“Letter to Sun: Land of Water” is up at the Maine Jewish Museum through July 5. Photo by J. Levesque

“Of Water Where Land Grew” is a 2019 silkscreen monotype with hand-cut Chine collé on paper by printmaker artist Edwige Charlot. The imagery connects directly to the name: The center of the piece features simplified blue plant forms with a green sprig of similar leafy shapes sprouting up near its top. All around the central forms swirl watery blue shapes that seem to cascade down from a somewhat solid blue line at the top that could be a seascape horizon line or rainy clouds in the heavenly sky.

“Of Water Where Land Grew,” by Edwige Charlot Photo by J. Levesque

Yes, heavenly. Well, maybe. The public statement refers to the show – titled “Letters to Sun: Land of Water” – as “an ode to this empyrean place where we came to be.” “Empyrean” is an archaic English word that implies the highest part of heaven or, alternatively, the sky that is visible to us. Its original Greek source is far more prosaic: “in fire.”

What we’re seeing is Charlot’s image of land’s first rising from the water. For most of us, this probably most easily aligns with the story from Genesis (8:10-11) in which Noah, riding out the flood in his ark, sends a dove that returns with an olive branch in its beak. Thus, Noah has reason to believe that the flood waters are receding.

But Noah’s information is indirect. It’s evidence, not the experience of the thing itself. For “Letters to Sun,” this matters.

Charlot’s work is largely metaphorical: It does not directly state the ideas that inspired it. Instead, metaphor is the model for understanding. The artist employs related indirect forms at work, such as simile (it is “like”), symbolism and metonymy (when a name of an attribute stands in for the thing itself, such as “offering an olive branch”), but the general goal is to awaken a broad line of metaphorical content.

Charlot states the work “is applied with the aim to recollect and record a heritage, identity, and lineage.” In other words, to align with Charlot’s intended content, we need to know something about her and the context of the show. In this case, it matters that “Letters to Sun” is at the Maine Jewish Museum. Most Americans know Genesis as the first book of the Bible, but it is also the first book of the Torah, generally understood as the first five books (The “Pentateuch” – the inspired word of God to Christians and Jews) of the 24 books of the Tanakh.

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Charlot’s works are mostly prints on paper or cloth – much of which is black – that feature somewhat similar monoprinted floral forms. The symbols are broad and the work itself does not include a comprehensive iconography. That is to say, there is no specific discourse within the work (i.e., it’s not a complete, identifiable art subject with a specific iconography of attributes). However, with a few poetic statements and some basic context (e.g., the ecuemenical identity of the museum, and the fact that most anyone who sees Charlot will identify her as a Black woman, etc.), the metaphorical model blossoms.

When reviewing work on its own merits, I generally prefer contemporary art that doesn’t rely too heavily on external texts for its content. But while Charlot’s works extend most deeply in that direction, their systems are sufficiently rich on their own to pull you in. And Charlot’s nuanced sophistication is enough to make this stew both heady and savory. Notions of content such as layering and veiling are supported and echoed in their own print processes. Issues of identity, legacy, history and historically-distanced origins bubble up without any need for verbal hints.

And yet the hints are there – in titles, statements and the overarching impact of the body of work as a whole. There is a quiet clarity to Charlot’s approach. Besides, who am I kidding? Virtually, the entire European history (our Western, cultural plinth) of picture-making up to the 18th century is based in pre-existing texts sodden with metaphorical elixirs. The Church dominated visual culture, and it enforced that dominance by force, rarely sparing the whip or stake. The echoes of that cultural foundation are still very much with us: We can’t help but see in terms of metaphor, iconography and attributes (objects repeatedly included in depictions of Saints so we could identity them – like, say, the lion with Saint Jerome). Phrases like “to offer an olive branch” or to be awarded “laurels” – these still resonate with meaning.

“There Was Light,” by Edwige Charlot Photo by J. Levesque

There seems to be a holy-book-style narrative development in “Letters to Sun,” which begins with completely black works – silkscreen monotypes under veils of black chiffon. “There was Light” is the first of the works, and the title’s reference to the first words of the Torah and Bible should be lost on no one. Imagery of water and plants develops through the numbered course of the show, shifting to be visible through the chiffon and then having the chiffon disappear entirely, etc. This development is subtle enough to exude nuance and rich enough to be noticed.

“apa ou, lanmè (dyaspora),” by Edwige Charlot Photo by J. Levesque

Halfway through the development, Charlot adds an additional layer of meaning with “apa ou, lanmè (dyaspora).” This work is a flat, black, sculptural-ish cutout of Charlot’s basic, repeated floral form: CNC cut and painted birch ply, we can readily assume this is the print matrix itself seen in many of the works. But with the title of the work, Charlot clearly announces the inclusion of the African diaspora to the content of the show. This immediately offers a re-reading of the Noah story and imagery so that it pairs the Jewish and African diasporas with the specific element of America and current day cultural relevance. The ocean’s role and quiet terms such as “African American” are pulled into an orbit of relevance. A French flavor was already in the air with the materials (“Chine collé” is French for “glued Chinese” – as in Chinese paper) and Charlot’s name: “Charlot” is a French diminutive form of the name “Charles.” I have no idea if Charlot’s family name hails from Haiti, France, Africa or elsewhere (although the morsel of Creole gives a pretty strong hint), but she has decisively made this an interesting and relevant topic. It’s extremely difficult to so softly introduce questions of legacy, lineage and ancestry, but Charlot has done it. Moreover, she has brought diasporic similarities to bear between varied people, thereby creating a sense of interconnectedness.

We see several Maine artists of African descent working with some of these iconographies. Daniel Minter’s oceans speak of death, loss and memory with a direct connection to the Slave Ships often operated by earlier generations of Mainers, and David Driskell’s ever-present plants (not always unlike Charlot’s) are joined by imagery of the African diaspora conjoined with his American/Christian upbringing.

Finally, with the narrative of land evolving from an otherwise ocean-soaked world (and oceans, at great risk, need to be crossed), Charlot leaves us with an extraordinarily positive punctuation. It can be done. It has been done. That olive branch, in this case, isn’t a sign of surrender: It’s hope, and it is proof that we have reason to soldier on.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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