Hervé Télémaque’s work pulls you in with its bright colors, cartoon-like depictions, and unique mixed media style. Upon closer inspection of his pieces, however, the recurring topics Télémaque addresses, such as racism, become apparent. “A Hopscotch of the Mind,” Télémaque’s exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, enables careful observation of both his thematic and stylistic choices through its curation and layout.
Télémaque, a Haitian artist born in Port-au-Prince in 1937, worked in both New York and Paris, where he eventually pioneered the Narrative Figuration movement, along with Gérald Gassiot-Talabot and Bernard Rancillac. Télémaque’s use of Narrative Figuration is characterized by a combination of Pop Art and criticism in reaction to current events, including French politics and the Cold War. Many of Télémaque’s pieces aim to expose the legacies of colonialism and racism, as well as demonstrate the ways in which they still operate in contemporary society. For example, in his painting entitled Banania I, Télémaque endeavours to show how his experience of more subtle racism within French culture was worse than the explicit discrimination he suffered in New York.
Télémaque depicts the “Bonhomme Banania,” the disturbing logo of a popular French hot chocolate brand, in this painting to exemplify racism in France. He also places both kitchen supplies and weapons in the painting to reveal the pervasive nature of racism in daily life. Similarly, in his collage Mère-Afrique, Télémaque tackles apartheid. Télémaque produced Mère-Afrique after being asked by the United Nations to participate in the Arts Against Apartheid exhibition in Paris in 1983. Rather than relying on violent content to communicate his message, Télémaque instead highlights two common relationships of exploitation between Black and white individuals. In the collage, Télémaque juxtaposes a famous photograph of a Black nanny walking with the children she looks after into a “whites only” zone in Apartheid South Africa with caricatures of Black men taken from jazz-age posters. Once again, Télémaque centers the painting around a symbolic object, using a horse whip in Mère-Afrique to demand acknowledgement of the history of slavery and its influence on current conflicts. Within this painting, Télémaque also writes “Un haitien contre apartheid,” asserting his stance, in addition to providing an example of the ways in which he incorporates language into his works.
“A Hopscotch of the Mind” offers a valuable opportunity to reflect on historical events and prevalent issues such as racism, as well as how these can be analysed through art, from the personal and fascinating perspective of Télémaque.
Image 1: Hervé Télémaque, Fonds d’actualité, n°1 (Substantive Issues, no. 1), 2002, acrylic on canvas, 9' 8“ × 12' 3”.
Image 2: © adagp, Paris, 2019. Photo FRAC Aquitaine, Frédéric Delpech