Kathia St. Hilaire honors resistance and freedom in Haiti

Waves are overlapping, the surface of the ocean under bright sun. Currents braid together in the water, and the light catches them like the fronds of cycads, and feathers and iridescent wings.

Kathia St. Hilaire calls her work La Sirene. She invokes a woman of the sea, a vodou spirit, a loa or lwa, and though this work is sculptural and abstract, she says, she is weaving into it the stories of people of Haiti across generations.

Her sea holds the idea of Middle Passage, she says, in deep respect for the people brought forcibly over the water, the people who died in the crossing, and the people who have persisted on the island where her parents were born.

She has imprinted the waves with the shapes of plants, to remember people who lived enslaved. Women braided seeds of okra into their hair, and carried them across the sea, from home, to wherever they were forcibly taken — their culture preserved and never lost.

Kathia St. Hilaire's Our Only Guide to Justice overlays contemporary protest in Haiti and the vévé, the symbol, of the Loa of Ogun, a pattern representing his spirit in Vodou ceremonies. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.
Kathia St. Hilaire

Kathia St. Hilaire's Our Only Guide to Justice overlays contemporary protest in Haiti and the vévé, the symbol, of the Loa of Ogun, a pattern representing his spirit in Vodou ceremonies. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

St. Hilaire breathes magic into the island’s past and present, in her images and in tangible elements — weaving and glints of metal, rubber from tires as a symbol of protest.

She draws in elements of tapestry and collage ,said Robert Wiesenberger, the Clark’s curator of contemporary projects, as he looked closely at her work on a sunny afternoon in the Stone Hill Center. She layers ink to form in textured and vivid surfaces, a blend of printmaking and painting in her solo show, Invisible Empires, at the Clark Art Institute.

“I’m interested in the idea of a hurricane starting on the water,” St. Hilaire said by phone from home in West Palm Beach, Fla. “The wind moves the currents and the waves. … They are meeting points I’m always interested in exploring.”

‘The wind moves the currents and the waves. … They are meeting points I’m always interested in exploring.’ — Kathia St. Hilaire

She tells stories of her childhood in South Florida, Wiesenberger said, and her family from Haiti, and the island’s past and present, and possible futures.

In part, she is memorializing histories, she said — many are still preserved mostly or only through word of mouth. She lifts up working people and practitioners of Vodou, the island’s Indigenous peoples, the African peoples and their descendants who worked the plantations and survived, and the revolutionary fighters who have kept on the ongoing struggle for Haiti’s freedom.

Artist Kathia St. Hilaire paints in her studio. Press photo courtesy of the artist and Perrotin and the Clark Art Institute
Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli

Artist Kathia St. Hilaire paints in her studio. Press photo courtesy of the artist and Perrotin and the Clark Art Institute

Beside La Sirène, in scenes that seem both impressionistic and real, three men ride on horseback through the tropical woods. Rosalvo Bobo, Benoît Batraville and Charlemagne Péralte were leaders of the Cacos, resistance fighters in Haiti in the early 1900s.

Few people in the U.S. know the Cacos, St. Hilaire said. Some know the names of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leaders in the revolution that gained Haitian independence from France a century before, making their country the first Black republic in the Caribbean.

In the early 1900s, the Cacos stood against the United States’ invasion and occupation of their country. St. Hilaire has read primary sources, including the journals of marines. Written histories can be one-sided or inaccurate, she said, and official stories of both revolutions are often told without nuance.

Kathia St. Hilaire honors Charlemagne Péralte, one of the Cacos, a leader of Haiti's resistance. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.
Kathia St. Hilaire

Kathia St. Hilaire honors Charlemagne Péralte, one of the Cacos, a leader of Haiti's resistance. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

The Cacos’ movement came from among the working people, she said, led and fought by people whose stories are often not told in written histories.

“Even in histories of the Haitian revolution they are rarely talked about,” she said. “Lower class folk and people enslaved were the majority of people leaving their lives, and their stories get stripped away.”

‘Even in histories of the Haitian revolution they are rarely talked about. Lower class folk and people enslaved were the majority of people leaving their lives, and their stories get stripped away.’

And so she looks to oral histories and creative expression to revive them. She recalls clearly how she felt when she first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ monumental novel One Hundred years of Solitude.

“I knew, my family isn’t the only one to pass down histories verbally,” she said. “He was the first writer I’d read who understood — I’ll pass down this history that has been passed down verbally, orally. An academic viewpoint often relies on numbers, exact years. Oral history, through retelling and memory, can hold experience in a larger sense.”

“… Magic realism becomes a tool to talk about history,” she said, “and have your own imagination, and still make work based in fact.”

She draws on images inspired by Vodou, a faith people have grown on the islands, from African roots, and Catholic and Indigenous, and their own vigor. Her fighters are riding bareback as a symbol of strength and leadership, and as a symbol of the Loa. In Vodou, the spirits can ride people, fill them with strength and force.

“When they leave, you are sated and at rest,” she said. “You’re tired — but it’s a good tired.”

‘When (the Loa) leave, you are sated and at rest. You’re tired — but it’s a good tired.’

St. Hilaire is not a practitioner of Vodou, she is careful to explain. Growing up, she knew about Vodou, but she did not know people of the faith. Her parents are both from a Christian background, her mother Catholic.

