Comment Nannite est devenu tante Cilet
(How Nannite Became Aunt Cilet)

Jean-Ulrick Désert

The girl she said, I didn’t tell you this because it was a small thing, but little girls, they leave their hearts at home when they walk outside. Hearts are so precious. They don’t want to lose them.
           –Edwidge Danticat [1]

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments:
the moment of fact creation (the making of sources);
the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives);
the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives);
and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).

          –Michel-Rolph Trouillot [2]

Any historical narrative is a bundle of silences.
          –Michel-Rolph Trouillot [3]

Comment Nannite est devenu tante Cilet (How Nannite Became Aunt Cilet) is an installation included in the “From Within to Without, The History of Haitian Photography” exhibition at the NSU Fort Lauderdale Art Museum in the summer and fall of 2015. The exhibition was curated by artist Edouard Duval Carrié.

This project was created primarily from Berlin Germany, where I have established my studio since 2002, after a brief trip to New York City to document images from my family's disparate photo albums. After our family's untimely departure from Haiti in the late 1960s during the Francois Duvalier era, we have lost so many images that record the private lives of our families. Through the years as the now Haitian diaspora, we have made numerous relocations that have continued to result in the loss of images. My father always sustained a small photographic hobby as far back as the early 1960s around the time of my birth. In the USA he would soon discover the slide transparency film format popular among millions in the 1970s. A newly single mother of the 1980s offered a new re-framing of her familial role now that so many other family members had through the years emigrated to the North American continent.

I am not a photographer in the formal sense but have often utilized photography in my art practice that also encompasses sculpture, performance, drawings, and more. In this instance, it is illustrative of a pattern in my work. I resolved early on in my creative process that this new artwork would firmly conveya Haitian diaspora point of view. This work would express a range of life experiences while we were displaced from our birthplace and ancestral homeland of Haiti.

My intentions were to access contacts through the museum to a digital archive and gain the necessary permissions for a range of images that I had already targeted which included the ubiquitous grade school class photography of the 1960s, family leisure photos as well as semi-cultural events like the Petionville cocktail-party circuit and Miss Haiti beauty contests which overlapped with my own half-sister’s success in last year’s pageant. Barring this access, I flew to New York City where I undertook a search through my own storage facility and photographic archives not seen by me in many years, as well as requesting from various family members to allow me to go through their own analog archives of their photo albums.

I approached this altered strategy with some hesitation and at times trepidation. This modification would entail needing to unearth various narratives of intertwined lives that did not always end happily. It might unravel rivalries and allow the tragedies of life to reemerge painfully exposing the open secrets of failure. There lies a landscape of emotional labyrinths if one could understand the constellations of my or any family from a country where everyone is in some way interconnected. The artist must accept, as a surgeon does, the seriousness of his/her endeavor with care and responsibility. Images can cut like a scalpel through time and traumatize the spirit, with this in mind I was constantly reminded of the care required and the dignity one must apportion to the truth.

Foraging through our fragmented archives I discovered that a partial history of photography lay in these visual records, original Haitian studio silver-prints from the 1930s and a multiplicity of formats that expressed the age in which they were created such as large and medium-format range-finder photography as well as color-transparency slides and later the common analogue prints often developed through American drugstore mail-orders, and of course the instant gratification of pre-digital age, the singular Polaroid for which no prints ever existed– the daguerrotypes of our modern era. Added to this small treasure trove of familial images were digital files of recent years including what is now called the selfie.

A narrative naturally emerged from the survey of images that had survived an American occupation and the abrupt departure into exile my family would experience during the heart of the Francois Duvalier years. The narrative of images emerged as a story about a young girl from a plantation-owning family of the rural Thomazeau region of Haiti who named herself at an early age after a Spanish language song she creatively misheard. After the untimely deaths of her two elder sisters, her name was subsequently changed by the children who had survived the passing of her siblings. Her nieces and nephews would eventually inscribe her with a new identity not of her choosing with their own mispronunciations typical of small children. My brother, the actor Alex Désert, and I were unable to use the new name of this young woman. She was not our “tante”(aunt) but, rather, years later would be our mother.

The act of naming and the ubiquity of nicknames in Afro-Caribbean as well as black American cultures is significant. These names often have traceable roots be they with great levity, like those in the title of this project or profound ones like that of my father whose familiar name is the transference in homage of a young boy who died at the time of my father's birth. These private familial names follow us from childhood, sometimes altered, into adulthood and from this we forge the Haitian diaspora. It is from this vantage point that my practice functions, from this distance, this place of real and imagined memory.

The installation is built on a shallow platform and is comprised of several dozen stacked white corrugated cardboard moving boxes measuring approximately four meters wide by three meters high. The moving boxes serve as the backdrop for seventy-one digital slides. The projections comprise studio photographs of a young girl and her plantation-owning parents and siblings from the 1930s. The images evolve towards her young womanhood and the romance that would unfold with a young man embedded within the newly established regime of the country doctor President François Duvalier. The visual presentation advances toward the point of departure into her premature exile and reemergence as part of the exiled diaspora of the late sixties and seventies in New York City. The Haitian diaspora would comprise a significant voice in its exile in foreign places such as the USA, Quebec, France and francophone Africa. The sequence of images reveals the eventual dissolution of a marriage and the continued dispersion of an extended family and the reinforcing presence of weddings, christenings, and funerals.


[1] Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory (New York: Soho Press, 1998), 99.

[2] Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 26.

[3] Ibid.

The artist wishes to thank Luke Jenkins of the NSU Art Museum of Fort Lauderdale for the installation's documentation.

Jean-Ulrick Désert is a conceptual and visual artist born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Désert's art works vary in form: public billboards, actions, paintings, site-specific sculpture, video and art objects. They emerge from a tradition of conceptual work engaged with social and cultural practices. [» artist website]

Well known for his “Negerhosen2000,” his provocative “Burqa Project” and his poetic "Goddess Projects," Désert has said his practice may be characterized as visualizing “conspicuous invisibility.” He has exhibited widely at venues such as The Brooklyn Museum, The Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, Grey Art Gallery NYU/Studio Museum of Harlem, Walker Art Center in the USA, la Cité Internationale des Arts in France, The Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst in Germany and in galleries and public venues as well in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Ghent, Brussels.

He is the recipient of awards, public commissions, private philanthropy, including Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Villa Waldberta-Munich, Kulturstiftung der Länder (Germany) and Cité des Arts (France). He received his degrees at Cooper Union and Columbia University (New York) and has been an invited lecturer and critic at universities in the United States (Princeton, Yale, Columbia), Germany (Humboldt University in Berlin) and in France (at the École supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris). Désert established his Berlin studio-practice in 2002.

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