The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
What does it mean to invent a space to be “in”? That question lies at the core of Vladimir Cybil’s work, which charts the intersection of Haitian, American, and diasporic cultures and identities. Her drawings, paintings and installations are realistic, fantastic, humorous, and expressive. Juxtaposing culturally specific objects and materials, Cybil creates a “visual bilingualism” that draws on the duality of her own experience as a child in Haiti and an adult in the U.S.
Cybil’s work explores historical legacies and mythological tales, and it is in this storytelling that she imbues her work with history, celebration and the pain of the Haitian people. Fragments of silenced or forgotten stories are made visible here in “contact zones” where multiple cultural forces meet; they live a battle-scarred existence yet continue to flourish. These haunting images compel us to investigate the ways in which artistic productions explore the conditions of displacement and, with memory, provide motifs for the discourse on Caribbean American identities—identities that incessantly remember “home” while negotiating the fragility of their new forms.
Jerry Philogene Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up; where did you go to school?
Vladimir Cybil I was born in Elmhurst, Queens, in 1967, and I grew up going back and forth between Haiti and New York; I went to school in Haiti and spent the summer months in New York with my parents. They couldn’t go back to Haiti; neither of their families supported the regime, so they were exiled from the country.
JP The Duvalier regime?
VC The Duvalier regime, yes. My mother lost her brother—he disappeared. He was in his early twenties, and from what I have gathered he was doing underground work to topple the Duvaliers. My father’s brother was in prison because he was doing a lot of progressive work in rural communities—that was seen as communist and subversive. My paternal grandfather had also been in prison repeatedly. He was a historian, one of the founders of the Haitian socialist party. He had written a Haitian history from the point of view of the maroons, the runaway slaves. Of course all that did not play well with the government. I stayed in Haiti and completed high school there, then came back here for college in 1986.
JP Why did your parents send you back to Haiti, when you were born here?
VC There are several reasons: first, my uncle disappeared when I was vacationing there, and I had to go into hiding with my grandmother, because once they take a family member the government often comes back to get the rest of the family—children included. So the initial stay was unplanned. We hid at the house of my aunt, Marie Chauvet, for six months or so.
JP Oh, the writer.
VC Yes. She was very brave. And the second reason is that my father in particular really wanted me to not be a first-generation American who’s caught between cultures and doesn’t have a sense of her identity. That, plus the fact that my parents, like that whole generation of ’60s political exiles, always thought of their stay in the US as temporary. They never realized that they were in the States for the long haul. So they figured that their kid would get a start in Haiti, get the language, start school and at some point—in a few months—they would follow. Lo and behold, they’ve been here for 40 years. It is also possible to think about my stay in Haiti as my parents trying to effect a reverse migration, trying to reverse historical and political forces.
JP So when did you come to the States?
VC I came back to live permanently in ’86. I was 18.
JP Did you go to school here?
VC I went to Queens College for my bachelor’s, and then I went to the School of Visual Arts for my master’s in fine arts. At Queens College I worked with some second-generation Abstract Expressionists and developed a preoccupation with oil paint. That was my introduction to the whole modernist tradition. I then worked with Cynthia Carlson and Jenny Schneider and started exploring subject matter and theorizing my work. Maureen O’Connor had just joined the staff; there was a really strong group of women there. My first year of grad school went fairly well, especially the first semester. I was still painting in oil; but then I started realizing that I was allergic—very allergic—to oil paint and turpentine and had to stop using it, cold turkey. I was a painter’s painter, so I had to really rethink the parameters of my work.
JP What was that like for you?
VC Looking back, I probably should have taken some time off. I just worked through it and started experimenting with materials. But whether I am working on an installation or wall piece I still think as an oil painter, in the sense that I am process oriented.
JP You rethought your medium but still maintained the painterly fashion of working.
VC Yeah, and acrylic didn’t do it for me. Now I use acrylic, but it took what, ten years. Acrylic is a very plastic medium and that is the quality I seek in it now. I could not do with acrylic what I was doing in oil. I was working with glazes and I just couldn’t translate it at all. I had to go with the content instead.
JP What about watercolors?
