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Hervé Télémaque, “Portrait de Famille” (1962-63)
Hervé Télémaque, “Portrait de Famille” (1962-63), Oil on canvas 195.3 x 260.3 cm.Photograph: Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève / André Morin © Hervé Télémaque, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.

Enter the imaginative landscape of non-conformist artist Hervé Télémaque

As a retrospective of his work opens at the Serpentine, we speak to the legendary artist about confronting the spectre of colonialism from the 1950s until the present day

The art of Hervé Télémaque is a whole universe to explore. Rendered in paintings, drawings, assemblages, and collages, impregnated with text and composed of his own expansive lexicon of symbols and references from historical and popular culture, his artworks both critique and comment on the conditions of the external world around us whilst inviting us to enter the idiosyncratic, imaginative landscape of his inner world. 

Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind at London’s Serpentine galleries traces seven decades of this seminal artist’s work. His first major UK exhibition, the show surveys Télémaque’s entire career from the 1950s up to the present day.

Born in Haiti in 1937, Télémaque’s artwork is haunted by the spectres of colonialism and racism. He moved to America in 1957, drawn to New York City as one of the epicentres of the creative arts. But he didn’t find what he was looking for in the US. Abstract expressionism dominated the closed shop of the New York art world and, as an artist of colour, he encountered hostility and rejection at every turn. After three years he left for Paris where he’s remained ever since, but his experience of racial discrimination has remained incredibly live in his work over the decades. 

He may flirt with pop’s playful aesthetic and its enumeration of the everyday artefacts of consumer culture; he may be attracted to the tenets of surrealism, but Télémaque has never allied himself fully to any established movement, preferring to retain his freedom for “independent thinking” rather than subscribing to a doctrine. As a result, he’s retained an erudite, incisive perspective without conforming to the restrictive conventions defined by any one school of thought. Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind is a testament to the continued potency of his artwork, which remains as relevant and important today as it ever has. 

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of some of the artworks going on display at the upcoming exhibition. Below, we consider ourselves incredibly lucky to talk to Hervé Télémaque about the leitmotifs of his work, the legacy of colonialism, and how he very nearly chose filmmaking over painting.

Thinking about the exhibition title ‘A Hopscotch of the Mind’, in what ways do you feel this was an apt way to describe the show?

Hervé Télémaque: I found this is a fitting title for the exhibition. I actually pinched it from a journalist in Luxembourg, who used it to qualify my exhibition at the Pompidou Center. And it sounds as good in French, ‘marelle de l'esprit’, as it does in English.

I think it’s incredibly interesting that you’ve shunned the traditional chronological arrangement of your work in this exhibition. I wondered if you could tell us more about that decision? 

Hervé Télémaque: It was, in fact, the judicious choice of Joseph Constable (Serpentine curator) and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine artistic director). It more mirrors my person as a whole, which is a question of themes and motifs that tend to repeat through life. All artists tend to talk about themselves, and selves are actually composed of themes rather than a chronological order. And so, doing it this way invites surprises and avoids repetition.

As diverse and expansive as your work is, what do you feel are the recurring themes you explore?

Hervé Télémaque: The two main permanent themes that tend to occur in my work are race and racism, and sexuality. Race and racism, notably because of the mixed-race origins of all Haitians, of which I am proud to be constituted of. Also, race is a massive issue in America, which is right next door to Haiti. Haiti, we can never forget, is just a few miles away from Miami, for example. 

As a very young man in New York City, I undertook light psychoanalysis with the ethno-psychiatrist Georges Devereux and this tapped into my sexuality which, in turn, became a recurring theme and somewhat inextricable from race. There’s an overlap between the two themes. 

Words and language are also a focus. Again, being born in Haiti, I’m naturally bilingual, with French being the basic language and Creole being next. My mother was a great reader – a voracious reader – sensitive to the power and the importance of words. This I took on at a very young age. I also somewhat identified with Marcel Duchamp who was a Frenchman in America playing with American English and French as well – playing on those two different planes, two languages at the same time.

“It’s impossible to really escape autobiography in art, and the time we have at our disposal is about turning towards what our life is” – Hervé Télémaque

Thinking about New York and the hostility you encountered when you first moved there, are there any ways in which your painting ‘No Title (The Ugly American)’ may still feel as relevant now as when you painted it back in 1962?

Hervé Télémaque: So, it’s important to specify that ‘The Ugly American’ is one of a series represented in the exhibition at the Serpentine in the family portraits section. It features an overweight, obese father, which is actually as much about my own father, who I confess to not being extremely fond of. He was obese himself, so I was also targeting him. 

