Kathia St. Hilaire Challenges Colonial Narratives in Her Collaged Canvases

Kathia St. Hilaire clearly remembers her mother’s stories about Hurricane David—the infamous category five storm that ravaged Haiti in 1979. She was particularly struck by how the hurricane seemed to wash everything away, laying bare the stark inequalities in the region. This disaster is memorialized in her work David (2022). For St. Hilaire, this 12-foot-tall wall-based collaged spiral, composed of colorful studio scraps like banana leaves and discarded fabrics, is the perfect symbol for the shifts in power throughout Latin American history—often marked by tumultuous violence.

“I love experiencing [my mother] telling the story because I love the sublime,” St. Hilaire told Artsy during a walkthrough of her exhibition “Mounting Spirits, Resisting Empire,” on view at Perrotin until February 17th. David is both subtle and commanding—the largest and oldest work in the show. Although it’s the exhibition’s cornerstone, its full impact is discreetly veiled, partially hidden behind two black, diaphanous curtains. In her words, the hurricane symbolizes “the erasure of history and how people don’t really necessarily see it coming.” The work sets the tone for her historically angled exhibition.

For many of the works in the show, St. Hilaire uses reduction printmaking, a meticulous process of carving and layering images on linoleum blocks to create textured, intricate prints on canvas. She then stitches on or embeds these paintings with unconventional materials like rubber tires, Chiquita banana stickers, and banknotes, weaving in cultural and historical symbols that echo her Haitian heritage and the colonial past. Many canvases, like Charlemagne Péralte (2023), feature Vodun (colloquially known as Voodoo) symbols. This relief painting on canvas is presented on a collaged set of canvas diamonds, which, in Vodun, represents the god of war, Ogun.

“Mounting Spirits, Resisting Empire” confronts the obscured histories of Haiti and Latin America, intertwining accounts of the Banana Wars—a series of military interventions by the United States in the Caribbean and Central America to protect its commercial interests in the banana trade—with narratives of post-colonialism. This archival storytelling comes with its complications, she explained: “A lot of the history, especially coming from Haiti, along with Colombia, is lost. You don’t really get to understand.”

Her “Caco” series is born out of this uncertainty. The paintings depict Haitian leaders Benoît Batraville, Charlemagne Péralte, and Rosalvo Bobo, who led the resistance against the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Her paintings underscore the ambiguity of post-colonial history. Each work is paired with a counterpart whose title is the reverse (such as Caco: Rosalvo Bobo, 2023, with oboB ovlasoR :ocaC, 2023, for instance). The two works are hung across the gallery from one another and recreated with only the slightest differences of material to challenge the perception of history and its representation.

This strategy was inspired by the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. “The idea of mirroring everything and making them very much like each painting but slightly different from the others is how I felt when I read the book,” she said. “The names [in the book] were slightly changing, while the personalities stayed the same. People were forgetting things that they were doing. It’s what I wanted for these paintings. I wanted something that was complex, but at the same time, that was the same.”

Meanwhile, other pieces like mamita yunai (2023) embrace the “marvelous real,” a term coined by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier as part of his argument that the true histories of Latin America are so fantastical they do not need to be sensationalized. On this canvas—collaged with skin-lightening cream, steel, aluminum, bank notes, price tags, banana stickers, silkscreen, and tires—St. Hilaire captures the essence of Carpentier’s idea by depicting the aftermath of the 1928 Banana Massacre, in which the Colombian army killed workers striking against United Fruit Company. St. Hilaire depicts nine dead bodies in this work, meant to symbolize the nine demands of the protesting workers.

St. Hilaire’s work is full of historical allusions, along with Vodun symbols, and tokens from her personal life. Chiquita banana stickers are everywhere—a reference to the company’s mascot Miss Chiquita (who was based on real-life singer Carmen Miranda). This branding was meant to bridge the U.S. and Latin America but instead perpetuated stereotypes and omitted representations of Black people in Latin America. St. Hilaire added that the U.S. was “very much adamant about how they wanted everyone to be perceived, as in, they want to be seen as a white country…that history of invasion created all these stereotypes and misconceptions of people from Latin America.”

St. Hilaire’s work exposes submerged truths to reshape historical narratives. This continual, spiraling journey through history is a path that reveals hidden truths about people and inequalities today—much like the relentless progression of a hurricane that it draws inspiration from.

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