a highly colourful painting with pop-art influences, showing bright red, green, orange and yellow planes. grinning caricatured faces with brown skin and hats are shown, as well as the figure of a donkey and some structures.
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), Fonds d'actualité No1 (Current Affairs No1), Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Télémaque Paean

Dominican artist, poet, critic, and curator manuel arturo abreu pens an essay in two parts: a personal dream transcription and an analytic text about the work of Haitian painter Hervé Télémaque.

In arturo abreu’s dream, a Haitian soldier’s mission is to guide Télémaque; she steps into a painting and can jump to related or resonant paintings from within the frame. Inspired by this image and Guyanese author Wilson Harris’ last book, The Ghost of Memory, where protagonist is criminalised and shot, paradoxically gaining the ability to enter into paintings and the horizon of history, dream, and art, arturo abreu edits the transcription to include a moment where Harris speaks to the dream-character Télémaque from beyond the veil.

manuel arturo abreu’s video work based on this essay is part of Hervé Télémaque: Double Language. The digital programme in celebration of Hervé Télémaque is streamed live on Serpentine’s YouTube channel on Saturday 4 March 2023. Join the broadcast and follow the conversation.

Télémaque Paean

1. A dream from 17 Dec 2021

A Haitian Revolutionary soldier— Montás or Montes perhaps— resurrects in modern Little Haiti, Brooklyn. In a museum she finds pieces of her ancestors. From within the vitrine prison, an ancestor guides her to a French Renaissance era painting. She jumps in.

From within the painting, she works a deeper power. She sees other pieces, linked to the one she’s in: the cosmic nexus of Toussaint in New York City (1959) by Hervé Télémaque. She taps into its raw scope of line, scale, form, colour to breach the thin canvas–veil–sail between material and immaterial realms: and so Toussaint suddenly arrives in De Facto–Homo Economicus–Segregated–Abstract Expressionist–Robert Moses–Dreamscape Era New York. He conquers his bewilderment, starts planning after having learned from his own tragic mistakes[i]: this time, heed Dessalines’ lion spirit. The numerous victories of the US Civil Rights movement and the Black Arts era drew on Toussaint’s new stateside presence.

a square abstract oil painting showing areas of tan, yellow, green, red and blue. a warrior figure can perhaps be seen on a horse
Hervé Télémaque, Toussaint Louverture à New York, 1960 © Hervé Télémaque, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2023.

But the Haitian soldier has more to do. When Toussaint arrived, Télémaque was fleeing the already hypermarketized NYC landscape for the sunset post-surrealist dream of 60s Paris. Here, he drew on Pop and mass art, Hergé’s linework, assemblage, and a gnomic pictorial language. Narrative Figuration. Lean sculptures. The sense of power awaiting activation, but also the sense (as Télémaque himself wryly notes in a recent interview) painters make some of their worst work in their old age.[ii] Perhaps elder status reframes youth: one sees oneself as a mask, only recognizable from a huge distance (a distance nevertheless very close to oneself). The mask has the nerve to talk back, be petty about all one’s failures, and in this way, insufferable in the loss it encompasses. Yet the lack drives the art: future ancestor Télémaque faces his mask in the new strength of age– the strength of closeness to the veil– and says:

“I am a stranger to you. Our breach and struggle, mutual nervous masked dance— which cuts me deep and even causes me to loathe you, loathe the future and death— has shown me the stranger in myself, the Sweetest Witness, the one who is of the future and so can’t ever reject the future. You see? He Witnesses the unborn and the unchained dead in me, let loose by Time’s Book… So in this way, you– mask of me– showed me the nurse miracle of innermost address, the capacity to write or paint my life and self into innermost existence. I am a stranger to you, to myself.”

In unsaid and unthought ways, our Montes or Montás helps Télémaque gain the strength to say this to his mask. In so doing he resonates enough to awaken (from across the Drumskin of time) the voice of Wilson Harris[iii] in the lineaments of the pictorial frame, who remarks:

I, too, was told I flew the coop– that I fled the reality of Guyana for England, to pursue the pipe dream of being a Caribbean who makes a living off their art, and keeps alive the eternal fire of the imagination. Télémaque, my lad, if Paris became your base of operations, then that’s just how it happened! The bravery of forging one’s path and ignoring the tides of fashion is a task of timeless value. And the Caribbean Human reaches all corners, you know. There are contours of hidden voyage written in us, roots of ancestral migration routes. You see, apparently, fathers sent their children away. Or perhaps the children had to go far to love them properly. You’re a painter, you know about distance and perspective.

