Images, like objects, tend to embody something of us in them; a memory, an unintelligible feeling, perhaps, that is yet to render itself to intellect. This memory – exhumed from the subconscious and enlivened by the image – becomes a threshold from which the poetry of our lives finds relief in the present moment.
Florine Demosthene’s latest exhibition, The Capture, is a timely interrogation of history and present, particularly as it is accumulated and articulated in the experience of the black body (especially, the black female body) in time and in space – that is, in culture and its imagination as much as in corporeality.
the work refutes and refuses the corrupt demands of black female representation as dictated by Europeans ideals and the ever present subtext – especially in the reading of and representation of black female bodies in art and pop culture – that panders to the white gaze.
subtly, and carefully, Demosthene constructs metaphors of literary acuity: the destruction of Haiti in 2010 and its subsequent, if not tenuous, rebuilding, which coincided with the development of this series of works, becomes a way to speak of the ways in which the western world has tried to destroy the black body – throughout history and present – and its resilience.
“There is a lot of trauma in what happened to Haiti,” she says about the earthquake that devastated her home country, killing more 160 000 people and displacing millions. Her current series of works is foregrounded by a voluptuous black female Heroine amid a strange world of decay and destruction.
“The proximity of Haiti to the West, the US, is only four hours. But the standards of living are pretty dismal, there. So you start looking at this quagmire of black people and begin to ask, what the fuck is going on on this planet?” It is from this this quagmire, this rubble, that her Heroine begins to emerge.
It is no secret that European society (and the West in general) have propped their economies and defined their culture through the violent destruction of the black world. They have asserted their ideals of beauty through the derision of the black body. Thus, The Capture, is as much a project of rejecting the projected western ideals on the black body as it is an objection to the hegemonic order of the world as we know it.
“The earthquake was symbolic in that here we are, building this nation that is constantly being destroyed and France still demands us to pay for our freedom, which further destabilizes the country,” she says. “It shows you that the colonialists don’t believe in you not paying.”
And the black body continues to pay, whether here or in Haiti, or elsewhere in the First World, especially the U.S., with blood and flesh. If anything, The Capture proves the universality of the black condition, whose destruction Demosthene reconciles with an acute creative impulse.
Her canvases read like a dream, ethereal in quality and thus abstracting the painfully obvious, rendering her Heroine unresponsive to the possessive gaze of the reader. The pieces speak to us with restraint and suspicion. A condition borne out of the internal dialogue the that the works have with the Europeans tradition of contemptuous representation of the black female body. Restrained and suspicious, each piece refuses the violent, often fetishistic, Western gaze.
What I found in the emergence of Demosthene’s Heroine is a narrative steeped on the meditation as a process of healing. Her animal motifs, which open to specific spiritual meanings in the black world construct mythologies that sail across seas; from Haiti to the rest of the Caribbean, to West Africa and to South Africa, sowing seeds for a spiritual reawakening and restoration amid the ruins and the scars which have been inscribed on the surface and inside the mind of every black body the world over.
Demosthene manages to create a very specific subjectivity with this work, defined but not destroyed by the vicissitudes of time and place. It is a daring subjectivity that forever defines itself from within (never from without) and in the world of images and their attendant meanings her Heroine challenges us to formulate new ways of seeing ourselves before we are captured by others.
Originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine, 23 August 2015*