Jean-Ulrick Désert: look and look again | Closeup

Born in Haiti, currently based in Berlin, Jean-Ulrick Désert may be a citizen of the world — but his ideas are shaped by his Caribbean roots. A kind of discomfort that makes you look closer is key to this artist’s work, writes Andre Bagoo

  • Artist Jean-Ulrick Désert. Photo courtesy Jean-Ulrick Désert
  • Sky above Port-au-Prince Haiti 18°32’21”N 72°20’6”W 12 Jan 2010 21:53 UTC, from The Goddess Constellations series (2011, textile, pins, embossed metal-foil, 300 x 300 cm). Photo courtesy Jean-Ulrick Désert
  • The Burqa Project: On the Borders of My Dreams I Encountered My Double’s Ghost (2002, mixed media installation, dimensions variable). Photo courtesy Jean-Ulrick Désert
  • Neque mittatis margaritas Vestras ante porcos (Do Not Cast Pearls Before Swine) (2016, mixed media installation at the Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, UK in collaboration with the British Council). Photo courtesy Jean-Ulrick Désert

He tells me of his plans: a solo presentation here, a biennale there, a group show or two. A constellation of ever-evolving projects, revolving around an artist who is himself always changing, just as his work makes us look and look again.

“I prefer to create art that is initially familiar and comforting, before allowing any of the nuance to elicit a discomfort that may reorient the viewer to break away from our shared myopia,” he tells me via email. In other words, look. And look again. We are in the world of Jean-Ulrick Désert.

How to describe his background? Born in Haiti during the era of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Désert left as a child with his family, who took refuge in the United States. Eventually, he studied architecture at Cooper Union and Columbia University in New York City.

“I have a formal education as an architect — two degrees in fact — which were fortunately better for creating conceptual art rather than building buildings,” Désert says. “I have at times argued that scale exists in art as it does in architecture, and every artwork has its own appropriate scale. The artist must intuit what that is as she or he creates it.”

The scale of Désert’s own career can seem limitless. The label “immigrant” and the narrative of his birth then flight from Haiti cannot fully capture the polyglot nature of his outlook. New York, Paris, Berlin — he’s lived in many places. His work has travelled even farther: to Amsterdam, Brussels, Ghent, Guadeloupe, Havana, Martinique, Munich, Rotterdam, Senegal. He’s strolled the Piazza San Marco in Venice during a flood tide, roamed the oak forests of Hamburg wearing lederhosen. When we met for the first time, in Belfast in 2016, he was wearing a kilt and waistcoat — tall, with a salt and pepper beard, bespectacled and striking, at times stopping traffic, but not really paying much heed as he talked about his work in Caribbean Queer Visualities, a groundbreaking exhibition of LGBTQ artists from the region.

But though Désert may identify as a Caribbean national, when he talks about his family fleeing Duvalier — whose despotic regime used a death squad called the Tontons Macoutes to kill opponents — it’s clear he harbours anxiety about the politics of any kind of regionalism, any kind of label.

“We were thrown into exile,” he says. “We lived in the Brazilian Embassy [in Port-au-Prince] for a number of months until the president’s birthday, when we were able to escape for the airport, making our way from Haiti to New York. One more day, all three of us would have been murdered.”

But some traumas cannot be outrun.

“My mother is still very reticent to talk about it,” Désert says. “This is from what I pieced together from my father. Their marriage would eventually suffer and fall apart by the time we were living in the States. Even when my mom got divorced and she returned [to Haiti], she was immediately arrested and stopped at the airport, because we were still on a blacklist. Relatives had their businesses compromised. We had to abandon all our properties, leaving me no physical legacy.” He adds, “but the cultural legacy cannot be erased.”

That legacy finds expression in work that shows up the falseness of the nation state. “The restrictive consequences of legal borders that define nations and its citizenry are inescapable today more than ever,” Désert once told the curator and art writer Clelia Coussonnet. “It is for me the elephant in the room.”