A covenant of migration is written into many a Haitian and Dominican palm. The Antillean peopling sequence involved conflicts and syncretisms of diverse groups to form the basis for the indigenous cultures eventually encountered by Columbus’ Christ-drunk boats. Frontiers existed between Guanahatabey, ‘Taino,’ Eyeri, and Kalina through the island chain. A modern language like Garifuna– the last living Island Arawak language, with lots of vocabulary from the Carib settlers who warred with the ‘Taino’– evidences the syncretism at play between these diverse peoples long before European colonisation. My Guyanese colleague Ivan Van Sertima also worked deeply on the question of pre-Columbian contact between Amerindians and Africans. The Taino highly valued Guanin– a South American alloy of copper, gold, and silver– whose name is suspiciously close to Ginen or Guinée, the Kreyol term for both Africa and the spiritual realm.

Archaeologist Samuel Wilson considers the motives for these initial migrations. The Caribbean may well be the last uninhabited place settled by First Peoples, if we take Rouse’s 6000 BC as the start date. Seen from this light, the Caribbean— this zone of catalysis for global modernity — is also a kind of swansong for a different, older story. The last place reached by First Peoples; the first place reached by the missionaries and their sick gold-lusts… A painterly cosmic nexus in World Theatre. But I digress, dear Hervé.

Roused by the impromptu lecture, yet somewhat suspicious, Télémaque recognizes the vague contours and catalysts of this possible dream– he recalls Harris’ final novel, The Ghost of Memory, where a man is mistaken for a terrorist and shot to death, but the bullet lets him step into a painting and work from within it. He remembers the eager young student of her own genealogy– a distant relative of the important Haitian journalist Michèle Montas and former Dominican politician Temístocles Montás– who recounted these mixed ancestors’ attempts to pass for white under the ancien régime. Is she the dream soldier who appeared to him, who ferried Toussaint to NYC from within his painting, and conveyed Télémaque himself to Paris? What’s her mission? Into the mind’s kitchen sink it all goes. Does she refuse to speak, choosing instead to witness from within the picture? Time and the shape of memory have something to do with this camouflage, this opportunity he’s given for scrying a visual surface. A vague muscle in him clenches subtly, and at that moment our soldier appears to him veiled in a throbbing fog of scribbles, whispering “the battered cowboy wants to heal.”

A mouth whose tongue is a tombstone gobbles up both image and phrase, but before it can spit out a gnarled mass, the soldier takes a cane and shoves it down the floating lips, into an invisible throat. Choking, it starts to speak, but the silent words seem to come out of Télémaque’s own mouth. Finally, it vomits out the cane, now glowing white-hot, as well as a pair of underwear that drifts upward like a sail to heaven. “This cane is for you,” she says, handing it to Télémaque as she steps out of the painting to head home.

a small framed painting in a pop art style, with a closeup of a face with a leering smile and stuck out tongue, enclosed in a circle. superimposed over this face are two pairs of Y-front underwear
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), Petit celibataire un peu negre et assez joyeux (Little Bachelor a Little Negro and Quite Happy), 1965. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

2. Analysis

A cultural and linguistic formation of extraordinary force unfolded in Hervé Télémaque’s native Haiti: the Haitian Revolution, an abolition of the yoke of enslavement powered by forms of relation which displaced and enslaved African and Amerindigenous people developed in their forced proximity to each other, imposed first by Spain, then France. People with no relation, little common ground and no common language, perhaps even ancestral enmity, were all in the same boat now. How to survive and thrive?

Pidgins are grammatically simplified forms of communication that develop between multiple groups in contact with minimal or no common language. The formation of Caribbean Creole languages a generation or two after pidgins represents the foment of these generative forms of relation in the hold of diaspora[iv]. Children born in the contact zone ‘complete’ the pidgin, creating a Creole fullness of expression and slyness akin to any other language, with full phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Indeed, “the Creole language[s],” for Martinican poet and scholar Édouard Glissant, have achieved “the transcendence of linguistic compromise, the sublimation of the activities of childhood, the art of the diversionary image, rhythmic camouflage…”[v]

With what Lucy Lippard calls “fragmented style,”[vi] Télémaque nourishes a sense of creolized dynamics by staying close to the slippage between painterly gesture, the (quasi-) semantic mark, and the artifice of the pictorial surface. This nexus of wit, opaqueness, and ambivalence links Télémaque’s work to Glissant’s formulation of the creole and the Caribbean right to opacity.[vii] The more hermetic pieces explore secrecy’s sensual force, such as in Confidence (Secret) (1965), an acrylic painting out of which emerges a painter’s stepladder, a hammer, ropes, and a rod. The painting’s gnomic visual language[viii] breaks the frame and implicates the viewer in a spatial choreography of uncertainty and attention to metaphors of scale, work, craft, lineage, ascension, hierarchy. One thinks of Wittgenstein’s ladder: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”[ix]

a gallery space showing a work of art with a stepladder leading into a painting with objects appearing to hang on a wall. other paintings can be seen in the background
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), Confidence (Secret), Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

