In the fifth part of our continuing series on artists in the diaspora who promote Black identity and pride through their work, we present Haitian artist, Philippe Attié.

Born in 1986, Philippe Attié’s work is defined by the relationship between the realistic figure and the ground of gestural abstraction. Working primarily with acrylic and oil on canvas, he depicts his subjects meticulously in states of contemplation and repose. These subjects are enveloped by transparent layers of soft colour and hints of expressionist forms, representing their psychological state. It is an intuitive portrayal of the emotions, of sensuality, or of the wisdom of the figure, striving to capture facets of the human soul. Each work is infused with lightness, both in the technical luminosity of the pieces and in what they evoke in both subject and viewer. In this interview with Omenka, Attié talks about the awards he recently received at the13th International ARC Salon, the influence of his Haitian heritage on his work, and his use of “contradictions.”

Congratulations on receiving two awards at the 13th International ARC Salon Award Ceremony. Kindly tell us the importance of the salon to an artist’s career and about the work you presented.

Thank you. The ARC competition is the largest and most prestigious competition in the Western world for realist artists painting, sculpting, and drawing today. The Art Renewal Center (ARC) has become a central news hub for the Contemporary Realist Movement of 21st-century art. It surely was advantageous for me. I benefited from their large community through their online website, their annual salon catalogue publication (which receives widespread distribution internationally in bookstores), and their travelling live exhibition. I presented three works for entry in the competition: The Contemplation of Time (finalist), The Hermit (honourable mention), and Sound of Innocence (ARC-purchased award).

Your work is “defined by the relationship between the realistic figure and the ground of gestural abstraction.” How do you combine these two different approaches, and what is the significance of this process?

I like playing with contradictions. I often seek a balance between a meticulous rendering of the subject and spontaneous chaos, besides many other types of contrasts, like cold and hot, soft and rough, or gray tones and high saturation. I always feel that my paintings are incomplete and lacking breath when I have too much control over them. I find it necessary to leave space for spontaneity.

Your paintings can be described as melancholic, with your subjects meticulously depicted in various states of contemplation and repose. Please tell us more about the psychological qualities inherent in your work.

I often find myself observing people attentively and trying to read their most subtle and singular expressions. I hope to capture the great energy vibrations (like love, passion, quest, and so on) that we all share and that perhaps define our humanity and reveal to me the very essence of their being (what their world is made of, their past, what makes them different from others). This observation of people constitutes the ground of my artistic realm.

How do you select the subjects for your paintings, are they random or familiar subjects?

The essence of my art lies in the depiction of the multitude of sensations and emotions that shape my interior landscape, as a way to portray that inner realm. I often use my surroundings, like someone in my family, a lover, a friend, and so on. It can also be an inspiring person encountered during a trip or a random stranger through whom I can see an ideal channel for what I want to convey.

Describe your creative process.

Generally, when I have an inspiration, I do a photo session with my model(s) and make some sketches to have a more specific idea of how and where to place the different elements of the painting and to have a sense of the composition. Then I apply two to three layers of a preparation mixture on my support, which I use as a binder (canvas, wood, aluminium) and sand afterwards, if necessary. After that preliminary stage, I try to create the general atmosphere by applying several layers of different colours through a process that is more focused on a spontaneous application, like drips, stains, stamps, scratches, and so on. When I am more or less satisfied with this step, I trace my main subject and start to paint it with acrylic. I gradually build the painting with a concern for integrating the focal space with the whole, which, in general, is the most tedious stage. I then finish the whole work with oil paints. In other cases, it is the abstract forms that suggest to me what to paint.

In contrast, one of your paintings, The Ride of the Emperor (2018) is conceived as a tribute to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti. What is the inspiration behind this work, does it signify a new engagement with re-imagining underrepresented but legendary Black figures across Africa and her global diaspora?

This tribute to Jean-Jacques Dessalines was especially inspired by a sense of injustice to the father of the independence and many other figures of our history, and therefore by a desire to restore their images in their entirety. I remember that at school, I had a feeling that Dessalines was certainly the great hero but also kind of a wild beast, who concretised his victories mostly through his savagery rather than through his prowess as a strategist, leader, or military genius. There are numerous figures in history presented like this, as a “Black Tarzan”—brave and heroic, but primitive, inferior, and uncivilised at the same time. Such figures typically are those who proudly showed their African roots, notably through voodoo, which is undoubtedly at the heart of being Haitian. But there is nothing surprising there. That’s inevitably what happens when the victor makes the mistake of letting the defeated educate him.

How much does your Haitian heritage influence your work?

The fact that I am in constant contact with my country gives me a general Haitian vibe, especially through the choice of my palette. Although when I lived there, the Haitian imprint was more obvious in the intensity of my colours, the general luminous ambience, and the thematic choice. But to be honest, I am more preoccupied with the expression of my sincerity than my nationality. If I am really truthful, my Haitian identity, just like any of the other bricks that constitute my being, will surely be transmitted into my art.

Search of Inner Light, oil on panel, 2017, 24x36cm

In your opinion, how relevant is detailed realism in an art world increasingly drifting towards conceptual and experimental art?

I find it difficult to situate my art in the current context of art. When I make a painting, the piece itself becomes a work of art without a great need for a speech or a particular context. In the contemporary art context, a piece is only considered as art if the institutions or the people working there validate it as such. They act as magicians: they convert an object into art just by saying it is art. Fountain, without the context of the museum or the speech of Duchamp, is only an ordinary urinal. In any case, I think it’s at least a great treat from a sociological point of view!

I use painting, which is the art form that has most marked my childhood and through which I sincerely feel the desire to communicate. This art has mostly figurative elements for its vocabulary, but also stains, drips, and other forms that can be considered abstract. Although it gives me all the space for innovation or originality, this language is nothing new. On the contrary, our prehistoric ancestors used it already more than 30,000 to 40,000 years ago in the caves of Borneo, Chauvet, Lascaux, and so on. Anyone is free to consider it obsolete; I consider it appropriate and sufficient and even ideal for what I want to communicate so far.

Is there any new project you’re currently working on?

I am currently working on a group exhibition that will take place in the Virgin Islands in December this year. The show will emphasise Afro-Caribbean culture.

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