Traveling Through Time

Pain and Trauma in Fabiola Jean-Louis’ Rewriting History

Mesel Tzegai

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Imagine walking into a museum and wandering through a gallery of European portraiture from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. The walls are covered with people of the past, dressed in luxurious suits and gowns, posing for the painter who has captured their stately auras. There is also one other characteristic these people have in common: their white skin color. Where are all the portraits of non-white individuals? While records show that there were people of color in Europe’s upper class in colonial times, their history is completely wiped away from the walls of the museum. What remains are servants in the background, depicted as objects that accompany the furniture, pets, and other items, exemplifying the wealth and purity of their white masters.

Disrupting this white, Eurocentric tradition of portraiture is the photographic work of Haitian artist Fabiola Jean-Louis. In her series Rewriting History (2016-2020), Jean-Louis time travels between the past and present to construct a speculative narrative of the Black experience.[1] Through her mastery of paper and photography, she exposes truths that Eurocentric narratives have whitewashed and removed, drawing attention to the way Black bodies have been treated throughout history.

When invoking fifteenth- to nineteenth-century European aesthetics in portraiture, the expectation for a subject of the upper class is to feature a white European in splendid clothing and a Black woman as a maid. However, Rewriting History turns that narrative on its head. Guiding the viewer along her journey through time, Jean-Louis photographs Black women as European nobility, directly challenging the historic images of slavery and aristocracy by subverting the expectations of the viewer. In Jean-Louis’ own words, the series speaks to “the shocking treatment of Blacks throughout history and the trauma inflicted on their bodies as juxtaposed with the abstract idea of Black freedom. Simultaneously, it engages with a vision of the future—one of hope, resilience, and justice.”[2]

Everything the Black models wear in Jean-Louis’ portraits is made from paper—from their headwear to their dresses to their very shoes. Jean-Louis spent months crafting the outfits, which she then dressed her models in for photoshoots, and afterwards edited the images to imitate the style of classical European oil paintings. The choice of paper as her main material is deliberate for Jean-Louis. Over the past few centuries, history has been written down on paper, so Rewriting History is quite literally rewriting and reestablishing the past. A versatile material, paper represents both fragility and strength: it is meant to be disposable and ephemeral when used as a wrapper, yet it is also powerful when used to document history and institute ownership over Black bodies and lives.

Paper also symbolizes the layers of time and events of the past, much like Jean-Louis’ works as a whole, requiring the viewer to look carefully to see every detail. Likewise, trauma is layered: it not only lives in the physical body, but it inhabits a person’s mind and memory, requiring its own space for healing. In this essay, I explore how Jean-Louis uses paper, photography, and storytelling to depict and manage trauma. I argue that by showing both Black trauma and excellence, Jean-Louis is creating a platform for healing and agency for the Black community.

 

A Traumatic Past

Through the juxtaposition of traditional presentations of beauty and overt actions of violence, the centuries of injustices against the Black community are shown in Rewriting History. The Black women in the series display their traumatic history for all the world to see in the very clothes they wear. The first photograph of the series, Madame Leroy (2016) (Figure 1), is a portrait of a dark-skinned woman in a beige, eighteenth-century Rococo gown and lavish jewelry. At the stomacher of the bodice is an image of a Black man hanging from a tree in bloom, a stark contrast to not only the bright colors of the image, but to the delicate quality of the portrait as a whole. Jean-Louis physically places a spotlight on the dark history of the United States during and after slavery, opening a window into the trauma of lynching and oppression of the Black community.

