Art

Painting 250 Years of Racial Violence in the Americas

In his brightly-colored acrylic works, Haitian-born, Philadelphia-based artist Claes Gabriel addresses the Haitian Revolution, global migration, and police brutality in the US.

Claes Gabriel, “The Ouroboros” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 51 x 50 inches (photo by Mari Elaine Lamp)

PHILADELPHIA — In Claes Gabriel’s crisp, vibrant paintings, somber subjects become darkly comic reflections on having power — and losing it. Inspired by a line of poetry by Kahlil Gibran, “You’ll be quite friendly with your enemy when you are both dead,” the three works featured in Between Us, on view at Automat Collective in Philadelphia, offer stark reflections on the Haitian Revolution, global migration, and police brutality in the US. Spanning 250 years of subject matter, this sparse solo exhibition is impressively comprehensive in its scope.

Born in Port-au-Prince and now based in West Philadelphia, Gabriel uses painting to approach the history of racial strife in the Americas with both the weight and brevity his heritage affords. As the only nation in the Americas founded by former slaves who successfully fought for their freedom and overthrew their captors, Haiti exists as a counterpoint to colonial power. White-ruled nations considered the very existence of a Black republic a threat — the US refused to recognize Haitian nationhood until after the Civil War, then continued to deny Haiti basic respect for its sovereignty. White leaders of the time thought the Haitian Revolution had such potential to inspire similar movements for self-emancipation that colonial nations attempted to censor its very existence.

Claes Gabriel, “Haitian Revolution” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 71.5 x 61 inches (photo by Mari Elaine Lamp)

Published in 1805, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti contained the first disseminated European portraits of the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The author and artist was Marcus Rainsford, an Irish soldier in the British Army who visited Haiti at the end of the 18th century. Although Rainsford was no abolitionist, he admired L’Ouverture, and the engravings in his book convey respect for their subject. Such accounts of the Haitian Revolution, written by white men, deeply complicated white supremacist attempts to maintain a fiction of racial fault-lines as absolutely divisive.

Gabriel’s painting entitled “Haitian Revolution” (2017), inspired by Rainsford’s engravings, presents the overthrow of white leadership with gaiety and matter-of-factness. Against a shimmering backdrop of pink, blue, and orange clouds, a Haitian leader in tasseled military regalia appears victorious and resolute as he hoists his French adversary aloft in the gallows. All characters in this tableau are imbued with moral ambivalence. There is no veiling of violence here, and Gabriel displays an admirable willingness to represent this difficult scene as a cause for celebration — this revolution in which the stakes were so much higher than a tax on tea.

“Boat People” (2019) is the most ambiguous of the three featured paintings. Its title references the pejorative term, used to describe Haitian refugees and other asylum-seekers around the world. Gabriel depicts a crowded vessel, with stoic faces differentiated only by the colors of their eyes. This scene evokes the universality of immigration itself — serving not only to connect the past and the present, but also to remind the viewer of the depth of history behind every culture.

Claes Gabriel, “Boat People” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 49 x 61 inches (photo by Mari Elaine Lamp)

Although no graphic violence is depicted in “The Ouroboros” (2017), its two subjects symbolically hold the repetitive, looping history of racial violence and police brutality between them. A Black man in striped prison garb tangoes with a white police officer, framed by an urban skyline and red flames. Their linked arms wind around one another in the shape of an infinity sign, or an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail. They are trapped in destructive lockstep, together forever. Still, the Black man in this painting grins in the face of the white police officer to whom he is tied. The officer frowns — with his proud badge, he does not see the other’s secret knowledge that his power is neither eternal nor absolute. This is a painting of the every-time and the every-place of racial violence, but in it, the pursued is on equal footing with his pursuer.

All three of these paintings demonstrate Gabriel’s mastery over his medium of paint. Much like a tapestry, quilt, or stained glass, every inch of these canvases is treated with intense care. These paintings render dramatic scenes of violence and trauma — revolution, migration, arrest — with an incredibly cool gaze. In these works, subject almost becomes secondary to Gabriel’s incredible skill.

Installation view of Between Us by Claes Gabriel (photo by Lydia Smith)

Gabriel’s paintings deal in archetypes and symbolism rather than individuals, so each of these canvases holds a wealth of content. Small visual clues hint at the continuity between these works. In each painting, there is a Black man with red eyes, and through this subtle, careful detail, Gabriel’s Haitian leader becomes the prisoner — but not without the hope, and maybe even the promise, that these tides will someday turn. These paintings refuse to become propaganda — even as they address a whole range of contemporary topics, Gabriel proudly and plainly represents his own position as a Haitian-American. In these works, Black victory is an ever-present landmark in time.

Between Us: Claes Gabriel, curated by Lou Serna, is on view at Automat Collective (319 N 11th Street, Unit #2I, Philadelphia, PA) through April 28.

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