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Kathia St. Hilaire — Invisible Empires @ the Clark

May 11 @ 10:00 am - 5:00 pm

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

Haitian-American artist Kathia St. Hilaire presents some 20 new and recent works of printmaking, painting, collage and weaving at the Clark Art Institute, opening today and running through summer and fall.

Kathia St. Hilaire’s distinctive practice combines printmaking, painting, collage, and weaving. By building up as many as 40 or 50 layers of ink using carved linoleum blocks, St. Hilaire creates striking surface textures.

The substance of her work is equally layered. She was born in Palm Beach, Florida and lives and works in New York — her parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti, and she tells stories of the island nation’s history and the long shadows it casts, from French colonialism to independence, from U.S. occupation to the diasporic communities in which she was raised.

The exhibition’s subtitle, Invisible Empires, refers to the legacy of foreign interventions in the Caribbean and the persistence of subtler forms of imperialism today.

Kathia St. Hilaire grapples with histories that have been forgotten or actively suppressed. In recounting them, she blends established facts with the larger-than-life legends of Haiti’s leaders in a manner she describes as “magical realist.”

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About the artwork

To represent Creolized cultures, St. Hilaire uses a collage of nontraditional materials, from banknotes and banana stickers to product packaging and car tires. Like the open weaving at the edges of her work, she suggests, the Haitian revolution is itself an unfinished project—in particular amidst the country’s current tumult. Contained within these vibrant, dreamlike pictures are past, present, and the suggestion of possible futures.

La Sirene (2020) is named for a mermaid-like water spirit in the Haitian Vodou tradition who is known as a guardian of the seas. Quilting together pieces of canvas and aluminum, St. Hilaire suggests undulating waves, a reference to the transatlantic journey of enslaved people from West Africa to what is now Haiti.

Imprinting these pieces with botanical illustrations, St. Hilaire commemorates the traditional practice of those forced from their homes and into bondage to braid okra and rice seeds into their hair, thereby carrying both sustenance and culture with them.

After the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), France imposed a staggering debt for the plantations it had lost. In the early twentieth century, at a moment of instability in the island nation, the US invaded Haiti to enforce its own loan payments and would occupy the country for the next two decades.

A series of works, Cacos (2023), depicts Haitian guerilla fighters who resisted the United States’ invasion and subsequent occupation of the country, portraying three key leaders in the conflict: Rosalvo Bobo, Benoît Batraville, and Charlemagne Péralte.

While the Cacos’ efforts were at first successful, they were eventually defeated and Batraville and Péralte were killed by occupying U.S. Marines. In these compositions, St. Hilaire takes inspiration from drapo, ornate beaded or sequined flags used in Vodou ceremonies. She also includes the banknotes of several Latin American countries, highlighting the region’s history of foreign debt.

St. Hilaire grew up hearing her mother’s stories of Hurricane David, which struck Haiti in 1979. In David (2022), she connects this storm with the one in Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which wipes away all memory, including that of a brutally suppressed workers’ strike on a plantation, similar to the one St. Hilaire commemorates in Mamita Yunai (2023).

Like the centripetal pull of a storm, David combines scraps from St. Hilaire’s studio floor. For the artist, each material has its own significance: banana leaves, for example, refer to United Fruit Company’s interventions across Latin America, while car tires are reminiscent of those often burned during protests.

In 1928, workers on a United Fruit Company banana plantation near Ciénaga, Colombia went on strike to protest inhumane working conditions. In Mamita Yunai, St. Hilaire depicts the aftermath of the brutal scene that ensued when Colombian soldiers opened fire, killing scores of people.

The leaflets falling from the sky memorialize those killed, and Chiquita banana stickers, with their iconic, cheery logo, stand in contrast to the brutal realities of plantation life. The title, Mamita Yunai, refers to a novel of the same name by Carlos Luis Fallas, a labor leader on a United Fruit Company plantation in Costa Rica who described the perils of working for “Momma United,” as the company was known to some workers.

Kathia St. Hilaire received her MFA in Painting and Printmaking at the Yale School of Art and her BFA in Printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her work has recently appeared in exhibitions at the NSU Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale; Perrotin, New York; the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs; Half Gallery, New York; Blum & Poe, New York; and James Fuentes, New York.

This exhibition is organized by the Clark Art Institute and curated by Robert Wiesenberger, curator of contemporary projects at the Clark, with Tyler Blackwell, curator of contemporary art at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.

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Event Details

Details

Date:
May 11
Time:
10:00 am - 5:00 pm
Event Categories:
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Event Location

Clark Art Institute
225 South Street
Williamstown, MA
413 458 2303

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