Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History Through Beauty



This past fall a creative synthesis of art and design arrived on the South Side of Chicago when Brooklyn-based artist Fabiola Jean-Louis brought her life-size paper gowns and carefully staged photographs to the DuSable Museum in Hyde Park. I met the artist herself in the spring, and we took a tour of the exhibition with Clinée Hedspeth, Director of Curatorial Services at the museum and the woman who brought Jean-Louis to the DuSable. We talked about how art and beauty can be used as vehicles for contemplating and understanding larger issues. After meeting Jean-Louis I not only looked at paper in a whole new light, but I understood the possibilities of recontextualizing multiple histories. 

Jean-Louis was born in Haiti, and she says her work is primarily informed by her Afro-Caribbean heritage, black culture and the dialogue of mysticism. By reinterpreting generally recognizable images of European (white) nobility and recreating the traditional trappings using deceptively simple materials such as paper, Jean-Louis sets up immersive scenarios though which viewers can reconnect to a violent and complicated past while reimagining a more beautiful and hopeful history. Viewers who encounter her work first see a stunning, familiar image, and then they detect the questions beneath the surface. This, for Jean-Louis, is how she seeks to rewrite history – not to change the past but to use history to challenge the present and therefore change society in the future. 

The DuSable is an institution devoted to the historic and artistic examination of the African American experience, an evolving mission that is carried out in endless ways. This latest exhibition represents a new direction for the museum. Following is an edited transcript of my conversation with both Jean-Louis and Hedspeth.  –GV


CGN: Clinée, when we first met you told me you discovered Fabiola’s art online at 2 o’clock in the morning. Her work was so personal to you, even through a screen, that you were compelled to contact here. Tell me how you came to collaborate on an exhibition at the DuSable Museum.

Clinée Hedspeth: I wasn’t in curatorial here at the time. I was in education, but as a collector I was just in love with her work. So I sent her an email, and she responded. That was before we had a chief curator at the museum, so we kept talking, I looked at more of her work, and then all of the sudden I said, “You need to come here. Let me see what I can do.” 

Fabiola Jean-Louis: And then we started having conversations with the new curator at first, and then for about a year and a half, about a small group show with two other artists.

CH: I had to climb the ladder where I could bring her in. [Laughter] 

FJL: There were changes happening at the museum and they were looking at the new face of the DuSable and what the new exhibitions would look like, and that took time. When Lee Bey came on board, together with Clinée he said, “We’re gonna make it happen.” And at that point it was like a race to get ready.

CGN: Have you had an exhibition on this scale anywhere prior to now? You must have needed a lot of time to get everything ready. 

FJL: A lot of time. The first ever show that I had with Rewriting History was when it was still very young at the Harlem School of the Arts. That show consisted of two and a half sculptures and maybe four to six prints. By the time Clinée and I started working together I had added more pieces and improved my skill set with how I was making the dresses. 

So, I got to the point where I needed to remake dresses again. Here is a dress [points] with a totally different type of paper. It’s an archival paper. The original was a newsprint. This paper just had a better flow. Also the cut of the dress is different. I wanted something that is more true to what existed, as far as shape, and the original wasn’t. So for display purposes, I really wanted the actual sculpture to have the right cut and proportion, and it needed to be redone. I also had to spray a dye onto it versus using acrylic paint.

The DuSable is my first museum show, and I’m so happy. I’ve always said that it was really important to show my work in a black museum. It also helps that DuSable is a Smithsonian affiliate, since another goal for me has been to get to the Smithsonian. This is a dream come true. This is like the granddaddy of all the granddaddies.

CH: Fabiola doesn’t make work catered to the space, and that’s what I loved about her work. At first I didn’t know what was done to make a piece, but once the show was going to happen I had to ask, ‘What’s the checklist?’ 

FJL: It actually takes me four to five months to get one shot, because of conceptualizing, and making the dress. I had to get to a point where I could pump out a dress in a week. 

CGN: The beauty of each piece is the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the historical context and the story behind it. Are there different stories connected to each piece, or are they each different chapters of a larger story?

