Haitian artist Tessa Mars is influenced by her country’s revolutionary history as much as her own family’s intellectual tradition, and her lifelong fascination with riddles. Her colourful paintings often feature a semi-autobiographical character named Tessalines — and deal in complex ideas about identity and freedom.
By SHEREEN ALI. Published in the in-flight magazine Caribbean Beat, Issue 151 (May/June 2018). Magazine online link: Tessa Mars, Full Free.
Dream of Freedom, Dream of Death, 2016, art by Tessa Mars
Ideas ripple like silent barracudas beneath the surface of Tessa Mars’s paintings. And those ideas — about identity, womanhood, and Haitian culture — are challenging some conventions of what it means to be a free woman in Haiti.
In one painting (Dream of Freedom, Dream of Death, 2016), a naked woman with red horns and blue-green scales on her arms and legs stares at you squarely in the face, while she holds a machete plunged between her own breasts. Mysterious stars radiate from behind her back. This startling image is perhaps Mars’s best known. The figure, whom Tessa calls “Tessalines”, is based on a stylised, magical version of the artist herself, merged with Vodou references and memories of the revolutionary figure of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758–1806), the first ruler of an independent Haiti. And you’d better beware: because Tessalines is a free warrior woman, with two enormous bull’s horns on her head, wielding a sharp cutlass she is unafraid to use.
“This character of Tessalines I first created in Trinidad, where I spent three months at a residency at Alice Yard in 2015,” says Mars, speaking via Skype from her home in Port-au-Prince. “Tessalines is an alter ego, a fusion of myself and characteristics of the father of the Haitian revolution, Dessalines. So she is about finding my hero, my revolutionary side, and trying to place myself in Haitian history”, Mars explains.
“But in this painting, my starting point was the Declaration of Independence, when the formerly enslaved people were declaring that they would rather live free or die. And I was interested in what that might mean for us today.
“What does freedom mean for us in contemporary Haitian society?” asks Mars. “We have historical freedom from the coloniser, but we are facing new forms of dependency from outside, whether economic or political . . . I also started to think about the freedom of self-expression, which is the freedom to express your identity to the fullest, and the risks that are associated with that, because whatever you may choose to express that is outside of what people consider the norms, there is potential for [a kind of] death to come with it, due to misunderstandings or rejection of what you show to the world.”
It can be a social death, or a very literal death, the artist says, because you can still die in Haiti today for expressing political views. She mentions corruption, and how much easier it is to just go with the flow than to be critical of things that are going wrong. She says although everyone knows about some issues, people are afraid to discuss them out loud. She notes that although Haitian politicians of today often try to identify with Haiti’s heroic past, it can also be a way to avoid talking about real issues: patriotic discourse can often mask issues of present-day poverty and misery. She asks: “What does Independence translate to for the youth of Haiti right now? Although we are fighters, many Haitians are fleeing from the island, fleeing from the first black republic.”
Despite this, Mars feels great pride in her Haitian identity, and in the proud legacy of freedom-fighting: Haiti is the only country in modern times where enslaved people successfully took their freedom by force, during the Revolution between 1791 and 1804.
“I was born and raised in Haiti,” says Mars. “I grew up in Port-au-Prince. I still live in the same home where I was born, which has been in our family for multiple generations. I grew up in a family of thinkers in Haiti, and the family name is associated with literature.”
Her mother is the celebrated Haitian poet and novelist Kettly Mars, whose 2010 novel Saisons sauvages (Savage Seasons) explores the malevolent dictatorship of François Duvalier. Meanwhile, the famous Haitian ethnographer, doctor, politician, and diplomat Jean Price-Mars (1876–1969), who championed the Négritude movement in Haiti and was the first prominent defender of Vodou as a religion, was Tessa Mars’s great-grandfather on her father’s side.
“The need to connect with the African/black part of our cultural heritage was one of the most important aspects of his legacy for me,” Mars says, speaking of his influence. “Jean Price-Mars studied and did research as a scientist, while my approach is more intuitive. I am interested in learning more and understanding where the traditions come from, and their meaning, but I’ve gone ‘native’ in a way, and I am more interested in exploring and experiencing them for myself, and translating this for others through visual means.”
This family heritage profoundly shaped how Mars grew up, how she saw the world, and how she chose to become an artist at the age of seventeen. She credits her willingness to explore and experiment to the intellectual openness of her upbringing. “I grew up with the freedom of reading whatever material I found. I could discover and understand things for myself. My parents always encouraged any creative activity, although I didn’t really decide to be an artist until my last day of high school.”
As a child, Mars recalls, she’d always liked making and fixing things. “I just liked doing things with my hands . . . If my bicycle was broken, I would find different tools to make it work. It was never a good repair, but the bike still worked! I liked to find solutions to physical problems, and make my own answers to those riddles.”
