Didier William: Opaque Bodies/Spiritual Futures
The Haitian American artist reflects on his recent work and MoMA’s collection of Haitian art.
Julián Sánchez González, Didier William
Nov 6, 2023
This year, MoMA’s Cisneros Institute embarked on a new research project: Bridging the Sacred: Spiritual Streams in Twentieth Century Latin American and Caribbean Art, 1920–1970. Artists and specialists from Latin America and the Caribbean will convene in a series of conversations, gatherings, and publications around modern art and spirituality, with a particular focus on Afro-diasporic, Indigenous, occult, Jewish, and Catholic traditions.
As part of a series of interviews related to this project, we spoke with Haitian American artist Didier William. We invited Didier to reflect on his recent work and exhibitions, as well as on MoMA’s collection of modern Haitian art. In this conversation, the artist takes us through the challenges of collecting and exhibiting Caribbean art and artists, including work grounded in the Vodou religion. His view reaffirms and reclaims art practices and spiritual beliefs that had been hidden in order to survive, and that are now finding public appreciation in the Caribbean and beyond.
Este artículo está disponible en español.
Préfète Duffaut. Sin. 1953
MoMA’s collection includes mid-20th-century paintings and sculptures by major Haitian artists. What kind of sentiments, for instance, do works like Préfète Duffaut’s Sin evoke in you?
When looking at this painting, the idea of holding this monumental moment in spirituality and religion as a small worship object is really interesting to me. I’m also thinking about Erzulie a lot when I look at this work, particularly Erzulie Danto, the motherly loa, or spirit of love, in the Vodou religion—as this phenomenal romantic figure, but also as a tragic, vengeful figure who sits pretty heavily in a lot of my work. It is interesting that the ground in the painting is so one-dimensional, when the rest of the painting becomes almost a tessellation, pieced together like a puzzle. I find myself going back to that sense of deep, heavy gravity in the work, which is pulling down the branches, literally holding down the figures, whereas everything else is flamboyant and expressive.
Didier William. Cursed Grounds: Cursed Borders. 2021
What is your perception of art-making in Haiti today as it relates to Vodou beliefs and practices? What would be some of the benefits and perhaps some of the risks of tapping into this particular source of creativity?
I think the risk is being illegible, right? Though I would also ask, who are we trying to make ourselves legible to? We can think about Édouard Glissant and his affirmation of opacity in order to affirm ourselves to ourselves and for ourselves. I struggle to think about what the risk is there because in all the artists who we have mentioned, as well as other artists who are currently working, I am seeing thoughtful and creative makers who are opening up the narrative about who we are beyond the rigid institutional narratives that do not tell the full story and, in fact, represent a system of erasures more than any authoritative narrative.
A lot of these artists are thinking about mythology, fantasy, and storytelling, and so I think that there is a collective awareness that the world is in environmental, political, and economic trouble, and this is opening us up to think about potential futures in a way that hopefully gives us an alternative. It is no surprise to me that artists are looking to fantastical storytelling and mysticism, because these things that have been stigmatized in the past are actually making us more human than the rigid lies we have been holding on to for life. These are the lies that have left us with a climate crisis, the entire world making a hard-right turn, and poverty that we could not have imagined. We need to look at other modes of being, because that is what might save us and preserve the planet for our children. I don’t think this impulse is unique to Haitian artists or Caribbean artists; I think everybody is doing it.
Weaving through the Threads of Life
Bolivian artist Elvira Espejo Ayca encourages us to view Andean textiles from the perspective of weavers.
Elvira Espejo Ayca, Horacio Ramos
Oct 4, 2023
The Life Cycles of Objects: An Interview with Adrián Villar Rojas
Take a closer look the artist’s work and its relationship with time.
Julia Detchon, Adrián Villar Rojas
Sep 5, 2023