In the hallucinatory world of America, we live in suspension between a verifiable reality and the sensorially ungraspable fact of violent trauma on a daily basis. This takes form in mundane spaces. A street, a classroom, a pool, a playground: here are the sites where violent pasts and futures coalesce into mythologies that continually encroach on the present. These are the times where space devours, in convulsive movements, the souls of the dispossessed.
I have always thought of Didier William’s work as a kind of magical realism: organic shapes fold in on each other creating an expanded spatial dimension in which the seen and the unseen coexist. His compositions have always had a dismembering effect, as if revisiting and reconstituting the extremities of history. Bodies take form but remain in suspension as cellular organisms endlessly proliferating. But in Camouflage he shifts direction: he probes the ways space encroaches on form itself. He jettisons body parts from their matrix of blood, flesh and bones, suturing them whole again through the coordination of pattern, shards of color and amorphous chiaroscuro. There is violence here, in the corporeal cleaving of flesh from frame as well as in the shadows that limn the body’s edges and clone its various parts. What makes William’s work so important then, is the way his surfaces become places of convergence and collision that seem to mark the fragility of everyday life and in particular the expendability of black life. The divide between the past and present, between the waking and the dream seems non-existent. In William’s work these divisions are not distinct, but they exist simultaneously, hovering alongside each other always threatening to convulsively overcome their boundaries.
Oscillations in time and space – encoded by the interplay of pattern and ornamentation that mark his surfaces – are also a form of obfuscation. By exhibiting a camouflage of sorts, William’s explains that his figures “deny projection” and refuse viewership. This obfuscation – often revealed as a mosaic of marbled eyes – could be read as the fragmentation that has always anchored the ebb and flow of identity politics. But this act of obstruction might also be the closest thing to a border. Creating a porous lining between the ‘real’ and that other space of the mythological and violent memory, that lingers alongside it.
In this public sphere, bodies need to be continually called forth and named, recognized and located: registered and known. In William’s work we see a disruption of this logic, a queering of the logistics of empathy that have become bound up with the social relations of identity. Instead, in the hybrid spaces of proliferating form, these paintings recall the idea of “opacity” coined by theorist Edouard Glissant and returned to by Saidiya Hartman. There is then in William’s work, something held in reserve, an awareness that “the attempt to approach a reality so hidden from view cannot be organized in terms of a series of clarifications.”
Didier William’s paintings do not present us with the terms for extricating ourselves from this moment, or from the narrative histories bound up within it. Instead, their traumatic imagination creates an indispensable sense of the violence that underscores the construction, and limits, of social space. In his disembodied compositions we find hidden forms and registers of experience. Bound into configurations that veer towards the inexpressible, they project a sense of what may be articulated towards a future.
Anna Arabindan-Kesson is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the Art and Archeology Dept at Princeton University. She Specializes in African American, Caribbean, and British Art, with an emphasis on histories of race, empire, and transatlantic visual culture in the 19th century. Professor Arabindan-Kesson has a joint appointment in the Center for African American Studies and is a faculty fellow at Wilson College. She serves on the board of advisors for the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia and the arts space NLS Kingston in Jamaica. She has been involved in curating several exhibitions, including the 2009 traveling exhibition Embodied: Black Identities in American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery andBarkley L. Hendricks: Oh Snap! (2015) for Art Sanctuary in Philadelphia. Professor Arabindan-Kesson has published articles and reviews on contemporary African fashion and African American artists and modernism. Professor Arabindan-Kesson has also written for international art and fashion publications in Europe and Australia.
Didier William’s current exhibition, Camouflage, presents seven paintings that beguile, bewitch, and offer the viewer the opportunity to imagine the potentiality that exist in visual subterfuge. In these new works, the viewer is treated to a vibrancy that is created by the mixed surfaces and a rhythmic interplay between colors, shapes, forms, and textures that produce conceptual, visually inventive spaces to contemplate identities, cultures and the sonic process of looking.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation between William and Jerry Philogene on October 24, 2015.
Jerry Philogene: What is the meaning behind the title of the series?
