Gérald Alexis reviews Tessa Mars

Gérald Alexis (Aica Caraïbe du Sud) discusses the work of Haitian-born artist Tessa Mars underlining what makes the artist so unique. Here are excerpts translated from the original article.

Before Tessa Mars (1985 -), very rarely had we seen self-portraits of women in Haiti. Even rarer was the use of their naked bodies. We have certainly seen the Maillol series by Rose Marie Desruisseau [for all related footnotes, see original article at Aica Caraïbe du Sud] that her friends considered to be self-portraits in which she replaced the body of the model Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) with her own. What then makes Tessa Mars’ images so unique?

First of all, there is the style. On the one hand, we note her appropriation of images, a sort of Haitian icon, which links her to Pop art. On the other hand, there is also her use of flat areas that remind us of the painting of our so-called “primitive” artists, which sometimes give the impression of juxtaposition of fragments drawn from various sources. She also practices collage. But make no mistake: the simplicity of Tessa Mars’ images in form, obviously, does not imply a simplicity of their interpretation. Indeed, when one becomes involved with the content of her paintings, one very quickly discovers that Tessa Mars goes beyond bringing together art and everyday life to create a work closely linked to her own life.

During my first and only meeting with her, at the Center d’Art in 2016, I learned that she had been the victim of an accident; I was left with the impression that this moment in her life was decisive in the trajectory of her career. In healing her body, she may have achieved a deeper awareness than before, or in a different way. This could then explain, but only partially, the use of her body as a subject.

Because of her interest in art history, Tessa Mars surely encountered the feminist movement of the 1970s, where women performers or photographers wanted to show their determination to reclaim their body, too long the object of men’s gaze and action. Tessa Mars does not go to extremes. Like many of those who precede her, she wants to say that art made by women is not minor art. And if we can still relate it to a feminist movement, it is simply because, in portraying her own body, this act immediately appears as a force that is both individual and collective.

I’m always trying to find ways to express my identity as a woman inhabiting this particular body, as a Caribbean woman …” We should not be surprised to find in the words of this little girl [character] of Dr. Jean Price Mars the word “identity.” However, this identity that Tessa Mars examines goes beyond geographical limits. We sense that her choice of subject is about transgressing, or rather deconstructing, stereotypes. She then uses her body, sometimes naked, not only to assert her femininity but also to complement her quest for a woman’s identity freed from relationships of subordination and social and political inferiority.

If we look at some of Tessa Mars’s paintings, we can find clues often from a larger context, which help in reading the entirety of her work. For example, by appropriating and reinterpreting a painting by Hector Hyppolite, it is situated, first and foremost, in the course of the history of Haitian art, and it shows respect and admiration for this self-taught master of Haitian painting from the end of the 1940s. With her body taking the place of the goddess of love, Tessa Mars wants to live her true nature, this sacred part of which she seeks the deeper meaning. She also knows, from having perhaps read Simone de Beauvoir, that one is not born a woman, that one becomes one. It is therefore a difficult learning process which almost always leads to a definition established beforehand, since it is subject to cultural prescriptions. [. . .]

[Above: Tessa Mars, “Self-portrait with new friends,” 2015.]

Translated from the French by Ivette Romero. For full, original review, see https://aica-sc.net/2021/01/09/tessa-mars/.]

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