In a video produced to accompany his retrospective at the Serpentine, A Hopscotch of the Mind, Télémaque says “the relationship with language has always been very important to me,”[x] evident in the visual economy and semiotic potency of his icon assemblages. He goes on: “I am interested in all languages, because they are close to painting.”[xi] Here he resonates with Glissant, who argued: “The painted symbol coexists with the oral sign. It is the tightly woven texture of oral expression that is introduced into (and the key to) Haitian painting… To this extent any picture painted in this style is also a form of writing,” which also “demonstrates by its visual form the specific nature of orality.” Glissant, indeed, takes a strong position: “Haitian painting is derived from the spoken.”[xii] To situate Télémaque’s work as having an oral bent means to attend to its performativity, its “diversionary image[s], rhythmic camouflage,”[xiii] and thus its resonant and temporal dimensions at the blurry edges of self and community.

Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne argues against static definitions of orality where memorization pressure demotivates innovation. Instead, responses to and manipulations of source texts are inherent to the oral. Diagne states that “to understand orality is to understand that it too involves intertextuality, which is to say the art of producing a text (it makes no difference if this text is oral) in relation to another one, which the new text evokes in different ways: by citing it, making allusion to it, imitating it, miming it, subverting it, treating it at times with derision. In this way orality returns on itself, becoming a critical reworking of its own stories, and along with them the knowledge and values that they can carry and transmit…”[xiv] The intertextual critical flexibility of oral modes, whose very transmission requires alteration, commentary, and performance, informs Télémaque’s distinctive and sometimes inscrutable blend of sociopolitical, biographical-psychological-automatist, and formal (scale, colour, shape) dimensions of gesture in a consistently undogmatic practice attentive to the liminal spaces between image and discourse.

a gallery space showing colourful paintings on a far wall and a sculptural object on the floor in front of it
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022) Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

To trace the contours of this blend, one can look to the mimetic process of Télémaque’s appropriation of mass media (whose primary goal is circulation). The primary unit of language is not word, sentence, or morpheme, but discourse: groups of sentences in some relation to each other, much like the assemblages of symbols in Télémaque’s work. Pronouns evidence this, since they allow for reference to antecedents from previous phrases and sentences. However, discourses are time-based objects. How can one transpose this to the pictorial frame, which is seen ‘all at once’? Like the history of western painting, language had to free itself from an illusionistic bent (centred on the concept that there was some non-arbitrary link between sound/gesture and intended meaning) and realise the nature of the beast: ostensibly making sensory experience portable into sense or meaning, the linguistic process leaves much ‘lost in translation.’ Speakers must fill in gaps based on context, habits, convention, etc.

In his long career exploring narrative and time-based capacities in painting,[xv] Télémaque gives visual form to this parasitic gap to engage the circulation of antiblack narratives through libidinal, political, and aesthetic economies. He ranges over political commentary and crypto-visual oases of reflection through techniques and aesthetic proposals like the clear line which takes gestures from comics and pulp media (in particular Hergé), the aesthetic of quotidian mythologies[xvi] which drew on the fragmented composition of Narrative Figuration and mass media, as well as minimalist-adjacent ‘lean sculptures’ produced during a brief break with painting which spatialise Télémaque’s charting of pictorial flatness as a stimulus for pattern recognition in the human brain, which is by nature pattern-seeking. He would later move away from pop art strategies and interpretive modes of figuration indebted to thinkers like Roland Barthes to adopt more postmodern approaches such as appropriation, self-reference, information layering, making visible the conditions of creative labour and pictorial surface, and undermining atomized or individual authorial or artistic voice through collage, assemblage, and other techniques. The post-painterly psychological internalism of the pre-60s work translates here to a kind of exploration of optic-semantic apophenia (tendency to find meaningful patterns in data).

two large-scale semi-abstract paintings hang on walls at a right angle to each other in an exhibition space
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022) Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

With each of these tendencies represented in the retrospective–the artist’s first in the UK– a picture of sustained focus emerges, in which, as poet John Ashbery states, “the invisible subject of these [Télémaque’s] paintings is a cutting edge,”[xvii] as in the production of boundaries, border zones, and through-lines that cut, paste, and otherwise impact. The show eschews chronology in favour of a hang that encourages resonant and dissonant spaces in formal and conceptual ways, such as a room featuring the sublime and spiritual All’en Guinée (2019) perpendicular to the brittly frenetic One of the 36,000 Marines over our Antilles (1965). Like the US itself, and like a corporate ad, the bright red colour of the latter work invades the visual field, interrupting the feast of subtlety that is being with All’en Guinée (2019). Its sanguine backdrop rhymes with the red squares in Fonds d’actualité, n°1 (2002), and in the same room, a depiction of the paradoxes of democracy on the occasion of Jacques Chirac’s re-election as French president. This room also displays Territoire (1968), a floor sculpture with the aura of an abandoned instrument of capture made from harvested, badly-polished bones.