Didier William: The series is entitled Camouflage. I started thinking about the things that have been on my mind recently. I started thinking about patterning and ornamentation. I started thinking about disembodying the figure and intentionally fragmenting the figure so that it is imbued and absorbed into the spaces around it, thereby complicating the relationship between space and figuration. Whenever we deal with black figures, masculinized figures, raced figure, there should be a certain amount of tension, there should be a certain amount of complicity. Black and brown bodies do not move throughout these spaces comfortably. There is a certain level of anxiety and hostility with which we have to negotiate the world around us. I always want the paintings on a material level to talk about that. I want them to reflect that. I want them to engage with that. For me that is where a lot of this complicated surface work comes from that engages carving, and painting, and drawing, and pouring, and gouging, and staining all at the same time, attempting to harmonize into a surface that intentionally does not resolve. It is that complicated visual work that I associate with that happens when we talk about this idea of camouflage, where a body intentionally fragments itself because it is otherwise at odds with its environment, but in so doing also reaffirms its omnipresence.
That is how I started thinking about this series conceptually. I also wanted to think about the kinds of expectations that we have of black and brown bodies and the kinds of projections that are placed onto those bodies as well and the kinds of emotional and cultural gymnastics that those bodies have to play in order to negotiate and navigate the world around us. I was also thinking about the Parsley Massacre in Haiti and the myth around the Parsley Massacre and how myths script and formulate so much of Caribbean identity. How myth-making and ritual become so much a part of how we see ourselves and how our history is constructed and really begin to think about how that ties into the idea of intentional fragmentation to disembody the figure to find an alternate agency.
Jerry: When did you start working on wood?
Didier: I have been working on wood panel for a while now. I have always wanted a certain amount of friction on the surface of the painting. Working on canvas, I always found it to be a bit restricting because the process wasn’t reductive enough; it was completely additive. I felt like the canvas was stingy and I wanted something back. I wanted something that would have a certain amount of tension to it. Panel came into the work maybe five, six, seven years ago. Most recently, I started to carve and dig into the wood. As it relates to the bodies themselves and the eyes, figuration started to fall off. For a number of reasons and questions of my own relatability, for things that were happening contemporarily, I felt like I was losing the black figure, that I was losing the black body. I felt like I was losing the colored body in the paintings and I wanted it back. I wanted it back to retain a certain level of agency, to retain a certain level of cognition and to alter and manipulate the ways in which one could project onto that body. To a certain extent, disembody the figure by imbuing it with a different kind of consciousness, one that returned the gaze, literally returned the gaze as well as accepted the gaze. I started carving these eyes. The first piece of work I did it on was Ezili tourjous konnen. The eyes were a bit more spaced apart and I was thinking about a robust female figure that really could contain the projection of sex and race and gender even in the sexuality of the figure and return that kind of angst and complicity with these carved eyes. I also thought of the carved eyes as a kind of trace, evidentiary material as something that I carved away, intentionally left missing for the viewer. In as much as it returns the gaze, it also beckons the viewer to perhaps think about what has been removed from this painting, what has been taken away from this painting in terms of a particular kind of cultural identity, or cultural association with this particulate body.
Jerry: When I look at your work, the intense patterning of your work, the placement of different patterns, fascinate me and I think about the sounds and the tensions that are created when different patterns meet against each other?
Didier: I think about jazz, [Haitian] compass, I think about Azonto, I think about salsa. The kinds of music that come out of cultures meeting and deciding how to harmonically or symphonically relate to each another and the kinds of music that have shaped our auditory histories. For me, that is not very dissimilar from how I think about painting. The surfaces, the colors, and the edges that get built up intentionally accelerate and abruptly stop, or colors that shouldn’t go together are intentionally put next to each other or pours that are sometimes water based and sometimes oil based intentionally don’t mixed are intentionally poured next to one another so that they fracture and fissure and dry at different rates and crackle and fragment. On a material level, as much as I am trying to think and talk about my own identity, my own sexuality, my own gender, and Haitian history, the ways in which my body and other bodies that look like me move throughout the world, I want to be careful not to just depict those things, but I want the painting as an object to be just as difficult to contend with for my viewers.
