Perrotin is pleased to present Mounting Spirits, Resisting Empire, the gallery's first exhibition by Haitian-American artist Kathia St. Hilaire. In her new body of textile works, the artist will explore the history of the Banana Wars in Central America and the Caribbean in the early 1900s. Employing an innovative reduction relief printmaking process, and incorporating nontraditional materials, she creates ornate tapestries that seek to preserve the Haitian history and Vodun religion.
THE CONCEPTUAL AUTONOMY OF KATHIA ST. HILAIRE
By Patrick Sylvain, PhD, MFA
There is a particular form of sensory consciousness present in Kathia St. Hilaire’s work that demands focused attention because she embeds it with personal, historical, and sociopolitical experience. Her marvelous content offers an artistic language and world-making process that is complicated and richly imbued with visions that not only express a wide range of human emotions but are essentially and autonomously framed by her conceptual representations of the world of her ancestors, primarily those deriving from Haiti. Her artistic evolution is marked by a distinctive fusion of cultural influences and a profound exploration of identity, humanism, and social justice.
One cannot appreciate St. Hilaire's work solely for its beauty, as beauty conveys only a particular aesthetic. Aesthetic qualities don't necessarily unveil truths, and truth, in turn, exposes events that cannot remain hidden. St. Hilaire's art actively challenges historical concealment, exemplified in the Caco series, which depict three prominent Haitian leaders of the Caco movement (Batraville, Péralte, Bobo) who led the peasant-based resistance against the violent U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) and were eventually killed by the United States Marines. To this day, Charlemagne Péralte remains synonymous to anti-U.S. imperialism. St. Hilaire's practice echoes German philosopher Martin Heidegger's (1889-1976) concept of art: barring aesthetics, the veritable essence of art lies in its capacity to express and expose truths. Through multiple canvases and panels, St. Hilaire not only reveals historical events but also incorporates her aesthetic signature, providing us with the opportunity to explore her world-making processes in a fundamentally different and insightful manner, through her use of color, materiality, and history.
St. Hilaire's remarkable paintings are a testament to her skillful use of color and texture. Her canvases feature vibrant colors, bank notes, skinlightening creams, and intricate patterns that draw the viewer into a world of sensory depth. Her color palette seems carefully chosen to evoke emotion and arouse the senses toward an elevated consciousness. Bold, rich hues intermingle with soft, subtle tones, creating a visual experience that is both dynamic and harmonious. There is no timidity nor coquetry in her work. This careful selection of colors not only enhances the aesthetic appeal of her art, but also conveys the depth and complexity of the ideas she explores. St. Hilaire's mastery of texture is another defining feature of her work. She employs various techniques, including impasto and layering to create depth and tactile qualities in her pieces. The interplay of texture and color in St. Hilaire’s practice mirrors the multifaceted nature of volatile human experiences that she seeks to capture and re-configure.
St. Hilaire's visual elements are not just aesthetic choices; they carry deep cultural significance, reflecting her Haitian roots and colonial remnants. Through her paintings, St. Hilaire explores the complexities of identity, the immigrant experience, the machination of imperialism, and her cultural hybridity as a Haitian-American or American-Haitian. She is both an outsider and an insider with a strong grasp on artistic expression. Her work juxtaposes themes of conquest, cultural suppression, and labor exploitation with imagery that challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions about race, gender, ethnicity, and power relations. As Martin Heidegger asserts, the "truth is inherent in the essence." St. Hilaire's hyphenated cultural identity as a Haitian-American is characterized by a history of struggle, freedom, autonomy, and liberation from the harsh chains of colonial slavery. It also involves the worship of non-European ancestral deities, such as Ogoun, the West African spirit-warrior. In one of St. Hilaire's works, Caco: Benoit Batraville, Ogoun is depicted as a revolutionary peasant with a red scarf tied to his left thigh, riding a horse, and spearing a uniformed adversary on a white horse. This powerful representation encapsulates the essence of her cultural being.
History creates the habitat within Kathia St. Hilaire’s mind. It is from here that she articulates the past via aesthetically pleasing representations. Imitating, and yet going beyond the aesthetic of the traditional Vodun flags, St. Hilaire developed a technique called reduction relief printing— she starts with a large drawing before transferring it onto a sheet of linoleum, which she then carves out in small sections and prints onto everything from beauty products to tires, until the whole linoleum is carved away. Her materials are vast, including those that either echo history (shredded tires, banknotes, coins, photographs, banana leaves, scrap metal, and aluminum) or portray the emotional toll of certain legacies of colonialism (the use of skin-lighting cream).
The pathbreaking and influential American philosopher, Susanne K. Langer (1898-1985), says, “Complete artistic success would be complete articulation of an idea…and the effect would be a perfect livingness of the work.” The livingness of St. Hilaire’s work brings history alive through a quasimagical realism intersected by a figurative materialism.