Even as Télémaque stakes his claim against the second US occupation of the Dominican Republic (DR) in the 20th century in One of the 36,000 Marines… (1965), he incites the viewer’s nervous system with the work’s red background, perhaps evoking the US marine-installed Dominican dictator Trujillo’s anti-Black and anti-Haitian strategy of population management by declaring that all Dominicans were ostensibly Indians of myriad shades, not Afro-Caribbean and certainly not Haitian[xviii]. Against the background’s blood-like scream a US soldier crosses a threshold consisting of a traffic light and a coiling telephone cord, a nod to how Trujillo’s modernization of the DR involved rampant anti-Haitianism[xix], enclosure of the Dominican rural areas, as well as collusion with corporations and state officials securing their interests abroad.[xx] Ducking under a sparse line of white birds, the soldier seems to cross the electric blue telephone cord to melt into shadow, an inevitable sacrifice to the growing global financial market leaving behind a ring of yellow and black footprints, and the familiar Telemaquian motif of floating undies. Back at the event horizon of the soldier’s disappearance, at his back we see, from inside a green oval lens or mirror, a monocled corporate fat cat seemingly pocked with sores, examining food and drink taciturnly. Hung next to a passage to another room, this left third of the canvas has a rich dark mauve background, as well as a porcelain feminine bust[xxi], playing card, vehicle wheel, and a buckled belt repeated on the right third.

a painting in a pop art style showing army figures and silhouettes running, a bright red flat plane of colour, a traffic light, a pair of floating Y-fronts, and other assorted forms and figures
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), One of the 36,000 Marines over our Antilles, Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

The ‘1789’ in stencil font references the French Revolution and its galvanising impact on the eventual two states which would occupy the island– seemingly pointing to sources of common ground between Haitians and Dominicans, whose respective yearnings for freedom were (of course, in vastly different ways) instrumental to each’s independence project, and whose mutual dependence as neighbours with a shared destiny, let alone being each other’s strongest trade partner, is self-evident. In its categorical rejection of any occupation of either side of the island– since invasion of one side historically implies and often co-occurs with invasion of the other– the work’s red background may also ‘sound the alarm’ of the necessary horizon of increased Haitian-Dominican collaboration to prevent such breaches. In the wake of the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti and of Trujillo in the DR, the perspective of solidarity between the two nations belongs to a 60s and 70s context of anti-essentialism, such as post-Négritude aesthetics like Glissant’s Antillanité and Créolité, developed by Martinican writers Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant. Of the Duvaliers’ noirisme and their state cooption of Vodun aesthetics to terrorize and silence the Haitian masses, Télémaque states: ​​“‘Noirisme’ is an ideology which conveys the idea of the veritable otherness of the Black man; a Black essentialism that was promoted by François Duvalier and advanced by those who raised him to power.”[xxii] Subtle icons in his oeuvre, like the cane (which evokes both his spinal injury and the cane of polyglot gatekeeper between realms Papa Legba), situate him in a post-dictatorial process of Haitian recuperation of Vodun aesthetics from the state’s hands.

For Ashbery, the incursion of the ‘Race Question’ into pop visuality with Télémaque’s early Parisian works in Narrative Figuration evidences “the product of colour that is both appetising and bitter,” like the salt one must give to zombies to awaken them from their spiritual shackles. Ashbery goes on: “like the pastel backgrounds of animated cartoons, the calm setting for comic violence… An atmosphere of freshly-committed crime sweeps through the paintings of Hervé Télémaque…”[xxiii] Yet the narrativity of these works are less whodunit and more an opportunity for critical contemplation driven by clashing forms, colours, scales, and other plastic considerations. Ever a criminal in the court of meaning. Indeed, one phrase for the working method of Télémaque’s narrative figuration era was du coq à l’âne, literally ‘from rooster to donkey’– a French idiom denoting non-sequitur and semantic awkwardness.

a semi-abstract painting with pop-art influences,with a whiteish background. on this we see distorted greenish figures with grimacing faces, a mannequin of a woman's torso wearing a white maid's apron. dangling limbs are among other abstract colourful forms and cartoonish faces
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), Portrait de famille (Family Portrait), 1962-63. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Consider Portrait de Famille (1962-3), whose menacingly goofy green and grey figures loom and babble in a limbo next to forlorn comic panels. In one, a befuddled hot pink figure says or perhaps asks TROP TARD (TOO LATE), with the question mark floating outside the speech bubble, linked to it with a line evoking annotation. The green and grey figures, too, want to communicate urgency, but like the question mark, they seem to float or sink imperceptibly in a sickening airless space of intimate conflict out of time. One large figure mugs the camera while, instead of a leg, a green arm reaches into a comic frame containing a blue dressed mannequin.