VC I never tried that. That was not something I thought of.
JP Too thin?
VC I guess I didn’t have any interest in the medium. Although I love working with paper; I’ve always made books. And I now use a lot of paper in my work, whether in two dimensions or three.
JP What does paper allow you to do that painting on canvas or board does not?
VC There is less of a history attached to paper in the west outside of books and scrolls. It is much more experimental. I love the lightness, ephemerality, and poetry of paper. I have also always worked on my paintings on the floor, and paper falls right in that tradition. There is also such a tradition of work on canvas or Masonite in Haitian art; just placing those images on paper transforms them, one could say subverts them, instantly.
JP Did you know that you wanted to be an artist when you were a teen, or is it something that gradually happened for you?
VC I knew from way before.
JP When was that moment?
VC There was no moment; it was just always there, I guess. My parents always thought I was artistic. So they provided me with arts and crafts materials. I could occupy myself for hours with beads, paint, and so on. Interestingly I introduced beads back into my work, 30 years later.
JP What are some of the themes that drive your work?
VC Well, for the past few years, one of the common threads between the different series I’ve worked on has been the synthesizing of different culture-specific imagery. I am in the process of rethinking traditional Haitian imagery within an American context.
JP In the Haiti Meets Harlem series, for instance, you intertwine various icons of African American and Haitian culture and history.
VC Yes, in that series I juxtaposed vignettes of Haitian history with fire escape motifs. Haiti Meets Harlem began—a bit obviously—when I was doing a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1997. The idea for the Pantheon series also emerged during my residency. As parts of an installation, I created an Erzulie—goddess of love—with the features of Billie Holiday and an Ogoun—god of war—with the face of Malcolm X. I have expanded the pantheon since. I guess you could see these series as parallel concurrent narratives. Now I am working on jungle scenes with animals taken from my subscription of Time/Life magazines as a kid. Cartoon characters inserted in the jungle scene. You could call them Haitian-American jungle scenes.
JP Do the culturally specific materials in your work indicate a negotiation of the in-between space?
VC Or the invention of a new space altogether. Basically, there isn’t necessarily a discourse that fits my work perfectly, because it exists between discourses, or it fits different—sometimes contradictory—discourses at the same time. You invent a discourse that allows people to discuss your work, a space for the work to be in.
JP What does that space look like? Is it a space that challenges notions of fixed identities and fixed cultures and ways to express that culture?
VC Well, there is no fixed identity nowadays, with the Internet, TV, and mass media. There is the pervasive influence of American culture abroad. For those who do not have access to the media in so-called third-world countries—which is the majority of the population in Haiti—that influence arrives in the form of goods, from sneakers to toothpaste to T-shirts with logos. In a Haitian market stall now, the goods are similar to what one would find at Wal-Mart.
JP An artist and a mutual friend of ours, Rejin Leys, once mentioned to me that her work is engaged in what she calls “visual bilingualism”: a visual language that reflects her dual notions of identity, her Haitian-ness and her American-ness. It seems to me that you do something similar, this kind of inventing space that you’re talking about, because it creates a different language. A language that may not be English, Creole, or French but that encompasses all three. Do you see that kind of visual bilingualism working for you?
VC Yeah, very much so. And it’s not a constructed reality, in the sense that you don’t necessarily do it purposely—at least at first. It’s a space that exists in itself without necessarily forced references to the two distinct realities. Very much like someone who’s really bilingual who can slip in and out of two languages within the same sentence—which I do if I’m with people who speak the different languages. I guess it’s the phenomenon of Spanglish.
JP Right. How would you call that? Crenglish? (laughter) I know sometimes when you and I have a conversation, we sometimes start a sentence in one language and finish it up in another, and we understand each other very well.
JP So is the fluidity in our language patterns—
VC It’s a visual fluidity, in a way. And it’s also a way to examine that reality. Which, by the way, is not very unusual—or original. Many people have or had to renegotiate and reinvent their culture because of migration—or immigration. That is the history of America.
JP How or where, with all of this, do you see your home? Your physical home may be one space, but where’s your cultural home?