One of the biggest riddles she addresses in her artwork is the riddle of her own identity: as a Haitian, as a woman, as a Vodou believer, and as an Afro-Caribbean person living in a society fractured by colonialism and often obsessed with emigration. Her work through visual metaphors often confronts thorny issues such as violence, the need to preserve memories, the risks of expressing your opinions freely, or the contrast between Haitians’ historical dream of freedom and current realities.
We Are Here II: Dieunie Taking Root is a painting Mars made in 2016. It shows a clothed woman suspended underground next to large, deep-probing roots. Tiny shoots emerge from these massive roots, just starting to sprout. While the woman’s head is barely above the ground, the rest of her body is still buried beneath the surface. It has a scary, surreal, drowning feel to it.
This painting happened after Tessa Mars got to know a Haitian immigrant struggling to make a new life for herself in Aruba: “She was cleaning a lady’s house where I was doing a residency. I asked her about her life.” The encounter led Mars to reflect on the challenges of being uprooted, and the struggle to put down new roots in another society. “It can be like you are drowning . . . Just keeping your head above water [is difficult],” she comments.
There are upbeat paintings, too. Mars’s 2015 painting Nan Rara (with Marching Band) has a far more playful, cheeky feel, with a happy, naked woman celebrating herself — all she wears is a colourful cloth snake/penis, a shak-shak, a pair of sunglasses, and a toothy grin. She could be any happy reveller during Carnival, except for the fact that she dispenses with a costume, and bares it all. She seems like a happy, modern, Haitian version of the Stone Age Venus of Willendorf statuette, a universal symbol of fertility, confidence, and creative possibility. Mars says taking pleasure in the flesh can be part of celebrating a joyful appreciation of yourself, of taking power, and being whoever you want to be.
Mars admires other young contemporary artists from the Caribbean, such as Jamaican Ebony Patterson, Sheena Rose from Barbados, and Kelly Sinnapah Mary from Guadeloupe. She’s also influenced by Haitian precursors.
Another of her paintings with beautiful colours and a sense of magical realism is Conversation with Hector H, from 2015. It is Mars’s homage to one of her favourite artists, Hector Hyppolite (1894–1948), who painted Maitresse Erzulie in 1948. Hyppolite was a third-generation Vodou priest who worked as a shoemaker and house painter before taking up fine art. Mars’s painting portrays herself connecting with nature and the spirit world through a magical-looking tree, on which mysterious, brightly coloured birds and insects rest.
Mars’s formal art career began with a degree in visual arts from Université Rennes 2 in France, in 2006. She then worked as a cultural projects coordinator in Haiti at Fondation AfricAméricA. Her first exhibit was in 2009, at the Georges Liautaud Museum in Port-au-Prince, and since then her work has been shown in Canada, France, Italy, and the United States. Since 2013 she has focused on her own artistic career, with recent work questioning the role of history, customs, and beliefs in building an individual’s identity. She says her work now also questions notions of patriotism and sovereignty in Haiti.
She has benefitted from five short-term arts residencies in Aruba, Port of Spain, Quebec, Paris, and New York, which helped her develop her ideas. Right now, her big project is working towards a November 2018 solo exhibition in Port-au-Prince, to showcase work made during foreign residencies.
In March and April 2018, Mars took part in a group show in Brooklyn, showing work she made during her New York residency. Among the pieces she showed there was her Dress Rehearsal, made of paper-doll versions of Tessalines in different poses, as she gets ready to wage war. Mars says this work celebrates the Battle of Vertières, the last major battle of the Second War of Haitian Independence, fought on 18 November, 1803, between formerly enslaved African people and Napoleon’s French forces. But Dress Rehearsal is also about bringing that heritage into one’s own home and daily life, as we wage our daily battles: “You have the duty of memory. It is a way of empowering yourself.”
Many of Mars’s paintings share vibrant reds, yellow ochres, and Caribbean blues. She uses acrylic paints on canvas in a broadly figurative, flat, symbolic style, with nods to conventional volume techniques through light shading. Sometimes her paintings are made of contour shapes filled with flat, bright areas of contrasting colours or textures, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, or even a quilt stitched together from different elements. At other times, her images — generally of an individual on a huge blank or mono-coloured background — are cartoon-like and graphic, with Vodou, historical, and personal symbolism converging to declare an attitude or express a feeling or visual comment.
These paintings summon themes that range from the very personal need to feel beautiful in one’s own skin, whatever shape or colour that might be, to ideas about courage and overcoming past or present trauma. “What interests me about Tessa,” says veteran artist and arts writer Christopher Cozier of Trinidad, “is her use of her body and self as image and sign/symbol to tell her own stories . . . I think many women in the region have done this in the past, like, for example, Irénée Shaw’s earlier work that caused so much consternation and anxiety in the early 1990s. I am interested in that struggle for women artists, since the time of Sybil Atteck [1911–1975] here in Trinidad.” Cozier asks: “What happens when women take back their representation on their own terms?”
For Tessa Mars, the answer is clear: art is her way to tell stories of female empowerment, as well as to question the status quo and creatively interrogate her world.
Haitian artist Tessa Mars.
Conversation with Hector H, 2015, by Tessa Mars.