Radical Acts

Hervé Télémaque. No Title (The Ugly American). 1962/64 444

Oil on canvas, two panels, 77 1/2 x 102 3/8" (197 x 260 cm). Gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis in honor of a lovely American, Jerry Speyer. © Hervé Télémaque. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist, Hervé Télémaque: I left the United States for various reasons, but racism was perhaps the key to it.

I was a young Haitian from a bourgeois background coming to study at the Art Students’ League, and basically that was where I became aware of being marginalized, of being black in a profoundly racist white society.

You could say that as soon as I arrived in Paris, I was settling scores with my American past.

In the upper left, you see Fidel Castro and Toussaint Louverture, the great hero of Haitian independence, which was declared in 1804. Toussaint Louverture put a stop to slavery, he was the one who conceptualized the end of slavery. The American Press claimed that Cuba was a place of moral corruption and that Fidel Castro was a thug. He was more like a liberator to me, like my national hero.

To me, it’s a painting about freedom, and that was entirely my message. You also have to understand that in my line of work, with all its nice conventions and prettiness, we have to wake up our viewers in order to capture their interest, we have to shake them up.

Teeth express violence, destruction, death, life. And so my approach, with these teeth, is a way of making viewers aware of how things are, that the human condition is no picnic, that it’s a constant struggle: a fight against racism, against politics, but also very simply the animal nature of our existence.

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