Beginning January 12, 2023, Fort Gansevoort (5 Ninth Ave., NY, NY) will present Drapo, its first solo exhibition with Haitian artist Myrlande Constant, who has attracted international attention for dazzling hand-beaded and sequin-embroidered textile works in which heritage techniques are used to mingle contemporary and traditional themes. The evolution of Constant’s personal aesthetic and mastery of her medium will be evident in monumental new pieces juxtaposed with examples from earlier in the artist’s career.
Constant’s work was recently showcased in the Venice Biennale exhibition The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani (April 23— November 27, 2022). The artist’s upcoming survey exhibition, Myrlande Constant: The Work of Radiance, will open at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles on March 26, 2023—the first U.S. museum exhibition devoted to a female Haitian contemporary artist.
Based in Port-Au-Prince, Myrlande Constant is known for sophisticated figurative compositions composed with beads and sequins on cloth. While drawing upon the vernacular of traditional Vodou flags (known as drapo Vodou), which often adorn temples and are used in ceremonial practices, her oeuvre is characterized by a distinctively sensual, painterly quality. Intricate details and sumptuous colors coalesce in elaborate narrative scenes. Many of Constant’s flags depict lwa spirits and illustrate myths central to the Vodou religion.
Expanding into a secular context, Constant’s art also incorporates imagery taken from Haitian history and civic life. Although commercial flag making is a craft traditionally dominated by men, Constant is the first female Haitian textile artist to gain international acclaim for her innovation in the longstanding drapo Vodou practice. In depicting her unique versions of the Haitian religion’s myths, she has harnessed a fresh and contemporary spiritual force that elevates her work above the realm of folk art and craft.
In Lasirène (c. 1990), the titular figure—an important lwa in Haitian Vodou—is depicted in the form of a mermaid. As Haiti is an island nation, water plays an extremely important role in its civic life and features prominently in its religious practices. Similar to the sirens of Greek mythology, Lasirèn is characterized as having the most beautiful voice of all the lwa. Here, Constant surrounds the mermaid’s body with her associated iconographic imagery: the mirror above her tail is believed to function as a portal between the physical and mystical realms. The flowers above the siren’s head, the glass of champagne, and the bowl of sweets additionally represent some of her favorite offerings. As vivid now as when it was made more than three decades ago, this work demonstrates the flat fields of color and simplified forms that characterize Constant’s earlier compositions. Here, the spatial division between the monochromatic gray sky and the field of graphic squiggles representing water is sharply defined. The impact of this and other early works resonate with visual clarity and directness.
In dramatic contrast, Constant’s monumental new work Fèy Nan Bwa, 2022 depicts a lively scene featuring a large grouping of the lwa from the pantheon of Haitian Vodou. At the center of this dense composition, measuring at nearly ten feet in length, Constant depicts Danbala, another important lwa in Haitian Vodou, traditionally represented in the image of a snake. Danbala is known as the creator of the cosmos who shaped the hills and valleys on earth with his slithering movement. As a serpent, he moves between land and water, generating life. In the background of her composition, Constant illustrates this origin story with a landscape of lush, rolling hills. Even while including numerous figures, Constant articulates the facial features, expressive gestures, and patterned garments of each form with meticulous detail. In another departure from the work made earlier in her career, Constant here plays with depth of field, depicting dwellings nestled in a pastoral landscape at a specifically small scale in order to establish the illusion of receding space. As seen in the verdant hills and objects surrounding the central composition, the artist also creates shading and volume by combining different chromatic variations of the same color of beads or sequins.
The borders of Constant’s artworks are often just as important as the central compositions. Around the perimeter of Fèy Nan Bwa, baskets containing fruits and vegetables symbolize the bounty of the harvest. The motif of a wooden mortar and pestle is also repeated. As an essential tool used in Haitian kitchens, the pilon is synonymous with daily food preparation in a secular context while also signifying ceremonial offerings.
With her deft craftsmanship and visual sophistication, Constant melds the secular and the spiritual as she seamlessly integrates traditional art practices with a bold contemporary aesthetic. The tactility and luminescence of her works activate their surroundings with sumptuous, provocative presence.
About the artist
Myrlande Constant’s work is included in museum collections throughout the United States including Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY; Lowe Art Museum, Miami, FL ; Waterloo Center for the Arts, Waterloo, IA ; and the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA.