Creation of an Ethereal World is an exhibition that will challenge your perception and make you think
Esther Calixte-Bea is one of the rising stars of Montreal’s art scene, and her most recent exhibition, also her solo debut, demonstrates that.
Step into La Centrale, located at 4296 St. Laurent Blvd., and you’ll find a universe of Calixte-Bea’s design. The exhibition, featuring artwork that Calixte-Bea created in the last two years, is truly multidisciplinary, featuring paintings, a repurposed table, writings, painted photo collages, and sculptures made from mannequins. It’s titled Creation of an Ethereal World, curated by Cécilia Bracmort.
La Centrale, where the exhibition is being held until October 28, 2021, is an artist-run space, and for decades has been the city’s sole feminist gallery. This makes it a fitting choice to house the work of an artist and activist like Calixte-Bea.
Why? She is of Haitian and Ivorian descent and her work often depicts Black women in a range of shapes, sizes and hairy states. This is part of what makes her work so distinct. How many painters can you name that focus on hairy women? Women with lots of leg hair, chest hair, and arm hair? Female body hair is still an incredibly taboo topic, and Calixte-Bea’s work is a positive (and pretty!) step towards trying to rectify that.
“I had discovered my style by the end of 2018, and had become a body hair activist in 2019, and I knew that I wanted to paint, and normalize female body hair in my art practice,” explained Calixte-Bea to The Concordian.
She is a recent graduate of Concordia’s Fine Arts program. She said that after the many group shows of her undergrad she “felt ready to have [her] first solo exhibition.”
The body hair activist appeared on the cover of Glamour UK in January 2021, making her the first woman with visible chest hair to do so. Calixte-Bea’s success today is partially due to her 2019 Lavender Project, a series of self-portraits, paired with poetry and writing which explored topics like self love, Eurocentric beauty standards, and female body hair. This project gaining significant public recognition was partially what led to Calixte-Bea’s (continuing) rise as an artist and activist.
Creation of an Ethereal World, which debuted at La Centrale on September 23, 2021, also features a unique exhibition text. It’s standard for the artist to write a short statement about their work and inspirations, and for the curator to then supplement it with commentary about the exhibition as a whole.
However, Calixte-Bea is not just any artist. Creation of an Ethereal World has an exhibition text that is unlike most you’ll come across, contained in a booklet with a bright lime green cover, printed in both English and French. Calixte-Bea was inspired to create an imaginary tribe, as represented in the artwork in Creation of an Ethereal World. The tribe (partially inspired by Calixte-Bea’s heritage belonging to the Wè tribe in Côte d’Ivoire) is called Fyète Souhou-te and they embrace female body hair. The text also contains the tribe’s instructions on important cultural information, like how to become a chief.
“I knew that I wanted to create a whole tribe, a world that was living within this world. Oftentimes when we talk about tribes we talk about them in the past, so I wanted to create a whole tribe of women that celebrate their body hair, embrace themselves and embrace their uniqueness,” explained the artist.
The paintings are all acrylic. The overall colour scheme is both bright and soft, with sunset tones like orange, pink and blue jumping out throughout the room. Bright green Astroturf grass was installed for the exhibition, adding to the pleasantly surreal feeling: think Candyland, but elevated. “I always loved using so many colours, I just love [them] and colourful things like flowers. That really comes through in my work, [plus] me growing up watching a lot of colourful cartoons,” she noted.
One of the most striking paintings in the exhibit is titled My White Barbie, 2020, which features a Barbie doll being squeezed by a hand, attached to a close-up of a woman’s torso in the background. Rich brown and cherry blossom pink tones demand attention from the viewer. “[It’s] a really personal work,” said Calixte-Bea, who explained that it was only when she was out of her childhood and teen years that she realized the full, negative extent that Eurocentric beauty standards had on her. “Growing up, you want to be the pretty one, the desirable one, but there was no representation for me,” she continued.
“Someone asked me in class why I paint Black people. It’s a funny question that people tend to ask Black artists. [White artists] don’t really get asked, why do you paint white people?” noted Calixte-Bea. “You have to paint yourself, you already don’t see yourself represented in art spaces or the media, then obviously you need to create that representation and make the difference that is needed in the world.”
Photograph courtesy of Kimura Byol