Naked: A conversation with Steven Baboun
Haitian art is a very full, vibrant, yet realistic medium. While pleasing and heartwarming, it manages to represent realities that aren’t always so. It is, along with word of mouth, the main narrator of our (his)stories. Yet, rarely do we ever take it apart to analyze it or stop to think of it as multidimensional in meaning (like the realities it portrays). We hurry to move on and survive experiences, and art becomes a necessity to breathe and find solace. Opposing that practice, some (Haitian) artists put the problem, or the controversy at the forefront of their art, blatantly – forcing it to at least cross your mind. Notably, Steven Baboun a twenty-two-year-old Haitian visual artist, based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, creates art that revolves around the capture of the personal, in all its complexity. Incorporating important concepts such as sexuality, vulnerability, religion, race and nationality, Baboun tackles our chaotic nature, in a thought provoking, but strategic manner. Various of his projects include things very specific to Haitian culture, as he holds the country dear to him. In an honest conversation with me, Baboun unpacks and explains the person behind his work, and the meaning attached to it.
- I have gone through your various portfolios, your videos/short films, etc. - and of course I have my own analysis of your work - but, I feel that above interpretation, is your intent and message as an artist. To begin, I don’t want to ask you to tell us about yourself using a general overview of age, where you’re based etc., but I do want to know what your upbringing was like, and some of the experiences that have helped shaped your art.
SB: “My upbringing... I was born in a Syrian and Haitian household where it was literally a melting pot of cultures. My dad struggled through life-- had no money at one time to finish college... but through God's love, he finally finished and started working and having a steady income. My mom lived a pretty comfortable life-- her parents came to Haiti from Syria with no money. My grandparents were very hard working as children and helped provide for their families. But then they took a chance on Haiti and started a life there. So, I had a pretty diverse outlook on life at a pretty early age. I had a good childhood you know... I had a normal childhood... my parents loved each other, never saw them fight. They made sure I was happy everyday... which I think built me to be super empathetic and care about giving people platforms to tell stories. But I was a pretty two-sided kid. You know I would be someone in front of people, a happy kid who loves his friends and family, - and I'd be another behind closed doors... writing, creating, crying, feeling, and writing some more. I’d cry for hours after school... just because I felt all my emotions, plus that of the people I was with that day. I didn't understand why I was feeling so hard. I had to find an outlet to release these emotions... then came photography. When I say two-sided, I don’t mean I was faking and pretending to be someone in front of people. Both these sides are 100% me... but I kept my "artist" life hidden, because I was scared to really share these dark and intricate feelings I felt to people. I was thinking these complex things at like 15... sexuality, even death. When kids were dating and making out and drinking.... I wasn’t in to that. Then I started learning a lot about my sexuality. I was attracted to men and I always felt that way. At the age of 11, I knew I was queer but didn’t know the word for it. I didn’t come out until I graduated high school, but I'd gotten a lot of shit from people. "Why do you talk like a girl" etc. I remember one time, -and that marked me for life, - this one kid said in front of the whole class "yo tu sais tu es Masisi” (you know, you’re a faggot). The event really messed with my head and made me develop these self- esteem issues. I hated myself... and I hated myself at an early age... I was what? 12/13 when that happened. I was very self-aware at an early age… I got teased and got death threats and all of that for being gay in Haiti…. I think because I was teased for being gay, my mind opened up to these dark places. And I dove into to these dark corners... losing myself in them, facing them... again at an early age... I couldn’t understand wtf was going on and it’s recently that I understood why I was entering these very dark places in my mind. It drove me to create.”
- I heard a lot of duality and complexity, in your being, - from you describing where your family is from, and the experiences of the different sides, to your feelings, and how conflict actually came to trigger such beautiful art. I would say, that personally I feel all this reflects in your art. I’ve seen that in your photography, it usually appears simple. Even when there are words, even it feels like they give away the meaning, there’s actually [always] more.
SB:“Exactly! And you know, honestly, I wish people analyzed my art or questioned it like you do. Because my audience is mainly always like "you’re so weird” or “oh my god his art is so crazy… I love it” it’s never a deep analysis... and I want to thank you for immersing yourself in my work.”
- Of course! I also notice that you’re very careful with objects and colors.
SB:“Yes! Sometimes. I arrange the colors chaotically, almost impulsively, so sometimes its chaos and not thought out…. just like my mind… but sometimes it is VERY calculated.”
- Yes, and I actually have a very specific project in mind.
SB:“Which is it?”
SB:“Oh, NO ONE has ever asked me about it.”
- It was so funny that, in the visual, there was you, moving in what appeared to be discomfort with a bag on your head and then there was the table, with the fruits, the candles horse-head. I saw you as being an escalation of emotion. more a range than a specific emotion. There were tears, -you actually seemed to be crying - then when you faced the goat’s head, - it was dead - so I felt that it was a distraction. You kissed it with the bag over your head, so I saw that as either lust, or enjoying the idea of something outside of you and your world because you’re suffocating [under a bag]. Then the table, with the candles, symbolize religion, the fruits could either be Haiti/home, or the good things about life. The visuals are somewhat dark, but the conversation over it is wholesome. You’re speaking to lower class individuals whose mentality and beliefs keep them going through hardships. In fact, we know our people are very resigned. whose mentality and beliefs keep them going through hardships. When they spoke of death, they were so sure that if God doesn’t say so, it’s not death, and that’s hope - hope to pull you out of frustration.
SB: “What a beautiful analysis. You touched on themes present in the film. Their conversation definitely pulled me out of frustration. This was spot on.”
