We engaged in a conversation with New York-born Haitian American artist Jelsen Lee Innocent. Coming from a background in the communication arts—advertising and graphic design—Innocent has been hesitant to call himself an artist. He has always been communicating creatively and learning how to use objects to speak for different purposes outside of his own interests or curiosity. Now, he’s been steadily redirecting some of what he knows about object-making into a more nuanced personal and intimate conversation that isn’t necessarily pointed towards a consumer but an audience.
All through our exchange with Innocent, he is every much earnest and fluid with what he shares and how he shares it. When it comes to making artwork, he is very much the same way. Innocent is very much trafficked by, and hypersensitive to what seems like the never-ending, generational racial injustices that continue to plague the United States. He thinks and considers closely his own internal processing of the political and social surroundings he finds himself positioned in. And he tasks himself into channelling his frustrations and emotional exhaustion into objects that are physically subtle and bodily jolting all at once.
Innocent was recently an artist in residence as part of 49° Grenzüberschreitungen Festival "Future Ports of Entry" at Iwalewahaus Bayreuth, Germany and he is currently part of The 32nd Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
even though emotions - particularly my own - fuel my work at every stage I’ve become more dependent on research, digging through other people’s perspectives on similar issues, statistics, and seeking friends’ critiques. These have all been necessary challenges to my ideas’ intent while helping steer how to approach the visuals or object or experience.
Can you talk a bit about some of your thinking processes for your sculpture work while at Iwalewahaus Museum, University of Bayreuth in Germany?
The residency at Iwalewahus, which led up to the Future Ports of Entry Art & Music Festival, was my opportunity to produce around some ideas I’ve been developing. Thoughts on racism’s cultural resilience in American society, how it plays out as an efficient catalyst for the widespread injustices towards its black citizens and the omnipresent psychological weight we’ve inherited.
I’ve wanted to translate my frustrations, my feelings into tangible emotions. Or, objects that incite and steer a series of emotions that mirror my own emotional exhaustion of the ping-pong that is American racial progress.
How would I be able to materialize the frustration of pushing against the ever-present weight of racism? How do I speak to it being a barb without coming across as defeated or jaded...or even worse - obvious?
How do you go from an extended stretch of thinking about these complex issues on your mind to making physical objects that take the place of this thinking process?
I’ve got an active, yet, wandering creative temperament so I’m constantly jotting down twinkles of thoughts as soon as they come to mind.
Letting an initial spark of an idea marinate without resolving it before moving onto the next one allows the freedom of not expecting every single idea to be The Idea immediately. It can then take days, weeks, or months before revisiting them with more critical interest.
Even though emotions - particularly my own - fuel my work at every stage I’ve become more dependent on research, digging through other people’s perspectives on similar issues, statistics and seeking friends’ critiques. These have all been necessary challenges to my ideas’ intent while helping steer how to approach the visuals or object or experience.
When it comes to actually producing the work I deeply romanticize the fabrication process and its role in solidifying the idea’s purpose. Some narratives, even unintentional, are revealed only when hands meet tool meet material. Creating abstract interpretations of an idea with a clear line connecting the two is most definitely a cathartic journey. The choices of material, color and scale are each dictated by all the thinking that was previously determined so that it visually mirrors it and becomes the extension, a vocalization, of that thought.
I’ve been trying to approach these artworks as ongoing dialogues that if anyone walked into the conversation they wouldn't know for sure if they entered the opening statement, the rebuttal or the Final Word - yet, it’s both familiar and uncomfortable in ways that hopefully extend their interest. My deductive aesthetic is an attempt to entice a curiosity and an apprehensive interaction.
I always wonder how people like Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker’s work get received outside of America as the nuances of what they do is specifically rooted in American History. I’m just wondering if you knew who your audience was going to be when you presented this work and how the work would be different if it was presented in a different space or in America
I was just a part of The 32nd Biennial of Graphic Arts Ljubljana. Along with a four-month exhibition at the International Center for Graphic Arts, I was also granted a two-week residency to develop and install the works.