Paper is the optimal material for Jean-Louis to use in Rewriting History, as she is physically rewriting what has been documented in history books concerning the Black experience. Jean-Louis inscribes onto the paper what has not yet been documented, such as the trauma caused by slavery and oppression. As research into trauma and psychoanalytic literature shows, scholars rarely address slavery and post-slavery specifically. Trauma can either be defined as an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing, or as a severe mental or emotional response to a terrible event.[3] Both definitions apply to slavery, its effects, and acts of racism like lynching. The mind cannot make sense of the experience or event, thus making it difficult to express one’s feelings or to describe what occurred. Yet, psychologist Janice P. Gump suggests that coherence and meaning can only be obtained through finding ways to communicate trauma. As she states, “Trauma leaves a void that can be filled only by the revisiting of it, whether through creative productions or through the presence of another.”[4] These creative productions include film, poetry, and art. By depicting trauma in her photographs, Jean-Louis processes the horror of her own experiences and feelings, while also providing a means for others who are traumatized to do the same.

Figure 1. Fabiola Jean Louis, Madame Leroy, 2016, Archival pigment print on hot press bright paper, 38.5 x 50 in. © Fabiola Jean-Louis. Courtesy the artist and Alan Avery Art Gallery.

Another way that slavery and post-slavery have caused trauma is through subjugation and the annihilation of the self. For centuries, Africans and African descendants have not been considered human in order to justify their oppression and enslavement. Black women, for instance, have never been allowed access to the typical codes of femininity that light-skinned women have, especially those with darker-colored skin. Black women have not only been dehumanized, but also objectified and sexualized to justify their subjugation; the most important roles they have held are their manual and reproductive labor. The labels society places on Black women include the mammy, the jezebel, the breeder, and the matriarch/superwoman, all of which construct them as props to be used. Their bodies have not been their own.

Figure 2. Fabiola Jean-Louis, They’ll Say We Enjoyed It, 2017, Archival pigment print on hot press bright paper, 38.5 x 50 in. © Fabiola Jean-Louis. Courtesy the artist and Alan Avery Art Gallery.

Jean-Louis explores the objectification of Black female bodies in They’ll Say We Enjoyed It (2017) (Figure 2). The title references the long history of gaslighting towards the Black community, a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group makes another doubt their own memory, perception, or judgment.[5] Playing off of people’s traumas to subjugate them, the act of gaslighting convinces people that the pain and oppression they face are deserved, not as bad as they truly are, or entirely nonexistent. They’ll Say We Enjoyed It shows a woman in a Rococo-inspired dress and a white-powdered wig with her dog, her appearance seemingly demure, with a faraway gaze as she poses for her portrait. The foreground is picture-perfect and the landscape in the background is idealized, yet a less than ideal scene unfolds behind the woman: two white men in white-powered wigs rape a Black woman who looks like an ape. The distinction between the central woman’s light skin and the dark-skinned woman in the background suggests that the former is a product of rape.[6] The violent act invokes the title of the work, revealing the reality of the world experienced by Black women in which they have been brutalized and treated as objects since the advent of slavery, their bodies used for pleasure by others. The title also alludes to the history of gaslighting in which Black women who have been raped are told they “enjoyed it” because they are jezebels or crave sex. The myth of the jezebel, the promiscuous woman, functions to normalize rape and other sexual violent acts, where perpetrators claim that the acts are consensual. With the background scene in mind, the central figure’s expression becomes more melancholy, as she knows the truth of Black women’s experiences.

Responding to this history of dehumanization and subjugation, the photographs of Rewriting History are meant to counteract and subvert these harmful images of Black womanhood. For example, the character Madame Leroy stands firm and directly gazes at the viewer, demonstrating that she is the active subject of the portrait. Creating new, positive images of Black womanhood is a core quality of Black feminist art. While white feminism resists the power imbalance of gender, which dictates a woman to be demure and fragile, Black women have never been seen as either of these labels. Therefore, Black feminism aims to reclaim Black womanhood, the Black body, 

and the gaze by which Black women are seen. Art historian and artist Freida High Tesfagiorgis describes Black feminist art as having the following qualities: “1) the Black woman is the subject as opposed to the object, 2) the subject is contextually exclusive/primary, 3) the subject is active rather than passive, 4) the subject conveys sensitivity of Afro-American women’s self-recorded realities, 5) the subject is imbued with aesthetics of the African continuum.”[7] Tesfagiogis clarifies the “aesthetics of the African continuum” as themes in art that embrace Afrocentric tastes and show a mastery of Western traditions adapted to the artist’s themes and aesthetics. Jean-Louis applies all of these qualities into Rewriting History like Madame Leroy and They’ll Say We Enjoyed It, creating compositions that utilize Western styles to focus on Afrocentric or Black experiences. The photographs feature Black women as the primary, active subjects and exhibit a sensitivity to their realities.

