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The Weight of History

A conversation between Marsha Pearce and Tessa Mars


Artist Tessa Mars
Artist Tessa Mars. Image courtesy the artist.


Marsha Pearce: Hello Tessa, are you in Haiti? How are you doing?

Tessa Mars: Hello Marsha, I’m currently in the Netherlands for a two-year residency at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten. I arrived in Amsterdam at the end of January, and consequently, had very little time to adjust to my surroundings before the quarantine was put in place. Since then, I’ve thankfully found my bearings and I’ve got a better Idea of what I want to accomplish during my time here.

Last year your solo exhibition titled Île Modèle, Manman Zile, Island Template was presented at le Centre D’art at the Maison Dufort in Port-au-Prince. I was sorry I did not get an opportunity to experience it. What can you tell me about the ideas and concerns at the heart of that body of work? What is the significance of the show’s title?

The title in French-Creole-English is a way for me to highlight and link together different ideas/attitudes that come into play whenever Haiti is mentioned and to underline how language can shape and crystallise these attitudes. The title evokes, for me, Haiti-land-people-history as an example to either follow or decry – as the motherland and as a clinical object of study.

The show presented works both old and new, some that I had created over the years (since 2015) during artist residencies in the Caribbean and the US, and some that I created for the show. My main concern was in identifying ways of living and seeing the world that are rooted in the Haitian experience but are also common to most people in the region. Ways that are shaped in part by the power dynamics at play in our corner of the world but are not, in the end, overly concerned by them.

Tessa Mars’ Nou la ansanm / We are here series, 2019. Acrylic on canvas 4 x 8 ft. Image courtesy the artist.
Tessa Mars’ Untitled I, Praying for the visa, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 4 ft. Image courtesy the artist.
Tessa Mars’ Untitled II, Praying for the visa, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 4 ft. Image courtesy the artist.

You have new work featured in the upcoming group exhibition, which opens in Basel Switzerland. The show is titled One Month After Being Known in that Island: Caribbean Art Today and is curated by Yina Jiménez Suriel and Pablo Guardiola. Please tell me about your piece A Vision of Peace, Harmony and Good Intelligence.

One month after being known in that island is part of a sentence that appears in the Basel treaty signed between France and Spain in 1795. The maintenance of peace, harmony and good intelligence between the two colonial powers is one of the stated reasons for the establishment of this treaty. Without delving into the details surrounding the signing, it is important to mention that it decided the surrendering of the Spanish part of the Hispaniola island in the Caribbean to the French.

I was immediately taken by the claim to universality implicitly contained in the use of the words “Peace,” “Harmony” and “Good intelligence.” The two pieces I am showing question this claim and seek to propose alternate understandings and allow for multiple perspectives based on local/root wisdom where past, present, and future are tightly linked to nature to shape our aspirations wherever we are.

In the midst of this pandemic and safety protocols that involve the wearing of masks, you have been working on a bird mask – “a mask to fly away with,” as you have described it. Tell me about this mask, its connection to the history of Haiti and its link with fear rather than safety.

I’ve been thinking about the representation of animals in Haitian art and popular culture – investigating the possibilities of a bestiary. I decided to make the bird mask on a whim and the guinea fowl or “pentad” came to mind immediately; a bird that cannot really fly. The pentad was the official “mascot” of the Tonton Macoutes during the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti and in many ways is a symbol of fear but, it is also in everyday language, an escape artist; a bird or individual who is not easily caught.

Crafting this mask felt in many ways like crafting a weird metaphor, as I cannot escape the quarantine completely by flying away. I also cannot escape the weight of history; of symbols and objects. However, wearing the pentad, I can both inhabit the fear and escape from it. I can transform it. This process is what my practice is all about.

Tessa Mars wearing her Guinea fowl mask. Image courtesy the artist.
Goddess of Memory by Tessa Mars
Tessa Mars’ Goddess of Memory, 2018. Acrylic and fabric on canvas, 101.6cm x 127cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Your practice includes the invocation of a fictional alter ego named Tessalines – a combination of your name and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a military leader of the Haitian Revolution and first ruler of independent Haiti. Tessalines is a female hero; a figure of resistance. Given recent protests around the world launched in an effort to dismantle systemic inequalities and violence, how are you thinking about Tessalines now? How might she manifest and work in these times?

Tessalines is always shifting and evolving, and not always in sync with what’s happening around me. Since the show last year, I’ve felt the need to find answers to the question of the perceived loneliness of Tessalines. And so, my concern now, when it comes to Tessalines, is to articulate how she fits with others. I don’t conceive of Tessalines as a “hero” per se, although she has the attributes of one. She’s always been first and foremost a tool to transcend my traumas and tell alternative stories that can heal. In this process of healing, I find now that a certain separateness needs to be dealt with and therefore, I’m crafting a different perspective of Tessalines, one that is more at peace and in harmony with nature and maybe with others.


Stay connected with Tessa Mars:

Instagram: @emasstar


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