Speaking from a Western/European categorization of race it would be safe to consider the population of Slovenia’s capital city as monolithically ‘white’ as was my audience at the museum.
The exhibition was anchored on the installation, Pickets of Purpose for The People of Perpetual Protest II, where I imagined a tradition of elder blacks handing down picket signs from generation to generation as a right of passage and for sake of efficiency.
The other two works shown spoke to the stagnant, incomplete resolve of human rights violations that consistently affect black populations recovering from broad Eurocentrism. From culturally and legally protected acts of police brutality (As If Our Bodies Were Built To House Your Bullets, 2017) to the effects of Western nations’ identity conflicts in addressing non-white citizenship (Citizens, 2017).
Though I chose to speak to a specific people’s struggles these issues are unfortunately universal in varying degrees, making it relatable in just about any cultural environment. Actually, introducing these works in Slovenia prompted multiple conversations - and even a heated debate - on the former Yugoslavia’s geopolitical and ethnic histories and how certain resulting issues are proportional to that of the oppressions of the African diaspora.
It would be a disservice to the integrity of the work, the art institution and the audience if I had skewed or curbed my perspective - culturally or creatively. The entire experience would be fraudulent!
As If Our Bodies Were Built To House Your Bullets, 2017 digital print installation
Yes, but I guess I mean it's not necessarily about being something else for a different audience it's more about being heard for exactly what you are saying as opposed to being misheard and having your art objects overlooked for something else.
Yes. There always a fear that the context of my work will not come across clearly. I think that will continue to underline my work especially at these early stages of my studio practice. But, I’m also inspired to not consider the exhibited works as complete successes if I do not instigate formal dialogue that leads directly into steering cultural awareness and even social change.
There’s a long way to go but I’m aware of several artists that are accomplishing beautiful, tactile, sustainable progress in our communities.
As someone whose parents are Haitian immigrants, do you see your experience being different from that of African Americans whose parents are descendants of slavery?
Haitians are also descendants of enslaved Africans so from the onset we share a familiar pivot point with Africans in America, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Jamaica along with the other nations in the Americas that the European Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade established.
Due to this shared modern history black people all over the world experience identical oppressions with slight cultural-specific differences. The broad stroke of marginalization, institutional racism, over-policing, and unfair legal systems are well-represented factors across communities of the diaspora - as examples.
We’re all in this together. Acknowledging this and creating solutions with our entirety in mind and mission is vital.
No, I know that but…
I’m proud to be Haitian. To be of a people who were the first to liberate themselves from the European system of slavery has a definitive impact on my black identity. Growing up in New York in a Haitian household, my father a pastor in a Haitian church, I was entrenched in our community while being molded by my American culture simultaneously. I came of age in the nineties when Hip Hop was everything and overt expressions of Afrocentricity were prominent in music, film, and fashion. The black experience seemed culturally fluid and encompassed Caribbean, American, Hispanic cultures. Whenever I spoke to my Haitian heritage it was never an attempt to alienate myself from fellow African Americans. These two perspectives have always been intertwined to me.
So, I guess growing up in an American environment did your parents feel connected to African Americans?
Culturally, not necessarily. Not as a rejection of it but my parents are so non-secular I’ve recognized what areas of American identity aligns with their Christian Haitian ‘sensibilities’. Politically, yes, they can’t help but acknowledge an inseparable connection they have with the African American experience.
No matter your heritage, black people have to address consistent forms of discrimination. Cops haven’t unjustly pulled me over for being specifically Haitian-American; we’re dealt with as a monolithic problem and threat.
I really like your perspective on this. I guess when people try to separate themselves it is a way of making themselves feel special in a way.
Absolutely. It’s a version of otherisim that perpetuates false categories of value within our own community. We inherited it from white supremacist ideologies. It’s absolutely nonsense and unfortunately extremely popular even amongst ourselves.