that the artist [is] glibly renaming their space ‘Ghetto Art Gallery’ thus negating their own identity and agency.”

Chung, Andrea - Come back to yourself
Andrea Chung – Come Back to Yourself, c2012 (Photo courtesy of the Artist, all rights reserved)

Had Ms Smeets and Ms O’Reilly organized a spiritual self-discovery retreat like this in the picturesque countryside around Eupen, or in Ireland, leaving Haiti out of it entirely, or had she even just left the “ghetto” designation (or is it a justification?) out of what is basically a luxury retreat in Haiti, it would perhaps just have warranted a few amused eye-rolls. As it stands, however, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat illustrates the very problematic way in which places such as Haiti are constructed and mobilized as sites for self-discovery and -redemption and for what can, in this case, only be described as  narcissistic self-indulgence. The newsletter came to my attention when it was posted to the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook group by the artist Andrea Chung, who is based in California and who has her family roots in Jamaica and Trinidad. Chung’s own work, among other things, questions the narratives that are constructed around race, culture and society in Caribbean tourism. I have illustrated above an Andrea Chung collage from 2012 in which she powerfully critiques exactly the sort of perceptions and constructs that inform the Ghetto Tarot Retreat concept and juxtaposes them pointedly to the socio-political contradictions of the postcolonial Caribbean.

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