Through her art, St. Hilaire invites viewers to question their assumptions and engage in meaningful conversation about the world we inhabit. St. Hilaire's work is a testament to the transformative power of art and its potential ability to inspire change and empathy in society. Susanne K. Langer poignantly indicates, “The life of art is a ‘life’ of forms, or even of space itself”. Kathia St. Hilaire’s framing of certain historical events through visual representation becomes a form of un-silencing—via recognizable artistic forms—which reveals a new life form (See the painting entitled Mamita Yunai, for instance).
St. Hilaire's art is inherently anti-imperialist, as she challenges the
dominant narratives that have long glorified empire while silencing the
voices of those who suffered under their rule. Her visual creations serve
as a vivid and compelling counter-narrative, uncovering the concealed
and untold histories of resistance and hardship that are often overlooked
in the glossy, sanitized accounts of imperial rule. Her approach serves
as a form of optical resistance against the sanitized, often mythologized,
versions of history perpetuated by imperial power resonating with the
global struggle for justice and decolonization. Her art serves as a
catalyst for empathy, a catalyst for reconsidering the past's prevailing
narratives, and ultimately, a means to forge a more equitable and
inclusive future. St. Hilaire's exploration transcends artistic boundaries,
sparking conversations that challenge, inspire, and enlighten.
— Dr. Patrick Sylvain
The following Q & A and poem were composed on the occasion of the exhibition.
Sylvain—What kind of support or discouragement did you receive/face while embarking on your education in the visual arts? What kind of changes (attitudes) have you noticed, and why?
St. Hilaire—Growing up in a predominantly Caribbean area opened my eyes to different Black subcultures and made me understand the commonalities and differences we share. There was an emphasis to create an identity that can assimilate into various parts of American culture. Often my family and the community I lived in invested a lot of money into beauty supplies. Using skin-lightening creams, relaxers and different hair products allowed you to remove stereotypes that people place on you. Looking back this experience made me realize how race is surface level and the materials we engage with forms our society. This is why I am invested in using commodity-based materials because of their ability to talk about current and past issues.
I come from a family who are craftsmen and musicians. Having a family like this exposed me to many forms of artmaking and influenced me to attend art school for middle and high school where printmaking was introduced to me. Having this interest in printmaking led me to further study this process at RISD. My interests in Vodoun Flags and retelling my own narrative related to the Haitian diaspora led me to imitate these flags through a printmaking technique called reduction relief printing. Starting with a large drawing that is transferred onto large sheets of linoleum, I meticulously carve out small sections of the linoleum and print on a variety of surfaces like paper, beauty products, industrial metal, fabric or tires. For each carved layer, I think a lot about the viscosity of printmaking ink, the pressure that is applied on the linoleum, and the objects I chose to print on. This process creates a shiny-textured dense surface for me to layer with sewing, collaging, carving, and weaving processes. My material choices are aligned with culturally significant references.
Sylvain—Why is your artwork in conversation with (or interrogating) Haiti's political history and its maligned cultural expression / religious practice—Vodoun?
St. Hilaire—The cultivation of bananas as a global commodity paved the way for imperialism in the Caribbean and Central America. The Banana Wars were a series of conflicts that consisted of military occupation, police action, and intervention by the United States in Central America and the Caribbean between 1898 to 1934. I see The Banana Wars as one of the starting points for misconceptions that America has of Latin America both politically and culturally. The power of imperialism is not only the ability to tell the story of another person but to make the definitive story that person. This can be seen in the Occupation of Haiti in 1915, many Westerners created exoticized and racist tropes to condone American presence. This caused a negative stigma on Haitian Vodou (which was banned during the time of the Occupation), the creation of the black zombie in American Hollywood films, and seeing the Haitian people as half child and devil. These stereotypes persisted decades after the occupation, especially during the time when an influx of Haitians were immigrating to America during 1970’s to early 2000’s. Inspired by historical events, Haitian and Latin American mythology, magical realism will be a way to explore the lasting impact The Banana Wars has on contemporary society.
Née à Palm Beach, USA
Habite et travaille à New York
Informed by her experience growing up in Caribbean and African American neighborhoods in South Florida, the artist seeks to memorialize the communities that she has been a part of through innovative printmaking techniques. Her work draws inspiration from Haitian Vodun flags, which are used to tell the country’s history and honor ancestral spirits. Using nontraditional materials such as beauty products, industrial metal, fabric or tires, she creates ornate tapestries that seek to preserve the Haitian history and Vodun religion that lives around us in Miami.
Kathia St. Hilaire received her M.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking at the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut and her B.F.A. in Printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. Her work has recently been featured in group exhibitions at the 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.