The chthonian universe of Bertho Jean Pierre


Bertho Jean-Pierre represents sub-real beings. By discovering these beings, I learned that sub-realism is a new pictorial current of the 21st century which took off in Europe and whose affiliated artists claim the primacy of the image, of the interior images of the artist and collective work. This movement, which has given itself a manifesto, adopts an ironic posture in the face of surrealism and dissociates itself from these dreamlike processes.

Sub-realism is also the Senghorian name for Negro-African surrealism. Mezu SO[i] tells us that according to Senghor who established the comparison between the Western surrealist and the sub-realist, the following emerges: “If the surrealist plunges into his unconscious to find his desires and his instincts, a ‘sub-realist’ does not have only to remain himself to feel all this… [Il] has only to go back to the kingdom of [ leur] childhood to reach this domain where emotion predominates. The constraints of discursive reason are nil, and the real joins the improbable…”

With his sub-real beings Bertho Jean Pierre invites us to enter the non-Cartesian universe of the history of good and evil spirits from our home, to meet underground, telluric, infernal beings. Beings that live under our feet without our noticing, chthonian beings. It is no longer the celestial beings (loas, gods, etc.), uranian and aeolian beings that Breton had labeled surrealists because of their magic and mystery, also labeled marvelous realists by Haitian art historians that we presents the artist, but new, obscure beings. Jean-Pierre’s painted beings, taken together, seem like an introit from hell. They are “chimeras” as our metaphor translates: “tèt kok bouda pentad”. Indeed, most of them are heavy, wingless, transformed birds, which sometimes remind us of The Basilisk, this medieval monster presented as a snake-tailed rooster and found in Harry Potter and many video games and artist’s generation manga. They are all either plunged into darkness or painted on red, green or brown abstract backgrounds; all are capped with a beak reminiscent of an eagle. They are variegated Bèk fè or pat lanfè, often in motion… Thus, one is a kind of deformed body made of interlocking parts, the other seems to be a satisfied carnivore. Golden yellow, it sports a large breast and carries a human head in its wake. One of the figures stands in attack position and has a withered and clawed hand, the other stands silent, like a warrior with a full falle. Finally, others seem to metamorphose into indefinable entities. These are proclamations of hybridity and metamorphosis. As if the artist were telling us that in his world nothing is pure and stable; moreover, everything falls apart.

These images burst into a particular context in Haiti. Indeed, the situation in the country has never been so tragic. Between terror, daily violent death at low cost and the absolute poverty of the destitute and the new precariousness of the historically better off, there is national decay. Bertho Jean Pierre recognizes the impact of this climate on his work. He explains :

“Marked by frustration, doubt, fear, and the violence that paralyzes the social and political life of the country, my works particularly question the origin and impact of all these things in our daily lives, expressing thoroughly the no -meaning, the drama of a people being exploited. And our relationship with the sequels, legacies or at least our ancestral survivals. »

So with these images, it is not a question of a re-enchantment of reality, as our paintings of loas wanted, which summoned the unreal as a dimension of reality, but of a descent into hell, in a new way. to face reality in order to tame it. These fantasies of Jean-Pierre plunge us into little-visited alleys. With them, he becomes an authentic creator of images, these figures do not represent deja vu, but beings created through and through, autonomous. Creatures.

But Jean-Pierre does not just paint. He is a versatile artist. Concerning his different creative techniques and the influences experienced, he confides to us:

“My artistic approach brings together many techniques such as painting, sculpture, engraving, ceramics and drawing. Generally, I work on a monochrome and flat background, disembodied, unidentifiable beings, uncertain entities, tattooed by leaf stencils. My colors are both sober and lively. My works are conceptual and influenced by artists like Francis Bacon, Paskö, Pascale Monin, Mario Benjamin, Jean Sébastien or Manuel Mendive. »

Indeed, these works are in line with those of the new generation of Haitian creators. Mendive’s disembodied ghostly beings and Bacon’s indecipherable beings present a family resemblance to his universe. We look forward to seeing his work with other mediums.

It would perhaps be interesting to formulate some proposals on the naming of these images. Are they sub-realistic?

In the history of Western art, when artists produce chthonic images, from beyond the grave (Incubi, Succubi, monsters, etc.), those who use them generally live in societies in the throes of upheaval. Their fear and incomprehension of what is taking place before their eyes forces them to seek forms of expression and obscure images to account for their uneasiness in the face of a society in full change. These images have been listed as part of fantastic realism, and Breton considered many of them to be precursors to surrealism such as those of Füssli, Bosch, etc. In the history of Caribbean art, artists reconcile the real and the unreal and make a rational vision of reality coexist with the supernatural to reflect their vision of the world. Thus, we have seen in the past a proliferation of images of loas that have been placed under the label of surrealist or marvelous realist. Today it is another iconography. Indeed, never before on the art scene in Haiti, we had seen so many images of ghosts, monsters, indefinable figures, hybrids and in metamorphosis. Celeur, Guyodo, Sebastien Jean, Pasko, etc. painted these entities, today it is the turn of Bertho Jean-Pierre. Certainly, since there is no spontaneous generation in art, long before these artists others painted obscure figures; one could go back in Haiti to Jean-René Jérôme, with his secret works, to Bernard Wah and to Mario Benjamin. This short genealogy established, we cannot fail to mention this iconographic turning point in painting in Haiti.

Indeed, between the marvelous realism of the paintings of the loas, and the so-called realistic painting, fits this new painting, witness to the anxieties and the new generation and the decay which massively imposes itself on them in Haiti and in the world ` . The temptation would be strong to catalog this new painting in the repertoire of fantastic realism, but as defined by the founders of this movement in the 1960s, there is no common measure. One would be tempted to see in it a magical or marvelous realism, or a Senghorian sub-realism, but the specificity of these subterranean images does not quite lend itself to this. Let us content ourselves for the moment with chthonic realism, to speak of the works of Bertho Jean-Pierre and others up to a more appropriate designation.

Pascale Romain

Montreal, November 2022


[i] . MEZU SO Léopold Sédar Senghor and the defense and illustration of Black civilization, Paris, Didier, 1968.

The chthonian universe of Bertho Jean Pierre