Cultural Crossroad Review
by Eloise Johnson
When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
They talk, I listen. They direct, I process. They pose, I paint. They bless, I sign.
Women of color have been telling their stories for many, many years, now. As women observers, we see something unique about the narrative that governs our lives and the lives of all women of the sisterhood. Subject matter speaks to us on so many crucial levels of our understanding emanating from the storytellers’ vast experience. Petrouchka Moise, a first generation Haitian American artist, is one of these powerful storytellers. She has been on a journey of adversity ending in triumph; thus she seeks to illustrate that “road traveled” in her beautiful works of art. Overcoming cultural and language barriers and norms, her expressive art has become the foundation that permeates her personal and professional life. Moise’s work combines technique with a spicy mix of poetry that is a powerful combination for any artist.
Petrouchka Moise was born August 6, 1970, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Leslie, and mother, Louizette, were exiles from Haiti who immigrated to this country because of political unrest and the rise of a cruel dictatorship. Despite being forced to leave, the family persisted in instilling in their daughter an immense sense of cultural pride in their native country. Haitian culture is a mixture of African and European elements as a result of French colonization. Her family of immigrants gave her a cultural foundation rooted in self-realization: “Having been raised as a foreigner, I understand how important it is for a community to have a sense of pride and ownership in their individual work and their collective image,” she explains. She has been traveling back and forth to Haiti since she was two years old and continues to value that connection. Moise is used to people asking about her unusual name, which came from the famous Russian ballet dancer. In Russia, Petrouckha means “beautiful doll.”
After high school, Moise enrolled in the New York Institute of Technology, majoring in architecture. After completing four years of study and beginning in her fifth, she “realized that [she] did not want to do architecture.” Also, she saw that there was a basic difference between the classroom experience and that of business. She concluded that she was not “cut out for business” because it seemed to be mostly a male-dominated field. In the classroom and in the office in which she interned, she found that she was the only female. She recalled, with disdain, a professor’s sexist remark that her body was made for “having babies.” She found this attitude disheartening. Moise worked briefly in the office of a very prominent black female architect and witnessed the discrimination and lack of respect that she received. This aspect of architecture discouraged her, and she dropped out of the program in her final fifth year and switched majors. Later, moving to Florida, right before Hurricane Andrew came ashore. When she later tried to enroll in a few universities, she found that each one had lost accreditation following the storm. She abandoned architecture and tried enrolling in art classes. The artist laughingly confessed that “I tried to take art classes but could not pass any art classes to save my life. Once the teacher went in one direction, and my interest went into another, I knew my ability to be in the class was over. So I would never go back.” She became a self-taught artist, learning techniques essentially on her own. She admires the work of Paul Goodnight, an African American artist who works acrylics, pastels and other mediums and draws his subjects from his life and travels in Africa, Russia, China, Haiti, and Brazil. “What captured me was his use of vibrant colors in dark settings. Being Caribbean, I loved his subject matter.”
Every work of art that Moise creates “speak” from the depth of her soul. Each piece has a line written to voice a thought, a whisper, a hint to the viewer of what the subjects are saying or thinking. Moise talks about the underpinning that governs her art on her website:
…my passion and creativity comes from my art. I am an artist because it is my first understanding of the world around me. Before I spoke my first words, art was my first language. I have always reacted and interacted with color to define the context of my understanding.
Would you call Moise a feminist? Black feminist “identity politics” takes into consideration the knowing and understanding of one’s own identity as well as the personal experiences of others who want to change the political and social framework of society. Moise does not readily claim a feminist agenda; rather, she says her art “comes out of my own personal experience.” Her work definitely comes from a more personal space, working through some shared spiritual and emotional upheaval.