Rewriting History allows for the Black woman to be delicate and extravagant when historically the Western canon has never provided the space for her, believing Black women overall are either too superhuman or not human enough to be seen as such.[8] Even Black women wearing ornate shoes counteract Eurocentric narratives, as in They’ll Say We Enjoyed It where the woman’s paper shoes peek out from the folds of her dress. Jean-Louis explains, “the feet of my ancestors were not allowed to wear such delicate shoes, because they weren’t seen as delicate creatures. And it’s not that we cared to be. Just the same, the importance of our feet has long been overlooked.”[9] Owning shoes like the elegant ones in the photograph is a sign of wealth, with their white, pristine appearance suggesting that they are not used often (ergo, the woman has many pairs and they are easily replaceable). The appearance of the shoes, among the woman’s other garments, also implies that she does not do physical labor, one of the historic and contemporary roles of Black women in a white society.

Figure 3. Print by Louis François Charon, published by Aaron Martinet, Les Curieux en extase, ou les Cordons de souliers, 1815, paper, 8.75 x 11.6 in. © The Trustees of the British Museum. The two men on the right say, “Ah! How funny nature is” and “What a strange beauty.”

In a discussion on visuality and narrative, art historian Nicole F. Fleetwood reveals how these two concepts are interconnected, arguing that narrative is a means to visualize Blackness and assign racial codes.[10] When the narrative values whiteness and maleness as the standards of measurement, then subsequently Black women will be considered subhuman and ugly. Visuals will therefore reflect this, as is seen in the nineteenth-century illustrations of Saartjie Baartman (Figure 3) which draw attention to her exaggerated and “inhuman” body parts. These narratives and myths become internalized by all those exposed to their visual representations, even those who are antagonized by the images. In regards to Blackness, racist visuals perpetuate the color complex, a fixation on skin color and features which result in a reverence for Eurocentric physical qualities. The color complex is very damaging to the psychology of the Black community, who come to believe that they have no value unless they have light skin and European features.[11] Consequently, Black people become impotent, or unable to “return the gaze” as described by Fleetwood. They struggle with vision, meeting the gaze of another, looking beyond their immediate circumstances, and dreaming of possibilities outside the Eurocentric system.[12]

The process by which Jean-Louis creates her paper designs is a form of expanding her vision, as she does not make initial sketches before crafting them. She explains in an Instagram post:

“[Never making a sketch] meant that I had to see a 3D version of it in my mind—constantly turning, zooming in and out, and isolating parts to imagine how the final construction would work. Some might say I was crazy to not just draw a few simple sketches, that would make my life easier. I can’t disagree—it would have, but there was/is something fascinating about pushing the mind to see, and bend in ways we potentially miss by looking at a plan … I learned that in my work, I am constantly trying to break down walls—even when I am building them. It’s about pushing boundaries—my own limits that do not serve me.”[13]

By not making sketches, Jean-Louis is not limiting her artworks to her initial vision, allowing the dresses and objects to evolve as she constructs them. She works directly from her mind, challenging herself to see and think in new ways from what she is used to. Rewriting History also allows others to expand their own visions. The series provides visual representations of Black women of all skin tones and relays a narrative that they are all human and beautiful. Through her photographs, Jean-Louis commands space for Blackness temporally, creatively, and historically in the art world and in the history of art.[14] This reclamation of Black womanhood in art, particularly in portraiture, is a form of self-actualization. Art historian Anna Arabindan-Kesson argues that, when used by Black artists, portraiture is a form of opposition, taking Black subjecthood into their own terms. Idealized projection is typically associated with whiteness, therefore Black portraiture destabilizes the cultural hierarchies in which the Western painting tradition signifies.[15] Black portraiture showcases alternative histories of Blackness and representation, reconceptualizing the romanticized storytelling of the art history canon.

