Didier William Comes Home for His Solo Exhibition at MOCA

Didier William, 125th St.The home represented in the work is the first house his family lived in after arriving in North Miami in 1990.
Photo by Constance Marsh/Courtesy of the artist and James Fuentes Gallery
Didier William, 125th St.The home represented in the work is the first house his family lived in after arriving in North Miami in 1990.
As an exhibition that bears witness to the bittersweet process of returning home, "Nou Kite Tout Sa Dèyè" overflows with Haitian-American artist Didier William's body of work that is both technically and theoretically masterful.

To walk through the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MOCA) is to learn about the neighborhoods surrounding the institution and the not-so-distant Caribbean nation that contributes much of North Miami's cultural heritage. "We've Left That All Behind," the English translation of an often muttered Kreyòl phrase, encourages one not to look back after crossing the treacherous waters of migration for a better future — it also signals loss and the need to keep moving forward.

Born in Port-au-Prince, William moved to North Miami at age 6 and attended the New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami as a teenager. Alongside his brother, William learned English at record speed to represent his family's desire to become naturalized American citizens.

William eventually left South Florida for the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he earned a BFA in painting and later earned an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale University School of Art. He's now based in Philadelphia with his husband and two children. His MOCA exhibition, guest curated by Dr. Erica Moiah James, is the largest retrospective to date and the artist's first solo museum show. According to the museum's curator Adeze Wilford, MOCA is the first South Florida institution to acquire a work by William for its permanent collection.
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Installation view of "Didier William: Nou Kite Tout Sa Dèyè" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami
Photo by Michael Lopez/Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami photo
The works exhibited, for the most part, feature silhouettes and shadow beings absolved of recognizable facial features. Rather than noses or eyes to formulate their "humanness," these beings are cloaked and dressed in an eye motif repeated in the thousands across the works on view. Etched in wood panels by the artist, the eye motif is placed on the bodies of the beings in each piece. Their eyes watch you in vigilant protection of the Black bodies historically and systemically surveilled and threatened by a fearful gaze.

Sectioned off the exhibition's entrance is a room completely coated in black. Upon closer inspection, the eye motif covers the wallpaper that encases the room. From printmaking to drawings that transform into large-scale, wood-on-panel works that represent the past and present homes and the families one is born into and then creates for oneself, William's process leads to an immersive, overpowering experience. Even the hanging sculpture Poto Mitan 2 — referencing the essentially decorated wooden post of Haitian vodou temples that embodies the axis mundi and world tree — is an amorphous pillar of bodies that the viewer can analyze in detailed three-dimensionally.

For James, there wasn't a particular piece that jumpstarted the exhibition's curation; instead, it was a common thread that brought everything together.
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Didier William, Mosaic Pool, Miami
Photo by Constance Marsh/Courtesy of the artist
"While there is no single work, I like the metaphor of water, treading water, human buoyancy, and how we are not always aware that we can float in water, so we tend to struggle against it rather than relax and survival float," she explains. "So many immigrants cannot swim, yet they take to the water literally with hopes and prayers. And though the waters in the Caribbean and South Florida are beautiful, I often think of how that beauty swallows so many lives in search of better."

The fluidity of the aquatic elements displayed — from mosaic pools to a simmering soup joumou — speak to being a Haitian-American raised in Miami and, concurrently, the queer perspective of William's coming of age within these neighborhoods, of being able to speak to your family's defense in front of immigration officials but then having to defend your sexual orientation. There is a wistful richness in carving out a life for oneself when you cannot turn back to a homeland across miles of sea and of finding yourself in the most uncanny suburban structures.

"Didier William: Nou Kite Tout Sa Dèyè."
On view through April 16, at Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami; 305-893-6211; Wednesday noon to 7 p.m., and Thursday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.