Widline Cadet delves into the past to unpack the present

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Cadet’s debut exhibition Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes On You) at Deli Gallery, New York, finds its roots in the aspirations of her mother

In her essay, The Site of Memory (1995), the late American novelist Toni Morrison (1931-2019) describes the liminal space between truth and fact and how “the act of imagination is bound up with memory”. “All water has a perfect memory,” she writes, “and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” The sentiment sits at the core of Widline Cadet’s work. The New York-based artist was born in Haiti and, in 2002, emigrated to the United States. She employs her photographic practice to grapple with the fragmented nature of the diasporic experience and the notion of home. 

Drawing from personal history, Cadet explores the psychological landscape of the self throughout her practice. The artist conceived of her first series Home Bodies (2013–ongoing) to honour her family and build a visual history of their lineage in Haiti. As the work evolved, Cadet also began tackling ideas of statelessness and nationalism, confronting the fraught tension between the public and personal. Meanwhile, in Seremoni Disparisyon (Ritual [Dis]Appearance) (2017–ongoing), she turns the camera on herself, exploring notions of visibility and Black feminine interiority. Throughout both series, Cadet unpicks ideas of belonging, multiplicity and the fragility of memory. “The longer I live in the US, the more I feel like I have disappeared into another me,” Cadet shares. “I’m interested in exploring all of these versions of myself. Thinking about how I can picture home in Haiti when I don’t have access to it, or how I can access myself when I don’t have all of the information, which has added to me being the person I am.” 

Ki Jan Nou Wè Tèt Nou Nan Tan Kap Vini An #1 (How We See Ourselves In(to) The Future #1). 2020 © Widline Cadet.

Choreographies of memory and how we exist in and around them are through-lines in Cadet’s debut solo show at Deli Gallery, New York, which brings together photographs from the two series described above and new work. Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes On You), which runs until 13 August 2021, takes its name from a sentiment Cadet’s mother expressed shortly after the photographer graduated from her MFA at Syracuse University. “My mother’s words are packed with so many complicated feelings,” Cadet tells me. “This work is a space to explore my relationship with my mother, my mother’s relationship with herself, and how I view that as an outsider.”

Through a constellation of self-portraits, still lives, landscapes, and family snapshots, the exhibition acts as a container for Cadet’s family’s pursuit of the American dream and the complex feelings born from a lineage of intergenerational aspiration. “My mother migrated to the United States first,” Cadet explains. “She moved across an ocean, started a life by herself supporting the entirety of our family. Somehow, however, she doesn’t have hope in herself. But, she does have hope in me.” Employing visual codes, repetition and layering, Cadet frames different success markers that signal the fulfilment of this fantasy, from giving birth to a new generation of Americans to owning a piece of American land to pass down.

Bougenvilye, ki itilize pou Bote, Vi Prive sou Liy Kloti, ak pwoteksyon Pikan (Bougainvillea, Used for Beauty, Privacy on Fence Lines, and Thorny Protection). 2019 © Widline Cadet.
Yon Etranje ki pa Sanble Youn #2 (A Stranger Who Doesn't Look Like One #2). 2019 © Widline Cadet.
Seremoni Disparisyon #1 (Ritual [Dis]Appearance #1). 2019 © Widline Cadet.

The exhibition presents as a tender yet critical unravelling of maternal aspiration. However, just below the surface, Cadet builds on previous projects, visually articulating the emotional turbulence of becoming. Throughout the show, nature and the land function as portals. Cadet inserts her childhood into the fabric of the American landscape by physically layering framed family photos inside large scale prints of local flora and fauna. She repeats this, animating her desire to reconcile the memories of a former childhood in Haiti and her present sense of self. “I think I’m drawn to these very exact things because they make up for the lack of specificity in the memory of my childhood,” she says. “In making the work, I also began to observe how my mother replicated certain signifiers as we hold on to this cultural lineage.” 

Indeed, to counter her unknowns, Cadet memorialises what is. She cherishes precise details like those within her mother’s home or exuberant Bougainvillea blooms, which remind her of Haiti. In honouring these small gestures, Cadet is accepting the fragility of memory. She unseals the past to confront the future. And there is the sense that in the act of reclaiming, she disentangles herself from the fraught falsehood of the American dream, imagining new possibilities and world-building on her terms.

Widline Cadet’s Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes On You) is on show at Deli Gallery, New York, until 17 August 2021.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.