FJL: Different chapters of a larger story. I do my research and think about history, but I’m not an academic. It’s something that I have to go and find. Also, prior to doing Rewriting History, I was a pre-med student. My career was set to become a doctor, so I’m academic in that sense, but when it comes to the work for Rewriting History it really has to start from this very organic, raw place. Sometimes I don’t even read; it’s about what I know has happened already. I think about the black experience as being non-linear, and I try to tap into as many different aspects of that story as I can. For instance, being a black woman, being Afro-Caribbean – I don’t identify as African American – personally it’s me working from those different places. I also look at the space of the black experience being African American. What does that look like and how does that relate to me? It ends up being part of a larger story, but it’s different chapters. It doesn’t mean that the stories aren’t related in some way. They’re all relative. It’s ultimately about the same thing – injustice, trauma, and violence against black bodies.

CGN: When you think about the horrors of so many aspects of history for African Americans, Afro-caribbeans, black people, are you using beauty to get attention or communicate? Is there an element where beauty is a sort of mask? How do you use beauty to connect to something so atrocious?

FJL: I like that word, actually. I haven’t used that word mask, and it’s making me think. I think that here beauty can be seen as a mask used to uncover something deeper, for sure. 

CGN: We do that all the time. 

FJL: That’s right, because I use beauty as a vehicle to carry my viewers through this journey and take them to a place that’s uncomfortable at some point. But mask, I think, is also very true to that. It’s also being used to uncover something that’s very ugly. It definitely speaks to my response to how I see our society being desensitized to injustice and again, violence against black bodies. 

Early on in the series when I was creating, I knew for sure that I wasn’t interested in showing the blood and the gore. Us being murdered. Even when I do presentations, I don’t include pictures that are during slavery or even in the ‘50s when black men and women are hanging. It’s so important, to me, to preserve us in some way. And I feel like every time we see us being shot and blood and all that it’s just like there’s no respect. 

CGN: Well sometimes it ends up being distracting. People just want to look at the blood and gore without thinking about how it got there.

FJL: Exactly, without connecting to the actual thing or incident. So I knew early on that I wasn’t going to do that. I took my time to think about how I was going to present it, and beauty became a very clear means, because at the same time I wanted to create work that would be welcoming to different people, and not just the Black Diaspora, but anyone interested in talking about race. I want them to feel welcomed into this space to talk about it. That’s not to say that there’s [something] apologetic in the work at all or that I’m going to hold back from what I feel is important to the story. 

CGN: When talking about history you said you reference historical situations you know are true, but you’re not relying on academic texts or timelines. The title of the exhibition is Rewriting History. What do you think about being revisionist? It sounds to me like you’re not trying to rewrite the past. You’re actually just trying to understand it from now going forward. 

FJL: Right. The rewriting part is not literal. It’s not for me to do, because I can’t anyway. 

CGN: You’re not rewriting it because you’re showing what happened. 

FJL: It’s more of a What if? What if I could? What if we were always celebrated? The series just shows black female bodies, black women. That’s what I’m most comfortable showing. It’s not that I don’t want to include black men in the work, but as a photographer, as an artist, I’m more comfortable working with the black female body. We’ve been disrespected, so this for me asks a question, while also remembering what actually happened.

I’m a firm believer in the saying that in order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. You have to know where you are. It’s not about forgetting the past. It is about rethinking how we see beauty, how we celebrate the black female body, and rethinking what freedom actually looks like. Is freedom always this big grand thing, or is freedom the simplicity of just sitting for a portrait? The leisure of having the time to be painted or photographed. We take the simplicity of freedom for granted. So the series is about going deeper into what freedom actually looks like, and what freedom is. 

CGN: There’s another level of just considering a woman’s lifestyle – the trappings of beauty, all of the stuff that has to be out adorning, rather than just within, the body. 

FJL: We can talk about leisure and the freedom to be painted, but we also acknowledge how even those women were imprisoned, in a way. Fashion was a means to do that. They had to wear these tight corsets.

CGN: You mean beauty is pain. 

