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#1872: Romancing the National: Contextualizing the Art of Vladimir Cybil. Article by Andre Juste

                               ROMANCING THE NATIONAL:

The art of Vladimir Cybil falls in a rather long tradition of Haitian 
artists who have focused their work on various aspects of their  nation's 
culture and history.  This focus has been so tenacious that it seems as 
though, contextually, ''art" and "Haitian art" constitute a tautology.
The preoccupation with the national, of course, applies as well to a 
considerable number of Haitian artists who have lived abroad for the 
longest time--including Cybil, who was actually born in New York but grew 
up mostly in Haiti or, to use the title of her first solo exhibit in 
Haiti, "Endezo," that is, "in two waters."  For instance, both Paul 
Gardhre and Emmanuel Mirisier--accomplished veterans whose artistic 
temperaments are markedly different--have fiercely pursued a course that 
focuses overwhelmingly on Haiti's cultural and historical realities.  
Having closely scrutinized the art of both of these artists, it is 
perhaps well worth it to situate Cybil's artistic outlook vis-a-vis 
theirs.  Mirisier's art is a formidable "creolized" expressionism which, 
like that of Oskar Kokoschka or of German Expressionism in general, is 
strongly tinged with an abiding existentialism.  Usually it seeks to 
expose or champion what has often been historically maligned, whether by 
Haitians or non-Haitians--the downtrodden, Vodou and even the aesthetic 
ethos of the likes of, say, Hector Hyppolite or Robert St. Brice.  
Gardhre's provocative art, in contrast, is an often calculated, 
perplexing juxtaposition of would-be appropriated images that compel 
viewers themselves to process the multilayered narratives the artists 
merely hints at.  Though obsessed with the  degradation and death 
stemming from Haiti's colonial heritage and wreched politics, Gardhre's 
art seeks  at once to decontruct, reexamine if not reinvent Haitian 
national identity.  
Though there are some important overlaps in the artistic attitudes of all 
three artists vis-a-vis their subjects, Cybil's outlook is nevertheless 
much looser--that is,  sociopolitically and philosophically less 
programmatic.  Call her a sort of Abstract Nationalist or one who digs up 
bits of cultural memory so as to transform them into aesthetic 
permanence.  Thus, her art is poetic. Compared with that of Gardhre or 
Mirisier, her art-making--that is, her use of materials is more 
conspicuously displayed (though Gardhre actually uses perhaps as many, if 
not more,  materials than she does.  
 Consider Cybil's "Cheval Minuit," (midnight horse) for instance.  It's 
simply evocative, as if its subject-matter were an excuse to indulge in 
the manipulation of her materials in order to create a visually appealing 
and, to boot, deliciously romantic work.  Thus, there is a certain 
distance between the artist and her subject-matter that tends to allow 
viewers not to focus primarily on the work's meaning or sociocultural 
significance.  Rather one tends to contemplate its aesthetic 
qualities--the subtle outline and movement of the galloping horse, the 
various reds, Bawon Samdi's top hats or the rotation of his glinting 
canes etc..  It even seems as though the entire work, with its classical 
columns and  glimmering reflections, were  a stage   for a  graceful 
horse, not Ogou or Bawon Samdi per se, the  Lwa  (spirits) it evokes.  If 
it weren't perhaps for Cybil's astute handling of her paint and materials 
(not too dainty or overly elaborated, just the right amount of roughness) 
the work would be merely yet another romanticized painting derived from 
some Vodou elements. As it is--no joke or sales pitch intended--it's 
perhaps perfect  for an esthete or serious bourgeois's home!  
But Gardhre and Mirisier's works are not devoid of the characteristics  
I've attributed to Cybil's art. Mirisier's aesthetic attitude toward his 
subjects--his deliberately unrefined paint handling, in particular--is in 
synch with Cybil's, but more often it's the immediacy of his themes that 
is dominant.  And of course the works of all three artists are quite  
connected to Haitian art history or visual culture--Mirisier, at times, 
with his frenzied flowers and ghostly figures rendered in a deliberately 
raw style that echoes the art of, among others, Hector Hyppolite and  
Robert St. Brice; Gardhre, with his extensive use of glitter, which is 
reminiscent of beaded or sequined Vodou flags; and Cybil, with her beads, 
sequins and frames that look like  Veve (ceremonial ground drawings) and  
Haitian metal cutouts.  And like both artists, Cybil's subject-matter or 
its meaning can appear to dominate her work, as I think it does, for 
instance, in her "Missing in Action," which has to do with the pillage of 
Haiti's cultural heritage.  
 Nevertheless, much of the work presented in "Endezo" bear traits that 
are more or less similar to "Cheval Minuit."  However, one other aspect 
of her art is worth mentioning--and she indulges  in it  more often then 
Gardhre and certainly much more than Mirisier:  She sometimes  inserts 
literally her own image or persona into her work in order to role-play in 
a particular slice of Haiti's cultural or sociopolitical history.  In 
the  four self-portraits that make up "Mitamorphose," for instance, the 
artist assumes the role of various sociocultural types--"Femme Feuille, " 
Femme Fruit,"  "Femme Larme" and "Femme Cerceuil."  (In a previous 
exhibit, her self-portraits assumed  the identity of, among others, 
Toussaint Louverture and Difilie La Folle, who buried Dessalines' 
mutilated remains.)  Thus, Cybil's art is not just theatrical in the 
Postminimalism sense--that is, in the way it enduces viewers to 
physically move about in order to experience the entire topography of  
each individual piece.  As seen in "Cheval Minuit," it's as if her 
artwork were a stage.  In this sense, her "Femme Feuille" is as much an 
act of vicarious role-playing as it is an attempt to graft, as it were, a 
positive connotation to what in the Haitian context or Creole lexicon 
("Fanm fhy") is a pejorative appelation.  ( Here, Cybil's attitude 
dovetails with that of Mirisier in his paintings on such themes as  "Moun 
Prv" (poor people) or "Nhg Mrn"  (a hillbilly)). 
The consciously imposed duality in "Mitamorphose"--that is to say, the 
obvious masquerading  and, on the other hand,  the sociocultural 
realities the individual portraits represent--stems from the postmodern 
imperative to undermine the notion of originality or the belief that 
artistic images convey objective truths.  Gardhre, too, is heedful of 
this imperative, as seen, for instance, in his own artistic role-playing 
in his recent "Self-portrait with Hector Hypopolite"  in which, in a 
sense,  he impersonates Hyppolite, Jean-Michel  Basquiat and to some 
degree, Monet.  But Gardere's career is actually vastly different in many 
ways from these artists. (He settled in New York in 1959, but has 
returned to Haiti quite a few times.) The subtext of his picture, of 
course, is to expose the degree of fakery or artificiality inherent in  
artistic images as well as in the construct called Haitian national identity.

All in all, as seen, both "art" and "Haitian art" are taken seriously  
among some of the Haitian artists  living outside of their  
country--certainly, at least, by Gardhre, Mirisier and Cybil. But to me, 
Cybil keeps a middle course or more appropriately,  the works in "Endezo" 
tend to convince one that she prefers to err on the side of "art."    

Andre Juste,  December  1999