Widline Cadet: Preserving (Imagined) Worlds
Widline Cadet’s photographs entangle the past with the present as she uses the medium to communicate the often intangible feeling of being an immigrant. She explores themes of race, memory, erasure, migration, immigration, and her Haitian cultural identity from within the United States by staging family photographs within more contemporary photographs that reflect on her life as a child. In doing so, she blurs time and space as a means of building an archive of her family history.
Cadet tells me she doesn’t have many photographs, or evidence, of her childhood in Thomassin, Haiti. Her practice is how she makes sense of her relationship to loss, and she builds a visual language that incorporates visceral elements that remind her of her youth: vivid details of landscapes, water, colors, and uniforms. Such tactile traces of her past allow Cadet to assemble an image that captures the liminal experience of being an immigrant: being both seen and unseen. In the series Seremoni Disparisyon (2019–ongoing) Cadet, explores the nuances and contradictions she experiences as a person who occupies multiple worlds at once. Some of these worlds are real, some are imagined. Nonetheless, the artist couples her experiences—either because of her race, gender identity, or native language and homeland.
She captures this intersection of her multiple worlds in Seremoni Disparisyon #1 (Ritual [Dis] Appearance #1) (2019), in which she uses self-portraiture to depict herself simultaneously in the past and present, in the US and Haiti, and on solid ground and in water. Standing with her back to the viewer, Cadet makes it clear she is the custodian of her own image. Gazing ahead, the artist faces her past life, looking onto photographs of her younger self rendered onto a backdrop depicting Haiti. Her shadow is cast onto the artificial background as she stands knee-deep in a body of water, all while the scene in the background reflects onto the surface of the water. At the same time that these memories of Haiti have impacted Cadet, her shadow is evidence of her manipulation of her past as she attempts to fill the gaps in her memory. The photograph of Cadet as a child appears three times, each iteration presenting a clearer representation of the image as she scans the Haitian horizon. To the right of that setting, Cadet affixes three unrecognizable landscapes to the frame that shapes her imagined reality within her present world. Striped, black lines interrupt the scene in the three backgrounds that hang unsteadily onto the frame and one another, further warping the staging. Seremoni Disparisyon #1 (Ritual [Dis] Appearance #1) is a mediation on Cadet’s use of memory, especially the lack of memories, to make sense of her loss. For Cadet, her experience as an immigrant means to belong to several worlds and therefore, to constantly shift perceptions of herself as she makes sense of her relationship to her family, homeland, and adopted country.
I think my sense of self is something that’s shifted, and as that has shifted, so has my relationship with my parents, my siblings, the rest of my family, as well as the place that birthed me. It’s complicated because when I think about what’s lost and what’s gained, there’s no tangible way for me to measure these things. A loss is not always inherently a bad thing, and neither is a gain inherently a good thing. What I'm interested in is thinking beyond the binary of losses versus gains or calculating a total of the losses incurred. My work is more concerned with acknowledging and giving language to the entirety of my experiences. Not just the popular narrative of the immigrant chasing the American Dream.
Cadet tells me about the oscillation between hypervisibility and invisibility as she exists in multiple spaces at once. In Seremoni Disparisyon #1 (Ritual [Dis] Appearance #1), her younger body and present body, both physical and shadowed form, all exist within the scene to consider how her presence in the United States is tethered to her time in Haiti. While visiting Haiti she tells me she is considered an American, and while in the United States she is perceived as an immigrant, and outsider. The artist's process attempts to mend the rupture that occurred when she and her family left Haiti. The journey was not necessarily a bad one, but she pushes back on the narrative that her immigrant experience must be understood solely from within the context of the United States. Despite her not having tangible evidence of important family moments or photographs of her grandparents, Cadet uses what isn’t there to make sense of her complicated relationship to her homeland.
I think more than being labeled as Other, I've felt and experienced it as a person who lives and occupies multiple worlds. And I’m specifically thinking about my relationship with my parents, whose intentions in bringing their kids to the United States was for us to get a better education and better quality of life. But oftentimes it’s that same education and life in America that leads me to be alienated from them. My first language has shifted to English, while theirs is still Creole, so how does that impact how we communicate with each other, or how my father would communicate with his grandchildren, most of whom only speak English? I think that’s the othering that I'm concerned with.
In Nou Fè Pati, Nou Se, Nou Anvi (We Belong, We Be, We Long) (2020), the artist further captures this fluctuating hypervisibility/invisibility. Cadet stages the contorted Black figures in red gingham uniforms against the artificial background of the same pattern. They are individuals who make a whole form. While they blend into the background, they stick out against their green, bucolic surrounding. The pattern of the clothes and the backdrop evokes nostalgia for the artist’s youth in Haiti. They are of course uniform in their clothing and stature, but so too in their invisibility. Like Cadet in Seremoni Disparisyon #1 (Ritual [Dis] Appearance #1) (2019), the figures have their backs to the camera, yet here they are camouflaged against their fabricated background. Cadet continually employs camouflage within her work with layering, masking, doubling, and patterning techniques. She not only captures the essence of moving through a foreign land, but also argues that she now has agency in her choice to mask and unmask herself and others. Cadet directs us to see both elements of Haiti and those within the United States on an equal playing field. The artist has said she is concerned with exploring the immigrant’s response to their new homeland, not solely the homeland’s response to them.
Cadet reflects on the past as a means of establishing the realities of her multifaceted experiences as a Haitian immigrant. Her work attempts to patch the hole for future generations within her family so there will be a record of their lives. For Cadet, there is power in seeing oneself taking part in everyday life. Throughout our conversation, she returns to the idea of later generations of her family having images that afford them the opportunity to think critically about their history in Haiti, because it is part of their story. Because someone took the time to preserve a mundane moment or the imagined world of an immigrant shows they are worth knowing, worth learning about. Cadet’s images are an archive that provides tangible evidence of her family’s life. Without it, as Cadet felt in her youth, it seems as if their life, family, friends, and experiences did not exist. Cadet’s call to remember, to archive, is powerful and meant to assert her existence and her family’s history through her own lens.