James Baldwin comes alive in Michaëlle Sergile's Laval exhibition

Video and textile are combined to highlight the power of Baldwin's voice and body language in Gesture: Body movements in political discourse at the Maison des arts de Laval.

In Gesture, video and textile are combined to highlight the power of Baldwin’s voice and body language

Textile image of James Baldwin by Michaelle Sergile.
Michaëlle Sergile's Gesture in the foyer of the Maison des arts de Laval. (Guy L'Heureux)

The captivating sound of James Baldwin's voice fills the lobby of the Maison des arts de Laval. The audio is part of artist Michaëlle Sergile's installation Gesture: Body movements in political discourse, a looped televisual segment of the renowned African American writer and activist that, on the day I was there, drew me to it like a moth to a flame.

Once in front of the work, the physicality of the author's charisma takes over from the power of his oration. Gesture is composed of two distinct video installations, a work made of tufting, and a weaving on a jacquard loom that capture, recreate, and canonize the image of an energetically gesturing Baldwin.

"This work was created at a moment when I was asking myself questions about what a leader is," Sergile tells me over a video call afterwards. "I found the way Baldwin spoke in this segment striking. Beyond his words, there is his positioning, the way he talks, and his silences when he listens to others or wants to say something poignant."

For Sergile, language is rooted in the body, it is inscribed in the fabric of the flesh. Each part of the exhibition focuses on Baldwin's movements during a 1968 interview on an American talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. This gestural vocabulary includes the mesmerizing sight of Baldwin's dancing hands, penetrating eyes, animated frowns, and pointed sighs.

Exploring how embodied knowledge has been transmitted by Black intellectuals throughout the decades is a signature and strength of Sergile's overall oeuvre. The young interdisciplinary artist regularly connects literary archives by Caribbean and Afro-descendant, post-colonial authors with her own Haitian cultural heritage.

Michaëlle Sergile's installation Gesture in the foyer of the Maison des arts de Laval. Small tv screens play James Baldwin speeches next to a textile portrait of him on the wall.
Michaëlle Sergile's Gesture in the foyer of the Maison des arts de Laval. (Guy L'Heureux)

A central aspect of Gesture are three vintage television sets playing an edited version of Baldwin's conversation on The Dick Cavett Show. Reflecting on this video, Sergile discusses its underlying structure: "I was interested in how to go beyond the words spoken in the video. How can the audience's attention be focused on Baldwin at this precise moment? I wanted to block out everything else."

Removing all other bodies, like those of Cavett or Paul Weiss, from the film sequence with a black rectangle, Sergile narrows the audience's gaze on Baldwin's mannerisms and speech. When Baldwin is not onscreen, the monitor simply goes black.

This editing results in the viewer becoming acutely aware of Baldwin's body language instead of drawing attention to Weiss, a pre-eminent white American philosopher and professor at Yale, and his denials of institutional racism. Sergile pays attention to Baldwin's humanity and extraordinary composure instead of being distracted by Weiss' violent negation of the activist's lived experience.

The dishonesty and evasion on display parallels how the Quebec government today repeatedly denies allegations of systemic racism in its various public institutions — an issue that deeply affects Black, Indigenous, and other nonwhite communities.

Thinking about this parallel, Sergile reflects on how her archival work raises questions about contemporary racism, "If we unearth things from the past and place them in front of us, will there be a change, or will we repeat the same mistakes? Will we address the issues, or will we create new iterations of the same problem?"

Longlisted for the 2022 Sobey Award, Sergile routinely challenges conceptions of Blackness, race, and gender. Working in a combination of mediums including textiles, video, installation, and performance, she regularly steps away from traditional fibre craft to complete her work.

Black-and-white photo portrait of Michaëlle Sergile.
Michaëlle Sergile. (Sabrina Jolicoeur)

"My relationship with textile started conceptually," Sergile recounts. "My first works used the linguistic proximities between weaving and the everyday to describe different communities: social fabric, metissage, etc. Since then, I've become interested in textiles as a medium on the margins. My practice is about edges — people, discourse, communities — and finding ways of recentring them. I wanted to similarly recentre textiles, which is often seen as 'artisanal' and 'women's work,' to make it as valid as painting, sculpture, or other mediums."

In Gesture, this recentring of textiles is most obvious in the way the artist extends, distorts, and imbues with new life still images she has extracted from Baldwin's interview. In a photograph recreated throughout the exhibition, Sergile freezes the author mid-sentence, passionately gesturing with one hand towards the sky, his downcast eyes infused with exactness.

One version of the image is prolonged downwards with a tufting technique that gives the image a plush, almost carpet-like extension. The liveliness of the tufting, its abstract nature, channels Baldwin's movements into a raw energy that flows seamlessly from the photograph above. Capturing the grain of the television image and transforming it into pieces of thread, Sergile gives a different vitality to Baldwin's body.

"I like the fact that textiles are inherently textured even though they might appear flat" says the artist. "Similarly, I work with archives that are usually seen as two-dimensional. I enjoy placing them in relief, extending them into the space."

Michaëlle Sergile's Gesture in the foyer of the Maison des arts de Laval. (Guy L'Heureux)

This presentation of Gesture is the second iteration of the project, with the first shown at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain in 2020. Translating the white-walled gallery installation into the context of the lobby of the Maison des arts de Laval which also houses a theatre for performing arts, Sergile's new intervention has a different reach.

"I enjoyed the context of the gallery," Sergile remarks, "but in Laval, the audience is completely different. Sometimes it's people from the art world who view it, but more often it's a new uninitiated public. They might end up learning about James Baldwin for the first time."

By bringing Baldwin's leadership to our attention, prolonging his oeuvre, words, and body through tufting, weaving, and video, Sergile bridges the past with the present, mirroring the author's gestures so that we might avoid making the same errors or be inspired by his resilience and conviction.


Didier Morelli is a Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQSC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois). Associate editor at Espace art actuel, his work has also been published in Art Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, Esse Arts + Opinions, Frieze, Spirale, and TDR: The Drama Review.

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