In Claes Gabriel’s crisp, vibrant paintings, somber subjects end up darkly comedian reflections on having the strength — and losing it. Inspired via a line of poetry employing Kahlil Gibran, “You’ll be pretty friendly together with your enemy while you are each useless,” the 3 works featured in Between Us, on view at Automat Collective in Philadelphia, provide stark reflections on the Haitian Revolution, international migration, and police brutality within the US. Spanning 250 years of the subject be counted, this sparse solo exhibition is impressively comprehensive in its scope.
Born in Port-au-Prince and now based totally in West Philadelphia, Gabriel makes use of portraying to technique the records of racial strife in the Americas with each the burden and brevity his history provides. As the simplest nation within the Americas founded by using former slaves who efficiently fought for their freedom and overthrew their captors, Haiti exists as a counterpoint to colonial energy. White-dominated countries considered the very lifestyles of a Black republic a threat — the USA refused to recognize Haitian nationhood until after the Civil War, then endured to deny Haiti basic recognition for its sovereignty. White leaders of the time notion the Haitian Revolution had such capacity to encourage similar actions for self-emancipation that colonial nations attempted to censor its very existence.
Published in 1805, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti contained the primary disseminated European images of the Haitian modern chief, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The author and artist changed into Marcus Rainsford, an Irish soldier inside the British Army who visited Haiti in the 18th century. Although Rainsford became no abolitionist, his favorite L’Ouverture and the engravings in his book bring admiration for their concern. Such bills of the Haitian Revolution, written through white men, deeply complicated white supremacist tries to maintain a fiction of racial fault-strains as honestly divisive.
Gabriel’s painting entitled “Haitian Revolution” (2017), stimulated by Rainsford’s engravings, affords the overthrow of white leadership with gaiety and depend-of-facts. Against a shimmering backdrop of red, blue, and orange clouds, a Haitian chief in tasseled navy regalia appears successful and resolute as he hoists his French adversary aloft in the gallows. All characters in this tableau are imbued with ethical ambivalence. There is no veiling of violence right here, and Gabriel shows an admirable willingness to symbolize this difficult scene as a purpose for celebration — this revolution in which the stakes had been a lot better than a tax on tea.
“Boat People” (2019) is the maximum ambiguity of the three featured paintings. Its name references the pejorative time period used to describe Haitian refugees and other asylum-seekers around the arena. Gabriel depicts a crowded vessel, with stoic faces differentiated simplest through the colors in their eyes. This scene inspires the universality of immigration itself — serving no longer most effective to attach the beyond and the prevailing, however also to remind the viewer of the intensity of history behind each way of life.
Although no graphic violence is depicted in “The Ouroboros” (2017), its subjects symbolically keep the repetitive, looping records of racial violence and police brutality among them. A Black guy in striped prison clothing tangoes with a white police officer, framed by an urban skyline and pink flames. Their related arms wind around one another in the shape of an infinity signal or an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a serpent ingesting its very own tail. They are trapped in detrimental lockstep, collectively for all time. Still, the Black guy in this painting grins within the face of the white police officer to whom he’s tied. The officer frowns — together with his proud badge, he no longer sees the alternative’s secret know-how that his strength is neither everlasting nor absolute. This is a painting of the every-time and the each-vicinity of racial violence; however, the pursued is on equal footing with his pursuer.
All three of those paintings reveal Gabriel’s mastery over his medium of paint. Much like a tapestry, quilt, or stained glass, each inch of those canvases is handled with excessive care. This artwork renders dramatic scenes of violence and trauma — revolution, migration, arrest — with an extremely cool gaze. In these works, concern almost turns secondary to Gabriel’s incredible ability.
Gabriel’s paintings deal in archetypes and symbolism in preference to people, so each canvas holds a wealth of content material. Small visual clues hint at the continuity among those works. In each portray, there’s a Black man with crimson eyes, and thru this subtle, cautious element, Gabriel’s Haitian chief becomes the prisoner — but not without the desire, and maybe even the promise, that these tides will in the future turn. This artwork refuses to grow to be propaganda — while they cope with an entire range of contemporary topics, Gabriel proudly, and it appears that evidently represents his personal position as a Haitian-American. In those works, Black victory is an ever-present landmark in time.