The work’s compelling pathos resonates with a smaller earlier work hung in the same room, L’Annonce Faite à Marie (1959). As if its background were a wall with many years of buffed graffiti marking it, in this work a thin grey scuzz half-conceals a garden of illegible marks, with many peeking out in the bottom left– the clearest word in the quasi-asemic thicket being his wife’s name, Maël, without the tréma diacritic– and floating up toward the top-right corner to orbit swatches of yellow, blue, and black. The latter seems like a landscape, with two ruddy brown figures (each with vague green borders on their left sides) near it– above, in the canvas’ top right, a square head with a blank expression, and below it, off-centre, a vague figure whose head seems replaced with a yellow circle. Here, too, a sense of timeless encounter pervades, though with a quieter thrum than Portrait de Famille (1962-3).

an abstract oil painting with a mostly pale surface, fragments of bodies and faces, and scribbled lines of writing
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind, installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022, L'Annonce faite a Marie (The Announcement to Mary), 1959. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

In idioms of flat-plane Haitian painting, “one senses that the flatness of space is both shrewd and naive.”[xxiv] From its liminal position between imagery and textuality, Haitian painting is for Glissant “a schematic version of reality; the beginning of all pictography… Haiti’s pictorial discourse thus proceeds by the piling up of the visible.”[xxv] The latter– expression and communication by means of heaped images having a communicative aim– lays the groundwork for more abstract recursive, arbitrary structures building on pairings of sound/gesture and meaning (consider again the pidgin>creole transition or completion). One intuitively senses, then, why Télémaque sought the inherent narrative quality of comic motifs such as frames and captions, the functionality of sign and stencil fonts, gestures from drawing, and eventually the ligne claire (clear line) method using an opaque projector as appropriated from the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Artist Rammellzee said that since “all symbols are drawn, infinity’s separation from all symbols must be shown through drawing.”[xxvi] The drawn is perhaps closer to the oral than the painted, and certainly cosier in the liminal zone between meaning and picturing. If drawing indeed behooves the project of showing infinity’s separation from the symbolic realm, and if we agree with Artaud that all writing is pig shit, then the narrativity of the drawing practice one pursues should privilege the oral. For Télémaque, this in turn portends the appropriation of mass media tropes, pop mythology, and arcane symbols for private psychological processing. Much of the thematic intensity and pictorial surface complexity of the artist’s pre-Paris work indeed emerged from being a patient of psychoanalyst Georges Devereux, who promoted deep introspection and imagination work.

a pop-art style oil painting with bright orange, blue and green planes, and images scattered across it. these include a reaching hand, a chopping board, a knife, a chain, an explosion, the word 'banania' in caps, a batman logo, and a version of the racist 'tirailleur senegalaise' image from french branding
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), Banania I, 1964. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Télémaque brought Blackness into the pop art conversation early, such as with Toussaint L’Ouverture à New York (1960)– one of his final US paintings before moving to Paris– which yokes post-painterly expressivity with indexes of “the public-sphere mediated markers and citations of pop art.”[xxvii] Deploying vernacular symbols due to the potency of visual and conceptual familiarity, Télémaque “uses the incomprehensible imagery of today’s mass culture, but he resolves its dissonant elements in terms of pure painting.”[xxviii] Something like the role of adhesive in collage work, Télémaque ’s canvas gestures act as disjunctive syllogisms[xxix]– a semiotic connective tissue that takes advantage of the stickiness of pop while slipping in critical approaches to its constitutive antiblackness, such as in Banania I (1964) and its depiction of the racist tirailleur senegalais caricature used by a French hot chocolate company for a mascot. We may consider the position between the rock of Audre Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”[xxx] and the hard place of Joseph Beuys’ insistence that “you cannot wait for an ideal situation. You cannot wait for a tool without blood on it.”[xxxi]

There is no image circulation without Blackness as well as what Victor Anderson calls the blackness that whiteness created[xxxii]. And vice versa– no Blackness or white-made blackness without images. As Aria Dean deftly argues:

The history of black people… is intrinsically bound up with the history of mass media and photographic and moving images. From the nineteenth century onward, images have been the primary mode through which civil society’s conceptions of blackness, black people, black culture, and black life have been workshopped, disseminated, and reified, from the early cartoons that originated many of the racist tropes that have festered in American popular culture – ‘mammy’, ‘jezebel’, ‘sambo’ and so on – to more contemporary depictions across screens of all sizes. But further, the very notion of blackness itself is an image that precedes any subject’s self-identification with it as such – the product of the European colonial imagination.[xxxiii]