That experience is much more than just pictorial, it needs to be visceral, it needs to be tactile, and it needs to be material. I want the colors to be seductive. I want you to become seduced by the crimson red and abruptly stop when you see an abysmal black. I want you to be seduced by a nice slick glossy pour and abruptly fracture when you get to the kind of ridged dull surface of raw wood. I want you to not be able to tell the difference between a cut paper that is jet black and ink that is jet black. The same exact colors being presented by different materials in the same painting does different things visually, forces different things visually and I think as a painter that is what excites me. As a thinker and a person who moves about the world, those are the kinds of moments that have stuck with me the most.
My experience as a young Haitian boy growing up in Miami, not being able to speak English and trying to get a sense of my placement in this strange place. There is a certain sense of excitement and trauma in a demoralizing moment that happens all at once. They are not separate. All of those different things occur instantaneously, you experience them individually and together. How do you depict that in painting? I am interested in the painting becoming a tracer of that experience. If I can mimic the viscerality of that experience on a material level using the techniques and conventions of painting, that is a much more interesting territory for me to be in. The paintings have become more figurative for that specific reason. The figures in the painting are sexed either feminized or masculinized. We are in a moment where black, brown bodies are being targeted, specifically targeted, and in thinking about camouflage, how do black and brown folks move about the world and masterfully switch codes and switch costumes to negate that kind of targeting. Those two conversations are not so separate from one another and are central to how I think about this idea of camouflage as not only being a detracting maneuver to oppose an implied prey or opponent but also to find a different consciousness that is not restricted to the body; where you can find potentiality in a different kind of playing that is not limited by the skin, is not limited by the physical body.
Jerry: I want to talk a bit more about the reinsertion of the figure into your work, its performative and strategic nature and it purpose on the pictorial space.
Didier: I started to not be able to see myself in the paintings even though they were a trace of my hand. I wanted to be able to see the body more, particular given the recent (and historical) state sanctioned violence and police brutality that have been perpetuated on black and brown male and female bodies. I became very conscious of my own black body, particular the ways in which Officer [Darren] Wilson described Michael Brown’s body as that of a demon. I started to think about my own physical body and my own presence moving throughout South Miami, Baltimore or New York and how I have always been hyper aware of the agency that my body has, the limitations my body has, the privileges my body has and those relationships had more to do with the ways I thought about painting, about art, about culture then the language of abstraction could offer. That is not to say that I was no longer interested in abstraction, the paintings are still very much indebted to abstraction. However, at the same time I am interested in the potentiality for the figure to weave itself back, to reinsert itself into the space and perhaps even reclaim some of those spaces from which it has been absolved or removed.
Jerry: It seems to me what you are saying is that the figure indexes a particular type of subjectivity, a particular type of presence.
Didier: Exactly…one that is necessary. One that allows us to have a conversation about the body which I have always been interested in, even when the work was abstract I was calling it The Figurative Element. Viewing my work, we are no longer tied to simply talking about color, surface, composition, and these formal elements that left the body elsewhere. Now we can talk about a living, breathing, pulsing human being that is subject to an incredible amount of violence. On a certain level, that violence begins with the very act of looking. What happens in the projection of sexing a body, or racing a body, or gendering a body is interesting to me and ties back into the idea of camouflage. How do we engage these performances in order to manipulate some of that projection, in order to side step some of that projection, or sometimes encourage some of that projection especially, the ones we benefit from? Those two areas are related. In terms of this particular show, that is where the work is sitting.
Jerry: How are we to interrupt the carved eyes in the self-portrait, I See You, We All See You?
