Un cœur nomade: an exhibition about the life and work of Dany Laferrière

August 28, 2020

Main text of post

The Quartier des Spectacles is honouring Dany Laferrière with an exhibition in seven panels, accompanied by an architectural projection showcasing his words and images. Together, the works tell the story of his wanderings and how they have shaped his life and inspired his writing.

We spoke with the author and the exhibition’s creators : Félix Dagenais, curator and creative director, Judith Portier, creation director et Frédéric St-Laurent, production director at Design Par Judith Portier inc.

His is a life of exile, movement, homecomings, and perspectives that shift as the kilometres pass. Dany Laferrière, the iconic “author of exile” – but also a writer indelibly associated with Montreal – always has a unique take on the world, pushing against the boundaries of our perceptions.

In Un cœur nomade, a new exhibition based on Laferrière’s three recent graphic novels, curator Félix Dagenais and the graphic artists and scenic designers of Design par Judith Portier tell the story of the author’s succession of moves, capturing the energy of the cities, emotions and loves he has experienced along the way. It all starts in Petit Goâve, Haiti, through the eyes of little Dany, then picks up in Montreal, where he lived as a young adult, then onward to Paris and the life of an author who has received the highest French literary honour, election to the Académie française. His sojourns in Miami complete the picture. Four cities and infinite ways to sketch their contours and capture their ambiances, in meticulously chosen words.

The joy of writing

“I feel like a kid who’s been given permission to write and draw on the walls of the city,” says Laferrière of the exhibition, which after sunset is accompanied by L’Exil vaut le voyage, a video projection on UQAM’s Pavillon Président-Kennedy. Together, the exhibition and projection highlight a new narrative approach that Laferrière pioneered in his graphic novels Autoportrait de Paris avec un chat, Vers d’autres rives and L’exil vaut le voyage. Their simple drawings and handwritten prose give these works a unified character and open a new window on the artist’s inner life.

“Drawing and writing longhand allow me to get a bit closer to the moment,” he says. That’s precisely one of the effects the exhibition recreates by capturing, within the seven large displays on Promenade des Artistes, the “spontaneity of the pencil stroke,” as curator Félix Dagenais puts it. “As well as the immediacy of his recent writing, we’re trying to highlight the originality of his worldview. Personally, I came to him late, when I read L’énigme du retour in 2010, but I was already a fan of his media work, which beautifully expresses the special character of his thinking. Dany really has a unique eye; he is an uncommonly keen observer.”

“Discovering Dany the illustrator was a revelation for me, and I instantly fell in love with his naïve, colourful lines,” says creative director Judith Portier, an expert in the effective presentation of content in public places and scenic design for urban spaces. “Hidden behind that naïveté are great beauty and poetry, which I find entirely palpable in cursive writing,” adds her colleague *Frédéric St-Laurent. The team also worked with Myriam Peixeiro, graphic and scenic design. “It was important to capture the poetry and intimacy of the handwriting while transposing it to street scale, and that was a considerable challenge,” Frédéric adds.

An exhibition with a story to tell

In his graphic novels, Laferrière takes a fragmentary and allusive approach, as opposed to the more linear narratives of his earlier novels. The three books still tell the epic story of his life and exiles, but in discrete blocks that readers can reorder as they read the books. That’s a lot like what Dagenais and his team did as they followed the bright red thread from Laferrière’s childhood in Haiti, at his grandmother’s side, to his current life in Paris.

“Retracing that path, only this time using a more or less chronological approach, also gives us an overview of Dany’s entire body of work,” says Dagenais. “The drawings, resituated on the timeline, give us a series of backdrops – the Haitian dictatorship that he fled at the age of 23, as recounted in L’énigme du retour, or the small apartment on Saint-Denis St. featured in Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer, for example.”

Of course, there’s nothing to stop passers-by from choosing a haphazard viewing, or looking at just one part – pleasures inherent to an urban exhibition that’s designed to adapt to the visitor’s route. “We made sure there would be several layers of reading and meaning, so that every type of viewer has a rich experience, to open up a multiplicity of possible interpretations,” Portier explains. “That being said, those who pay attention to the signs and take in each panel will have a more complete immersive experience.”

Visitors will also be immersed in a unique audio environment, since the show was designed as a “tunnel we enter, guided by sound,” according to Dagenais. The soundscape is at once atmospheric, evoking the Haitian surf or the Montreal night, yet also still melodic, as we follow the thread of an audio loop that progresses from one panel to the next.

Each panel also shows how passionately Laferrière loves words, “for their meaning, their morphology, as well as their written form.”

Montreal the beautiful

“Everything interests me in this city. It transforms before my eyes the moment I draw it,” says Laferrière. His illustrations capture the excitement of Montreal in the 80s, letting us hear crunchy guitars outside the Foufs or sensual saxes at the Jazz fest.

“Our show also looks at the Montreal characters so vividly portrayed in Dany’s writing, like his friend Julie, as well as more organic elements, like the euphoria we feel when spring comes to Montreal, when the geraniums bloom.”

Thanks to Un cœur nomade, Laferrière himself will be part of the city’s landscape for a few weeks, on the Promenade des Artistes, which the show’s creators consider a “wonderful stage.” “This space allows us to do high-level museological work outdoors, and that’s a very rare thing,” says St-Laurent. “I also like the way our work fits with the rest of the Quartier des Spectacles and its amenities,” Poirier adds. “The Quartier as a whole is like a massive, open-air, moving urban artwork, to which we’ve been allowed to contribute. It’s such an honour!”

Un cœur nomade
Until November 1, 2020.
Promenade des Artistes

L’Exil vaut le voyage
Until November 1, 2020
Façade of UQAM’s Pavillon Président-Kennedy