It is this image or imago simultaneously produced by and producing circulation whose force and perversity Télémaque investigates. Since, on arguments by him and Glissant, images and language are kin, then the generative or potentially infinite output of a given language also applies to the logic of the picture. As such, if the image of blackness as produced by non-blacks inherently yokes to visual circulation, which has theoretically infinite momentum aside from technical limitations akin to those of our own (we could produce infinite novel utterances but we would die long before we’re done), Télémaque seeks to deploy semantico-visual ‘short-circuits’ in a threshold zone of fuzzy logic between meaning and optics to analyse the formation and circulation or maintenance of racial and libidinal regimes of knowledge and affect. Since his scope of work is narrative, it is thus also temporal, at least since Narrative Figuration.

a colourful oil painting with planes of flat colour. we see three black Christian crosses and a figure, made out in black and wearing a top hat, advancing towards them. there are coffin-like corns in a green field and areas of blue and red
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), Le Voyage d'Hector Hyppolite en Afrique (The Voyage of Hector Hyppolite in Africa), 2000. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

We can consider one such temporal short-circuit in Le Voyage d’Hector Hyppolite en Afrique (2000), where Télémaque depicts Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite as a zombie[xxxiv] travelling to the motherland. Against a background of light green and blue rectangles in the canvas’ bottom half, and with rectangles of darker blue, red, and black in the top half, we spy our figure: in white pants, seated in side profile with his right leg crossed, the black silhouette tends to three black crosses and an arabesque corpse in a translucent red coffin. His tall black hat and jacket feature white marks as though stitched on, as if he dons the features of Baron Samedi, a brash lwa[xxxv] who stands guard over graveyards, the life-death-life cycle, the dead, and history. In the canvas’ upper right area is a blackboard on which are scrawled in Twomblyesque tufts the names of various African and Haitian dictators and cronies– such as Bokassa, Duvalier (partly obscured), Papa Doc’s Tonton Macoute, Mobutu, etc– obscured in the top right corner by a stack of one blue rectangle and one red (repeating colours used in the canvas’ upper left area and the clear red coffin) to evoke a Haitian flag without its coat of arms.

The gesture reminds one of the story of Dessalines ripping the white out of the tri-colour to make the new freedom flag at the end of Revolution (1804). But British thinker Robbie Shilliam reminds us that “besides this story of creole creativity is another that speaks to African retention. For red and blue are actually the colours of the Ogou family of lwa. The head of this family, Ogou Feray, is the lwa of war, courage, heroism and also a blacksmith. The blacksmith profession in Kongo cosmology (exemplified by Pedro IV) personifies unselfish conciliation and resolution of conflict.”[xxxvi] For whatever reason the artisan and alleged houngan Hyppolite found himself returning across the veil, this legacy of religio-symbolic activity– such as altering the flag not only to celebrate freedom but venerate one’s higher powers– vibrates within the urgency of his present task.

Is he soothing a mainland African so they can go farther into the void in peace, or returning a recently-dead soul to the material world? For what? His immaterial or undead body, as a body of cultic oral knowledge, stands opposed to the written archive of the blackboard, as well as the restrictive linear time imposed by the figures listed. While his aims remain opaque, the moment’s drama seeps through the painting’s bold colours and stark composition. He seems like an interloper in a zone where a bootlicker just passed and left a written mark (the names), and yet he seems capable of accessing a moment of stillness he can hold onto as long and tight as he wants, like a fermata. For Glissant, Hyppolite’s approach to Haitian painting stressed its hieroglyphic capacity of unmediated expression– direct yet concealed, such that “emptiness is never ‘metaphysical.’ It is actually ‘swollen’.”[xxxvii] Resonating with this analysis, for art critic Emmanuel Guigon, Télémaque’s work “does not tell its story, it does not confess… The image is there, constantly circulating in the multiplicity of alternative formulae, allowing the creation of scraps of narration, only to ruin them immediately with other fragments, always ambivalent.”[xxxviii] Some wisps on the blackboard behind zombie Hyppolite serve this end of ornamental illegibility, a surrealist gesture somewhere between old school phrase repetition punishment and the automatist path toward channelling the ineffable.

a large scale abstract painting spread out horizontally on a stretch of white wall in a gallery space. on the canvas, we see forms in pink, black, yellow and other colours
Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind (Installation view, 7 October 2021 – 30 January 2022), À l'en Guinée, Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

