TINA GIROUARD (1946–2020): Artist who Collaborated with Haitian Flagmakers

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A report by  Jessamyn Fiore for Artforum.

TINA GIROUARD inspires. I do not mean inspiration as a kind of soft note in one’s own monologue of self-discovery but rather as a call to action. Tina inspires because she calls one to the challenge of living fully. With Tina, creative energy poured into every act of being human, of being alive, of being—cooking, eating, dancing, talking, making, laughing, crying, loving.

FOOD

Tina fed people. I remember being around ten years old and watching Tina make a big pot of gumbo in our loft on Twentieth Street. The ritual of cooking, in Tina’s hands, was a kind of mystical experience, one that in being slow and deliberate offered time for our conversations and her stories—about people and art I had never dreamed of, my imagination boiling over with the possibility of life becoming this full, vivid adventure. I remember the chicken feet sticking out of the pot—they were for enhancing the flavor, she told me. It seemed at once so elemental and exotic, like a magic potion brewing.

The scent would get caught in the wind and draw people to her. They would all just show up and begin swirling around her pot, as if she had summoned them there. There was always a party when Tina came through town, with music playing, friends dancing. The gumbo was the center point, filling bowls, then stomachs.

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What I witnessed was a ritual that began well before I was born. In 1969, Tina moved from Louisiana to New York City and into a building in Chinatown’s Chatham Square with Richard Landry and Mary Heilmann, where the Philip Glass Ensemble would regularly rehearse and performers passing through the city would crash. Fairly quickly, her kitchen became the epicenter of a budding art scene. Her meals drew people in, binding together artists as community, giving them a structure around which they could socialize and collaborate.

In 1971, together with Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina opened the restaurant FOOD, which was a kind of sister space to 112 Greene Street. FOOD gave jobs to those who needed them, fed the neighborhood, and hosted food art performances. It has been a source of creative inspiration for generations since. In Matta-Clark’s film about the restaurant from 1972, it’s clear that Tina was at the heart of FOOD, just as she was at 112 Greene Street and the Anarchitecture group.

Polaroid of Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard, and Suzanne Harris, c. 1975.Polaroid of Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard, and Suzanne Harris, c. 1975.

We cooked—it’s part of our nature. I’m a rice farmer’s daughter and that was one reason we moved to Chinatown. Rice and gravy, and the price was right as well! There were always people there. It was like some cosmic thing. I’d be cooking and as I was making certain dishes, I would think, “I bet so and so is going to show up…” Back then you didn’t know—you just rang the bell, you would just yell in the street. —Tina Girouard

HOUSES

I do not make a distinction between art on a wall and a performance.

When I was invited in 2010 to curate an exhibition and edit a book about 112 Greene Street at David Zwirner, the first interview I wanted to conduct was with Tina. Having grown up hearing so many stories about downtown New York in the early ’70s, I dreamed of putting together a narrative oral history for the book that captured the voices of the artists involved. My mother and I flew down to Louisiana to visit Tina at her home in Cecilia, where we spent hours talking and looking through her archive.

Tina’s artworks and performances embraced art and life as one, always inviting others to join in, as participation made the work—the work was life lived. She began by making a series of “houses” in 1971. Hung House was the first, made in the Chatham Square building. She collected all the stuff around the apartment left by guests from rehearsals and parties, and pulled it together into a house, composed of two floors (the second was a platform suspended from the ceiling). The second work, Live House, was a kind of extension of Hung House, done at 112 Greene Street. She asked others to join her in using materials that evoke domestic space and ritual to create rooms. Goodden made “the back porch” in the basement by stringing up a hammock and putting live crickets between two screens in the window, so you could listen to the chirping while lying down. The third iteration was Swept House. Made under the Brooklyn Bridge as part of The Brooklyn Bridge Event, curated by Alanna Heiss, the work involved sweeping architectural outlines in the dirt and using on-site garbage—a thrown-away stove anchored the kitchen, for example.

Still image of Tina Girouard from Food by Gordon Matta-Clark, 1972, 16 mm film transferred to HD video, black and white, sound, 43 minutes.Still image of Tina Girouard from Food by Gordon Matta-Clark, 1972, 16 mm film transferred to HD video, black and white, sound, 43 minutes.

