This interview is part of an ongoing conversation between Claire Tancons and Ronald Cyrille, which began at the Tout-Monde Festival in Miami in March 2018. It was followed-up by a virtual visit on December 9, 2020, to his studio at the Mémorial ACTe (MACTe) in Guadeloupe during his residency there (November 2020 – March 2021) in partnership with the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s Caribbean Cultural Institute. The conversation will continue as Ronald is preparing for his upcoming exhibition Génésis: Mythologies individuelles.
We are both from Guadeloupe. I was born at the end of the 1970s and Ronald in the mid-80s. Ronald spent his childhood between Guadeloupe and Dominica. But it is Miami, the American capital of the Caribbean, that has brought us together. Far from the entrenched political and economic conflicts in what were once the French and British colonies of Guadeloupe and Dominica, Miami’s cultural infrastructure is unparalleled in the Caribbean, and the city has a unique capacity to recognize what its cultural production inherits from the Caribbean. It both serves as an inter-Caribbean hub and generates a more comprehensive understanding of the Caribbean.
Read as French in Dominica and a Dominican in Guadeloupe, Ronald Cyrille is both a product and producer of a comprehensive view of the Caribbean. Through his work, Cyrille navigates the waters of childhood and memory, mythology and folklore, as well as the undercurrents of intimacy below the surface of wider world currents. This contemporary Caribbean storyteller-painter takes us on board a “world-ship” that travels beyond the shipping routes commonly used between the coasts of Guadeloupe and Dominica even before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493; his world-ship is far from the conquistador´s caravel, the slave ship, or Noah’s ark.
Claire Tancons (CT): A recurring motif in your work is a modest skiff, a simple ferry boat or fishing vessel that looks like the traditional gommier (gomyé in Creole) and is carved out of the wood from a tree bearing the same name. This motif leaves a long wake, in my view, one that stretches from your childhood memories in Dominica with your fisherman grandfather to a Creole ethical principle that foreshadows Martinican researcher Malcolm Ferdinand’s notion of the “world-ship” [navire-monde] in Une écologie décoloniale (2019). The latter forms the basis for a relation to the Other and allows for a politics of encounter.
Can you explain the ship motif in your work, within the poetics of relation that it implies—to borrow this time from Édouard Glissant, the Martiniquais poet—and how you position yourself as an artist in relation to this ethical principle of the world-ship, given that you are often at its center?
Ronald Cyrille (RC): My artistic practice is comparable to a boat bearing nostalgic memory but also laden with all the softness of fortunate encounters—as you can see in Key Escape (2018), Echos (2018), and An piwog là (2018)—memories that are tossed about on the waves or carried away by violent tides that force me adrift. Through my work, the Caribbean trades stories with the world and the boat becomes a tool of that communication, a way to link and create dialogue between cultures. Each work reconstitutes this continuous journey into the depths of my memory, which in turn sustains the work’s creative meanderings canvas after canvas. There is also a narrative form in the work that links my past to my present, combines melancholy with euphoria, connects resilience with protest, and highlights the achievement of a kind of balance rather than a paradox. It’s an obsessional and symbolic universe in which convention has no place. I can move forms and objects as I wish within its magico-religious logic and the imaginary of the Creole language, in order to refer to an “elsewhere” that is sacred or profane.
CT: Your work’s spiritual dimension is as striking as it is elusive, much like spirituality within Caribbean culture: it is simultaneously ubiquitous and ungraspable. In a more concrete and immediate sense, this ship bridges your Guadeloupean and Dominican identities, which you always make a point of both mentioning and distinguishing; the ship merges theses identities into a representation of the Caribbean as a whole. You appear to express this tenacious duality and the redeeming fusion that results from it through double portraits and split figures. These figures themselves also draw on Creole tradition. Can you tell us more about how each of your island identities, so geographically and culturally close to each other yet so distinctive and unique, have influenced your trajectory as an artist?
Ronald Cyrille. Génésis 1 and 2, 2021. Mixed media on paper. 27 x 20 inches. Image courtesy the artist
RC: My dual culture is indeed represented in my work by two-headed characters (Genesis 1 and 2, 2021) that symbolize tradition but also refer to the myths and spiritualities that belong to me as well as to our territories. I grew up in Dominica, in its lush landscapes, which are fundamental components of my work. These landscapes represent the legacy of my deeply ingrained origins. My family was close and had a relationship with nature that sharpened by attention to and my sense of connection with it. When I landed in Guadeloupe, in the heart of the city, I was influenced by urban life: the frenzied activity there, the overcrowding, and the opportunity the city offers. Its bare walls provide vast and numerous surfaces for artistic creation. I never had to choose! I found a balance between my multiple identities that, in the end, didn’t need to be disentangled since they are complementary parts of who I am: a Caribbean!
