In many ways, Cuban author Alejo Capentier's 1957 epic on the repercussions of slavery in Haiti, The Kingdom of This World, is a fantasy-fueled parallel of 21st-century America's present tensions surrounding race and immigration. So it's no surprise the book helped inspire the latest exhibit by Edouard Duval-Carrié, the Haitian-born, Miami-based artist known for exploring themes of migration and racial tension.
A gripping novel of historical fiction, Kingdom traces Haiti's independence from France, narrated by Ti Noel, a former slave grappling with his new reality in a regime that remains oppressive toward once-African citizens despite a supposed revolution. Through illustration and vivid narrative imagery, Carpentier brings to life the immigrant's incongruous sense of belonging: Despised in the "New World," with no recourse or return, Noel and his comrades struggle to adapt, shape-shifting and morphing into animals in an effort to observe their world while camouflaged.
Just like so-called illegal immigrants or black Americans, Noel has a goal to remain unseen while he attempts to find his place within a fragmented society. In considering this work, one realizes that history has a tendency to repeat itself and that the history of the Americas — from the Caribbean islands to the United States — is fraught with an inability to assimilate and include both native and alien cultures. Yet so often this experience, etched in some far corner of our collective memory, is discarded as a thing of the past. Only in the wake of a national crisis — the recent events in Charlottesville, for example — do these memories return.
"Metamorphosis," an exhibition of roughly 35 new works by Duval-Carrié, echoes the historical migrant experience, reimagined within the framework of his lush Caribbean landscape. Presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, "Metamorphosis" is the artist's second solo museum show in the area in the past three years; in addition, the show represents MOCA's noteworthiest exhibition since the museum's highly public board controversy in 2014. Opening tomorrow, the exhibit will run through November 5.
According to the artist, "Metamorphosis" in part pays homage to Carpentier's seminal work.
"The whole idea of slavery and the way it developed in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and its repercussions across the Caribbean and the United States, has always been at the center of my work," Duval-Carrié says. "One of the best books written on the subject within Haiti is The Kingdom of This World, so my inspiration for my illustrations were built primarily off this text."
"Metamorphosis" presents several distinct series by the artist: an assortment of black-and-white etchings on Plexiglas, colorful mixed-media works on aluminum, sculptures embedded with Duval-Carrié's characteristic iconography, and the series Memory, a kaleidoscopic petri dish of jeweled colors and amoeba-like shapes. Curated by Anthony Bogues, PhD and professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, the exhibition is the latest collaborative effort between him and Duval-Carrié, who have collaborated closely over the past five years.
"Working with [Duval-Carrié] is one of the most important collaborations that I have been involved with," Bogues says. "His work grapples with the history, politics, and complex culture of the Caribbean, and he is perhaps the most interpretative artist drawing from the artistic traditions of the region. In 'Metamorphosis,' he opens new passages."
Duval-Carrié's musings on slavery and its inherent consequences on American immigrant culture are especially apparent in these diverse works, which are loaded with the artist's familiar motifs. Interpreted vividly through his characteristically lush etchings, symbolic iconography, and colorful mixed-media works, "Metamorphosis" leads the viewer to reckon with the sense of displacement so fundamentally engrained in immigrant life. Etchings of shape-shifting men against the backdrop of a vibrant Caribbean landscape reference the notion that immigrants — whether brought against their will or searching for a new life — are forced to remain hidden to maintain equilibrium within the system.
In La Fin de Ti Noel (2017), a goose-like creature sporting a man's tepid grin is flanked by lush flora and an ornamental frame; Makandal Senvole (2017) depicts an insect hovering over an unkempt kingdom; and Capitan Tonniere (2017) portrays a Colonial-era figure whose head has transformed into a sugar boat, a familiar icon in Duval-Carrié's work. In blending man with beast or boat, the artist highlights the need for escape. His work is rendered on Plexiglas and aluminum, a purposeful choice of material.
"I've always been a big proponent of the faux, of materials that are modern and didn't exist before," Duval-Carrié says. "It is magnificent to me that the first onslaught of Europeans were looking for gold. A lot of atrocities were caused because of this gold: Many Indians were eliminated for getting the gold out of the earth, and African slaves were brought in to mine it."
By employing cheap materials, Duval-Carrié rebukes the materialism that drove European settlers to brutalize native populations. His central figures' supernatural ability to transform themselves into animals and insects works in tandem with the series Memory to remind viewers that progress is circumspect: Minority populations in the Americas continue to wish to remain unseen.
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"Metamorphosis" is particularly relevant locally: Miami, with its diverse population of residents living more or less harmoniously, remains somewhat impervious to much of America's racial tension and strife. According to Duval-Carrié, the exhibition represents an opportunity to consider the historical struggles in America that have led to our present-day strife.
"Miami is a curious melting pot, and many people who immigrate here don't realize that the U.S. had the bloodiest civil war in history," he says. "They're regurgitating the story but not understanding the concept. That adds a level of complexity that people here are not aware of."
Ultimately, "Metamorphosis" represents an opportunity to consider how history and memory are inextricably intertwined: In reflecting upon and understanding the past, one might be able to overcome a predictable future.
"Metamorphosis." Tuesday, September 19, through November 5 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami; 305-893-6211; mocanomi.org. Admission costs $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors; MOCA members, children under 12, veterans, and North Miami residents and employees get in free.