VC There’s not one cultural home; there are several. The no-man’s-land of Queens is home, in a way. As much as I don’t like many parts of it, or many things about it, there’s a certain familiarity that the space brings to you, with everything that you like and dislike about it. Haiti is the same exactly; when I go there, it’s definitely home—there are many things that I like and dislike about it at the same time. It may not be by accident that I live outside of the two places that have nurtured me.
JP What do you like about Haiti, and what do you dislike?
VC I love the vibrancy of the culture. I dislike the political culture and the way we have been digging ourselves into a hole for 200 years.
JP When was the last time you were in Haiti?
VC About four or five years ago. I go back to see family and friends and/or work. I shoot a lot of pictures in the countryside when I go.
JP Have you ever had an exhibition there?
VC Yes, I had a one-person show a few years back. I exhibited some two-dimensional work, mostly mixed-media paintings and Xerox transfers. The paintings were mostly part of the Haiti Meets Harlem series. It was pretty well received. And from that came other opportunities, other exhibitions. I was invited by Reynald and Christiane Lally to have a one-person show there.
JP Didn’t you also have a show in Santo Domingo?
VC Well, in November of last year, I went to the Biennial del Caribe in Santo Domingo, and I did an installation there. It was basically a large black-and-white drawing—think of a jungle scene with some Pop elements—hundreds of crayons placed as votive candles in front of it. That went pretty well; I won a prize, which was a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art. And I have work traveling in two other biennials in South America, in Ecuador, and in Panama right now. They’re doing some very, very dynamic things down there; a lot of interesting conversations and dialogues are happening.
JP That’s great. I know that in Trinidad, there’s the Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA), and they have a wonderful artists in residence series, and they do some fantastic programs, inviting artists from all over the Caribbean and its diasporas to work in their space. But let’s get back to your work. Tell me a bit about its development: what you conceived of when you first started painting, and the changes that you went through that led to pieces that we have now.
VC Whew, that’s a big question. Well, very early on I started becoming very interested in some culture-specific images, like vèvès, which are ritual diagrams that evoke and welcome the lwa. I started developing a body of work around that imagery.
JP Did those images attract you for reasons other than the fact that they were culturally specific?
VC On one level I am very interested in drawing, and these are obviously very graphic images. On another level I think that there are cultural markers in every culture. The average person will associate these possibly primitive/self-taught paintings with Haiti. So that is what I work with. These are our parameters, so to speak. I combined vèvè images with some graffiti that I had photographed all over Lefrak City, which is where I lived in Queens. I had photographed a lot of walls and stuff—just in the yard; it’s a huge complex.
JP So you were combining images that were Haitian inspired, and graffiti, more of an urban environment influence, into your paintings. Was that to express the duality of your cultural living space?
VC Yeah. It’s easy in retrospect to see the links; even back then I was juxtaposing different narratives in my work.
JP What is it about installations that you love?
VC I love the scale and negotiating a space in the present. In 1993 I rented a space in DUMBO, and I stayed there until this past spring—about ten years. That’s where I started narrowing my materials, which came to be a lot of paper, a lot of cement and plastic, and at a certain moment I was able to reintroduce acrylic paint into the work.
JP And is that when you started using beads?
VC Yes. One day I started doing ink drawings straight on canvas, instead of using paper. That series ended up getting somewhat painted and beaded; that was the Thezain series, the first series where I started going back to painting. I went to Skowhegan in 1993. Kiki Smith, who was one of the guest artists, was the one who introduced me to rice paper. She came over to my studio and we had a great conversation. I was doing prints with very heavy Arches paper, and she told me, “You have to come to my studio, I really would like you to try some rice paper.” I did and she gave me a number of sheets to try out. And I’m still using rice paper in my work.
JP What’s the Thezain series about, and what are you trying to get at with it?
VC Well, Thezain is a common folk tale in Haiti. It is a universal story of a girl who falls in love with a boy. The boy happens to be a fish, and the dad ends up killing him, and the girl basically buries herself alive and joins her beloved in a different world. I drew these images with ink straight on canvas. These canvases were not stretched but were hanging on an elaborate frame very much like a banner. The designs of the frames were inspired by fire escapes I had photographed in Harlem. The ironwork, which is incredible, is all over Harlem. So this was the first series where I was literally taking imagery from Haiti and surrounding it with patterns from this country.