In its gesture of return, Le Voyage… (2000) rhymes with another work in the show, All’en Guinée (2019). This monumental, nigh sublime work (200x960cm) puns on the dual meaning of ‘Guinée,’ which in Kreyol means both Africa, colloquially, and in a spiritual context, the realm of the dead and ascended. “It’s death, but it’s paradise,” the artist says of the depicted world. A shiny, almost electric turquoise line splits the canvas, referencing the watery boundary between material and immaterial (this line rhymes with the coiled telephone pole boundary in One of the 36,000 Marines… (1965), hung in the same room). Against a primed white background, objects and figures seem to dance in a space of dense planes and forces. Sharp yet vague, hard yet soft, these forms vibrate to a resonant frequency of contemplation and lateral movement (rather than enlightenment or gnosis). Left of the blue line float lips above two nugatory devoted figures who seem to circle around vessels of shiny distended emeralds– like inflated tears or Wifredo Lam-type membranes[xxxix]. On the right of our ad hoc Kalunga line, I seem to see three or four rocks, the sequence ‘5-5=0,’ various semi-machinic forms, a pink die or tiny built structure, the title of the work, a trumpet. The furry pink line and yellow line at the right edge are perhaps another veil or gate (there are seven gates of Guinée). Any potential stifling or hermetic sealing impact of narrative figuration is avoided here; instead, forms here glow with hidden complex purpose, simultaneously inviting contemplative interpretation and also resisting capture. Like tiny lightning rods whose upward trajectory is a perpendicular resonance of this major piece, the two Fatalité (1968) sculptures stand like nails hammered, from below, into the meaning-thick air itself in the presence of All’en Guinée (2019).

Here, in the pregnant stillness and compositional harmony of the work, the artist’s hand is a testament to closeness to the veil. On the other hand, in My Darling Clementine (1963), the artist depicts himself as a lone cowboy in a semantic badlands of gaping maws, dollar signs and mass imagery like ads for hair straightener and chocolate. The work’s wall text quotes him: “that battered cowboy is me.” Is the slick-haired high yellow cowboy a buffalo soldier in thrall to antiblack capitalism, hunting down Natives, or a wounded defector from the regime of images? While his lower half seems to point back toward the capitalist morass on canvas (and the racist rubber sambo doll encased in a wooden box hung to the canvas’ left, holding a banana), his upper half seems to amble to what might be a watering hole, facing a void created by the L-shaped canvas structure. Like the mythic Dominican ciguapa, a water siren whose feet face backwards, the cowboy is bruised and warped by his liminality. Télémaque’s creolized semiotic assemblages exploit obfuscation and ambiguity to investigate and critique the libidinal economy of anti-blackness which fuels aesthetics. In the context of the Serpentine retrospective, the ambiguous figure serves as a good synecdoche of Télémaque’s practice, which over the decades has preferred independence and experimentation rather than fitting into the aesthetic slots in fashion at any given moment.

manuel arturo abreu (b. 1991 Santo Domingo) is a non-disciplinary artist who lives and works on unceded lands of Multnomah, Cowlitz, Clackamas, Chinook, Kalapuya, Confedered Grand Ronde people, and other Pacific Northwest First People. abreu works with what is at hand in a process of magical thinking with attention to ritual aspects of aesthetics. Since 2015, they have co-facilitated home school, a free pop-up art school in the Pacific Northwest with a multimedia genre-nonconforming edutainment curriculum, including residencies at Yale Union (2019) and Oregon Contemporary (2022-23). They also compose worship music as Tabor Dark. Recent projects at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler (Berlin), Palazzo San Giuseppe (Polignano a Mare), HALLE FÜR KUNST Steiermark (Graz), Kunstraum Niederösterreich (Vienna), Veronica (Seattle), and Athens Biennial 7.


Aria Dean, ‘On the Black Generic’, NGV Triennial, University of Melbourne.

Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse. 1999 [1981]. University of North Carolina Press.

Richard J. Powell. ‘The Brown Paper Bag Test: Hervé Télémaque’s Exploded Discourse’, 2018. Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 42–43, pp. 235-249.

Anne Tronche, ‘Narrative Figuration: Two Ways of Seeing Things’, 2003. Critique d’art Actualité internationale de la littérature critique sur l’art contemporain 22, Online since 24 February 2012.


[i] Toussaint’s Francophilic penchant for statecraft lured him to death via Napoleon’s sham treaty meeting invite straight to a cell in the Jura mountains.

[ii] Luke, Ben. 2021. ‘When painters are old, they do their worst painting’: Hervé Télémaque on colonialism, cartoons and a deep love of literature. The Art Newspaper.

[iii] Guyanese novelist (1921-2018) of ‘quantum fiction.’

[iv] In Frottage (NYU Press, 2019), Nairobi-based philosopher Keguro Macharia puns on the meanings of ‘frottage’– (1) the technique or process of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art and (2) the practice of touching or rubbing against the clothed body of another person in a crowd as a means of obtaining sexual gratification, to theorize forms of relation, friction, and libidinal action in the context of forced proximity, which in his framework renders diaspora akin to the hold.

[v] Glissant, Édouard. Caribbean Discourse. 1999 [1981]. Charlottesville: University of North Carolina Press, p193

[vi] Lucy Lippard. 1966. Pop Art. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, p. 184.

[vii] Powell, Richard J. 2018. The Brown Paper Bag Test: Hervé Télémaque’s Exploded Discourse. Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 42–43, pp. 235-249.