Didier: In I See You, We All See You the eyes came in as a gesture on my part to make infinite this idea that this is not the only body looking back at you, but all the other bodies that occupy this space are also looking back at you. It is a carved wooden panel. The eyes are adorning the entire body, almost like a cross contour, the eyes follow the figure including the eyes that are traditionally in the center of the face. The title reminds us that these eyes are not just eyes adoring this body, but these are eyes of ancestors, these are eyes of dreams, these are eyes of alternate histories, these are eyes of multiple spaces that have been occupied by this body for infinity to amplify that sense of power of the gaze and the power of Western painting that have been used to castigate and silence that figure. Part of the limitation, part of drawing, part of the graphic sensibility of the work comes from trying to pare down these terms so that the only thing my viewer has to engage with is this figure returning multiple gazes.
Jerry: When I look at They play too much until we stop playing, I can feel sounds emanating from the edges of the materials, where diverse materials meet each other to create a particular theatrical manipulation.
Didier: Yeah, the idea of sound applies most to this image. I had to negotiating the most edges with this painting and it is the one that vibrates the most and peculates the most. I do imagine a kind of pictorial matrix that hoovers above these things where the eyes, the patterning, the textures, the carving, all pulse back and forth, complicating how you are able to make sense of the space, the images in front of you. The only harmonized figure, the only whole figure in the painting is the figure that is sneaking underneath the curtain and protruding. In the larger paintings, there is always this figure that comes from underneath, this foil. I have always been interested in legs, arms, limbs and sometimes heads. Along with the carved eyes that make the shape of the limbs, there is cut paper that has been printed on with a character that I have created by combining a number of different vévé from Haitian vodou, Baron Samedi and Papa Gede, and placed on the fringed curtain.
Jerry: Why the vévé signs?
Didier: I wanted the symbolism to come back into the work. I wanted to bring three ideas: my own sense of identity as a Haitian man, the ways brown bodies are projected upon, and the kinds of anecdotal story telling that comes from my own history growing up in Miami, growing up in Baltimore that is where the title comes from, that negotiation of a search for place and space. The kind of theater of this painting was interesting for me. All this taking place on the stage the underneath of which we can barely see through all heaped on top of the stage and pouring out of this patterned skirt at the top of the painting. All coming together and butting up against one another, and in some cases harmonizing, and in other cases conflicting. Moreover, that kind of remixing is important and ties back into your idea of sounds. The best remixes are sometimes the ones where you hear both sources from the original. It’s when you can hear both the traditional indigenous sounds and symphonic digital sounds that come together to make something strange and something new, and something weird that doesn’t quite fit but is also highly seductive and you aren’t sure what you are drawn to it. This fissures and fractures, for me are highly seductive.
Jerry: Were you starting to think about the reintroduction of the figure and the manipulation of materials in Are His Life Depends on Spotted Lies and Lonbraj Wouj?
Didier: Yes, they were created in the earlier stages of this process. I don’t think at this stage I was thinking of this idea of camouflage, but I was thinking about consciousness, I was thinking about the figure, I was thinking about staining and for this Are His Life Depends on Spotted Lies I was aching to bring the figure back into the work. The staining is something that I thought about even when I was in graduate school. We think about staining a piece of furniture but also the kind of conceptual idea of staining a body with a particular type of projection or how the black body is stained. This is the first painting with eyes carving. I was in a place where I was experimenting with the head; I knew I didn’t want it to be front facing, and it wasn’t enough for it to be blank, so I started carving the eyes. As a printmaker, I think that is where a lot of the carvings comes from. Once I stated carving, I thought, “Ah, I think there is something here.” I was interested in exploring the traces of an intimate experience with material.
Jerry: Yes. There is also a certain painfulness, imagine carving into the body, carving into the skin and I think there is a certain aspect of seduction in that manipulation of the wood, a seductive beauty in the manipulative nature of this intimate experience.
Jerry: You work on multiple pieces at a time, why do you do that and how does that help your creative process?
Didier: I actually enjoy working that way. It is hard to think about things in isolation. It is hard to think about ideas or my body in isolation. So much of the conceptual project has to do with how I relate to the world around me, how I relate to history, how I related to my family. There is a kind of multiplicity that is implicit in the way I think about the work. It always felt natural to be working on multiple things at a time, usually two at a time. On a technical level my interest in painting and paintings that I am most interested in are paintings that give birth to other paintings. While working on multiple paintings, occasionally a painting will give birth to the next painting and an idea will spawn multiple ideas. That is a really interesting and exciting place for me to be. That is also when paintings start to speak back to me and things get complicated, really unexpected and weird and I love that. It keeps my creative process alive in a way that I need.