- I’m glad. I tend to go on a tangent. Do you have any particular inspirations? - people, things, places - aside from experiences?
SB:“Yes!! Well inspiration comes in rotation for me. I am always fascinated by different artists at different times of my life. But the ones that are my favorite and i always come back to are: Robert Mapplethorpe, Francesca Woodman, Deana Lawson, Sebastien Jean, Roger Ballen, Pope L…Things… I’m fascinated a lot by fabric and textile, psychology and behavior, inner confinement, identity-- lately I’ve been really obsessed with my body and how I can push it to the limit.... I don’t know, again, things change. For places, Jacmel for sure, my mom's closet lol, my studio (which is my room), my grandparents' village or hometown in Syria (that’s a place that I am always thinking about too for some reason), my grandparents' room etc. I’m evolving so these fascinations are very rotational and temporary.”
- From the names you’ve given me, I see artists that work with controversial themes, themes of intimacy, sexuality, vulnerability, etc – things that are parallel to your art. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten elaborate feedback, but what is a piece that has been controversial or that you’ve gotten back lash for?
SB:“Yeah…I think I have a fascination with controlled controversy or using provocation as a tool to compliment my themes – but, I am still grappling with the idea of controversy. I think this piece really got to people: it’s an image of my holding a cross in front of my crotch.”
- Why do you think it was so? And what were you trying to convey with that photo?
“[Chuckles] I don’t know why I got responses out of that. Maybe people thought I was messing with religion…not sure? [laughs] I just know some people were telling me “You’re going too far!” or “That’s disrespectful!”. The piece was more about integrating my sexuality into my religion, and that I can talk to Jesus about every aspect of my sexuality without being dirty or frown upon. “
- You’re religious/spiritual?
SB:“Yes I am. Very much so."
- Do you feel your identity contradicts your beliefs? Or that on the contrary it reaffirms it? – Similar to in some of your art, there is a lot of fragments, but it all comes together beautifully, even when separately, the elements aren’t known to go together…do you feel that way about yourself?
SB:“Yes! I feel as if my identity strengthens my beliefs and vice-versa. In a sense I’m a lot of energies at once. Being an artist helps me tap into the depth of my different selves – if that makes sense: my sensual self, my scarred self, my future self, my aggressive self, etc. These fragments take the viewer into my process, my head…it tells them I view things in that moment – when I am performing these photographs.”
- And what would you say is your process? Is there a science to how you do things?
SB:“[laughs] No science, but I am still trying to find a way to articulate my process. My process is how I see the world – what I’m seeing, if that makes sense”
- There is this piece of yours, - where you’re in the foreground, and on the wall behind you, is a note, that says “fake Haitian”. Among others, that piece really stood out to me, because it brings up a conversation that I feel is very relevant right now, about race, nationality and ethnicity and our understanding of these things as Haitians. I have seen bits and pieces of that topic being discussed, but never in full. Where do you, and that piece stand? – what do YOU have to say?
SB:This notion of “fake Haitian” has been instilled in me since the day I was born. You know… you can’t be a REAL Haitian if your skin isn’t a certain color or if you don’t follow certain kind of societal rules or your passport isn’t from Haiti... So the fact that I look how I look and I am who I am is already contradicting what it means to me Haitian to a lot of people. This piece is certainly one of many photos where I address this idea of a “Fake Haitian.” But this piece is more literal with the little paper saying “fake Haitian.” I ultimately just want to show how diverse we are as a people and how this diversity can be beneficial for us in order to progress and flourish. I want to understand where this resentment of multicultural identities come from. That’s the goal with my exploration of that concept.
- What do you feel could be done better, as far as our support and view of art in Haiti?
SB: I think as a community of Haitian artists, we must certainly preserve the essence and aesthetic of traditional Haitian art but we also must understand that these things that make up Haitian art aren’t imperative guidelines. For me, Haitian art is so rigid, so repetitive, so similar to the next piece… So I think supporting different narratives and mediums and actually taking them into consideration as part of the bigger purpose of Haitian art is super important.
- To add on, do you feel that even as a very multidimensional people, who hold a very potent culture, we often use art for release, but not for intake? What I mean, is do you feel we take the time to understand art in all its depth, as opposed to always seeing it as leisure, or a distraction?
SB: I think it depends on the person consuming the art. I can’t generalize and say all Haitians don’t take the time to understand art in depth or a certain piece in depth.
Being a Haitian artist is already an act of rebellion because art isn’t really viewed as anything substantial or important in Haiti. I do think it’s time to understand art in Haiti as something more than just a hobby or leisure like you said. I’ve always believed that if we invest in the arts, we will open dialogues about so many issues that transcend just politics. It’s always about politics—that’s the main convo really. But imagine putting art at the forefront and discussing topics brought up by our artists… Societal topics: mental health, sex, religion, the self, etc. Efforts are being made but no one is really fully listening.
- We’ve talked past projects, and current stances, but what’s next for you? Where do you plan on taking your art next? Any projects?
SB: “I will be in Haiti starting Friday to produce a project about multi-cultural identity and discrimination. Don’t want to say too much but it’s a performance art piece… One of my first performances in Haiti. I’m nervous but excited. And I just want to say that I am super grateful for the people and the Haitian art community for embracing my evolution and have been sending me so much love since day one. I don’t want to take this lightly… I am really really grateful. I know there is a purpose for all of this.”
Interviewed by Daisha Dorsainvil
See some of his work below.