Trauma Passed Down

Trauma can also be inherited, as Jean-Louis exemplifies in Madame Beauvoir’s Painting (2016) (Figure 4). The photograph portrays a woman in a pale gold dress facing away from the viewer with a painting in front of her. The painting is somber, as the figure’s silhouette is not quite in focus and his back is heavily scarred, mirroring the gold designs on the back of Madame Beauvoir’s dress. This image is based on a photograph by the Mathew Brady Studio of “Whipped Peter” (Figure 5), a man who escaped enslavement and joined the Union Army. His exposed back reveals severe keloid scars after a vicious whipping. As Peter himself chose to display his trauma to the public in order to bring to light the horrors of slavery, he is an active subject—much like Madame Beauvoir—rather than the object in the portrait. Exposing their backs is an act of vulnerability but also empowerment. However, whereas Peter’s trauma was due to punishments he received while enslaved, it is more than just a physical wound. Jean-Louis states that our cells have memory; they remember both the care and the pain inflicted onto them. Therefore, trauma also remains as part of memory, lingering through history in the relationships between and stories passed down from generation to generation.

This type of trauma is referred to as transgenerational or intergenerational trauma. Psychoanalyst Gilda Graff notes that one way trauma is passed down is through a lack of empathy or affective attunement from a parent. During and after slavery, a master-slave relationship was modeled into the mentalities of Black people, which has continued into their personal and professional lives.[16] Within a family, these toxic, hierarchical relationships nurture rejection, control, and emotional unavailability. Examining the play Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, Fleetwood observes how the trauma of the main character Alma is rooted in her mother’s prejudices against her own dark body:

“Alma identifies the source of much of her suffering in her mother Odelia’s inability to accept her own dark skin and Odelia’s struggles with gendered subjugation by the men in her life. Odelia is also unforgiving of Alma’s large body and brown skin, which become a mirror that reflects the mother’s own psychic monstrosity back onto the self, intensifying her resentment and subjugation. Alma and Odelia are locked in a mutual gaze of recognizing the self and other as undesired beings.”[17]

Here, the mother’s racial traumas and colorist values are reproduced and internalized in the daughter. In turn, the daughter will pass along these values to her own daughter in an endless cycle unless they are actively unlearned. African descendants also face a unique paradigm concerning transgenerational trauma. Not only does the trauma get passed down from one generation to the next, but each generation also experiences their own traumas firsthand: from segregation and lynching, to human trafficking and rape, to mass incarceration and police brutality. In this way, it becomes harder for Alma and the people of African descent to break free from their traumas because they are continuously fed a white supremist narrative by both their parents and society. Likewise, the scar designs on Madame Beauvoir’s dress are both a representation of her family’s history and a manifestation of her own scarred body and mind, which mirrors that of her ancestors.

Rising Above Pain

All of the women in Rewriting History are part of an army, in dresses like armor, which reflects Jean-Louis’ own heritage. She incorporates Haitian culture and history, including the Haitian Revolution, into many artworks from the series to show how Europe has impacted Haiti and in turn, how Haiti has impacted the rest of the world. Conquistador (2016) (Figure 6) is one example that is directly tied to Haitian history. The portrait shows a woman standing tall in a sixteenth-century Iberian-inspired outfit with her gaze directed at the viewer and holding a scroll which reads “Cannot Be Conquered.” The title recalls the beginnings of the Age of Exploration, colonization, and the slave trade, specifically by the Spanish and Portuguese who occupied the Americas. Conquistador appears to be quite similar to a nineteenth century engraving of Hernán Cortés (Figure 7), who is most famous for his colonization of Mexico. However, his career began in Hispaniola, the island which is now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was in Hispaniola where Cortés registered as a citizen, obtained land, and trained as a conquistador, later taking part in the island’s conquest. Soon afterwards, Hispaniola became the port where slaves were directly transported to Spanish America. The woman in Conquistador reminds viewers of the Black men and women who were brought to these areas as slaves. Her light skin and European features imply that she was born with a mixed heritage, pointing to the rape of women as an act of physical dominance and conquest.