FJL: The corset for me takes this on. It’s something really beautiful and aesthetic, but when we think about what it actually stands for, it’s not. It’s confining. It’s choking. The corset represents, for the black women in my works, society, racism and all the limitations that we’ve had. It’s always a dance between how fashion and the celebration of beauty and taking and owning space relates to the things that we take for granted: like fashion, a painting, or who gets to wear what. 

CGN: Tell me about your artistic process. The sculptures are each related to the photographs, and you said it can take months to set up a single shoot.

FJL: I don’t look at other photographers as inspiration for my work. I always look at paintings. My library has just books and museum catalogues that show actual garments, if they have it, and paintings – Boucher, Fragonard, Rembrandt, artists like that. Rewriting History is me showing a contemporary way of what I think a painting looks like. I’m not a painter, even though the pieces in my photographs I’ve painted. 

I try to get a digital photograph to look like a painting. The first part of the process is looking at those master painters and doing research. Sometimes, the work is a response to what’s happening currently. Other times it’s intuition – a conversation I’m having with my ancestors.Then through that space I think about the concept I want to bring to life. When I figure that out I decide on the style and design. I’m always looking at 16th–19th Century Fashion for reference.

CGN: That’s a pretty big time-span.

FJL: [Laughter] Well, I think about the style that’s most appealing to me, and sometimes the dresses are going to be replicas of what was in a painting. Early on the dresses were a mixture of different periods. Now, I’m more interested in replicas. I don’t sketch anything. I just can’t operate in that space. It’s too limiting for me. 

CGN: I would not have guessed that. 

FJL: I have five notebooks for sketching that I convince myself that I’m going to use, but I just can’t do it. 

CGN: So, it’s really as you go?

FJL: That’s what’s so free about it. I can add on, and it’s all about emotion. At the same time I’m also thinking about the set. I have to think about the design and how I’m going to bring the lighting in and tell the story. 

CGN: Does every piece end up as part of a photograph?

FJL: Usually, yes,but not every single piece. For the DuSable they have two dress that have not been worn yet, and so there are no photographs of these pieces. It doesn’t mean there’s not going to be. I have to work backwards because I had the design and the dress already, but I want to add them into the photographs. 

CGN: Your photographs have a painterly quality, as you said. Here you photographed your daughter wearing your sculpture and props, and then you digitally apply a veneer that makes it not quite real.

FJL: It’s become my style of photography. I just love everything that’s painterly. That in itself takes hours to do. After the photograph is done, it takes me about four days of editing to just paint and Photoshop to get it to look that way. And there’s another reason why it needs to be like a painting – that’s where we are often missing. If I go to a museum, I’m not going to see the black body in a master painting celebrated in that way. If the black body is in that painting, someone is often either enslaved, or they just disappear into the backdrop. 

CGN: Or they’re in an exotic culture. 

FJL: And fetishized in some way. So it starts there with a painting; the goal was always to have them in a museum.

CGN: You want to put them where they are not. 

FJL: So I’m not very interested in a photograph really. Even though I use the camera as a tool, like a painter uses a brush, my goal is not to get something that literally looks like a photograph. I’m more interested in something that seems otherworldly. 

CGN: What materials do you use? 

FJL: I use acrylic paints. I use dyes, coffee [and] natural stain. I use handmade Japanese paper, or just a simple French craft paper. Sometimes I make my own paper. It depends on what I’m working on and the scale of it. Now my work has progressed to include furniture, jewelry and shoes. So, it’s a madness. 

CGN: You are at the beginning of your career. Where do you think you will go next? 

FJL: Rewriting History is inspired by my history and my identity. It’s about analyzing myself and who I am as a black woman, as an artist, as a mother. I’m grateful for the series because it inspired a lot of work that’s going to be an extension of Rewriting History. The work is continuous and still developing. It’s never-ending. 


Rewriting History is on view through May 23 at the DuSable Museum of African American History.


Note: After the interview was conducted Clinée Hedspeth moved on from curatorial work with the DuSable Museum in April 2018 to independent art consulting and appraising. She continues to represent Fabiola Jean-Louis’s projects.