[viii] Light beige background; darker beige square in the top left corner with a turquoise pair of underwear in it; black square in the top right corner with a pelvic bone in it; golden nail and its blonde shadow floating above the stepladder; redbone forearm with a wristwatch popping out of the left mid edge and pointing at a stencil font “O” in a blue square; green tent on the stepladder’s right, with a small purple arrow pointing to it; orange bar at the bottom of the canvas with small silhouetted figures in white shirts and black pants, in groups of one and two framing silhouette feet in purple open-toe shoes vertically framed by the ladder’s two bottom rungs.

[ix] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 6.54

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPX2kIKxRb8. Accessed 15 Jan 2022.

[xi] Glissant, Édouard. Caribbean Discourse. 1999 [1981]. Charlottesville: University of North Carolina Press, p193

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Diagne, Souleymane Bachir. 2013. The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa. Dakar: Codesria, p. 54

[xv] In 1967, Gérald Gassiot-Talabot, who like Télémaque and Bernard Rancillac, was one of the co-founders of Narrative Figuration, stated: “Narrative covers all visual works referring to a representation depicted in time, by their writing and their composition, without there being any ‘narrative’, so-called.” He felt the aesthetic grouping or program of Narrative Figuration would ““make it possible to study together artists who have intentionally chosen time and those whose work closely overlaps with this concern.”

[xvi] In 1964, Télémaque co-curated Mythologies quotidiennes at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, a show of Narrative Figuration and nouveau réalisme that critics read as a European reaction to US pop art.

[xvii] Ashbery, John. 1964. Télémaque / Geissler. London: Hanover Gallery, p. 5

[xviii] Wright, Micah. 2015. An Epidemic of Negrophobia: Blackness and the Legacy of the US Occupation of the Dominican Republic. The Black Scholar 45.2, pp. 21-33.

[xix] Including self-hatred since, in fact, one of his grandmothers was Haitian.

[xx] See Cyrus Veeser’s A World Safe for Capitalism: Dollar Diplomacy and America’s Rise to Global Power (2007) for an analysis of debt governance experiments in the DR. See Eric Paul Roorda’s The Dictator Next Door: The Good Neighbor Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1930-1945 (1998) for an analysis of the relationship between US debt governance and the Dominican dictator Trujillo’s rule.

[xxi] Perhaps a reference to the US project in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to recast Dominicans as white, a project which an antiblack and europhilic dictator like Trujillo was more than eager to assist.

[xxii] Quoted in ​​Alexia Guggemos, “Confidence: le resort de l’enfance” (2013; repr. in Hervé Télémaque: Écrits, entretiens), 376. Translation from Powell 2018.

[xxiii] Ashbery, John. 1964. Télémaque / Geissler. London: Hanover Gallery, p. 5

[xxiv] Glissant 1999: 157

[xxv] Glissant 1999: 155

[xxvi] RAMMELLZEE. 1989. IONIC TREATISE GOTHIC FUTURISM ASSASSIN KNOWLEDGES OF THE REMANIPULATED SQUARE POINT’S ONE TO 720° TO 1440° THE RAMM-ΣLL-ZΣΣ. Unpublished manuscript (online). Accessed 18 Jan 2022. URL: http://drzulu.com/the-rammellzee-ionic-treatise-gothic-futurism/

[xxvii] Powell 2018: 236

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Basically, a statement of this form: P or Q. Further, in classical logic, disjunctive syllogism (historically known as modus tollendo ponens, Latin for “mode that affirms by denying”) is a valid argument form which is a syllogism having a disjunctive statement for one of its premises. As a rule of inference of propositional logic, the disjunctive syllogism states that if P or Q is true and not P is true, then Q is true.

[xxx] Lorde, Audre. 1983. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. In Moraga, Cherrie and Anzaldúa, Gloria (eds), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table Press, pp.94-101.

[xxxi] Wilk, Elvia. 2016. The Artist-in-Consultance: Welcome to the New Management. e-flux.

[xxxii] Anderson, Victor. 1995. Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism. New York: Continuum, p.13.

[xxxiii] Dean, Aria. On the Black Generic. NGV Triennial, University of Melbourne. Accessed 18 Jan 2022. URL: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition_post/on-the-black-generic/

[xxxiv] In the sense of someone returning from beyond the veil, not in the post-George Romero sense of an infected flesh-eating automaton, etc.

[xxxv] Principle of mediation or, incorrectly, “god” in Ewe-Fon Vodun-based practises such as Haitian Vodou and Dominican Vudú.

[xxxvi] Shilliam, Robbie. 2017. Race and Revolution at Bwa Kayiman. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 45.3, p. 288

[xxxvii] Glissant 1999: 157

[xxxviii] Guigon, Emmanuel. 1998. An Image Serves to Drive Away Other Images. In Télémaque. Valencia, Spain: Valencian Institute of Modern Art, Centre Julio González, p. 150

[xxxix] As explored by Télemaque in the late 50s.


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