But the racist base remains the same in America as it does in France. And something that I want to stress and underline is that the French language, culture, and society has very racist implications intrinsic to it, though not on the same scale as America. Though things have changed to a degree for the better. For example, if I were to seek an artist’s studio in America today, moving from France or London, I would find it a lot easier than I did back in the day when I left America because of the difficulty of finding housing and studios as a Black person. Today, I’d also find a lot more talented Black artists in America working there than I did back then, when it was not so easy to become one.

Which artists working today are you most interested in? 

Hervé Télémaque: Jacob Lawrence, no longer with us, is the main influence. He managed to pull off what the naive Haitian movement known as the foyer des arts plastiques didn’t succeed in pulling off. I’ve studied him in detail, he’s the one main influence. 

The naive movement was in the 1950s followed by foyer des arts plastiques. But the problem with them both was that they veered into folklore, while Lawrence was able to focus on the socio-economic condition of the Black community in a much more in-depth way.

As an artist who has engaged so much with ideas around colonialism and the legacy of colonialism, I wondered what’s your stance on the statue debate? Do you feel that historical statues commemorating figures who profited from slavery should be removed from public space?

Hervé Télémaque: This is something of a trap question, but a legitimate question. And I’ll take a diplomatic stance. I would be all for the removal of the Colbert, who stipulated the conditions of slavery, but I wouldn’t be against keeping statues of Napoleon. I would be all for introducing and erecting statues of people such as Toussaint Louverture, a crucial member of history who very much informed French opinion, sensitivity, and awareness. We need more visible traces of the people who were behind such change. 

We’ve touched on this already somewhat, but how important is autobiography in your work?

Hervé Télémaque: It’s impossible to really escape autobiography in art, and the time we have at our disposal is about turning towards what our life is. Upon approaching the exit of life, we can turn it into something more positive. 

Having been attracted to surrealism, why did you resist formally aligning yourself with the movement?

Hervé Télémaque: As a young man, I was friends with two Haitians who joined the Communist Party – Georges Castera and Jacques Roumain, the founder of the Haitian Communist Party. But I chose not to follow them in that course, very much valuing independent thinking as my mother's son and my uncle's nephew – both of whom were independent thinkers. My uncle was Carl Brouard, a very independent thinker and poet.

So, I did turn to the surrealists for their independent thinking and they gave me a very warm welcome, but I was wary of the dictatorial dimension of surrealism in general which is why I chose to keep a safe distance and maintain my independent thinking, just as I shied away from the Stalinist tendencies of my communist friends.

What aspects of surrealism initially appealed to you in terms of their practice as artists?

Hervé Télémaque: The main goal of surrealists is to identify and reveal the truth of being human, the soul. Surrealism is basically an intellectual machinery geared towards revealing the most hidden, deepest cogs and wheels of the human condition. Basically, all Haitian artists and poets are natural surrealists to a degree, connected to the capacity to refuse nothing. 

“Painting was a poor man’s solution for serving the narrative that I wanted to explore” – Hervé Télémaque

Your paintings seem to invite the viewer to try and decode them. From Y-fronts to tents, could tell us a bit more about the recurring references and symbolism you employ?

Hervé Télémaque: Okay, so to answer that question, or in part, it’s necessary to return to those three crucial years in New York City where abstract expressionism was unfolding. And what I noted was the danger of abstract expressionism being too decorative, which actually made me want to return that to narration; to narrative – which is an interesting part of surrealism as well – and which I also found in the work of de Kooning and Gorky. 

One of the very specific traits of my painting is a response to the cutting edge of Western dominant painting being the renaissance; a response to the obsession with the female body that features, as well as Christ, so frequently, post-renaissance. I focused more on the masculine body, the masculine sex, and male sexuality as a very strong political force and a leitmotif. Hence the mens’ underwear, which is a very recurrent theme.

What excites you culturally at the moment? Be it art, film, music, or literature?

Hervé Télémaque: While I recognise poetry as what I find most dazzling of cutting edges in art, when I arrived in America, New York, I did actually hesitate between enrolling in a film school or in a painting academy. It was a material issue, I immediately realised that, coming from such a poor background, it would be very difficult to find financing for a film. So painting was a poor man’s solution for serving the narrative that I wanted to explore. 

In the field of poetry, I’ve recently been dazzled by some poems by Francis Ponge, who in a sense can be associated with pop art in his approach to the concrete. Pop art is pretty much about describing and enumerating basic objects. Ponge does this in a similar way with words, with just pure, simple, yet very revealing description that actually reveals the interior of things that are apparently simple and straightforward. 

While I am interested in more contemporary art, the talent at the beginning of the twentieth century – analytical Cubism as well as some forms of surrealism – is sufficient sustenance to feed my working process and my psychology. 

Hervé Télémaque: A Hopscotch of the Mind is at the Serpentine from October 7, 2021, until January 30, 2022

Conversation with the artist translated by Chloé Baker