CT: The boat that travels between Guadeloupe and Martinique is also a migrant’s boat—specifically of Dominicans immigrating to Guadeloupe in search of better financial opportunities. You don’t address this issue directly in your work, but the theme of wandering, of which this immigration is part, is persistent throughout your practice; this feeling of always being between two worlds, of having to play things by ear. How else do you represent this wandering, besides through the (literal) motif of the boat?
RC: Wandering is part of my personal mythology and it is represented by recurring figures such as the dog, or chyen, a symbol of vagrancy. In fact, there are many abandoned dogs on these islands. They are referred to vulgarly as “chyen kréol.” Their behavior is unpredictable and so they are beloved but also feared. The bird depicted in my work is a messenger both of happy and also occasionally of tragic stories. The bird eases the feeling of being uprooted because it can travel across these lands. Its message must sometimes be deciphered. Water represents purity, rebirth, but also vastness and immensity and immersion. The ever-evolving character of the Creole dog, which I depict with a long snout, appears often in my paintings. Through its body language and the role it plays in a given scene, the dog also represents man. It is a symbolic figure both in my paintings and on the islands.
CT: Far from illustrating the fables of the rich Creole imagery from which you draw inspiration, you create new stories that oscillate between a common Creole mythology and a personal artistic one. Your pictorial escapades remind me of the literary verve of Simone Schwarz-Bart in Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes (A Pork Dish with Green Bananas, 1967) or Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (The Bridge of Beyond, 1972). How do you facilitate this transition and what methods do you use? Which mediums do you borrow or invent?
RC: My work also represents a different form of wandering, a pictorial vagrancy, or the movement of characters from one canvas to the next and the narrative this movement creates. I give free rein to the stories created by my bestiary. The work wanders between the studio and the street, and between figuration and abstraction. Sometimes, I tend towards abstraction, towards formal and gestural release. At other times, I want to study an object, a face, a presence, a memory from a different perspective. There is a constant struggle between canonical references and those that I wish to deconstruct or break down and present in a new form. I aim for a kind of synthesis between two different positions in my practice. For me, this is a way of materializing my double culture, my double heritage, as if I were fully aware that I am two-in-one. Open to the world and culturally rich, I want to travel through painted spaces that are beyond me, or which offer a perpetual challenge. Perhaps this desire is the embodiment of creolization.
CT: In addition to the maritime theme of wandering and migration—of connections and passage—there is the theme of the earth, as well as the plant and animal world, which you call Green Paradise Lost, and of your bestiary. I see the Green Paradise as Dominica, based on my own experience but also in terms of the organic reality of the earth there and the tourist imagination and Hollywood representation of the Caribbean Islands (part of Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) & 3: At World’s End (2007) were shot in Dominica). Dominica has always seemed to me to be what Guadeloupe must have been fifty years ago. But what does Green Paradise Lost actually refer to for you?
RC: Green Paradise Lost is a series of imaginary landscapes that refer to a quest for serenity. Here too I try to grasp that which is incomprehensible in nature’s beauty and force, that which makes it an inexhaustible resource. Nature was also my first teacher. I studied shapes, planes, colors, and contrasts in nature. It is a place of endless possibilities. Urbanization is progressively causing nature to disappear and so Green Paradise Lost is a way of maintaining these memories of places I will never see again. For me, this Paradise symbolizes life and the hope of renewal in all its forms. Meandering through the landscape in the back of a van as a child in Dominica allowed me see nature as a magnificent spectacle, with its contrasts and its colors, the wind blowing in my ears, with no limit on my vision except the occasional dazzling glare of the sun. These memories are etched into my mind as a feeling of freedom. I felt a strong opposition between these afternoons spent wandering and the urban life I landed in in Guadeloupe. The city’s flat landscapes, though just as beautiful, were sporadically transformed by construction sites in which bulldozers dug into the earth, uprooting plants, and dotted with cranes that replaced trees. It is this urban life that made me nostalgic for Green Paradise Lost.
