Matilde dos Santos writes on CATAPULT Awardee Réginald Sénatus for Madinin’Art

Martinique based historian, art critic and independent curator Matilde dos Santos, who was one of the guest curators/mentors selected to conduct studio visits with 6 of the 24 CATAPULT Stay Home Artist Residency participants, has generously offered to write features on each of the artists she engaged with during the programme. The second piece focuses on the practice of Haitian artist Réginald Sénatus!

Read the article, originally published in French on Madinin’Art: Critiques Culturelle de Martinique (November 29, 2020), in English below!

Last August, Fresh Milk, Kingston Creative and The American Friends of Jamaica, conceived and launched the program CATAPULT | A Caribbean Arts Grant; a set of six initiatives designed to support Caribbean creatives confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic. I had the honour of being invited by Fresh Milk to visit the artists’ studios as part of the “Stay Home Artist Residency.” Among the 24 candidates selected by the CATAPULT jury, I was able to virtually meet 6 young and talented artists from Aruba, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica and Martinique. I wanted to share these moments of discovery with you. Here is the second episode in this series of studio visits.

Réginald Sénatus was born in 1994 in Port au Prince, where he lives and works. Having grown up around artists’ workshops on the Grande Rue, and inspired by artists like Celeur and Casseus, he participated since 2010 in the Collective Atis Rezistans, comprised essentially of sculptors working with recovery materials. As of 2017, he is a founding member of Nou pran lari a, an artistic and social movement that invests urban space to exhibit artists outside of traditional spaces. Hanging out on the Grande Rue, he became exposed to practices where the border between crafts and art is vague, or even non-existent, as it is becoming more and more common in the world of contemporary art. Self-taught at the outset, he trained at the Art Centre by participating in workshops on engraving, sculpture, painting, ceramics… with artists such as Pasko, Mario Benjamin, Sébastien Jean, Patrick Villaire, Simil, Tessa Mars, Mafalda Mondestin and Pascale Faublas, among others. He also had the opportunity to collaborate with other artists such as Gina Cunningham in 2017 and Ernest Pignon-Ernest in 2019. Very active, he participated in various artistic events including several editions of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, receiving the 3rd  prize in 2015 and the 1st prize in 2017 and 2019. In January 2020, in a kind of national consecration, he exhibits at The Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (MUPANAH).

Reginald Sénatus, Nou pran la ria

Réginald studied law, and that may be why his work reflects a constant concern for societal issues, namely social and environmental injustices. His work focusses on the country and its capital, adopting a benevolent but not complacent look at the ills of the city, revealing a particular interest in both the exclusions and the affirmation of life.

Technically his works from the Ghetto biennials of 2017 and 2019 and Mansuétude, which he produced in the SHAR-CATAPULT programme this year,  all belong to the same series. All three of them are composed of raw and smooth plywood, forming a surface on which the artist assembles pieces of square or rectangular wood, to serve as a support for a rubber plate, which is then engraved, painted, and inked. Up until 2017 Réginald used recycled rubber tires, which he cut into plates; since 2018 he uses rubber plates, that generally serve in Haiti to make shoe soles. He works with them like any other engraving material, such as linoleum blocks. First he draws on the plate and then digs out the patterns. Afterwards, he inks the hollows with acrylic auto paint.  The 2017 piece was painted white, while carefully avoiding the hollows, which remained naturally black. Other works, once ready, are rubbed with a fabric soaked in solvent to obtain a shiny finish. The plates do not constitute a step in an engraving process; they will not serve to print, but provide the support for cutting and painting, as a canvas. For a long time, he used a razor to dig out his motifs, but since 2018 he uses gouges. Once the plate is engraved and painted, he may add mirrors, plastic bottles, any kind of objects. A practice of recuperation, reuse and upcycling. A very contemporary painting practice through its use of non-traditional materials and supports, but also a practice that shares a great intimacy with popular art and Art brut. And if we want to refer to established movements in the history of art, we could relate his work to the Nouveau realisme or the Arte povera, for the use he makes of poor materials and recovered objects.

