Art History and Fine Arts

Fine Arts Gallery Hosts Élodie Barthelémy for Black History Month

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Throughout February, the AUP Fine Arts Gallery, located in the lobby of the Combes Student Life Center, is hosting Élodie Barthelémy, a French-Haitian visual and performance artist whose work explores intersections of identity and history. The exhibition pieces, which span the entire of Barthelémy’s work from across the last two decades, were selected in honor of Black History Month. This semester, she is also teaching an art class on water-based media at AUP. 

The first part of the exhibition explores the ways in which France’s involvement in the slave trade is remembered in the country; Barthelémy combines the established aesthetic codes of the fine arts academy with the cruel and uncomfortable history of her chosen subject matter. “When you first look at the painting you may be charmed or interested,” she explains. “But as you read the text and look closer at the subjects, something shocks you and causes your emotion to grow.” The wording used in her artworks is that of historical slave advertisements – stark and straightforward in their language in a way that shocks the modern observer – which were posted on the walls of Saint-Domingue in the 1700s. “It’s so condensed that the cruelty of slavery is presented completely sans détour,” she explains. 

For Barthelémy, there is a tendency in France to believe that the atrocities of the slave trade were committed away from French soil, in the Caribbean. “My work is to place this reality in France,” she explains – something she achieves through her choice of subjects, such as the port of Nantes, which was a principal French slave-trading hub, and the Marquise de Vaudreuil. By bringing France’s involvement in the slave trade to the fore, she aims to reduce the distance between France, its history and the crimes committed in Saint-Domingue and beyond. 

Barthelémy’s exhibition takes place in Black History Month. She believes art is a useful way to connect people with Black history through images, engaging directly with observers’ emotional responses. “You can use every possible way to explain the reality of slavery,” she says. “But art works so well partly because there are not a lot of images available of the reality of the period. We therefore need to create our own images to fill in that space.” She worked with historians in France and Haiti to ensure her work engaged with the historical record in a way that is meaningful and eye-opening. She also works with other creatives and academics as part of a collective of Haitian artists. “I don’t view myself as an individual artist at all,” she explains. “I am part of a community of which art is the DNA.”  

The second part of the exhibition explores Elodie’s Haitian roots; her mother was a well-known storyteller of Haitian oral tradition, and Barthelémy spent time with her in Haiti witnessing her work. Further acrylic paintings depict the Haitian countryside, including the houselike tombs that adorn the landscape. In the lobby of the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons, a sculpture installation explores the syncretism of Haitian Voodoo traditions and Catholicism. Syncretism means the blurring or amalgamating of disparate religious traditions into one. In the piece, Barthelemy evokes the black bowler hats of the Guedés, Voodoo spirits who act as intermediaries between humans and the world of death. “These ceremonies are full of life,” she explains. “The spirits love to eat and joke around. It’s an important time to be together and cry – but also to laugh.” 

Bathelémy’s father was a French anthropologist dealing with Haitian history, and the final piece in the exhibition explores the workings of his mind, bringing an additional personal touch to the collection. Her work is available to view in the Fine Arts Gallery until the end of February.