A striking example of how all these ideas intersect is The Burqa Project: On the Borders of My Dreams I Encountered My Double’s Ghost (2002). Désert gives us a pageant of four burqas, which are the floor-length garments worn in public by some Muslim women. Each burqa bears the pattern of the national flag of one of the G4 nations: the US, Britain, France, and Germany. Have the flags been turned into burqas? Or have burqas been turned into flags? Which came first? The artist does not give us too much. He leaves room for us to engage with ideas. He knows the burqa evokes different reactions, depending on the viewer. He builds the complex effect of this work on our own complex reactions. A person who is afraid of the sight of a burqa might question whether we are being invited to fear the power of the G4. Do both sides of the non-Muslim and Muslim worlds not share the same fears of each other? And what does that common fear tell us about our shared humanity?

Equally, a person with no suspicion of the burqa might see a more hopeful window display: here are symbols of Islam and the West co-existing, a reminder of the ties between Islam and Western society, as well as a vision of a future in which the idea of Islam is not inconsistent with the ideals represented by the G4.

“There is usually some interplay between signs and symbols in my art which makes it old-school and familiar for many,” Désert tells me by email. “I am less interested in my own ‘ah-ha’ moment, but rather the ‘ah-ha’ moment of the viewer experiencing an artwork through their interpretations.”

Another multifaceted work is central to his perspective. In Neque Mittatis Margaritas Vestras Ante Porcos (Do Not Cast Pearls Before Swine), his 2016 work for the Caribbean Queer Visualities show, Désert filled a room with white balloons that took on a pearl-like sheen. Between the balloons were party banners in rainbow colours, spelling out different translations of the proverb of the title. There is an air of celebration, as though at a birthday gathering, but the inability to understand some of the text makes you question: what is being celebrated? With so many rowbacks in relation to LGBTQ rights now appearing possible, is the artist questioning whether past celebration was too early? Juxtaposition of joy with the weary tone of the titular proverb also invites us to scrutinise further. The reference to casting pearls before swine makes us consider the value of the individual in the face of the collective, reminding us of the imagery of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and also the contradictory edicts of the Bible.

But look again. “Pig play” is a term sometimes used in the gay community to describe a range of ribald sex acts. The artist might be questioning whether one’s identity should be moored to one’s sexual activity — whether freedom must come at the price of the loss of complexity.

I don’t think Désert wants us to chose one interpretation over another. Rather, he wants the ritual of the encounter with the work to itself become charged with a kind of poetry, opening possibilities, pushing us to new and multiple realisations.

“What I aim to achieve in/through my artworks continues to evolve with the times in which we live,” he writes. “The artist is a political actor, and with it [comes] the burden and privilege of having a voice. Therefore I ask myself what is the current or continued relevance of any creation, local or global. I attest to a Roman Catholic upbringing in the sense that objects of beauty are often at the service of Christian ritual. So are words and so is space.”

Space takes on dramatic meaning in one of Désert’s most memorable works. Sky above Port-au-Prince Haiti 18°32’21”N 72°20’6”W 12 Jan 2010 21:53 UTC is part of a series called The Goddess Constellations. Each piece in the series picks a specific historical moment and reproduces the constellations at a specific time on that given day. Blood red velour papers on foam are covered with pins and embossed metal-foil circles, each a small silvery orb carrying Josephine Baker’s image. The overall effect: looking into the stars but seeing red.

For Sky above Port-au-Prince Haiti, Désert approximates the positions of the stars at the moment of the deadly earthquake of 2010. Immediately, W.H. Auden’s poem “The More Loving One” comes to mind, with its opening lines: “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well / That, for all they care, I can go to hell.”

We are being asked to consider the indifference of the universe to man’s fate; the sport of Thomas Hardy’s president of the immortals; the cruelty of history; the endless machinations of race-thinking. We are all in the gutter, Oscar Wilde said, but some of us at looking at the stars.

Désert has us stare into maddening truths and asks us to make sense of his poems of beauty and rage.

So look. And look again.