An Artist Who Blends Secular and Sacred (with Sequins)

Siddhartha Mitter (The New York Times) highlights the work of Haitian-born artist Myrlande Constant, whose tapestries, “drawn from Haitian Vodou traditions, take textile art to new heights with exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for providing additional information on Constant’s exhibitions. See below. Also see previous post Myrlande Constant: Drapo/.]

The scene was a vibrant pastorale, rendered in thousands of shimmering sequins and beads that filled a nine-foot-wide canvas with a red tasseled border. In the background were emerald fields, bulbous trees, a blue-and-white streaked sky. Up front were clusters of small figures in conversation on the ground, beside a bull grazing. And anchoring the center of this bustling tapestry were the many manifestations of Kouzen Zaka, the lwa, or Haitian Vodou spirit, of farming — or as an embroidered inscription read at the top of the piece, the “minister of Agriculture.”

There is so much activity in Myrlande Constant’s tapestries that it can feel unfair to ask her to explain each detail. But recently, in New York for the opening of an exhibition of her newest works at Fort Gansevoort gallery in the Meatpacking district, this Haitian artist, who for three decades has led formal, technical and narrative innovation in the tradition of drapo, or Vodou banners, was gamely indulging queries.

“You can see him as a farmer, with his scythe and his satchel,” Constant said, indicating a representation of Kouzen (that’s “cousin” in Krèyol, or Haitian Creole, the nation’s primary spoken language). In one place, he was depicted with a dark complexion, white beard, broad-brimmed hat and a blue, red and white shirt, all made kinetic by cascading sequins and thrown into high relief by her lines of large pearl beads. Elsewhere Kouzen was displayed young, playing his flute, dancing. He also took the form of Saint Isidore, his Roman Catholic counterpart in Vodou’s syncretic taxonomy. There were iterations as well of Kouzin, his wife and female counterpart. “My dear, let me tell you,” Constant said. “Madame never walks without monsieur.”

Constant had arrived from Philadelphia, where she was staying with friends, one of whom had taken his taxicab off duty to drive her to New York. She spoke in Krèyol, with the Haitian actor Atibon Nazaire translating. She wore a red pantsuit and blue top; someone knowledgeable in Vodou might have noted that those were appropriate for that day — a Tuesday — being among the colors of Erzulie, the spirit of love for whom Tuesdays are sacred.

Constant, 54, is a rigorist whose every action accords with Vodou knowledge and cosmology. But she is equally a trailblazer who has taken the drapo tradition — an image of an icon or a symbolic drawing (vèvè) unfurled at the start of ceremonies — and blown it open into a narrative art, at an ever larger scale. Her works have the centrifugal storytelling of, say, a Bruegel painting.

Long influential locally, she has gradually expanded her international renown from collectors with an interest in Haiti to institutional consecration. Three of her works appeared in the 2022 Venice Biennale. This March a career survey, “Myrlande Constant: The Work of Radiance,” will open at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles.

The Fowler exhibition’s co-curators, Katherine Smith and Jerry Philogene, emphasized in a joint interview how Constant brought Vodou drapo out of the strictly ritual or ethnographic realm and turned it into a dynamic and sophisticated form of contemporary art, while also affirming women’s work in a typically male field. [. . .]

For Cecilia Alemani, the 2022 Venice Biennale’s curator, Constant’s work perfectly meshed with her exhibition’s focus on the porous relationship between human, natural and mystical realms. “I look at her works, and I see an exuberant and effervescent universe,” Alemani said. “It’s a world that has no boundaries between what’s alive and what’s dead.”

Constant grew up in Léogâne, a town west of Port-au-Prince. Vodou was a presence in the household, informally. Her father was a houngan, or priest, but he left the family early on and founded a temple in a rural area, playing little direct role in her upbringing. Rather she came to her art through textile craft — specifically tambour embroidery, in which fabric is stretched taut (like a drum) and worked with a hook, an ornate technique perfected in Lunéville, France, in the 19th century.

In Haiti, a low-wage subcontracting hub for the garment industry, Constant worked with her mother, Jane Constant, in a factory producing elaborately beaded wedding dresses and other items. As a teenager, “growing up in my environment, you have to learn to work,” Constant said. “I learned how to work at my mother’s side.” But she rankled at the low pay and poor conditions, and one day she confronted her employer, who promptly dismissed her.

She began to paint, without much success or satisfaction. But when she tried her hand at drapo, which traditionally involved only sequins, she found that tambour and beadwork opened new possibilities in contour, depth and detail.

Each piece starts with a line drawing that she formulates, during a meditative process, on the back of the cloth fabric, which is then stretched across a frame and worked upside-down‌‌. She reaches underneath the fabric and stitches the sequins and tassels, following the drawing. She can’t see them, she can only feel them, and witnesses the progress of the work only when she turns it over. [. . .]

[Photo above by Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times: Myrlande Constant at Fort Gansevoort gallery in Manhattan in front of one her intricate tapestries. “Everything must be placed very particularly to reflect the vision,” she said. Second photo by Olivia DiVecchia: Constant’s “Kouzen Zaka Minis Agrikilti,” 2022.]

For full article and photos, see

Myrlande Constant
January 11 – March 11, 2023
Fort Gansevoort, 5 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY 10014
“Myrlande Constant: The Work of Radiance”
Curated by Katherine Smith and Jerry Philogene
March 26 – July 16, 2023
Fowler Museum, 308 Charles E Young Dr N, Los Angeles, CA 90024

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