CT: The notion of Paradise may seem paradoxical in the Caribbean, at least for Caribbean people given the colonial history from which it stems. To come back to the Creole dog, doesn’t it also refer to slavery? This is how the dog has always been (re)presented to me by my father, born in 1930, a man of your grandparents’ generation, perhaps. He always said “neg pa aimé chyen” (negro doesn’t like dogs) or was it “chyen pa aimé nèg” (dogs don’t like negroes)? I should check, because the expression “to set the dogs on negroes” under slavery was used to describe both a form of entertainment and the way masters chased runaway slaves. Steve McQueen has a riveting scene depicting this saying in his film Twelve Years a Slave (2013). How do you relate to the memory of slavery, how do its traces appear in your characters and landscapes?
RC: The trauma of slavery is real and casts a dark shadow. The chyen kréyol is an emblematic and generally paradoxical figure, particularly in my paintings. My characters aren’t predetermined by positions, gestures, or personality traits linked to a common figure or idea. They take shape progressively in my imagination. The chyen kréyol, the rooster, and also the bee and the fish reappear often. Together they form my bestiary. Sometimes, they come irresistibly to mind to claim their place in the story. If we push this idea further, you see that from canvas to canvas there is a pictorial narrative of everyday life, social conditions, reminders of history. The characters that form my bestiary, as well as the symbols I use—including the key, the electrical socket, sharp teeth, the sun that smiles and grimaces by turns—all of these can be read differently depending on the story I am telling. In the same way, I treat the memory of slavery personally, progressively, as force that drives us to define a better future. The quest for freedom comes up often in my work, echoing the abolition of these moral enclaves.
CT: If you had to submit a project for a slavery memorial—such as the one that the French President recently launched—what would you propose? Would you respond at all? Do you think that slavery has been described, represented, and accepted in Guadeloupe, in the Antilles, and in France in a constructive way? This is a huge question, certainly, but I wonder how the fact that your studio was located at MACTe has influenced you or your practice over the course of your residency?
RC: I don’t draw on slavery but rather on the energy of my Afro-Caribbean culture, which, to cite Édouard Glissant’s notion of the rhizome, is the sum of countless references. I recognize my African heritage in Aimé Césaire’s reflection on memory beyond memory, but I identify as Caribbean. As far as the MACTe is concerned, it’s hard to ignore the history of the institution—but Guadeloupe itself is full of this energy stemming from its past.
I saw the open call for projects to commemorate the abolition of slavery. The idea of locking up a work of art or bolting it into place, even in the Jardin des Tuileries, seems like nonsense to me. I preferred to focus on other projects. I also question the state’s action to commemorate the abolition of slavery, particularly with this open call. In my opinion, we should deconstruct models rather than engaging in this type of initiative. Would it not be better to restore the humanity of the Black man as a man, quite simply, through his representation in the public space and integration into institutions, or through his presence as a representative of the State, both in metropolitan France and in the French Overseas Territories, as well as in legal documents? Such reform would dismantle a commonly held perception of the Black man, one that sees him relentlessly through that part of his history. The Black man has not only been a slave: it is time to dissociate him from its image without forgetting this part of him. He should be given justice through moral reparations, but he should also be returned to the heart of his true story and spirituality.
CT: The merit in this dawning national awareness lies in the law recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity passed by Christiane Taubira. Without her initiative, the President’s actions, whatever one thinks of them, would not even have been conceivable. As for the history of slavery, this is where the English language (and American and British contemporary critique of the history of slavery) gives us a better appreciation of the fact that slavery was a temporary condition that Africans were subjected to by using the word “enslaved” rather than “slave.” We could also address the issue of reparations, which you refer to as moral compensation, but that’s a big topic. Let’s leave it at that.
To return to the subject of your bestiary, the rooster is one of the fierce animals haunting both your paintings and your murals. S/he is represented by strange zoomorphic figures imbued with an unsettling magical realism that speaks more to the realm of nightmares than to dreams. The rooster-headed male figure in Tribute (2016) and Let me Fly (2017) makes me think of cockfighting—have you ever been to a cockfight? I haven’t, and they are now illegal in Guadeloupe, right? The cock becomes feminine in your more recent paintings from this year—produced during your residency at MACTe—such as Sacred Feminine (2021) and Honey Kiss Lover (2021)—yet without becoming a hen! The cock acts as a mere witness to human folly in several other paintings. If men are indeed beasts, then your bestiary tells fables rather than stories because they possess a moral dimension. Can morality and spirituality go hand in hand?