During our 2010 conversation—parts of which were published in the resulting book—Tina described how the local street kids ended up becoming her performers:

TG: I’m from Louisiana so take me to the water, you know? We were right there in Chinatown and found out very quickly about the fish market and the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. We’d go picnic there, we’d go hang out there . . . It was a beautiful place to be, so yeah, all I needed was a broom.

JF: So you swept?

TG: You know when you’re kids? We all made houses by just piling up sticks. Or maybe that’s just me, maybe everybody didn’t but I sure did. To do these outlines as a kid I remember if I made a room and somebody went to step over this line of dust you were like, “No, no, no!”

The kids in the hood, they were attracted to me and they started bringing me food. They thought I was a bum or street person and so they started helping me cause all the other guys had hammers and they were making noise and there I was sweeping.  

So when the event happened the kids were my performers . . . The kids helped me and they would not have come to see thisto experience thisif they hadn’t recognized me as someone like themselves, you know?

All of her later works in New York grew out of this series—artworks that were continually transformed by participants and visitors. Tina’s houses transcend traditional architecture—they weren’t constructed with walls and doors and windows, but rather they were defined and activated by the people who occupied them, the rituals and stuff of living together.

House is a performance. House is communal consensus in space that “this is a house.”

LANGUAGE

David Bradshaw and Tina Girouard in Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, c. 1995. Photo: Robert Fiore.David Bradshaw and Tina Girouard in Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, c. 1995. Photo: Robert Fiore.

After the 112 Greene Street exhibition opened in 2011, Tina gifted me a pencil-on-paper drawing with a series of nine symbols arranged in three rows of three, which she made in 1979, one year after moving back to Louisiana from New York. She told me she wanted to create a universal language that everyone could understand. Some of the symbols are figurative, while others are slightly more abstract but still relatable—geometric lines and shapes, abstract assemblies that evoke limbs, water, or wind. The inclusivity of her work in the New York years—the constant bringing together of people as a means of universal communication—would later be expressed in this hieroglyphic system, which she would layer in both physical artworks and in performance.

Dazzling. It is a word that must be used to describe the large sequin flags Tina made in collaboration with a community of Haitian artists in the 1990s, when she set up a studio in Port-au-Prince. Visually dense yet shining bright, these works layer coded language with imagery of flora and fauna, Vodou and Christian religious iconography, playing cards, instruments, guns, the four elements, patterns, explosive colors, and more. The sequins and beads glisten, busy and swirling like the rush of great conversation, explosive laughter, stamping feet to drumbeats. Tina’s connection to Haiti began in Lafayette, Louisiana, where she was a founding codirector of the Festival International de Louisiane, in 1987. Artists were invited from Haiti to participate, and she began visiting Haiti herself. On one trip to the capital, she met a kindred spirit, Antoine Oleyant, and they began collaborating on “Under A Spell,” a project that eventually resulted in a substantial exhibition of the same name that opened at the CAC New Orleans in 1993 and traveled widely. Oleyant died suddenly in 1992. In the aftermath of this loss, Tina embraced his community and they embraced her. She lived and worked in Port-au-Prince for long stretches of time, collaborating on works with accomplished sequin artists such as George Valris and Edgar Jean-Louis, and even published a definitive book on the subject, Sequin Artists of Haiti (1994).

When I was fifteen years old, my mother and I visited Tina in Port-au-Prince, a trip that completely blew my young mind. Tina moved seamlessly through the city, where we were welcomed warmly and introduced to a great many artists and thinkers, too. Jean-Louis, a Vodou houngan, took us on a tour of the city cemetery, showing us the brightly painted tombs, teaching us Haitian history, pointing out the places of white and black magic rituals. At the Hotel Oloffson, I remember vividly lying on a bed outside on the balcony, listening to the city noise bubble up beyond the garden wall. A Rara band would march past in the night, the music fading up, then down into the din of life surrounding us.

I will never be able to divorce the presence and energy of Tina from this experience of life as astonishment. She opened up the world to me. She stirred the pot to feed us, danced the rhythm to move us, built the house so we all could be together, and generated the language so we could all join in the great conversation.

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