Madjeen Isaac: Beyond the Mountains
Lespwa fè viv / Hope brings life. — Haitian Proverb
In Madjeen Isaac’s Abundant Surprises in the Sky, 2021 a beaming young woman faces the viewer. Her eyes are shut but her bright smile invites us into the fantastical scene. Around her, people gaze from the street through their windows and reach up at a sky dancing with balloons tied to lush produce—green bananas, sugarcane, cabbage. The balloons fall gently into the open arms of a gleeful recipient, sporting a shirt emblazoned with the painting Meet Us at Flatbush and Beverly, 2021.
A pair of pigeons quarrel over a floating loaf of Wonder Bread and a goat makes his gentle and glorious descent. The eye combs the chromatic narrative painting for delightful details, lingering on the snake plants and fan palms bursting from the rooftops and trailing along the multicolored Caribbean flags under the store awning. Finally, the gaze settles upon a subtle background of mountains and open skies, reverberating with possibility.
Along this pictorial exploration, a fascinating phenomenon occurs. Could this be reality or does it hold the possibility of becoming so? Why not? What collective work and glorious sweat would it take to live in botanical abundance and harmony?
Beyond the Mountains, Isaac’s debut solo exhibition in New York, is a tender offering of utopian urban living. It is a celebration of Caribbean-American ancestry, attitude, and community through an astute observation of urban sprawl.
The name “Haiti” comes from the indigenous Taíno-Arawak language and means “land of high mountains.” Haitian Vodou religion says that the supernatural realm is “peopled with hundreds, even thousands, of gods who may at any time come down a rocky mountain trail, or up from the bottom of the sea or out of the springs where people drink … they may come at strange, unexpected moments, or unprecedented places, yet whenever they come they are recognized for what they are. The Haitians tell you that loa live ‘in Africa,’ in ‘the island below the sea,’ … They say sometimes fortunate people go down ‘below the water’ and return.”
What then of the fortune of people who go far above the water and into the skies—beyond the mountains? In a series of fourteen oil paintings on canvas, Isaac assembles magical realist scenes that hypothesize their existence by hybridizing her ancestral homeland of Haiti with her hometown Brooklyn. The layered compositions bustle with kineticism and burst with flora and fauna, depicting Black and Brown people in scenes of activity, abundance, leisure, and communality.
Isaac’s oeuvre is a first-generation millennial diasporic story, canonical to the work of Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence. She implements a hybridity of cross-cultural scenes evocative of Njideka Akunyili Crosby and the intimate portraits of people and neighborhoods echoing Nights of Harlem by Jordan Casteel,but during daytime and dusk in Brooklyn.Isaac’s compositions demonstrate how a neighborhood and its public spaces serve as home.
In portraying the physicality and spectrality of Black existence, Kerry James Marshall noted, “The notion of being and not being, the simultaneity of presence and absence, was exactly what I had been trying to get at in my artwork.”Isaac, on the other hand, recognizes her spirit and body as belonging to multiple places at once—Haiti, America, and Africa.
“If someone had X-Ray vision and looked into the pre-war buildings, they would see all of these Caribbean households,” states Isaac of her Flatbush neighborhood. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, a borough which is home to the second largest community of Haitian-Americans in the USA. The body of work, ranging from 2020–22, can be regarded as a visual diary, capturing an idyllic snapshot of a quickly-gentrifying Flatbush.
By placing Haitian structures alongside aging ones in Brooklyn, Isaac parallels the state of deteriorating housing infrastructure and tenant rights affecting families across two nations. While acknowledging these harrowing truths, Isaac’s imagination runs copiously free.
The narrative scenes start out as digital collages from sourced and personal photographs. Isaac’s fusion of environments reflects a process of photosynthesis. She de- and reconstructs images from photographs like seeds, propagating motifs in the vein of Romare Bearden. She absorbs the energy of everyday experiences like sunlight and waters them into life. These elements present a compelling visual metaphor for the layers of personal memory and cultural history that inform and heighten the experience of the present.
Isaac’s process is a labor of love as she renders herself, family, friends, and fictitious characters in acts of care and rest. Idle, 2021 depicts her brother while 2nd Plate, 2021 shows the latest family camping trip, a ritual that has grown over the years, birthed by the first-generation as they gathered around a successful dinner of fish and black rice. “I am always impressed by my father’s ability to create so much out of so little,” Isaac shares. The meal is a culmination of joy born of united sweat.
The gaze of Isaac’s characters varies, either establishing direct rapport with the viewer or lost in their own worlds, bound up in moments of intimacy, activity, or reflection that are left open to interpretation. The viewer is an observer and a companion, holding a perspective akin to the Sugarcane Man, based on a real street vendor with a boasting voice whom we meet leading a flurry of activity in On the Run, 2020. He watchfully guards the neighborhood from the rooftops through his binoculars in Joy Is the Journey, 2021 and Abundant Surprises from the Sky, 2021. He is immortalized in these scenes though his voice rings no longer in reality.
By using her artistry as a vehicle of learning, Isaac unpacks the concept of work and embarks on a journey of self-love and radical rest. She shares her progress of recovering ancestral knowledge through gardening and camping. She is part of a growing community of Brooklyn creatives who proliferate urban farming initiatives and rally calls for environmental justice, food equity, and collective land ownership. She gifts viewers scenes of resplendent pleasure and thriving abundance while muting the blaring honking of cars and wails of police sirens. Isaac proposes that through collective care and joyous sweat, rehabilitation of communal spirit is within reach.
It is rooted in land.
Madjeen Isaac (b. 1996, Brooklyn, NY) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. The artist received a MA in Art + Education & Community Practice from New York University and a BFA from the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, NY. She also attended a Museum Education Practicum at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY. Her work has been featured in several group exhibitions in New York and her mural, commissioned by the Haiti Cultural Exchange in collaboration with the New York Department of Transportation, can be seen in Brooklyn. Her artwork also makes a cameo in the new Hulu series Flatbush Misdemeanors.
"Dreaming" with Madjeen IsaacJon André Beckles, June 15, 2022
Creative Conversations | Reimagining a Black Utopia for the Black Immigrant CommunitiesKyra Assibey Bonsu & Madjeen Issac, The Laundromat Project, June 14, 2022
Editors’ Picks: Madjeen IsaacNeha Jambhekar, Artnet, March 21, 2022
Reclaiming Joy // Reimagining Community: Madjeen IsaacBlack Cherry, February 20, 2022