Didier William, “Nou tout ansanm” (We all together) (undated), ink, wood carving and collage on panel, at the exhibition Curtains, Stages, and Shadows, Act 1 at James Fuentes gallery (all images by the author unless otherwise noted)

There is a way in which one might easily miss the heart of the Curtains, Stages, and Shadows, Act 1 exhibition at James Fuentes gallery — by not peeking around the corner of the main space and walking into the small anteroom that’s adjacent. I almost missed it myself. A group of European travelers who happened to visit the gallery at the same time I did left without making that finding. The back room is key to understanding Didier William’s work, which here might at first seem like just contemporary painterly stylistic innovation that turns the bodies of the figures in William’s canvases into silhouettes patterned with distorted eyes of white irises and black pupils swimming in a larger darkened field. In the main room, these figures — these ocularly omnidirectional agents — are placed in provocative tableaus.

In one image, “Nou tout ansanm” (We all together) (all paintings are 2018), their limbs, heads, hands, and feet dangle below a stage curtain, as if feeling their way towards the ground. In another, “Touye tout konchon yo” (Kill all the conch), a figure braces itself against a wooden fence with one hand, while in the other a pointed shovel is held seemingly in preparation to break the ground underneath the character’s feet. In still another, “M mache toupatou ave I” (I walk everywhere), one figure holds a machete in front of a stage curtain while another figure has an arm on the floor, seeking with mangled fingers the edge of the stage. These are all figures ready to enact real violence with the cutlasses, and they are also figures who are depicted as staging a rebellion. If one views the text in the back room, one can begin to understand why William believes it necessary to pictorially rehearse the action of insurrection.

Didier William, “M mache toupatou ave I” (2018), wood carving, collage, ink, acrylic on panel (photo courtesy James Fuentes gallery)

In the second room, there is text printed on the wall. It is headlined with a phrase written in Haitian creole, “Mwen pa pale Franse,” which translates to “I don’t speak French” — a statement consistent with William’s pointed use of Haitian creole for all the titles of the works in the show without French or English translation. The rest of the text, given in English, provides a summarized account of three women who were crucial to the Haitian revolution that led to the creation of the first nation of free Black people previously under colonial rule. These are the stories of Toya Mantou, Sanite Belair, and Cecile Fatiman who helped free the slaves of Saint Domingue and create the republic of Haiti. Their stories are historically intertwined with the Haitian Revolution and with the larger narrative of Black indigenous people of the African diaspora throwing off the yoke of the European colonizer.

A view of the backroom at James Fuentes featuring works and text by Didier Williams (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

There is a way in which William suggests that these sexless, genderless figures could, or should be read as women because the artist advances their stories rather than the stories of Toussaint Louverture, or Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who are the characters most often associated with the Haitian Revolution. Thus William refuses the sexism typical of political struggles of the African diaspora’s liberation movements in which the male leaders are lionized and idealized. There is a way in which he suggests that the people who have long been collectively regarded as stand-ins of oppression and exploitation also see all of what is happening all around them. They are not just seen, but are self-directed agents who are able to see and act. There is a way in which these rehearsals are also harbingers: they tell us what might be coming when the curtain goes up. The figures of revolt, or uprising, don’t need to speak the father tongue of French because they have their own language and can convey to those who speak that tongue how and when the next revolution will come.

Didier William, “Ou ap tonbe men m ap kenbe ou” (You will fall but I’ll keep you) (undated), ink, wood carving, and collage on panel, in the exhibition Curtains, Stages, and Shadows, Act 1 at James Fuentes gallery

Curtains, Stages, and Shadows, Act 1 continues at James Fuentes gallery (55 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 25.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...