138 Gracie Xavier

Born St. Louis Du Nord, Haiti/ BA, Florida State University; MFA, Maryland Institute College of Art/Lives in Detroit

The second time I saw Gracie Xavier, I was standing in front of Eastern Market Antiques on a late-summer Saturday, admiring a turquoise vinyl couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xavier in a kelly green dress. “I know you!” she exclaimed, as we had recently met briefly. Xavier was new in town, so the onus of a hello was on me. But I was mesmerized by the couch (and, if I’m being honest, not feeling terribly social) until Xavier’s bright greeting pulled me out of my shell. Everything about this moment, I’d come to learn, was quintessential Gracie Xavier—the vibrant colors, the warm approach, the being right in the thick of things, as if she’d lived here all her life.

These characteristics all underlie her most recent project, “Common Bond: Muslin Ladies Social Club,” (2018-present) a series of conversations/textile arts workshops for women in the largely immigrant communities of Banglatown, Brightmoor and Dearborn. Xavier designed the project after helping develop a vision and action plan for Banglatown, part of her work for a local nonprofit. During that process, many women shared that they felt isolated and desired spaces to connect. Xavier saw an opportunity to create that space through art. “People aren’t going to tell you what they’re thinking on sticky notes,” she often says, referencing a common top-down urban planning exercise. It’s when you break bread together or engage in other shared traditions that people begin to reveal, first, their stories, then their hopes and dreams. 

Xavier honed this approach with an earlier project, “Cutz: Black Men in Focus,” (2015) a series of talks with and searingly personal portraits of black men and boys in Baltimore barbershops. In each paired set of black-and-white photographs, the men hold a small chalkboard with a single-word response to the questions: How do you see yourself? How do people see you?  In Perception: Significant and Perception: Threat, a man in crisp jeans, a V-neck sweater, plaid shirt and matching bow tie, sits less than comfortably, his gaze just slightly downward, his mouth teetering between impassive and frown. He belies hints of both weariness and defiance. I feel particularly struck—implicated, actually—by the subtle differences in emotional register between the two photographs, despite the marked contrast in the perceptions conveyed.

In “Cutz III” (2018), part of a series of photographs of Detroit barber shops, Xavier portrays a barber studiously shaving a young man’s fade. A firm, almost protective hand holds the young man’s locks atop his head. The young man, forehead streaked with shaving cream, appears beatific. Behind them, small, significant details emerge—a Black Panther mask hanging on a mirror, a t-shirt that reads: “I am new Detroit,” the face of Donald Trump hovering from a mounted TV—adding layers to a narrative about black men, their interests and their interactions that runs powerfully counter to the ones mass culture relentlessly puts forth.

Lately, Xavier has begun excavating her own story, itself marked by multiple perceptions, multiple worlds. Born in Haiti, Xavier grew up there and in Miami, where she attended Catholic and Baptist churches, parochial and public schools. “I didn’t know I was black until I came to America,” she’s often said. She is not abdicating her identity as an African American, as she was once accused, but, rather, indicting a culture that seeks to define her wholly by it.

Ti Swazo (Little Bird) (2019) evokes the many existences Xavier continues to navigate. Underlying the painting are faded passport images of a young girl in a pristine white dress, the name “Gracieuse Xavier” stamped across the top (“Gracie” was bestowed on her by her fourth-grade teacher when she moved to the U.S.). Overlaid are red stripes, evoking both the Haitian and American flags, and beadwork incorporating symbols associated with both “sacred” Catholicism and “demon” Voudo.

Essence, part of a 2001 series, features three serene or silhouetted women painted in blue, red and green, all adorned in white headscarves and robes. “That was my first attempt at being a Haitian artist,” Xavier notes. It was completed moments before she learned the World Trade Center had been hit by planes. She attributes the self-described social justice focus of her subsequent work to the shift in America’s cultural climate after this time.

That focus takes profound patience, which is the quality I have come to respect most in Xavier’s work. In her community practice and, increasingly, in her own, she affords herself and her collaborators the time and space needed for their most elemental stories to unfold.

Kristin Palm, April 2020

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