JP The banners are beautiful. The frames remind me not so much of the fire escapes but actually vèvè imagery. You have this culturally specific folk tale, and surrounding it are these drawings evoking vèvès, as well as the fire escapes that you’re talking about.
VC The question is whether those two narratives complement or undermine each other. Do they form a totality or do they keep questioning or challenging their individual reality? By the way, a curator told me that a lot of the iron workers were slaves.
JP Freed slaves?
VC Well, some of them were enslaved then, or had just been freed, in the 19th-century. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the tradition had come down this way.
JP Not at all. Who knows if those slaves or freed slaves had at one time been in Haiti, or other areas where those drawings and those images are celebrated and used as well? Now, in the Thezain series, you have these banner-like pieces, and within some of the pieces you have the image of a young lady’s dress. So you have the image of a dress of a little girl, you have tears, and those are made out of plastic, and also beaded. Why the beading in those particular areas?
VC Well, in Haiti, one of the most beautiful crafts is the beaded banners. They are incredible pieces, and at this point, they are completely a tourist craft.
JP Absolutely. They’re commercial, but at one time the beads were not only used for aesthetic reasons, but also as reflectors to attract the lwa, similar to the ways in which the imagery would welcome the temples’ ceremonies.
VC And some people—like Myrlande Constant—are now using that medium as paint. Her pieces are very thickly beaded—I mean layers upon layers of beads. She depicts mostly secular scenes that have nothing whatsoever to do with religious rituals. For me, this is one of those culture-specific references. Lately I’ve also been beading paper. Two years ago, I did an installation in Miami, with rice paper that was beaded. And I’ve been beading paper ever since. I actually have been working on some very large pieces that combine paper, ink, acrylic and beads.
JP Doesn’t the beading damage the paper?
VC Well, you ask me for secrets … (laughter) There are ways to do it. You have to reinforce the paper.
JP My next question is sparked by the recent events in Haiti: Do you see your work dealing with the complex history of Haiti, what our history is like in terms of the numerous coup d’Ètats, the occupations—and even recently, early this year, another coup d’Ètat, another occupation. And people trying to survive after the devastation of Jeanne. Does that history influence your work?
VC It is not possible to work outside of one’s own history. Now, whether these are direct concerns in my work is another story.
JP So the violence that is associated with Haiti’s history affects you in your work?
VC Well, it affects everyone in the society, yes. I don’t constantly address that in my work, but my history was very much shaped by Haiti’s political situation; I would say that I tend to approach political issues from a personal point of view. Actually I am more concerned by what is happening in the political/social arena in the States now. I am quite worried.
JP You recently had a baby, so I’m sure that’s something you think about in terms of her future—particularly having been affected by the situation in Haiti. What are you working on now?
VC The baby. (laughter) I’m basically spending time with her. She’s just a few weeks old. So I am not working this minute; I’ve been reorganizing my studio, in order to start working again.
JP Are there some ideas floating around in your mind?
VC I always have ideas; I’m always ten steps ahead of myself. I have two series going on, and I’m very interested in what I was working on before I had the baby. I’m dying to go back to that. I really want to continue and finish the Pantheon series. I have all those big paper pieces I’ve been working with that involve patterns and tropical imagery, like palm trees and fruit sellers on donkeys. And I’m really interested in mandalas, particularly the ones that are drawn in the sand as a form of meditation. They are very geometric. And then I have a whole series I’m working on that is a rethinking of Machann, a street peddler kind of Miss Chiquita. I’m looking forward to going back to those pieces.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Vargas-Suarez Universal and Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Vladimir Cybil and Jerry Philogene, Carlos Eire and Silvana Paternostro, David Scott and Stuart Hall, Evelyne Trouillot, Sibylle Fisher, Carlos B. Cordova and Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Damas “Fanfan” Louis and Michael Zwack, and Peniel Guerrier and Yvonne Daniel.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.