- Houses of the People and Houses of the SelfAn Interview with Marilene Phipps
Selected Works by Marilene Phipps
Artists tend to shrink from labels, and yet you must contend with being labeled a “Haitian Painter.” How do you place yourself as a Haitian and as a painter?
That question is always difficult to tackle because part of me is very proud of being Haitian and of being a Haitian painter. But the painter in me hesitates to be satisfied with that category because like all categories it’s confining and limiting. Although I’m proud of being Haitian, proud of what I paint, I’m uncomfortable with being labeled a Haitian painter because that puts me in a little box, in a category that plays on undertones of the folkloric third world. It’s the “third world acting up.” So it has strange connotations and I’m never quite sure exactly what it means. Also, it can be used against you as much as it can be used for you. I prefer to be called a painter, and I am from Haiti and Haiti is my subject matter.
You’re pointing out that these definitions—folkloric, third world, etc.—are formulated by outsiders. When they call you a Haitian painter, they are referring to a category that you don’t embrace. But let’s talk about the category that you do embrace. What does it mean for you to be a Haitian?
To be a Haitian, it’s all the worth that I have in a sense, if I have any worth at all. For me, being Haitian is: being born in Haiti, being brought up there, spending my formative years, my early childhood up to about 11 years old. That’s where my sensibility was formed, where my first impressions were made, so it’s everything, being Haitian. It’s also everything that I know and everything that I don’t know about myself. We’re always aware only of a very small fraction of what we are and who we are. I’m very happy and also I feel fortunate, because Haiti is a very rich place culturally and socially, and in many ways I was privileged to be born under that kind of sky and fortunate to have been born in social circumstances that were more comfortable than those of most Haitians. So I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’m sure that there are other lives that I could have had somewhere else which would have been also rich, but since Haiti’s what I know and what I’ve come to love and appreciate, I feel very happy with being Haitian.
What you seem to share with other Haitian painters whose work I know is a sense of the energy and boldness of the colors that you use in your paintings. [End Page 419] You mentioned the benefits of being born under that blue Haitian sky, but what else could you say that you draw from your childhood? More specifically, I am curious about the Haitians who people your paintings; these Haitians are from the lower classes—the rural as well as urban poor. Your landscapes are not the landscapes of urban Port-au-Prince. How did you come to relate to these aspects of Haiti, so that now you are able to draw from them as an adult painter?
The worlds are not so separate in Haiti. Boundaries are not so clear either. How could I not see what I paint? I may have grown up in a nice house, with certain privileges, but the neighborhoods in Haiti are not as far apart as they could be in the United States—at least when I was a child. It was also the Haiti of forty years ago; it was even more rural than it is now. You know, the goats are right there outside your door, the donkeys, too, and when you go to the mountains, to the beach, or on a promenade these are the landscapes you see.
Also, it’s an emotional choice and a mature choice that I...