Artists explore home and identity in swarm of ideals

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A report by Bobbi Booker for The Philadelphia Tribune.

Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

The question of identity is one that has become a hot topic of debate in the United States. The members of two Caribbean island nations — Cuban and Haiti — have long tackled the question of home and identity.

Artists Didier William (see work above) and Nestor Armando Gil have used their creative talents to address identity as part of their diaspora experiences.

William, born in Haiti, is a painter and printmaker whose work critiques the historical narratives of colonialism through strategies of mythmaking.

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Gil (work above) was born to Cuban immigrants in Florida and currently resides in the United States. His work examines movement, memory and loss within diasporic communities in sculpture and performance.

Together, they have created “Swarm.” — an exhibition that examines the constructed and imaginary histories of immigration running at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts through Sept. 9.

Drawing on their respective Haitian and Cuban heritages, William and Gil use mixed media to physically and intellectually “swarm” ideas of colonialism, creating bodies of work that imagine and critique histories of immigration, dislocation and relocation.

“As much as we can get [our art] to communicate, we try to,” said William as he recalled the site of their first exhibition. “[In] Miami, the Cuban-Haitian population there has always kind of wrestled with one another in vying for cultural and sociopolitical agency in South Florida. We didn’t necessarily see that point of reference coming, but we were encouraged by it.

“And, we didn’t see the show as any kind of prescription or resolution as much as us sort of putting out these objects and images for consideration and meditation above all else and try to provoke interesting questions about what it means to reshape one’s identify when home is constructed as elsewhere,” he added. “What does that do to the body, to objects, rituals or our relationships to one another, and how does all of that manifest physically?”

William’s work critiques the historical narratives of colonialism through strategies of mythmaking.

“One of my goals is to try to destabilize this idea that there is some sort of authentic origin that we can then locate, essentialize and use as a way to read bodies or spaces,” said William, chair of PAFA’s MFA program

“I am really interested in antagonizing that as much as possible because that particular gaze, history has taught us, will oftentimes cost us our lives,” he said. “If instead, we try to insist on the kind of omnipresence with each other and with the bodies that we attempt to consume, what does it look like when we offer each other that right of opacity? I have always been interested in that.”

“Here recently, it seems that a lot of strange myths have come back up and into the consciousness and it seems less safe again rather than a slow process towards more safe. It does seem that right now is a particularly provocative time,” said Gil, an assistant professor of sculpture and media at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

“I think it is true of Didier’s work as well, [our] work has always been concerned about this. It is a body of ideas with which I am always concerned. It is very interesting that is the very present conversation in the community right now, this question of immigration and what does it mean to be an American. That is, right now, what the whole country is talking about and it is not an easy conversation, even yet,” he said.

Gil explains that his live performances often explore his youth as a Latino in the Deep South in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“I try to make sure that my work is always functioning on like two basic levels. One of them, a deeply personal level, and I also want my work to function on a level that’s historical and social,” Gil said.

“So, the materials being poured into my mouth are sugar, coffee, tobacco and sand. They are specific items: it’s cane sugar and tobacco from Cuban seeds grown in the United States, like me. The coffee is Café Bustelo, which is the brand that was always consumed in the house when I was growing up and sand from the beaches where I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla.,” he said.

“Those four materials have a lot to do with the mythology of identity that was being fed or poured into me by my elders all of my young life when I was being told that home was somewhere else, and that where I was wasn’t home even though this is where I was born,” Gil added.

“SWARM.” is organized into five thematic sections that explore such topics as revolution, spirituality and cultural identity in more than 30 works in various media.

“Building Community in Diaspora” is the theme of an artist talk featuring artists William and Gil as well as curators. It is scheduled for 2 p.m. Aug. 4 at 118 N. Broad St. For more information, call (215) 972-7600 or visit

See also:

Exhibition: ‘SWARM’
Artists: Didier William and Nestor Armando Gil
Curators: Laurel McLaughlin and Mechella Yezernitskaya
Location: Historic Landmark Building, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), 118-128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102
Date: June 30, 2018 – September 9, 2018 (teaser)

Additional links:
Art of the Caribbean diaspora comes together at PAFA, BBC
Haitian and Cuban artists share America’s immigrant story with new exhibition, Haitian Times
SWARM: A suffocating history at PAFA, The Artblog

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