CR: In a general sense, the rooster symbolizes time in the West Indies and in the Caribbean because he crows at dawn and sleeps at sunset. It is a rhythm that paces our islands. I see the rooster every day in the courtyard. He also symbolizes strength and virility.
Yes, I have participated in cockfights, even in my own courtyard (laughs). But my work doesn’t necessarily refer to cockfighting pits. In certain works of mine, I play with composition in such a way that I fool viewers by letting them believe that the rooster is a character’s head. The rooster is a symbol of freedom proper to some personalities, and so I take the liberty of placing this symbol at the end of an arm or on top of a neck. In Let me Fly the rooster appears more urbane, nevertheless he is determined to maintain his freedom. B. Bird raconte-nous une histoire (B. Bird Tells Us His Story, 2021) features a character in movement who appears to want to escape reality by seeking refuge in the heart of nature. Entangled in his canoe, wearing a traditional plastic mika (sandal) on one foot and a cut-off rubber boot on the other, he is greeted by the rooster. The latter is surprised by the frenzy of the man’s excursion. He bears the message to reconnect with the natural world. The rooster is never simply an observer. He is there to recall this quest for freedom as well as the strength and power with which we are inhabited but which we often forget we possess.
If my work could be said to possess a moral dimension, it is not intentional. Rather it manifests the desire to be inspired by and to question society through artistic practice. Everything can be transcended and sublimated through art, which allows us to reinvent ourselves. The reflection involved in this process should lead the viewer to be self-critical about the meaning of respect and tolerance, and to consider anew the richness and diversity of cultures. The aim is to value Black culture. The fable, in fact, is a moral story. My work is closer to West Indian tales, with their anthropomorphic animals or mofwozman. Caribbean imagery thereby enters into dialogue with my own personal mythology. In my opinion, it can all coexist. My artistic practice articulates the forces that undermine me, but also those that drive me, including the paradoxes that nourish my thought process. Contrasts allow me to highlight, to question, but also to create a space of tolerance and leave room for everyone’s freedom, allowing everything to (co)exist.
CT: Indeed. You are not moralizing, especially not on subjects that still cause a lot of angst in France, such as anything to do with colonization, for example. You strike a derisive tone instead, as can be read in the punning title Colon nid (Colonizer’s Nest, 2017) which is a play on words that refers to the ways in which colonizers and their descendants benefited economically from the extraction of both human and natural resources from the Caribbean, a fate diametrically opposed to the fate of those descended from slaves. You suggest that, in view of the material extracted from our fertile land, the richness of the Caribbean lay elsewhere … Only our luxurious forest landscapes seem to have been spared from torment, although we also know that they are tormented now by pollution. In your paintings, we flee, we kill each other, we degrade ourselves and we do so to an extreme degree. Are we firmly anchored to our islands? In what kind of anchoring do your paintings participate?
RC: The Caribbean’s wealth was exploited for economic gain in sectors such as sugarcane, coffee, cotton, and tobacco. But today, the Caribbean continues to be exploited for its biodiversity, its climate, landscapes, and the cultural richness that is due to the diversity of its population. We are firmly anchored in our islands but not yet sufficiently autonomous, nor do we participate enough in decision-making. Beyond the postcard-perfect image, which projects the fantasy that we live in a paradise conducive to daydreaming, relaxation and idleness, we actually face persistent inequalities and socioeconomic challenges.
My stories occasionally depict violence—characters that kill each other or disintegrate or even flee. This violence refers to a reality that these characters would like to displace, as well as to the freedom they would like to reclaim. The message in my work often involves acts of redress. This violence is also due to new technologies, which make it possible to disseminate information quickly throughout the world. But other times the characters kiss, embrace, show kindness, or smile at each other—it’s all part of life.
My work contributes to the deconstruction of structures derived from the legacy of slavery, from trauma, from issues related to identity, as well as to our relationship with the land, Africa, and our cultural and spiritual heritage. My approach to figuration surprised people in Guadeloupe at first, because it did not conform to classical representations or to the dominant models. Rather, it deconstructs then reconstructs through the appropriation of a common Caribbean identity. Indirectly, it helps create a link with the civilizations that came before us in Guadeloupe, such as the Taínos and Kalinagos, while also maintaining a dialogue with Africa. This anchoring resonates with Édouard Glissant’s idea that the Caribbean could be the “Every-World,” a laboratory of multiple identities or of the creolization of the world.
