Basel — Peace Treaty blues (On Haitian Artist Tessa Mars)

A report by Rachel Spence for The Financial Times. Here’s an expert. To read the full report click here.

The Swiss city of Basel is not the most obvious location for a project devoted to art from the Caribbean. Yet it has become home to The Caribbean Art Initiative, which aims to “foster cultural dialogue within, beyond and about the Caribbean region”. In part, Basel has become the initiative’s headquarters because it is also the home of Albertine Kopp, its founder. Kopp previously ran the Davidoff Art Initiative, which had long focused on supporting culture in the Caribbean, especially the Dominican Republic.  When the Davidoff programme closed down in 2018, Kopp felt it would be a shame to waste the knowledge and networks she had built up over the years. Although fundraising is still a big challenge for the future, Kopp and her fellow board members — who include Pablo León de la Barra and András Szánto — have secured the support of the Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger (KBH.G), a new art space in the city, for their inaugural exhibition.

Entitled One Month After Being Known in That Island, the show underscores that the links between Basel and the Caribbean go much deeper than many of us realise. Nelson Fory Ferreira’s ‘El vestier’ (2011) Bringing together 11 practitioners from across the Caribbean region, the title is lifted from the Treaty of Basel, which was negotiated in the city in 1795. The accord saw representatives from Prussia, Spain and the nascent French Republic thrash out a peace deal that carved up various Caribbean colonies including Hispaniola, the island in the Greater Antilles which is now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Once colonised by both France and Spain, Hispaniola was, according to the treaty, to become entirely French as the Spanish had relinquished the eastern two-thirds of the island. “I hadn’t heard of the treaty before!”, exclaims Haitian artist Tessa Mars. One of the artists included in the Basel show, Mars is talking to me from Amsterdam, where she is on a residency at the Rijksakademie.

She is a delight to interview, even on Skype, thanks to her effervescent yet gentle personality. Her former lack of awareness of the treaty is hardly surprising. As those distant European leaders attempted at the end of the 18th century to decide the fate of places they neither cared for nor understood, Haiti’s people were making their own history. On January 1 1804, despite the challenges of slavery, civil war and an epidemic of yellow fever, slave-turned-revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti the world’s first free black — led republic and first independent Caribbean state.  Installation view from ‘One month after being known in that island’, 2020, with artwork by Elisa Bergel Melo That is the narrative with which Mars and her fellow Haitians are familiar. “No matter your level of education and schooling, you get this [history] via your parents,” she tells me. “[Independence] is a fact that cannot be taken away. This happened. You are a being of value.”  Indeed, in the informative catalogue, the curators of the Basel exhibition, Yina Jiménez Suriel and Pablo Guardiola, describe the Basel peace accord as an exercise in “historical futility”. Yet its very hollowness offers fruitful ground for artists accustomed to questioning notions of colonial power. 

For Mars, it was a valuable chance to explore territory she was already navigating. Born in 1985, the daughter of acclaimed novelist Kettly Mars, she studied at the University of Rennes in France before returning to Port-au-Prince. There she also worked as a project co-ordinator at Fondation AfricAmérica, which supports contemporary Haitian artists. Working primarily as a painter, her canvases use a bold yet balanced figurative vocabulary to explore notions of collective and individual identity, often touching on what it means to be a black woman both in Haiti and the wider world.  ‘A Vision of Peace, Harmony, and Good Intelligence II’ (2020) by Tessa Mars © Courtesy of the artist and Caribbean Art Initiative Currently absorbed in texts by contemporary Haitian historian Jean Casimir, Mars says that these days she is asking herself what “it means to live a life of plenitude”. In particular, her focus is on those who are “trying to live in a community and remain in line with [their] heritage and culture . . . who live in rural societies, value their relationship with nature” and prize the “transmission of knowledge from one generation to another”.  Although such communities are ostensibly detached from central systems of power, Mars observes that their residents still find “ways of fighting for [their] rights without taking weapons — [ways] of resisting in daily life.” To illustrate this concept of quiet yet committed protest, she has created a new painting for Basel.

Continue reading here.

’One Month After Being Known in That Island’, to November 15, Kulturstiftung Basel H.Geiger, caribbean.art

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