As warriors, the women of Rewriting History form a collective resistance, with their different Black experiences coming together to fight against colonialism and white supremacy. In an essay about the series, Shana Gelin, a doctoral student at Syracuse University, argues that the woman’s gaze in Conquistador is an expression of power, conveying a wide variety of emotions from scorn to joy and serenity to vexation. This gaze, in comparison to Madame Leroy, is more confrontational, as if the woman is daring the viewer to see her as anything besides powerful and confident. She thereby directly challenges the impotence of Blackness in canonical art history that Fleetwood examines. Gelin also states that Conquistador “provokes the memory of racial injustice in the past and reveals this continuous cycle in the present.”[18] For Gelin, the woman in the portrait carries the emotions of Black people, weaponizing them against the current and historical anti-Black society. The scroll in the woman’s hands counteracts the history of the Conquistadors as well as the countless laws and contracts that enslaved Africans and took land away from Indigenous communities. It is a declaration that the woman is reclaiming her body, mind, history, and culture; she has undergone a process of rejecting the preconditioned narratives of her Black body and has taken on a stance of self-love, self-care, and self-empowerment.

In a discussion of the healing and affirmation of Black women, scholar of African American literature Farah Jasmine Griffin coins the term “textual healing” to indicate the way in which Black female creators re-imagine the Black female body as a site of healing, pleasure, and resistance.[19] Textual healing refers to how a traumatized body must learn to love itself and function in the world in opposition to those who wish to tear it apart. Individuals must recognize their trauma and its origins before being able to release what they have internalized; only then can healing take place. As Janice P. Gump reasons, creating art generates a path toward healing for both artists and their audiences: for the artist it is in the artistic process and for the audience it is in seeing representations of the true Black experience in all its diversities. However, Griffin states that the body can never return to its original, pre-scarred state after it has been injured. Likewise, a traumatized mind can never become what it was before. Yet healing is a matter of “claiming the body, scars and all—in a narrative of love and care … [suggesting] that they can be constructed differently, for different ends.”[20] Madame Beauvoir’s Painting illustrates this transformation through the gold designs on the back of Beauvoir’s elegant dress, representing the healing and repurposing of trauma. She has refashioned these marks of violence into something beautiful instead.

A Time to Heal

Jean-Louis ensures that the women of Rewriting History are not portrayed as perpetual victims, but instead as individuals who can thrive from and despite their traumas. As Griffin points out, reclamation and affirmation are not enough to change the oppression Black women experience, but they provide a step toward political consciousness and active resistance.[21] Freeing oneself from internalized hate is just the beginning. Part of the goal of Rewriting History for Jean-Louis is to hold people accountable for their actions as well as their inaction, affirming that the responsibility of

Figure 4. Fabiola Jean-Louis, Madame Beauvoir's Painting , 2016, Archival pigment print on hot press bright paper, 38.5 x 50 in. © Fabiola Jean-Louis. Courtesy the artist and Alan Avery Art Gallery.
Figure 5. Mathew Brady Studio, Peter (formerly identified as "Gordon"), 1863, Albumen silver print, 3.375 x 2.188 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Figure 6. Fabiola Jean-Louis, Conquistador, 2016, archival pigment print on hot press bright paper, 38.5 x 50 in. © Fabiola Jean-Louis. Courtesy the artist and Alan Avery Art Gallery.
Figure 7. Print by William Holl, published by Charles Knight, Portrait of Hernán Cortés, 1806-1838, paper, 1.08 x .75 in (trimmed). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

violence is on the traumatizers and not the traumatized.

