A Photographer’s Otherworldly Portrayal of Créolité

Créolité emerged as a late 20th-century literary movement lead by a group of Antillean writers, including Édouard Glissant, dedicated to describing unique and hybrid Caribbean identities in spite of a négritude movement that overlooked the colliding experiences of both the colonial self and experienced self. At the heart of this movement was an acknowledgment of the contradictions inherent in creole selfhood, of the simultaneous lamentations and celebrations tied to a hybrid identity brought on by centuries of colonialism, dispossession, and resilience. Créolité understood that where there is presence, there is also an indescribable absence. This much is true in Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes On You).

Born in Pétion-Ville, Haiti, and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, Widline Cadet has traversed land, language, and time in her negotiation of migratory selfhood. In her debut solo exhibition at Deli Gallery, this negotiation is at the forefront of a collection of otherworldly images in search of home. Titled after a wish for the future Cadet’s mother has continually expressed, this body of work asks: What does it mean to carry other people’s hopes? Where do your own hopes go?

Composed of both black-and-white and color photographs taken by Cadet and unidentified family members, the exhibition explores créolité through memories both real and surreal. Ushered in through Deli Gallery’s narrow entrance, I am first met with intimate photos depicting birthdays and family gatherings. Though none of the exhibited photographs were taken in Haiti, they all invoke the motherland’s omnipresence. Palms and vibrant bougainvillea pepper the show while mahogany wood frames recall the traditionally dark wooden furniture iconic of Haitian homes. The motherland haunts.

Widline Cadet, “Seremoni Disparisyon #1 (Ritual [Dis]Appearance #1)” (2019), archival inkjet print, artist frame, 20 × 16 × 1 3/4 inches

In “Seremoni Disparisyon #1 (Ritual [Dis]Appearance #1)” (2019), pieces of corrugated metal — which have become a staple in the reconstruction of Haitian homes following the country’s 2010 earthquake — are clipped onto a stand submerged in water and adorned with childhood portraits of Cadet and her siblings. Cadet stands in a soaked peach dress facing this collaged vista, as her figure’s reflection mixes with the mirroring of a home once familiar and now foreign in the water’s currents. The backdrop serves as a window or portal to Cadet’s Haiti — memory a mere looking glass to alternate worlds and selves.

Cadet tells me that a handful of the photographs taken by unidentified photographs recall memories that the artist doesn’t quite fully remember herself. To which end, Cadet agrees that her images can be thought of as fictions. Throughout the exhibition, the artist uses mirroring — self-portraiture and digital manipulation as a form of reflection — as a speculative and cinematic device to imagine within this slippage in memory, time, and identity.

In “Nou Fè Pati, Nou Se, Nou Anvi (We Belong, We be, We Long)” (2020), Cadet poses in an exuberant bend mirrored by a former friend in identical traditional gingham school uniforms against the same gingham backdrop. Animated and layered limbs reveal multiplying selves cast against the bright green of grass that fades into the night. There is no horizon in this space of creation, only liminal darkness. Cadet’s magnetic self-portrait, “Ki Jan Nou Wè Tèt Nou Nan Tan Kap Vini An #1 (How We See Ourselves In(to) The Future #1)” (2020), directs me to act as the other end of a mirror. The black-and-white image portrays Cadet in an empowered pose as she commands both my gaze and the camera’s shutter via a remote clicker. Wide eyes and glossed lips shine as the artist offers a vision of her own hybrid selfhood. Mirrors become never-ending answers for a loss that is almost impossible to locate.

When asked where she locates the future in this show, Cadet gestures to “Sé Sou Ou Mwen Mété Espwa m #3 (I Put All My Hopes On You #3)” (2021). A small print of a disposable camera photo taken of her younger nieces and nephews playfully laughing is framed within a larger and more recent photo of tropical backyard fauna lit under a warm fuchsia sky. Within the larger photo, Cadet’s young family members are lovingly situated off into the splendid sunset. She says these children are her future. I wonder if they carry all her hopes.

Installation view, Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes On You) at Deli Gallery

Widline Cadet: Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes On You) continues at Deli Gallery (36 White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through August 13.

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