As an artist, St. Hilaire has found herself intrigued by a faith and practice rooted in respecting nature, and in respecting your neighbors, where people and the spirits work together. Vodou can commingle peacefully with other faiths, she said.

She first learned about the religion in her studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, in an exhibit curated by one of her professors, Bolaji Campbell, Professor of African and African Diaspora Art in the Department of Theory and History of Art and Design.

Kathia St. Hilaire's La Sirene honors a Loa, a divine woman of the sea, in Vodou lore and ritual. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.
Kathia St. Hilaire

Kathia St. Hilaire's La Sirene honors a Loa, a divine woman of the sea, in Vodou lore and ritual. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

He is from Benin, and he was one of the first of her professors to introduce her to traditional African ways of making, and to art beyond Western European traditions. Through him she began to learn about African processes of relief painting and Japanese printmaking and more.

In his show of sequined robes, she first saw artwork immersed in Vodou traditions, and she found them beautiful. She saw in the art an openness, airiness, and she wanted to learn more.

“I wanted to move with care and respect,” she said.

She has read and talked with people in her community and with Haitian practitioners. She feels Vodou is a faith many people do not understand, and as she comes from her own perspective, as a Haitian American and has always lived in the U.S., she has grown her own way of thinking.

‘I wanted to move with care and respect.’

Drawing on her own background as a printmaker and then a painter, including a love of French Impressionism, she creates relief painting in layers, with a textured surface that reminds her of Haitian Vodou flags.

She draws inspiration too from contemporary artwork, she said. Haitian artist Myrlande Constant makes vivid flags of painted fabric and beadwork, inspired by the representations of loas in Vodou ceremonies, and she has shown her work at the Fowler Museum in L.A.

“She says she paints and beads hope,” St. Hilaire said.

Kathia St. Hilaire's Our Only Guide to Justice overlays contemporary protest in Haiti and the vévé, the symbol, of the Loa of Ogun, a pattern representing his spirit in Vodou ceremonies. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.
Kathia St. Hilaire

Kathia St. Hilaire's Our Only Guide to Justice overlays contemporary protest in Haiti and the vévé, the symbol, of the Loa of Ogun, a pattern representing his spirit in Vodou ceremonies. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

So in her own paintings she echoes the vévé, the symbol or pattern of the loa Ogun, around a figure burning a tire, a form of protest in Haiti today among people protesting against the government and calling for the means to make a living.

A figure is lying in the undergrowth, holding a letter signed Melaïse — her grandmother’s name, Wiesenberger said. And on the leaves, and around the Cacos, butterflies are flying.

Growing up, St. Hilaire would see butterflies as delicate, she said. But in reading internationally acclaimed Haitian writer and novelist Edwidge Danticat, the Butterfly’s Way, she found the butterfly represents a way to share stories. They give news, hard or glad, and they spread ideas across generations.

Kathia St. Hilaire honors Rosalvo Bobo, one of the Cacos, a leader of Haiti's resistance. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.
Kathia St. Hilaire

Kathia St. Hilaire honors Rosalvo Bobo, one of the Cacos, a leader of Haiti's resistance. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

“The struggle for equality carries on,” she said, explaining their presence in another scene, a brutal conflict in 1928, when Columbian soldiers moved against workers on a United Fruit Company banana plantation near Ciénaga.

“You see the butterflies continue in Mamita Yunai,” she said, “and it’s the same struggle — forced labor, people working without pay, making roads and working on plantations in terrible conditions.”

Across Central and South America, she said, people were living and working crazy and intense hours to meet demand for foods like bananas and keep the prices cheap for families in the U.S.

‘The struggle for equality carries on.’

“People there didn’t make enough to live on,” she said — “they had churches and living areas on the plantation and never left.”

Women and men lie in the foreground of her painting, immortalizing nine leaders, workers in the union who led a protest against United Fruit. In response, St. Hilaire said, the corporation and the military led a massacre on a Sunday, as people were leaving church. The military shot into the crowd and threw bodies into the water.

“I’ve read in one source that Columbian military left nine bodies in the courtyard in response to the nine demands the workers had made,” she said.

Kathia St. Hilaire's David recalls both a real hurricane in Haiti and a storm in Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.
Kathia St. Hilaire

Kathia St. Hilaire's David recalls both a real hurricane in Haiti and a storm in Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude. Press photo by Kate Abbott, courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

Records originally said 10 people were killed — later people estimated more than 3000. Here too she shows the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who tells the story of an uprising and its violent suppression, and of the story that blows away the memory of it.

In her painting, the nine leaders look almost asleep, she said, an emphasis as much on continuing the revolution on as the end of their lives, as though they are resting between conflicts. Here a horseman shows them ridden as though born down by the forces of the market and political power — and also in the sense that the spirits have ridden them and given them strength.

Through the brutality of plantation life, through revolution they gather their force, like scraps of cloth swirling like a hurricane.

So do bright scraps of cloth and paper and metal, as she recalls Marquez’ storm and Hurricane David’s passage through Haiti in 1979. In a new work that fills a whole wall,
studio fragments swirl like rain bands.

Many of the paintings in this show have a presence here, she said — a new work gathered from the memories and fragments of stories. She did not have to get new paper or canvas to make this labyrinth. She found the elements in her studio, creating new work with what she had, and challenged herself to reflect on her work.

“When you use what you have, you show it’s possible,” she said. “… What you have is enough.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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