Didier William,
Bois Caiman, 2017
Collage, acrylic, and wood carving on panel
unframed: 48 x 60 in. (121.92 x 152.4 cm.)
Collection of Robert and Frances Couldburn Kohler, Swarm006

By Kai Coe

It’s time to SWARM.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) has joined forces with artists Didier William and Nestor Armando Gil, in conjunction with Taller Workshop, to showcase their innovative cultural exhibition, SWARM.

“PAFA is honored to organize and present SWARM, a project of Didier William and Nestor Gil that asks us to examine places of power and confront our notions of America,” said Brooke Davis Anderson, Edna S. Tuttleman Director of the Museum. “As a museum committed to telling the sweeping story of American art, we are looking forward to a summer that reflects the creative diaspora of Caribbean communities, in particular Haitian and Cuban.”

William and Gil, both printmakers of Caribbean descent, were introduced by a mutual friend and quickly noticed the connections in their work. Cuban-American Nestor sources his country’s history with hints of his own personal biography throughout his art, as does Didier with Haitian culture. They both led the conceptual framework, choosing to ambitiously share both personal narratives and those of the immigrants from their countries who for centuries have created their own communities in the States. In turn, SWARM, an exhibition exploring affect, spirituality, process, revolution and history for their respective communities, came to fruition, going on view at PAFA on June 30.

Speaking to Haitian Times, William shares “I think we realized there was a lot similarities in the ways we thought about history, family, community, cultural symbolism, the ways in which we do or don’t identify with it, and what that means for the space we occupy and the futures that we imagine, particularly in a country that sees us as foreign bodies so persistently.”

William’s collection, which is comprised of paintings, printmaking, collages and drawings, is a complex hybrid that pushes Haiti’s rich, albeit disturbing history to the forefront. Figures in his work are recurrently covered in eyes, which launched a larger conversation about the “curious gazes” those of African and Caribbean descent are subject to on a regular basis.

“I think it’s also, in part, a way for me to try to extend the body beyond itself, because we know that gaze sort of spreads throughout the history of the restitution of people of color,” Didier, who also serves as the Chair of PAFA’s MFA Program, explains. “And in some ways those eyes are not just the eyes of a singular body, but they’re the eyes of ancestors, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters [and] mothers and fathers. They’re the eyes of every other body that’s been subject to that same gaze.”

According to Laurel McLaughlin, curatorial assistant at PAFA and the guest curator for the SWARM. exhibition, William and Gil’s work comes at a time where the injustices taking place in the United States calls for people to “teem” and “confront en masse.”

“And how better to express that than by showing that America’s not this homogeneous entity?” she questions. “We have people from Haiti, Cuba and all over the Caribbean—and all over the world—that identify as American, but also as something else. That’s the real American story, and we’re really interested in telling that story, especially today in this political climate where those identities have been denigrated.”

PAFA, the first school and museum of fine arts in the country, will exhibit SWARM. until Sept. 9. Didier William and Nestor Armando Gil/Taller Workshop’s work can be viewed at the Fisher Brooks and Morris Galleries, across the campus of PAFA’s Samuel M.V. Hamilton and Historic Landmark Buildings.

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