DuSable Museum exhibition continues to reveal lessons: Haitian revolution in relation to world slave trade

Fabiola Jean-Louis stands in front of “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting,” a photo print in her exhibition, “Rewriting of History: Paper Gowns & Photography,” at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 750 E. 56th Place. – Duane Excell Savage

Artist Fabiola Jean-Louis’ exhibition “Rewriting History: Paper Gowns & Photography,” has been extended until Friday, May 25, at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 750 E. 56th Place. The exhibition features two life-size paper gowns inspired by the lifestyle of Marie Antoinette, two paper corsets and 11 photographic portraits of beautiful Black women wearing these and other paper gowns. The elaborately framed photo prints are embellished with images of the treatment of Black women over centuries.

“This exhibition remains extremely popular. So, we decided to make it possible for people to have more time to come and see it,” said Clinee Hedspeth, director, Curatorial Services for the DuSable Museum. “In addition to so many insights about social justice, Fabiola Jean-Louis’ work reveals important lessons of the Haitian revolution and world slave trade.”

Jean-Louis sculpts from paper gowns inspired by Renaissance paintings. She then photographs Black women wearing those gowns. Her images employ a signature style, emulating portraits of nobility but also revealing stories of the harsh realities of Black life, especially for women. She began making the gowns with tissue papers and newsprint, but now uses mulberry paper for lace trims and other papers of archival quality.

“Fabiola’s craftsmanship and photography are breathtaking,” said Hedspeth, “but it is her unflinching look at horrifying realities juxtaposed with images showing the beauty, strength and resilience of Black women that makes her works of art truly important and powerful.”

Those “horrifying realities” concern the slave trade, an institution that harmed generations of people of color—not just in the United States but all over the world—while enabling others to amass great fortunes.

Some of the exhibit’s more thought-provoking images emerge only upon closer examination. For “They Say We Enjoyed It,” Jean-Louis painted two white men raping a Black woman in a landscape appearing next to a white-wigged Black woman and her dog. For “Rest in Peace,” a corset inset to a brocaded gown depicts a lynched Black man hanging from blossoming branches. “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting” connects scars from repeated beatings across a Black man’s back to an elegant gown. The image was inspired by a famous American Civil War photograph of a slave named Gordan, Hedspeth said.

But Jean-Louis also offers symbols of revolution and hope. One portrait displays the words “Cannot be Conquered.” Another contains a bust of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who transformed a slave insurgency into a full-blown revolution. His crusade eventually liberated Black Haitians from the French in 1804 and set off a domino effect for freedom in other French colonies. He also set the stage for Haiti to eventually emerge as the first Black Republic of the New World. “He’s my hero,” said Jean-Louis. The Haitian Revolution prompted France to abolish slavery before Britain and the United States.

Jean-Louis resides and has a studio in the Bronx, but she was born in Haiti. “I know my birth country’s history,” she said, having returned from visiting there just three weeks ago. “I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, but I was raised in a Haitian household, with Haitian food and Haitian music. For me, the meaning never left.”

By the late 1700s, Haiti was considered the world’s most prosperous slave colony. It supplied much of the wealth enjoyed by France’s aristocracy, paying for extravagant gowns and clothing worn by the nobility. Jean-Louis’ paper gowns honor Black women.

“I believe everyone, not just one group, should be entitled to dress so beautifully,” said Jean-Louis, who studied fashion design and illustration at New York’s High School of Fashion Industries and attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

“Rewriting History” is Jean-Louis’ first solo museum exhibition. Her work has appeared at Art Basel, Spelman College and Rush Arts Gallery. “Of all the museums my work might have appeared in, this one is probably the most important,” Jean-Louis said. “Even before the Smithsonian had the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the DuSable was showing the work of Black artists and preserving Black history.”

Jean-Louis also proudly points out that Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, who is considered Chicago’s first permanent non-native resident, is believed by many to have been born in Haiti.