Madjeen Isaac: The artist capturing community joy through magically surreal paintings

Ashley Tyner (i-D Vice) writes, “Painter Madjeen Isaac explores her immigrant roots through paintings that juxtapose urban life in Brooklyn with the tropical landscapes of Haiti.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

“This is Church avenue—once you get off the train here, you’re just in a whole other dimension,”  says Madjeen Isaac, gesturing toward a painting depicting a street scene of Flatbush, Brooklyn. “You’ll hear all the Caribbean music, and the different dialects of English,” she continues, explaining the process behind this particular piece. So I cut out around it, and put Haiti in it.”

Flatbush is known for its vibrant Caribbean presence, shaped in large part by Haitian immigrants, including Madjeen’s family, who moved there before she was born. The enclave is also a bountiful source of inspiration for Madjeen’s practice, centered on joyful oil paintings that reimagine moments she observes in her community as a magically realistic hybrid world, blending her experience of Brooklyn with cherished memories of their ancestral homeland.  

As she moves patiently through her studio while giving a brief tour, dozens of her vibrantly colored works in progress catch beams of light from the sun peeking subtly through a small window. Tender family photographs lie scattered on a workbench, across from a wall featuring mini-paintings on small squares of canvas. [. . .]

After she was given an assignment during undergrad to make a painting about culture, Madjeen continued on a journey to further investigate and uplift her own. She noticed how Haitians in her neighborhood carefully and intentionally brought pieces of their culture with them to New York, and set out to explore the idea of what it means to locate the feeling of home somewhere between two places. Influenced by artists like Kerry James MarshallRomare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence, her work seeks to embody Haiti through details like mountain tops and banana trees that grow from the concrete in front of a bodega, for example. “When I think about all these buildings in my head,” she says, referring to the pre-war buildings that line the streets of Flatbush, “if I were to have an x-ray, I’d envision Caribbean households.”  

[. . .] How does your interest in environmental justice intersects with your work? 

I got interested in that, just remembering my trips to Haiti, when I would come from my uncle’s home. He lived on a farm. He would give the community produce, and I would volunteer at community gardens. It feels so second nature to me to be planting and tending to the garden. 

I also collaborate with another small makeshift garden in my community, and we recently had a lot of folks come in and help out with that. And so just really like engaging in the practice of growing foods and learning and understanding that this was once our way of living, but we were stripped of it as time progressed. It’s, it’s just really mind-boggling to me a little bit. [. . .]

Can you tell me more about this painting of the man standing outside of a deli?

This is my dad. I try to capture his personality in this portrait and it’s him as his younger self before migrating to the states. He calls himself a fashionista, and he’s really into his jewelry and his clothes. And so I have him in his Sunday best. He loves playing the lotto. So I have him in front of a bodega. And he’s a great cook, so I have like the fish hanging on the clothing line. That’s something that I observed in Haiti. When you catch your fish, you hang it under the sun. I always think about, what if he could do like life over? I think he would be like a really great chef or a great businessman. But you know, when you’re in immigrant spaces, you don’t really think about what you want to do. It’s about what you have to do. [. . .]

Madjeen has partnered with Platform, the e-commerce site that helps viewers both discover and buy fine art, to showcase the four one-of-a-kind canvases featured in this story. All four works are available exclusively there.

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