Jerry: I see the aesthetic messiness that you were wrestling with in You guys live together coming together so brilliantly in Everything is you, under the sun; can you talk a bit about the latter piece?
Didier: The question of space was important here, what to do with foreground, middle ground, and background. I wanted the figure’s shadow to be a color, so I did that in blue, dropped another shadow on the blue, and repeated the gold pattern inside the blue to make it red. I wanted the shadows to glow. I think about the shadow as erasure, as void, as alternative space that is not just the removal of light but also talks about history, identity, and fragmentation. There are several figures in the piece, which I see as a ghosts or apparitions in the painting, laying a foundational groundwork for the standing figures and then the standing figures are pushed by another figure behind into this seam or crack, which I see as a very erotic space. I wanted everything to come to the surface; I wanted all of the kind of manipulation of material to come rushing to the surface, almost like a waterfall. I wanted it to be dark and flat so I did this pour on the right hand side. In earlier works, the pour was left alone, gravity was allowed to make many of the gestural movements whereas with this one, I made the pour, left the paint thick, and then dragged it as much as I could to get the motion and heavy gravity. In the early work, gravity was implied in this one gravity is depicted.
Jerry: Can you talk a bit more about your use of patterning matrix, especially in the piece Ezili tourjous konnen?
Didier: This one was the most explicitly based in myth. I was thinking about Erzulie’s vévé adoring the top of this summer dress skirt. This is a character that I have used in my work before and I’ve turned it into this tessellated pattern. It is a character slaughtering a pig. The eyes are carved in and I wanted it to have a fractured infrastructure, so in the seams I poured gold paint. I wanted her to have tall knee length boots. I wanted femininity and seduction to play a big role here. The idea of multiplying the gaze with these carved eyes that form the cross contour around the big bulbous muscular legs. This work does the most in the patterning matrix; the pattern begins to interrupt the resolution of the figure.
Jerry: Erzulie would love this piece. She loves beauty. She loves anything that honors her. She also loves to be looked at; she loves to be gazed at. She especially loves to be surrounded by gold. If we were to talk about desire and love and beauty, a queer sexuality, a queer love, a queer desire why can’t we talk about Erzulie? Why can’t we go to this Haitian lwa to understand how black love operates?
Didier: Yes. Has this conversation about queerness always been omnipresent in the way we think about the Caribbean and Caribbean identity? Caribbean folk have been talking about and visualizing this for centuries.
Jerry: This is such a wonderfully stimulating and rich collection of work. What makes this work, this show different from the others for you?
Didier: This is a very personal show. It is closest to my heart. Because of the emotional moment, I was in when I made many of these paintings, because of the things that I was thinking about. For the first time I felt like work directly related to me as a person not just me as a painter. Not that those two things have be separate, but initially I was separating them. This is the first show where I am talking about sex, gender, race and sexuality. In previous shows, I was loosely alluding to those things but primarily talking about abstract painting. This show is about claiming a space rather than asking for permission. The previous work was asking for permission to insert a conversation about the figure and a conversation about abstraction. This work insist that those two things are not separate in ways in which Helen Frankenthaler talked about her body; in the ways that Sam Gilliam talks about his body while negotiating and manipulating the language of abstraction, in the ways that Bob Thompson talks about abstraction. Earlier on, I was separating those two ideas in my mind and in this new dialogue with the work and coupled with the contemporary moment where I feel like my body is forcibly reinscribed back into the paintings; it just had to claim that space. I had to assert that space much more forcibly.
Jerry Philogene is associate professor of American studies at Dickinson College, Her research specializes in 20th century African American and Afro Caribbean visual arts and cultural history. Her teaching interests include interdisciplinary American cultural history and black cultural and identity politics. Her research interests explore the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender as articulated in contemporary visual and popular culture.
 Saidiya V Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 18.
 Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 36.