In her framed pieces on wood entitled: Four Women Series (24x24 inches), she writes poetic musings on the subject. Oddly, the wood metaphorically speaks through women or maybe vice versa these women speak through the wood. Aunt Sarah is a colorful portrait with a brilliant blue background that enhances and emphasizes the textural grain of the wood as well as the subject. It states: “The wood said: ‘My life has been long and hard and my looks are almost gone but I still want to be beautiful at the end of the day.’” Moise says that originally the work was done in a pinkish blue hue, but that was not who Aunt Sarah was; it took her three times to get the color right. Safronia, a youthful looking woman, gives a powerful statement: “The wood said: ‘I am not what made me. I am not going to let the pain of my mother’s helplessness or my father’s rage allow you to judge me.’” Often, the images imposed on the woodgrain give us a surrealistic impression. Both beautiful and unsettling, they speak with powerful voices about the plight of women in our society. Interestingly, Safronia, “really looked like my grandma,” said the artist. “Her attitude was that no one ‘was about to see me sweat.’” Sweet Thang seems to ooze up from the bottom of the canvas with the vertical emphasis of the woodgrain. The eeriness of the image is exacerbated by her dark chocolate hue and deep green background. She is a temptress who says: “The wood said: ‘You want me for what you see…but you despise me for what I show you…a soldier in the streets defending the one thing you cannot touch…My tomorrow’” Moise confesses that her subjects often talk to her, but Sweet Thang, seemed not to be sharing her story. She revealed herself as a child prostitute whose life was not about sharing, but surviving. Peaches, practically glows in pulsating electric blue. A siren with a sly smile, she almost inhabits the woodgrain. “The wood said: ‘I existed in my essence birthing a renaissance. I suffer the ignorance of you as you try to define me by looking into my universe. I’ll wait as you push into your consciousness’” Peaches was Moise’s Angela Davis figure; then she became a crack mom. To the artist, the piece reflects a sense of regretfulness and the duality of women in the cycle of life. Peaches becames a renaissance woman, but Moise says that “she did not find the wood to speak to that until 2014.”
Moise talks about her affinity for the use of wood in her work:
In my beginning, the medium that I preferred was acrylic on wood. Wood speaks to me. My method is to respect the wood by following the grain of the wood to reveal the images that the wood is narrating. As the story unfolds, the grain changes; therefore, I must also change with the use of colors and hues. When I work with wood, the grain tells me how to flow and I just bring out what is already there. Through my paintings I became more of astoryteller in my process.
Moise is interested in other mediums, including acrylics and silk painting. Women Empowerment Art is a series of acrylic paintings that feature nudes and portraits of different women. These pieces speak of her introduction to yoga. The nude pieces are symbolic of “Power and Posture.” “It was a reflection of the fact that I had to give up my heels,” she said. High heels are a symbol of a woman’s power, she claims, similar to a man’s “power suit,” “I really had to find what my symbol of power was…” The use of yoga was “reflective of power...and my wellbeing.” Society has a tendency to censure power in how we wear our hair to the office, and this artist is seeking to find out where power truly lies. Peace Cometh, acrylic on canvas, 20x16 inches, is a powerful portrait of a woman created with a few spare lines of the brush, Moise is able to convey the depth of emotion on this woman’s face.
As a colorist, Moise has overcome many setbacks and limitations, she explains: In Water, an example of her silk paintings, the artist exercises her use of powerful decorative elements. Beautiful colors blend with striking patterns that reminds one of tapestries. Perhaps Moise has called into play some of the colorful foliage of her native Haiti.
As a colorist, Moise has overcome many setbacks and limitations. She explains:
After a severe car accident in 2012, I [had] lost my ability to see colors, to connect with the world around me or even have the confidence to pick up a brush. As I learn to regain my life back, my artwork has been the source of my healing. My art helps me daily in learning how to cope with PTSD, communicate my thoughts to others, and find joy in redefining myself.
Silk painting has become therapeutic for the artist in the joy experienced from working with it. She started working with silk in 2016 and fell in love with the process. “Wherever the grain was is where I went; yet there are limitations. Silk translates color differently…The wood becomes a moment trapped in time…The silk as a moment continued…does that make sense?” It makes sense to the observer when looking at her works in both techniques.
Moise has overcome other obstacles that have come her way on her journey toward expressive intentions in her art. Her daughter, Kaiya Smith, recently passed away in 2016. There is nothing more heartbreaking could happen to a mother than to lose a child. On her Facebook page Moise writes “love notes” to her daughter, telling her of her victories and failures. Her loss is tangible. Her notes are encouraging to anyone who has experienced tragedy. Yet, Moise has persevered and used Kaiya’s bravery and accomplishments in the world of “slam poetry” to re-purpose herself and her art. We as women have always been the bearers of loss, pain, joy, all the experiences that have accompanied us on our journey, and with this artist we share this solidarity….