Eddie Arroyo
I thought it would be good to begin with the performance at your opening, “Cat’s Head”. Having arrived late, I totally missed out on it. In retrospect, how do you think people responded to it? (I was left with a podium with a small stuffed sculpture with teeth.)

Viktor El-saieh
Yeah, it was interesting to see how this performance differed so drastically from when I performed at the Ghetto Biennale back in December – the audience at the Biennale was mostly Kreyol speakers and the setting itself was so different. The location of the Biennale, the HQ of the Atis Resistans, is in the heart of Port-au-Prince’s urban core. It was dark out with limited light on me and we were in a larger, open air space.

There was a moment where the performance really veered into an almost Trumpian campaign speech.

People were clapping. Audience members would respond saying things like “that’s not a lie” The mood was all around more festive. The gallery setting was almost the exact opposite. The space was significantly more stale and smaller, (we were in the back room of Central Fine). I was in a white cube, surrounded by large paintings and aside from me and my brother Tomm, no one spoke Haitian Kreyol. So, although we distributed the english translation after, no one actually knew what I was saying. Which was interesting.

The costume, with the big red lips and cow’s teeth can be frightening, but I noticed the fear a lot more with the Miami audience. There was a moment during the second Miami performance when I was walking into the back room, one person who got stuck with me and had no idea was happening. He met Chaloska face to face and seemed genuinely afraid. I noticed that a few times with others and a few people came up to me after to mention the visceral, gut reaction that the performance provoked in them. The other interesting part was that for whatever reason, a lot of people decided not to go into the back room when I was performing. On my way out they seemed to deliberately turn away to avoid meeting my gaze.

So, overall I would say the most common reaction was fear.

Arroyo
Do your paintings mitigate this fear that within Haitian history?

El-Saieh
I don’t know that it really does mitigate anyone else’s fear but my own. Being someone who leans to the far left on most issues and stays politically active while spending at least half of my time in the Southern United States, my world is filled with the anxiety of engaging in politics in a way that tends to be subversive. This body of work manages to embody that fear while confronting it simultaneously. So, personally I mitigate my own fear and anxieties by laying all of these ideas out and bringing them together to form a body of work.

Arroyo
Have conversations about these anxieties informed the work?

El-Saieh
That’s an interesting question. Having conversations about these anxieties ultimately helps me to conceptualize them and view them in context. So, if these fears/anxieties were to never leave the confines of my own mind, I would be less likely to view them in the broader context. It would also take me a lot longer to process things in a way that is productive or useful to me for the purposes of making the work.

Arroyo
Yes, that is the process, in the ways it moves. Beginning with an impulse, then it’s takes shape to represent something familiar – an unconscious direction. Time passes and the work progresses, one piece after another. Then, there is refection, a conversation or two, much like now, and after a conceptual variation of what was decided. It’s all very abstract until there’s context.

People were laughing and clapping at your performance at the Ghetto Biennial. Not only because they understood Creole but because they knew what you represented. In its absurdity they were amused and understood its truth and smiled. It seemed your fear became their joy.I can see the same sentiment would follow with the paintings. I love the pallet, paint application, and composition but remain very ignorant about its context. The audience knew little to nothing about Chaloska at Central Fine.

Did you expect the audience there to be scared?

El-Saieh
I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I think the paintings can be enjoyed without any context and felt confident that without knowing anything about the work, people could enjoy them. At the same time, it is important to me that my work be conceptually strong so that when an individual wants to penetrate the surface and dig deeper, they can emerge with a better understanding of the subject. For those who have a limited understanding of Haitian history and culture I expected they might be scared depending on their experience in life.

With the performance, though, I felt pretty certain I was going to provoke a response that resembled fear. But, I also thought they might find some humor in the performance the way the Haitian crowd did. I think some of them who had a bit of background found room for humor. For the most part, though, it didn’t surprise me that the crowd was pretty scared.

Arroyo
Would you do that performance again, outside of a Haitian crowd?

El-Saieh
Yeah, i’ll post a video of the performance at Central Fine soon. I don’t know that I’ll do that performance again unless the piece is acquired by an institution or something. This is the first performance I’ve done in the gallery/art fair setting and its probably also the last. It just felt right to do it because of the subject. So, there really wasn’t any hesitation in deciding to include it in the body of work, but in general i’m hesitant to veer off the path of painting.

Painting is what really compelled me to dedicate my life to making art. If it were to be removed from the equation I probably wouldn’t be an artist. Since I was a child in my grandfathers gallery in PAP, surrounded by the works of Haitian masters like Andre Pierre, Andre Normal, Philomene Obin, J.E Gourge and others, all I’ve ever wanted to do was exist in the same space as them.

Voudou Ceremony by Andre Pierre
Philome Obin
Jacques Chery
Jean Enguerrand Gourgue

Arroyo
What does this “space” mean?

El-Saieh

For me, it’s a space that’s shaped by a strong sense of identity and a unique perspective on history, more specifically; the historical events that shaped the western hemisphere.

Many of the Haitian painters that have the strongest influence had little to no formal training, like myself. So, in some ways this space is also shaped by the idea that one only needs to commit themselves to making paintings in order to be a painter.

With someone like Andre Pierre — he drew heavily on his experience with Voodoo and made remarkable, timeless, and classic paintings. You don’t need a lot of context to appreciate them. But with others, like Philomene Obin, history is sort of the main driver of content and when I look at his impressive body of work I feel the need to view his work in the context of Haitian history. I’m not really sure what it means though, because i’m not in that space yet. I’m kind of on the periphery making my way in. It will take time.

Arroyo
Yet, it seems to me your paintings do occupy the space in context of Haitian history and culture. Particularly, with the figure of Charisma, utilized as a metaphysical metaphor. I see intersections of a Trumpalian and an Etienne campaign.

Do you feel in the process is creating history that’s both Haitian and American?

El-Saieh
Yeah for sure. Its less obvious in some of the work and it’s probably less intentional as well. It’s something I noticed as the body of work was being completed. There are some very obvious similarities once you start to think about it — a strong sense of nationalism, a strong sense of militarism and a hint of populism to name a few. On some level that’s part of it to though.

At the same time, violence, brutality, militarism, nationalism, etc. are not by any means unique to Haiti. What is unique to Haiti is the particular form that this energy and these ideas have taken. It’s also important to separate the figure Charles Oscar Etienne from the character Chaloska and further from the act of bringing him alive during carnival. One is a real person, the other is a mythical interpretation and the last is an expression of discontent with ineffective leadership. One might even go as far to suggest that the act of bringing him alive is a warning to future Charles Oscars.