On Myth, Memory, and Leadership in Haitian History: A Conversation Between Viktor El-Saieh and Arasay Vazquez

Fascinated by the history of his native country, Viktor El-Saieh draws from the folklore, myths, traditions, and political leaders that shape Haitian culture. In this conversation, he speaks about his artistic beginnings, the development of his career, his relationship with Caribbean art, his interest in interrogating Haiti’s role in the Americas, and in defining his own as an artist.

Viktor El-Saieh. Graveyard, 2017. Acrylic on canvas. 20 x 32 inches. Image courtesy the artist and CENTRAL FINE. ©Viktor El-Saieh. Photo: George Echevarria. 

Arasay Vazquez (AV): Although you were never formally trained in art, your interests and passion for painting come from your childhood in Haiti. Tell me about those years. 

Viktor El-Saieh (VES): I spent about four years in Haiti and, of course, I went back regularly like many immigrants do throughout my life. My grandpa’s gallery, then called Galerie Issa, was dedicated to artists’ studios. I think my earliest desires to make art really just started from wanting to be able to do what I saw these painters doing. It was such a big thing for me, just seeing their work and feeling dwarfed by it; feeling that that was such a momentous, an important thing being done. I did not exactly know how I was going to get there, but I just knew I wanted to do it as well.  

There’s a handful of Haitian master painters that I was most in awe of. Andre Normile is one example. I was exposed to his work and to his process to some extent; both became important for me. Philomé Obin, from the north of Haiti, was another important one—basically the whole Cap-Haitian school of artists emerged out of his influence. The other major one is Jacques R. Cherry, who painted intense historical paintings. Something in me was really inspired by these artists. Although I was never formally trained, I made a lot of art as a kid trying to get to the point where they were.  

AV: How are the formal or thematic influences of those artists present in your current work? 

VES: They are present in so many different ways. Everything about composition, the application of color, and the way that I treat painting is influenced by their work. But at the same time, as a self-taught painter, I am forging my own path. As much as I am influenced formally by these artists, I am not aiming to copy their work. Rather, I’m just attempting to do what they did, without having had anyone show me how they did it. But yes, their work features so prominently in my mind that I cannot ignore the formal influence.  

Thematically or conceptually? Well, I almost get the sense that the paintings those artists made are impressions that they got from some history that they were told. And it is not always beautiful or positive, but telling of the real history. So, I think thematically that comes through for me too. My initial education about Haitian history came through those paintings. I would look at the work and ask: What is this event that is happening here? And then, eventually, in college, I learned about what happened there and was able to tie it together. 

Viktor El-Saieh. The Rainmaker, 2017. Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 60 inches. Image courtesy the artist and CENTRAL FINE. ©Viktor El-Saieh. Photo: George Echevarria.

AV: Leadership and the representation of political figures is one of your main interests within Haitian history. How do you approach this topic in your paintings? 

VES: My earliest works were portraits. My first show at my brother’s project space in 2011 was called Historical Precedence. In those works, I was really interested in Haitian history and leadership, but at the same time, I didn’t feel informed enough to make a judgment about it. Those early portraits allowed me to survey what had happened and depict the people who had been involved. Then, eventually, the work shifted to more mythology and folklore, because I think there is an intertwined relationship between history, leadership, and folklore in Haiti. Every Haitian person knows the folk heroes—of course that is not unique to Haiti, that happens in every culture. So, I shifted from just representing the presidents to going a little deeper into Haitian folklore characters, which is what got me to my second exhibition TET CHAT (2016). This time the work was about Chaloska, who was both a political and military leader and a character in Haitian folklore. Through the mythology, he’s kept alive. 

Viktor El-Saieh. Fet Chaloska, 2015-16. Acrylic on canvas. 72 x 96 inches. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, museum purchase with funds provided by PAMM’s Collectors Council with additional contributions provided by Karen Bechtel, Evelio and Lorena Gomez, Jorge M. Pérez, and Craig Robins.

AV: Your work is very related to mythology. Many of the paintings create an oneiric feeling, almost a surreal composition and narrative. I like to think about your paintings in relationship to Alejo Carpentier’s idea of the “the marvelous real”—not only because you approach that narrow line between fiction and reality, but also because of the relationships between man and nature and the ways in which you associate your characters with animals. I know that there are other Haitian thinkers such as, Jacques Stephen Alexis, who championed their own definitions of marvelous realism, but Carpentier was the first that came to mind.  

