Daveed Baptiste’s mother could not secure the proper paperwork allowing her to travel from Haiti to America, so she made the painful but not uncommon decision to send her three children without her, aletranje. Derivatives of the kreyòl word, meaning “abroad” in this context, may also mean “a foreigner” or “a stranger,” which is to say that, in the Haitian imagination, the process of leaving home is like coming face to face with an unknown presence. The other place is cautiously anthropomorphized: you don’t know if she will embrace you, or if you will seek her embrace. You don’t know how she will look at you, if she will smell good or stink.
The strangeness grows familiar. Baptiste and his two siblings grew up in North Miami. Soon, their father, who was Stateside, abandoned them. Baptiste and his siblings parented themselves. They didn’t have a lot of money. The Haitian diaspora in America is highly concentrated in Miami-Dade County; recently, Baptiste told me that the salt air and the lakou culture—people gathering in the yards of neighbors to chill—in Overtown and its adjacent neighborhood of Little Haiti made him feel like his new home was a miniature of his native one.
But, in his self-directed maturation, distanced from the choke of tradition that parents pass down, Baptiste loosened himself from the mantra placed on Haitian children, the three Ls: lekol, legliz, lakay. School, church, home. His mind wandered to New York City and its downtown saints. He watched “Paris Is Burning,” and documentaries on Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who himself was born to a Haitian father. He grew infatuated with Destiny’s Child. His brother loved 50 Cent. “You’re thrown into the American version of blackness,” Baptiste told me recently, over the phone. “You learn to be a Negro.”
In his photography series “Haiti to Hood,” which appeared in the Red Hook Labs New Artists III exhibition, in July, the twenty-two-year-old charts the complicated birth of the Haitian-American, a new “New Negro” for this century of diasporic cross-cultural connection.
“Haiti to Hood” is a theatrical series, focussed on the nostalgic power of materials. And the nostalgia is not simply personal; Baptiste’s models appear in two sets, a living room and a bedroom, which are cluttered with objects that symbolize the activity of surviving under empire. “Before my father had dipped out on us,” he told me, “we spent a lot of time indoors, inside the house. I was trapped in the crib.” Baptiste loves spending time in the homes of other people, intuiting their personalities not only from the objects accrued but from their juxtaposition. He thinks about the politics of food, how one’s tastes convey class, and culture—for Haitian families, jugs of Tampico juice and bags of Madame Gougousse rice. He also thinks about cultural consumption; on the puckered walls of his bedroom scenes are posters advertising “Grand Theft Auto,” barbershop cuts, Pokéman cards, and sneaker colorways. Above a table, a photograph of John F. Kennedy smiles, and Destiny’s Child poses.
The photographs, at first glance, seem like they could be documentary. In fact, they are heavily constructed. Baptiste is a tinkerer of surfaces. “Haiti to Hood” was shot in his studio at Parsons, where he is studying fashion design. According to his artist’s statement, he used textiles such as “denim, wool, and cotton satins to make furniture slipcovers, floor textures, and table cloths,” giving the photos a dimension of tactile trompe-l’oeil. The walls are made of dyed felt; he digitally rendered patterns and printed them on fabrics that are fashioned to look like curtains and sheets. “Nothing is thrown away, everything is used until it breaks,” he told me, referencing the duct-taped chairs in his living-room still-lifes. Recycling and economic ingenuity is not just subject, in Baptiste’s work, but clever technique.
Some of Baptiste’s models are Haitian, and others are American; he’s invested in the slippage of ethnic identities. He’s been lucky with street casting. He chooses real people, because he loves their real bodies. During his first summer in New York, at a vintage store, he met a “beautiful boy with cornrows.” The boy brought a friend to Baptiste’s studio for the shoot; both he and the friend turned out to be Haitian. “There’s a look in those people’s eyes, the shape of their noses, the shape of their lips. . . . You would be able to look at this person, and say, ‘This is my mama. This is my brother.’ ” In one photograph, a woman with a pixie cut considers a mess of store receipts, and a child, perhaps as punishment, faces the wall. They look like so many women and children I know. In another, a boy wearing a do-rag, under his poster-altar of American culture icons, points a stalk of sugarcane, as if it were a flute, or maybe a weapon. The fugue of religion and superstition sounds over these mise en scènes. In yet another, a woman is painting the walls stark white, her eyes powerfully blank. Baptiste told me that he was thinking of a relative who was believed to be mentally ill, or, alternatively, possessed by a spirit. “How do you show tension inside the house?” he said. “How do you show that something’s wrong?”
What excites me about Baptiste is his prismatic approach to disciplines, his cyclical twining of the mediums of photography, direction, and fashion design. When we spoke on the phone, he was in Turkey, attending a three-week residency. He was spending eight hours in a factory learning about denim production. He worried that if we got into the bloodied history of cotton and indigo production he would keep me on the phone too long. In truth, I could have talked to him for hours.