In 2017, he devoted six months to the creation of  Nan Benyen Potoprens Pa gen kache lonbrik,  literally, “when Port-au-Prince bathes, she does not hide her navel,” which reveals the city “without lying and without reserve” according to his words. The installation is an imagined cartography of the city, drawn with small wooden briquettes, each surmounted by a rubber plate, engraved and painted, often with religious symbols that the artist uses to represent historical and contemporary aspects of the city. The installation was interactive in a way, since the public was invited to invest one side of the work to record its thoughts, on the city, its problems, its hopes… A work that I see in pieces in the dim light of the studio, and that renders it all so beautiful in the photos.

In 2019, working on the theme of the Ghetto biennial “The Haitian Revolution and Beyond,”  Réginald chose to portray the Battle of Vertières, the last battle against slavery and colonization in Haiti. The work Murs et portes de Vertières is accompanied by a text that reveals the artist’s intention. At Vertières, he says, two men born as slaves, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Capois-La-Mort, defied the world order. Their victory led to the creation of the first black republic in the world. If Réginald has shown an interest in walls and doors, it is because these are ambivalent objects that can give passage or on the contrary, restrict access, to both good and evil.   Insurmountable, they protect or exclude. Crossed over, they can open up on dreams or nightmares.  In this work, we notice that the artist abandoned religious symbols for those of his own making. He also added mirrors and gave the work a finish so lustrous that the black surfaces shine like mirrors.

Mansuétude, the work produced in residence, bears the mark of the pandemic. He created it as a kind of exorcism: talking about the virus to keep it at bay, to cast out fear as well. Here, the artist approaches figuration, with more elaborate drawings, almost characters, depicting masked women. All the young artists I met at the SHAR residency told me how much they felt the impact of the pandemic; living most often in precarious situations even before confinement, they then suffered cancellations or postponements of projects, loss of income and above all, for Réginald, loneliness and alienation. The CATAPULT grant offered Réginald the possibility to focus on a project: the piece Mansuétude made entirely while in residence, yet another assemblage of rubber plates mounted on wood, engraved and inked. On almost all of the plates, a spiral or circle, that of the virus itself, that of the circle of humans.

On two smaller plates, there are plastic bottles and cutlery; on another, the symbol of the US dollar; in the end, comprising a whole series of recurrent concerns in the time of pandemic. The artist experiences the crisis as indicative of the fragilities and weaknesses of our societies on a global scale, affecting first of all the most vulnerable: the elders. He thinks that only mutual aid can overcome these fragilities, hence the figures of masked women discussing in a circle. In Haiti, as in Martinique, a woman is a poto mitan, fanm doubout, pillar of the family. Similarly, it is through them that we begin to heal the world. I find the plates very beautiful, taken individually;  but I can’t say why their assembly on the wooden support leaves me dubious, as if the installation was not yet finished.

The visit to Réginald’s studio was disrupted by technical glitches. One could not hear, the other could hardly see. He showed me around his studio with his phone, which was not ideal for visibility, especially since the workshop was rather dark. I wanted to see better what I was guessing in the dark. So we continued to talk the following days, via WhatsApp. Réginald also sent me photos and texts. I discovered a committed artist, socially engaged and concerned about the current state of his country. Proud of his story. Eager to meet people and learn from them. Undeniably gifted with his hands. An artist who seizes every opportunity to learn and enrich his practice; an artist focused on sharing, who intends to pass on the fruits of his experience in residency to his fellow artists in Haiti. A young artist to follow, no doubt.

– Matilde dos Santos – Historian, art critic and independent curator

Appreciation to the partners of the CATAPULT programme: The American Friends of Jamaica, Kingston Creative and Fresh Milk.

The SHAR participants described their experiences in blogs that you can read on the Fresh Milk platform here.

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