Re-Writing History: Fabiola Jean-Louis
Words By: Bryan Mason
Photography: Patrick Cline
A rustle of fabric, a pop of color and the unflinching gaze of dark eyes. With these, fine art photographer Fabiola Jean-Louis weaves a narrative that blends past and future, fact and fantasy, afro-futurism and Black girl magic. In the process, blending photography and sculpture, she warps time and space, giving us a glimpse of what might have been while casting light on a history that many have forgotten or ignored.
The artist’s most celebrated series, Re-Writing History, is a mesmerizing and painstaking interrogation of history, symbolism and the
value placed on Black bodies. The collection ranges from pieces resembling Victorian-era paintings to ghostly images reminiscent of those popular during Britain’s Spiritualist movement. Fabiola’s painterly photographs are deeply layered, using camera, model and wardrobe to mimic oil paintings. Even more intriguing, Fabiola sculpts her models’ elaborate dresses completely out of papier-mâché. The effect is flawless and fraught with symbolism. Both evoke the artist’s deep interest in Diaspora religious systems including Vodun, Voodoo and Candomblé.
Fabiola’s world celebrates the beauty and strength of Black women, while indicting past and present efforts to deny, control or extinguish them. The images are as subversive as they are beautiful – demanding closer inspection, greeting it with poignant critique. In “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting” a woman gazes at a painting of an enslaved man whose deep back scars are designed into the back of her gown. The sculpted dress in “Madame Leroy” features a central ornament depicting a Black man in chains hanging from a floral tree. “The Conquistador” is arresting, speaking volumes about colonization and the very beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In some works, the title of the piece is as striking as the image itself. “They’ll Say We Enjoyed It,” features a model serenely looking away from a painting of two white men assaulting a Black woman. Her appearance echoes that of Marie Antoinette in Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s 1778 portrait. The piece’s title echoes Zora Neal Hurston’s famous quote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
“Re-Writing History” is a captivating commentary on some of society’s uglier realities through the mechanism of revisionist history and the medium of beautiful art. Yet it’s intervention is not placing Black people in Victorian England – we were already there. Perhaps the most celebrated and heartbreaking story of the “Black Victorians” belongs to Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Orphaned during her capture at six, she was later “rescued” by British naval captain, Frederick E Forbes. Forbes appended both his name and that of his ship, “Bonetta,” to the girl before presenting her as a gift to Queen Victoria at the age of eight. Though elegant images of her and other Black people of this era exist from both the United States and the United Kingdom, the lives of the people depicted were often anything but. Re-Writing History points out this glaring disparity, challenging us to identify the narratives, symbols and tropes used to carry out and justify these tragedies while shining a light on their continued presence today.
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