Walking with Basquiat

A Poetic Reading of Haitian Art and Diaspora


Gina Athena Ulysse is a feminist Haitian American poet, performance artist, anthropologist, and “self-described Post-Zora Interventionist." Her recently published collection, Because When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, me & THE WORLD (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), explores her relationship to the place of her birth, the meaning of diaspora, and the black migrant experience in America. Here, she elaborates on how she has developed as an artist over time. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You can read more of her work in an excerpt from her latest collection, published here.


Michelle Chen: How do you fit together your academic work and your creative work?

Gina Athena Ulysse: I try not to reinscribe that divide between academic and creative, because the creative has always been academic. I consider this to be ethnographic cultural anthropology. Pioneers in the field have done this for ages. It's getting some professional recognition now within anthropology. The discipline is caught in an ideological divide between the humanities and the sciences. What's thought of as creative and what's more conventional. This only serves institutions and folks invested in them. Specialized knowledge aside, there's no reason why can't we use multiple modalities to express things that are related to whatever phenomenon, in different ways.

I often say no one or no subject lives their life along disciplinary lines. So this idea of disciplines be it anthropology, sociology, math, biology, political science, etc. has its limits. You know, no one is going around saying, 'I'm having a biological experience right now. I'm having an anthropological experience.' It’s all intertwined. In trying to make critical sense of the world, my work is a way to think through the significance of disciplines and the role they play in institutions especially to recreate a 'split subject.' For me, it's all about recognizing a full and integrated being. That person can be as creative as they can be conventional, as visceral as they are cerebral.

How did you navigate the career pathways of academia and performance art?

I was an artist before I became an anthropologist. I went into anthropology with a very strong attachment and identification as an artist. I paid a high price, it has been tough and it's still not easy. One way to think about it is symbolically. If the ultimate goal of earning a Ph.D. is to become a white male—white, hetero, patriarchal figure, cerebral, high minded high theory (borrowing from Lani Guinier’s book Becoming a Gentleman), there is a clear class element to this. I got the Ph.D, and then insisted I'm still an artist. The arts have always been gendered, feminized and we unfortunately live in a misoginist/misogynoir world. In certain academic circles. more often than not, the arts are not respected. There is a hierarchy of value. They are not treated in the field with the same regard as the STEM fields are treated. If it's interpretative, then it's plural. And it will not be seen or understood as equal to the supposedly more singular, 'objective' topics of math and sciences."


How did you initially develop a sense of yourself as an artist?

"From the time I was about seven... I wanted to be a singer. And we migrated I was 11. It was the 80s. Everything was big: I didn't just want to sing, I wanted to be a rock star. Big stadiums completely not knowing how to understand, navigate what it meant to be Haitian, or navigate what what we now call extreme anti-blackness, globally and extreme anti-Haitianism. Because Haitians were thought to be one of the [so-called] “4-H” carriers of AIDS.

My creative impulse was all about feeling, responding to that sense of total alienation.This sense that “I don't fit in.” I always questioned everything and was never satisfied with any answers. To me, the issue is not why, but how? How did things come to be this way? How did Haiti or being Haitian become so negative in popular imagination? Didn’t Haiti have a Revolution that ended slavery? Why were people so hostile? How does that manifest, and what does that mean?

That realization is also what drove me from the arts toward anthropology, because I was trying to find bigger answers. For me that meant more study. I understood it was through higher education that I was going to better understand inequality in general and how Haiti got where it is and what that has meant within a broader, global world.

It was my doctoral studies helped me connect everything. That’s why the work draws on multiple sources and different media, including photography. My artistic interest is to put together a deeply historical, integrated story of global blackness. In my second book, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, I wrote, ‘Haiti is my point of departure, not my point of arrival.’ Because I've lived in this country much longer than Haiti. Of course, I comfortably identify as black as I am Black. But it's tricky since my blackness is not without qualifiers among black Americans....

A cop is going to see me as black. They are not going to think I'm from the Caribbean, right? But then, within an African American community or in black communities, I remain an outsider of sorts. The “where are you really from” question looms, “Oh you're not quite one of us. So that sense of always occupying this Other self is continuous. But, then again, I am hyper aware that we live in a world with Power structures that divide and conquer. That's how you manage disenfranchised groups and oppressed people.

I don't let that perception affect how I lead myself into the world. My performance work is generally influenced by everybody. In Because When God is Too Busy, you hear specters of Sandra Cisneros, Bob Marley, Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill. My themes draw on Haiti and Haitian references but my style, form and delivery is mostly inspired by black revolutionary poets who are grounded in feminist sensibilities. Poets like June Jordan and Amiri Baraka, Kamau Braithwaite and Audre Lorde. Once I was finally exposed to that kind of work, it gave me permission to reject silence and to explore what it meant to be a young black woman to be able to speak out. In my Haitian context, as I was growing up, docility was key. What it meant to be quiet was instrumental in the making of a certain kind of young Haitian person. But with migration, and with my exposure to that “talking back”—as bell hooks calls it, in the form that black revolutionary poets have done it—that has really influenced me.

What do you think about the current political moment under the Trump administration, and the need for more cultural dialogue, especially on the migration experience?

We need the arts now more than ever. The humanities have always been instrumental to connecting differences across cultures. Listening to and responding to our times. Our ability to freely respond in this current political climate is key—not just to document it for the future, but also to engage with each other.


Basquiat’s Lwas

By Gina Athena Ulysse
The spirits in Jean-Michel Basquiat's head agitated
with all their puissance, they tormented him
until they did his body in
they made their first appearance in abrupt spurts of squiggly
black   lines  that  ate   through the whiteness of canvasses
to announce their claim on him
lwas get jealous when nonbelievers with inherited
duties disrespect the order of things and pretend
the price for such denial is high
spirits always find ways to their rapture
so they obsessed him until he gave them form
in iconic signs  block letters
still they took over eating his flesh from within
no one had bothered to tell Jean-Michel
that his spirits needed to be nourished
can't feed one demon and starve the others
when his met tet finally came out in full without regalia
nude   all in black   no cane   not even the   top hat
teeth bared   fearful and randy   he was already the winner
years after his body passed
     under water
   on the way back to Ginen
the silence continues
                               as if no one could tell
Papa Gédé danced in Jean-Michel Basquiat's head     

--Excerpted from Because When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, me & THE WORLD 


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