CT: Or with Malcolm Ferdinand’s idea of the “world-ship” that I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. You neither avoid nor shrug off slavery and colonization, but clearly you don’t want your “world-ship” to run aground on either. By persisting in your singular journey, eschewing stereotypes and trading in imaginary worlds, your work takes its place in the lineage of Caribbean art, a place that also falls squarely in a tradition of Guadeloupean aesthetics. Anthologie de la Peinture en Guadeloupe (2009) was published ten years ago. Are you familiar with this book? Who did you study with? I am thinking about Philibert Yrius’ astonishing work. His style is very different from yours, but his imagination is also grounded in Caribbean fantasy. Or maybe you don’t recognize yourself in this genealogy, you who prefer to talk about genesis?
RC: Yes, I know the book. I first discovered it upon my return from Campus Caribéen des Arts de Martinique. Who knows, perhaps someday my paintings will be included in a publication like that, one which acknowledges cultural actors in Guadeloupe, recognizing them. I know Philibert Yrius’ work and other work by my peers, and it does not leave me indifferent. In terms of Yrius’s painting, I know what you mean—he is in a universe onto himself, with his own colors. It is true that people tell me about his painting when they see mine; not that they are similar, but there might be a form of common strangeness between us, and both our narratives take place in nature.
I don’t have a teacher to speak of (laughs). I have references that come from elsewhere such as Wifredo Lam, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Manuel Mendive, but also Jean Dubuffet and Gérard Garouste.
The genesis of my universe, in the “genetic” sense of my practice, arises from melancholic childhood memories but also from themes raised by the chyen kréyol’s physical and pictorial wandering, his vagrancy. This errancy creates an alphabet of shapes, symbols, a bestiary that includes animals from my land (besides the chyen kréyol we also find the bird, the fish, the bee, the rooster, the spider, or the lizard) that nourish the narrative structure from work to another. I often use metamorphosis to give my characters the freedom to move or “mofwazé” (change) when and how they wish, depending on the narrative circumstances. My culture, along with the stories and imagery of the Creole language, both contribute to and influence my practice. Rap music, dancehall, hip-hop, but also soul and jazz also influence me.
So, I don’t necessarily pit genealogy against genesis. To be part of a structure (a family tree) or to be affiliated because of a category or field of study does not exclude one from having a different essential identity, which can vary depending on each person’s sensibility, motivations, and geographical situation. But the influence of reference isn’t excluded either. In fact, most of my references come from the Caribbean Basin. Visual art’s family tree is not limited to Guadeloupe, seeing as we share a history with neighboring islands. Studying in Martinique allowed me to meet other artists from the Caribbean. Then my international travels put me in touch with artists who belong to the Caribbean diaspora. I identify as Caribbean and I navigate between multiple cultures. I believe that the strength of the Caribbean people lies precisely in the fact that they are in dialogue with the rest of the world.
CT: Ronald, thank you for this beautiful synthesis of our exchange. I have thoroughly enjoyed our layover (escale) and know that we will meet again soon (à bon port), either in Pointe-à-Pitre, Roseau, Fort-de-France, Miami, New York, Paris, or somewhere else—wherever your “world-ship” takes us. Mèsi en pil (to borrow from Haitian Creole).
Ronald Cyrille, alias Black Bird, was the recipient of the 2020 CCI Artist Fellowship at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, in collaboration with Mémorial ACTe in Guadeloupe. An artist of Guadeloupean and Dominican heritage, Cyrille studied visual arts at the Caribbean Arts Campus (Campus Caribéens des Arts) in Fort-de-France, Martinique. His work has been presented in solo exhibitions at prestigious venues including the Volta Art Fair, New York; Rémy Niansouta Cultural Center, Pointe–à–Pitre, Guadeloupe; the Clément Foundation, and Atrium, both in Fort-de-France, Martinique. Cyrille has participated in group exhibitions at Hunter East Harlem Galleries, New York; the Little Haiti Cultural Center, Miami; and Tout-Monde Festival, Miami, among others. Most recently, Cyrille participated in the Atlantic World Art Fair 2021, and created a mural at the 516 Arts Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the traveling exhibition Dust Specks in the Sea: Contemporary Sculpture from the French Caribbean & Haiti.