There are many layers to Jean-Louis’ Rewriting History series that showcase the various aspects of the Black experience: the dazzling gowns which reorient the value of Blackness and Blackness in history, and also the images which bring to light the underlying pain and trauma inflicted upon the Black community in the past and present. The juxtaposition of beauty and trauma engages viewers with the photographs, encouraging them to look closer and discover what is beyond the initial glamor. The refusal to acknowledge pain does not make it go away and, as is seen with transgenerational trauma, does not prevent a parent from passing it down to their child. Through creative works such as Rewriting History, the Black community is given the possibility to heal from their pain and trauma. It is also important to note that this dialogue of trauma is open to those outside the Black community as well, for true healing is impossible unless everyone recognizes the effects of slavery and post-slavery and acts upon them. Jean-Louis creates a space for audiences to interact with the past, so that they may reconcile with it and thus strive for a better present and future.

Notes

[1] “Black,” as opposed to “black,” refers to a shared history and identity of the people of African ancestry, one that recognizes a cultural group rather than solely indicating a skin color.

[2] “Rewriting History: Paper Gowns and Photographs,” Fabiola Jean-Louis, accessed November 3, 2019, http://www.fabiolajeanlouis.com/new-page-5.

[3] Andrew Rosen, “What Is Trauma,” The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders (blog), September 25, 2017, https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/what-is-trauma/.

[4] Janice P. Gump, “Reality Matters: The Shadow of Trauma on African American Subjectivity,” Psychoanalytic Psychology 27, no. 1 (2010): 46.

[5] For more information on racial gaslighting, see Ria Wolstenholme, “The Hidden Victims of Gaslighting,” BBC Future, November 24, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201123-what-is-racial-gaslighting.

[6] Yvonne Buchanan, “Framing History: Performing the Portrait,” in Point of Contact – Fabiola Jean Louis: Rewriting History, ed. Point of Contact Gallery, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDRjHieWPx0.

[7] Frieda High Tesfagiorgis, “Afrofemcentrism and its Fruition in the Art of Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold,” Sage 4, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 26.

[8] For more information on the Black superwoman, see Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, “Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health,” Qualitative Health Research 20, no. 5 (2010): 668-83.

[9] Fabiola Jean-Louis (@fabiolajeanlouis), “Paper shoes,” Instagram photo, June 8, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CBLawwipOuX/.

[10] Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 72.

[11] For more information on the color complex, see Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall, The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium (New York: Anchor Books, 2013).

[12] Fleetwood, 94.

[13] Fabiola Jean-Louis (@fabiolajeanlouis), “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Instagram photo, June 27, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CB8GERvJaso/.

[14] Point of Contact Gallery, Rewriting History Discussion Panel – November 12th 2020, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXl9DB2-wGo.

[15] Anna Arabindan-Kesson, “Portraits in Black: Styling, Space, and Self in the Work of Barkley L Hendricks and Elizabeth Colomba,” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 2016, no. 38–39 (November 2016): 74.

[16] See: Gilda Graff, “The Intergenerational Trauma of Slavery and Its Aftermath,” The Journal of Psychohistory 41, no. 3 (Winter 2014): 191; and Gump, 47.

[17] Fleetwood, 97.

[18] Shana Gelin, “Rewriting History,” in Point of Contact – Fabiola Jean Louis: Rewriting History, ed. Point of Contact Gallery, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDRjHieWPx0.

[19] Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Textual Healing: Claiming Black Women’s Bodies, the Erotic and Resistance in Contemporary Novels of Slavery,” Callaloo 19, no. 2 (1996): 522.

[20] Griffin, 524.

[21] Griffin, 534.

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———. “Rewriting History: Paper Gowns and Photographs.” Fabiola Jean-Louis. Accessed November 3, 2019. http://www.fabiolajeanlouis.com/new-page-5.

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———. Rewriting History Discussion Panel – November 12th 2020, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXl9DB2-wGo.

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