Eyes On Sen Soley
The Bridge announces a new exhibition, Eyes on Sen Soley with an opening reception August 6th, 5:30-7:30. The exhibition will be accessible by appointment through September 30th and will also viewable through the windows of the gallery.
This exhibition showcases oil and acrylic works on canvas by Mackenley Darius, Richard Nesly, Erivaux Prospere, and Anthony Martial. Based in the Jalousie neighborhood of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the artists’ work is influenced by le Mouvement Saint-Soleil, a rural arts community formed in 1973 and characterized by abstract human forms and the heavy influence of Haitian Vodou symbolism. The collective has been creating art alongside each other in the studio of Erivaux Prospère for over twenty years. This exhibition will also explore the curatorial journey of Jeanremi Verella, collaborator and friend to the Port-Au-Prince artists.
This exhibit includes curatorial support from Hannah Cattarin, Laurent Dubois, Erin O’Hare, Alida Goffinski, and Kristin Finn. Sales of paintings and prints will directly benefit the artists. The exhibit can be viewed throughout September, day or night in the large gallery windows, or up close by appointment (contact 434-218-2060 at least 24 hrs. in advance).
About the Paintings
An introduction from Laurent Dubois, Haitian Historian
The works in this exhibit are an invitation to engage with Haitian art, and Haiti, and therefore to see the world differently, and to look into the beyond. These paintings are rooted in a long and varied tradition of Haitian visual arts, which operate at a crossroads between a variety of media – ceramics and sculpture, metal-working, murals, paintings – and of cultural influences, including the material and visual culture of Haitian Vodou. Several of the works are in dialogue in particular with the Sen Soley/Saint Soleil project that was initiated by painter Jean-Claude Garoute, known as Tiga, starting in 1972. Garoute, who had previously co-directed an art center called Poto Mitan, created a space in the rural village of Soissons-la-Montagne, in the mountains above Port-au-Prince not far from Kenscoff, for local farmers to produce works of art as part of larger process of exchange and discovery. Out of this two-decade long experiment there emerged a series of artists, including Levoy Exil and Louisiane Saint-Fleurant, who gained international recognition for their work as it was presented in festivals and exhibits in the Americas and Europe. Many of their paintings can be seen as an attempt to see beyond what is easily visible to see what lies beneath, in dreams, under the waters, in trees and nature, in the past and in the future, where spiritual forces are constantly at work.
For Tiga and the Sen Soley artists, visual art was part of a larger engagement between mind, body and nature that brought together agricultural work, storytelling, music, writing, and religious practice. They engaged deeply with the visual landscapes of Haitian Vodou, both in the form of the paintings and objects present in religious spaces and with the larger visions (including those that came to them in dreams) of the spiritual realms. As part of this practice, they incorporated the practice of vèvè, complex drawings made of corn meal, flour, or other powders on the ground before ceremonies, during which dancers move over and scatter the symbols. These drawings evoke and call to the various lwa (variously translated as gods, spirits, or saints). You can see evocations of these vèvè in several paintings here, and they also may have found traces or echoes in iconography at the center of the work of Jean-Michel Basquait, honored in this exhibit as a key influence as well. What ties together these practices of visual art is a striving to depict and connect with the many life forces that can provide us the energy and power we need to confront our ever-challenging present.
Laurent Dubois is the Co-Director of the Democracy Initiative at UVA, and the author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004), Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2012), and co-editor of The Haiti Reader (2019).
About the Collector and Collaborator, Jeanremi Verella
Writer Erin O’Hare explores the curatorial journey of Verella, collaborator and friend to the Port-Au-Prince artists.
Four years ago, Jeanremi Verella boarded a plane to the United States with a bunch of rolled-up paintings, including some of these paintings, under his arm.
Verella, then a UVA student, had gotten to know the four artists whose work he carried—Richard Nesly, Anthony Martial, Erivaux Prospere, and Mackenley Darius—while participating in an international artists’ residence near Verella’s hometown of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.
While at the residency, Verella noticed that the Haitian artists were treated differently than the artists visiting from other nations. They were not allowed to drink the same water, they were not served food from the same kitchen. The residency was not for the Haitian artists, Verella realized, but for the international artists. Verella says it reminded him of how the Haitian revolution was by Haitians, but not for Haitians.
He explains: “I’d love the viewers to know that the Haitian revolution  was a major act against anyone that placed themselves in between another and their access to freedom. When the Haitian artists were denied food and water at the hotel during the residency simply because they were of the land, I felt as if the artists not being valued as equal raised the question of who really belongs.
“The Haitian revolution was fought so that we can all belong. It was unsuccessful, as history showed us we chose to further divide ourselves between francophones, mulattos, and catholic leaders…the categories of people that deserved respect in 1804 (‘til infinity) is directly out of the social norms of the colonial empire.
“The true Haitian revolution resided in the culture, the act of remembering a time not shown, before we put ourself in bondage; after we broke free from our chains. The cyclical nature of time reminds us that even today it is unthinkable in the Western hemisphere, a free Black nation governed by free Black women and men.”
Troubled and angered by the treatment of the artists, he wanted to get to know the local artists and their work in the ways the residency, and the broader art world that looks too often through a colonizer’s lens, did not allow him to.
He wants Charlottesville to get to know these artists, too. Verella would love to host Nesly, Martial, Prospere, and Darius in Charlottesville, but U.S. policies make that quite difficult. It’s easier to bring the art than the people, which, Verella points out, says something about the value of a commodity versus that of humanity. So now, we’ll have to get to know these artists through their work, with Verella as our guide.
Each artist has his own style, but they are part of a collective and share similar influences. They are all connected to and influenced by the Saint-Soleil movement, which began in the 1970s with well-renowned artists seeking “to better understand a Haitian aesthetic from a Haitian perspective,” says Verella. “What they did went alongside ideals of revolution, alongside ideals of” working and creating for themselves and their comrades, not for people who don’t care about them. They did not grow vegetables for those who would not appreciate the produce, and they did not create art for those who would not appreciate the spirit of the work (i.e., tourists spending “those green dollars, those dead presidents” at artisanal markets, says Verella). The original Saint-Soleil artists decided to make art for themselves for a few years, and, as Verella describes it, “went from sculpting to drumming to painting, together. They finished each other’s paintings, finished each other’s sculptures and songs. […] It was a pantheon of Haitian Vodou, a representation of the artisans’ livelihoods, which were already interconnected.”
These artists come from a similar perspective.
Another important connection among these artists is Haitian Vodou (which is different from the “voodoo” Americans may have preconceptions of). “Vodou is, how do we interpret our environment, and what do we do with it, whether a drop of rain, or a bull,” says Verella.
Within these works are forests, birds, serpents, stories, spirits, community, individuality, land, home, friendship, and more. Some of it may be familiar to Charlottesville viewers, while other aspects likely are not. And that’s okay—it’s a chance to learn and to learn respectfully. For Verella, these works bring the realization that “these spirits are among us,” and not only because nearly all of them have eyes, watching us as we look at them, a connection difficult to deny.