One beautiful example of your mythological painting is Fet Chaloska, which was recently acquired by PAMM. Tell me about this painting. What are we seeing here? 

VES: Fet Chaloska or Chaloska’s party, was a really pivotal painting for the development of my practice. It is the largest painting I’d done to date, and it took me years to complete though normally I work quickly. I think it came out of this deep desire to answer the why question. When you get into the history of this character, you find that he is a political military figure from a certain time, known for having done something intensely violent. 

Then, at some point, he becomes memorialized as a carnival character. So, when I made the connections here, I just became obsessed with this question of: What is the purpose keeping this figure alive, knowing all the things he’s done? Is it a warning for future leaders? Is it a celebration? I do not actually have an answer, but every year at least one person dresses up as Chaloska in the Haitian carnival. Even I did a performance of Chaloska one year.  

In the center of the painting, you see a big crowd of Chaloskas—part of the memorializing means that you can have a thousand of them at the same time. That is another interesting aspect: we can all be Chaloska. What does that mean? So, you see that they are coming, they are celebrating along with all the supporting cast. I am glad you mentioned the relationship with animals, because within Indigenous and African cultures you find a deeper connection to the earth and to the planet, like a different relationship with nature if you will. That shows up differently in other cultures, but I think in Haitian culture, it shows up a lot. It is a relationship with the natural world maybe a little bit less predatory, less exploitative, you could say that to some extent it’s more of a collaboration. 

AV: You are a contemporary artist who use formal and thematical components associated to the Haitian School of Painting. How do you define yourself as artist? 

VES: This is such a good question and, to be honest, I’ve never thought about it before.  

Primarily, I think of myself as a painter because painting is the obsession that made me an artist. Without painting, I do not think I would be able to answer questions through art, and painting, for some reason, does it for me. I did not study art, so, my understanding of art history is fairly limited in a lot of ways. And when I think of art history, I think of Haitian art. That is why more recently, I’ve started to think of myself as a contemporary painter.   

Ultimately, if I think of painting as my life’s work, and how I would like to be positioned in history. I would like to be remembered in the same vein as those Haitian master painters that inspired me originally. I have a long way to go to get there, but if I can achieve that, then I will have done what I set out to do. 

Viktor El-Saieh. Discovery, 2016. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas. 72 x 48 inches. Image courtesy the artist and CENTRAL FINE. ©Viktor El-Saieh. Photo: George Echevarria.

AV: How is your mixed cultural background reflected in your work? 

VES: Haitian has always been my primary identity. However, my grandfather, on my dad’s side, was born in Haiti, but from Palestinian parents, and my grandmother was a proud Black Haitian woman. My grandparents, on my mom’s side, were Sephardic Jews from Egypt and Iran. So, Jew is probably my secondary identity, even more so because of my proximity to South Florida where there’s a large Jewish population. I bring with me a mixture between Haitian culture and the cultural Judaism. Now, living in the middle of the United States, in Colorado, I’ve brought all of these various cultural influences into a new context. It puts me in an interesting position; the way I see the world is very unique. I see this when I end up interacting with other people, and I think the painting also lives in that context. In these kind of fraught interactions, there’s an underlying tension that comes through in the paintings. Sometimes you feel you can’t fit in anywhere, like there’s really no place that’s definitively for you, but you have to fit in everywhere, find a place for yourself. So, painting was the natural place for me to be. I feel comfortable in it. It’s like my home when at times I can’t find a place where I truly belong. I’m pretty fortunate that the painting has always been there for me and has allowed me to let those tensions out. 

AV: The market dynamics and even the non-profit world of the Caribbean are very different from those here in the United States. In some countries like Haiti and Cuba, self-taught artists often struggle for recognition in institutional collections and participation in big contemporary art fairs. How has your relationship with the art industry been during your career? 

