Words by Steven Baboun for HaitiLuxe.
I woke up to the works of Philippe Dodard and Préfète Duffaut on my wall. I grew up with a sculpture of Gesner Abelard that stood proud and defiant somewhere on my grandma’s decorative table in her hallway.
These Haitian art works were radiating color, coming to life with exaggerated portraits of fruit vendors or the typical portrait of a Haitian girl with cornrows and a red bow tied to her beautiful locks.
These are the works I grew up with and these are the works people told me were Haitian art.
Growing up, I used to write a lot. I used to go to my room after school and write on a black school planner turned mystical journal that housed all my secrets, sentiments, and prayers.
I never painted or drew. I never had the courage to compete with my friends in art class. I had this friend who used to draw beautiful roses. Beautiful. I could still remember the bright red colors she used to draw her roses. The textures came to life. I couldn’t compete with that. Or with the work of other talented artists. I left the painting to them. Me, I just wrote. Short stories, poems, my life.
I wrote about being bullied, being verbally attacked because I “acted like a girl” and being called “masisi” (fag in Creole). Those pages used to be so wet after I wrote on them. Wet with the tears of the day, the built-up frustrations.
After a while, I felt bored with writing. It lacked dimension for me. After I closed my journal, it felt like those words weren’t real. Enclosed in a planner that no one saw— just me. I didn’t like that. I wanted people to hear my stories, my cries, my ideas. I hungered for more than writing. I didn’t know what it was however. I was stuck.
I asked my mom for a camera. I was 15. On a limb, I just asked her. I never used a camera in my life. I wasn’t into photography. In fact, I thought it was a lesser art— an art only bored folks dabbled in.
I took my camera and started taking photos of flowers. I was mad at myself, everyone was taking photos of flowers. I didn’t want to be like everyone else. In fact, I did the opposite of the things people told me I should do just to piss them off. I loved doing my own thing, being my own person. People didn’t like that. They hated that.
I took my first self-portrait when I was 17. It felt weird, I stopped.
But by some turn of events, I took my journey into photography seriously after my first year of college. I was fed up with what the U.S. thought about Haiti and all the misconceptions surrounding our culture. I wanted to show them the truth. I started documenting the people and colors of Haiti— the good parts, the positive parts. I wanted to show them we were more than what CNN portrayed to the world.
(photos taken at my early years in photography, 2014)
But after a while, I felt bored with photography. I wasn’t meant for creativity. I got bored just shooting Haiti. How could I polish my craft if I kept stopping or being bored with photo or any art form for that matter? I was mad at myself… Again.
I continued however, I pushed through. It was fulfilling, but just a little. I kept going because my photos reached people. It spoke to people. In a way, I felt like I was creating for my Haitian brothers and sisters. I loved it. I didn’t mind it. It felt great. But I felt a bit removed from my art.
The beginning of my junior year in college, my focus changed. My photography changed. I changed. My stories changed. It was like a rebirth. It was physical, emotional. It was insane.
Haiti took a backseat for a little bit. I started studying myself through self-portraits. I was in a dark place in my life at the moment and it felt like the only thing I felt happy photographing was myself. I understood my emotions better than anyone else, so the self-portraits I took had dimension and soul. It healed me because I could see the emotions I felt— and that brought me closure. It was just like therapy.
I started taking pictures of myself constantly, almost everyday. In different settings, in different clothes. I studied the works of photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Francesca Woodman who were master self-portrait artists.
I started pushing my reality forward, my identity forward, my “Haitian-ness” forward, my Arab roots forward… and the hardest of them all, my sexuality forward.
I started to take self-portrait shirtless which tested my vulnerability. I started experimenting with make-up. I started to take on a persona that was always inside of me but I was always afraid to embrace it. I started to tell the stories I was always afraid of telling. I became fluid in my art, I wasn’t a boy. I was a boy, a girl, everything in between. I was Steven— I was a Haitian enigma fighting for acceptance. I become a queer Haitian, telling the Haitian narrative through a gay lens. I became the colors of the Dodard paintings I grew up with, I became the women in the portraits that were prominent in Haitian art works.
I became Steven, the Artist. The artist became Steven. We married. I become the Haitian artist, I would soon find out, that some people didn’t accept and criticized. I became, I would soon find out, a martyr fighting hard to tell these Haitian queer stories as well as the stories of a mixed Haitian identity.
The work I was creating was redefining and keeps redefining what people thought and think about Haitian art. There is an emergence in myself, in the work I’m producing and in the work other young contemporary Haitian artists are producing. We are reinventing Haitian art. A lot of traditional Haitian artists weren’t really talking about homosexuality. They weren’t talking about gender fluidity, they weren’t talking about bending masculinity, solidifying feminism, and celebrating the lust of the youth. People have sent me messages saying not to slab the title “Haitian Artist” on to myself. They said my work wasn’t Haitian. That I wasn’t Haitian. They were uncomfortable with my message and my story.
I remember I was at the opening of a collective show that featured my work. This man told me he was going to be honest with me. He said he admired my work, but it wasn’t “Ayisyen.” It lacked the characteristics of Haitian art. It was either too dark, or too colorful, or it was touching on topics that were too taboo and that were dishonoring “Haitian morales”— so it wasn’t Haitian art. “Where are the photos of our mountains? Our beaches? Where are our women dancing?” the man said in Creole. “So you wanna see cliché photos?” I chuckled under my breath.
I know my work didn’t look like traditional Haitian art, but it was Haitian art. It was created by a Haitian who grew up in Haiti who is putting his Haitian experience forward— who is producing works inspired by Haitian folklore, Vodou, and Haitian proverbs. They ignored the whole process, how I created, where what I created came from, and why I created.
What is Haitian art? It’s not only the traditional techniques, or brush strokes, or colors, or imagery, or whatever elements Haitian art consists of. I learned that it’s the passion of the Haitian producing the art— it’s their soul that is set on fire— it’s their creativity given to them by their ancestors’ stories— that makes their work Haitian art.
I was a bit hesitant to write this piece. For me, it felt a little bit conceited to talk about myself and state something that is too great for me to state. But I’m okay of saying it now, okay of admitting that myself and several other contemporary Haitian artists are paving a new road for the future of Haitian art. One that is daring, one that is dynamic. Mixed media, video, fine art photography, drawing, painting. We are a new wave of Haitian artists, honoring the traditional but moving forward with the new.
Our homosexuality, our promiscuity, our feminism, our anti-masculinity, our passion, our troubled love, our lust for sex, our want for adventure, our fascination with the unknown; these are the elements that are helping us redefine Haitian art.
These are the characteristics that some traditional Haitian artists are hesitant or scared to celebrate, to yell out loud. But we’re doing it. Even though we might get criticized or shat on.
I was back in Haiti this summer and picked up my old journal. I read one of the last entries I wrote. The date was March 23th 2012. It read: “You’re unstoppable, you’re different. Close this journal and become an artist. I don’t know what the fuck that means but goooooooooooo!!! Go tell your story :).”
So I want to say thank you, especially, to the younger generation of Haitian artists who have taught me to be bold and think differently about our country and humanity. Let’s keep breaking barriers.
Lastly, thank you to the pioneer Haitian artists who paved the way for us contemporary artists. Your work keeps inspiring us and has given us a foundation to innovate.
But this new wave of Haitian artists are filling the holes they didn’t fill. And that’s a big statement to make. A ballsy statement. I stand by it.
I have pretty big balls.
Follow my work on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stevenbaboun/
Check out my portfolio: http://www.thestevenbaboun.com
Shop my prints of Haiti: https://society6.com/stevenbaboun/prints