arriver avant moi devant moi,
with Text by Emily McKibbon
by Erika DeFreitas
‘Take a long pole and “sound” the spot,’ I add. ‘Because there’s no way of telling it’s a grave, except that it’s sunken.’”1
So begins Alice Walker’s directions to “the monument man” at the Merritt Monument Company in Fort Pierce, Fl., in 1973. Walker, then 29, had travelled to South Florida to find what remained of Zora Neale Hurston, who was buried in an unmarked grave in an untended cemetery after her death at a state welfare home in 1963. That same day, Walker ordered a gravestone to mark the place of Hurston’s rest, newly rediscovered amongst waist-high weeds and wildflowers. Walker wants to buy Hurston the premium “Ebony Mist” option, but settles for a plain, grey marker: “It is pale and ordinary, not at all like Zora,” she reflects. But when the transaction is over, she still asks that they send her a photograph of the stone once it’s installed.
“I visited this painting at the Musée d’Orsay,” Erika wrote me on September 9, 2018, on the back of a postcard printed with an image of Gustave Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre (1854–1855). “I spent a lot of time with Jeanne,” she continues. “Tomorrow I am going to walk by her home. It’s amazing how visible she is in the painting once you see her!” Printed at a meagre four by six inches, I myself can’t see the erased Jeanne where I know she once stood, leaning over the open pages of a book held by a seated Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). Painted over at Baudelaire’s request, this trace is one of the few records of Jeanne Duval (c.1820–c.1862), a Haitian woman with whom he shared 20 years of his life and to whom he owes the
inspiration for Les Fleurs du mal (1857).
And why is Erika looking for Jeanne, seeking her in paintings by Courbet and Manet, a photograph by Nadar, and outside the house where Baudelaire installed her, at 6 rue de la Femme sans Teste, Paris? “For years I have been on a path of thinking about Western and European art history and locating the Black body within that history. In a way I’ve been collecting evidence of a presence,”2 she notes. This presence, in Erika’s practice, is not wholly evidentiary but also relational; hers is “a compulsion to exist with, NOT to uncover or to reveal—to be with.”3
When we seek a relation, we tend to not only uncover, but also activate the creeping rootstock of relating. In the marginalia of arriver avant moi devant moi (which roughly translates to: “to arrive before me, in front of me”), Erika invokes the artists Maud Salter (1960–2008) and Lorraine O’Grady (b. 1934), both of whom created work about, towards and around Jeanne. Erika sees them—and Walker too—as fellow seekers, with whom she shares a motivation to sense and feel backwards.4 “I’m drawn to her—to them,”5 she writes.
In the last image, the artist extends her left hand, palm up, to the room that the mirror reveals. Her right hand holds a permanent marker that has careened across her open left palm and onto the page below, extending her lifeline towards the past and all the pain and potential it holds. “There are times—and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them—when normal responses of grief, horror and so on, do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of emotion one feels,” Alice Walker tells us of her own ancestral encounter. “It is only later, when pain is not so direct a threat to one’s own existence that what was learned in that moment of comical lunacy is understood. Such moments rob us of both youth and vitality. But perhaps they are also times when greater disciplines are born.”6