VES: This is another great question that makes me think pretty deeply. Caribbean artists obviously bring a lot to the table, I should not have to defend that—but there’s a constant struggle happening within the industry. It’s harmful, but ultimately, kind of speaks to the lack of imagination on the part of those who treat Caribbean art as a secondary or marginalized thing. It is really a function of this Western idea, of wanting things to fit neatly into boxes. People who fit into the categories are deemed good because their work sells and then, they are elevated, and are seen as worthy of appreciation.  

I am coming from a position of privilege, as a man, and as someone born into an art institution. I was also born with lighter skin in a Black country. And I have an older brother who is an extremely successful and wonderful painter in his own right. All of these advantages have allowed me to avoid a lot of the struggles that other Haitian artists might face. Also, not having studied art, not having really participated in the social aspects of it, and kind of being skeptical of it a little bit, to some extent too—this all put me in a position in which I was really just making art for myself for a long time. To be honest, if it weren’t for my gallerist Diego Singh, who discovered my work sort of randomly, my work would probably still be in a storage unit somewhere with a very limited audience. In the past year, I had two works acquired by major institutions in Miami: ICA and PAMM. I’m grateful for the support that I’ve received. I work hard. I’ve been painting for most of my life. There is no secret there. You have to work to get it, but it is also no secret that there are thousands of talented artists out there, many of whom will never be given the opportunities that I have.  

Viktor El-Saieh. The Patriot, 2017. Acrylic on canvas. 20 x 16 inches. Collection Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Promised Gift of Ray Ellen and Allan Yarkin. Image courtesy the artist and CENTRAL FINE. ©Viktor El-Saieh. Photo: George Echevarria.

AV: Are you working in a new project?  

VES: Yes, my third solo show with CENTRAL FINE is coming up in April of this year. There is always going to be the theme of myth and folklore, and structural power and politics in my work. It is just where my general interests lie, but I think this work has started to evolve a little. Haitian history is the full scope of what I was interested in, and now I am trying to understand my role in it. Now, as I am learning more about the world and moving deeper into the United States, I am trying to understand my role here, but also in the Americas as a region. That is a shift for me, in trying to see Haiti’s role in the larger region and in return, my role within these nested identities.  

The title of this show is Konbit. I am excited to share this with you because it is a Haitian Creole word with such a profound meaning. It is a unifying term. It basically translates to communal or collaborative labor, like the collaborative enterprise that you can see a lot in agriculture. It existed from the beginning of Haiti’s existence. You can find examples of Konbit throughout the Caribbean, but it is very visible in Haiti and within Haitian art. You can find it in the organization Fotokonbit and the movement Atis rezistans. We can also understand the Haitian revolution and independence as a collaborative enterprise. This notion of Konbit is important for these new paintings and as a lense through which to see Haitian history—its past and future—as a social experiment. For me, as a Haitian person trying always to remain hopeful about the future of the country, I think Haiti is at its best when we are collaborating and working collectively through communal dynamics. So, Konbit ties a lot of my thinking together and reflects my desire to find my role within Haitian history and art. I see myself as an artist—part of the whole of Haitian art—as a continuation of a conversation that was and is happening with these artists that I mentioned.  

My scope is much broader now, and my paintings are even getting bigger. I am working in a larger format, similar in scale to Fet Chaloska. I am getting more confident and I think I am drawing on more personal and historical memories. For example, many works in this show have a gridded pattern and I never did make a connection with it. But when I think about it now, the first floor of the gallery in Haiti—my first studio ever—had these black and white tiles. And it is all over the Caribbean. That gridded pattern is rooted in my very early memories of making art, looking at, and being moved by art. I am becoming more aware of that and I am allowing it to influence my work. That changes things. I am feeling very good about where I am at as a painter. I am doing a lot of reconciling and sorting out of tensions, and every day it gets a little better, and every painting I make gets a little better, too. 

Viktor El-Saieh was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and raised in Miami, Florida. He holds a BA in International Affairs from Florida International University (FIU), and an MA in Teaching Secondary Social Studies from the University of Colorado (CU). El-Saieh’s work has been exhibited at Locust Projects, Miami; David Castillo Gallery, Miami; Central Fine, Miami Beach; and El-Saieh Gallery, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, among other venues.

El-Saieh’s work is part of the collections of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami and the Pérez Art Museum Miami. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado, and is represented by Central Fine in Miami Beach, Florida.