Inspired by Haitian Spirits, Crown Heights Artist Takes Manhattan

Shakespeare Guirand, a Haitian-born painter based in Brooklyn, in his Crown Heights studio. Photo credit: Jerry Iannelli/globalcitynyc

Shakespeare Guirand, a Haitian-born painter based in Brooklyn, stands in his Crown Heights studio. Photo credit: Jerry Iannelli/GlobalCityNyc

Shakespeare Guirand’s studio is a small, windowless alcove stuck in the hallway of a modest Crown Heights apartment. The room is an elephant graveyard of used palettes and half-painted canvases.

Guirand, a bearded Haitian immigrant with lopsided dreadlocks, points to two nearly identical paintings suspended on the wall. They’re swarming with oblong, bouncing ovals of blue and orange. Lithe feminine figures prance around splatters of green and yellow.

“These two were inspired by Voodoo drumming,” he said. “As a kid, I’d drum along as everyone danced. They go until 4 in the morning sometimes!” It’s “no different than a club” in New York, he said.

Since settling in Brooklyn in 2004, Guirand, 43, has grown into one of the most prominent characters in Central Brooklyn’s Caribbean art community. He’s been painting abstract scenes inspired by Haitian mysticism for nearly a decade. In a piece titled “Moon Divine,” hanging framed in Guirand’s apartment, a female body cast in earth tones winds around fuchsia whorls and blotches of orange. The piece is meant to highlight the divinity of the female form, Guirand said.

Within the Caribbean art community, “I see Shakespeare as one of the most recognizable faces,” said Shelly Worrell, chief curator at caribBEING, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that showcases Caribbean art and films. Worrell and her team included Guirand’s work in their “Flatbush Takeover” street fair last August. Guirand has also hosted painting classes for the organization.

While his work has been featured across Kings County – at the Brooklyn Public Library, the International Caribbean Art Fair, and local restaurants like the now defunct Saje Lounge in Crown Heights – Guirand has yet to find much success in a non-Caribbean market.

“I’ve been trying to break into Manhattan for a while,” he said.

That time may have come. On Sept. 16, Guirand began showcasing his work in Manhattan for the first time: Three of his pieces – priced at around $2,600 each – will be featured in a multi-artist exhibition, titled “Enigmatic Realms,” at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea until mid-October.

Guirand grew up shuttling between his father’s home in Port-au-Prince and the rural village where his grandparents lived. On warmer nights, Guirand would sit by his drums, entranced by dancers that had been possessed by the loa, the spirits that control daily life for practitioners of Voodoo.

When women dance in the ritual, “you can see the liberty, the freedom,” Guirand said. He mimed a dance, stretching out his arms like a flapping condor. “That spirit can be used in so many ways.”  He added: “I definitely tap into it now when I paint.”

There’s a second spirit Guirand taps into regularly: That of his namesake, William Shakespeare. Guirand said his parents named him after the author because, well, they appreciated his work.

“I feel a real spiritual connection to the man, to Shakespeare,” he said. “Everyone around the world knows Shakespeare.” Guirand said he’d like to emulate the author and become “a saint of the modern art world.”

Around the turn of the new millennium, Guirand moved to the U.S., first to New York, and then to the arts community in Atlanta known as Little Five Points. Much like his time in Haiti, he spent the evenings drumming with local bands.

“One night, a woman approached me from the crowd,” he explained. “She said, ‘Drumming is not your medium. The way you pick and choose notes, it’s like painting.’ That woman – I see her as a messenger from another world.” Guirand has been painting since.

After a stint driving a commercial truck across North America in an act of nomadic self-discovery, Guirand moved back to Brooklyn in 2004 to focus on his artwork. He lives in Crown Heights with his girlfriend and daughter, but still travels regularly, spending the weekends in Montreal “when the weather’s nice” and visiting Haiti on occasion.

Valerie Nero-Reid, a nurse and art collector based in Crown Heights, owns three of Guirand’s pieces. Guirand and Nero-Reid were briefly neighbors, and became so close that she has her own personal Guirand as well.

“We had just repainted the house, and had some paint cans in my backyard,” she said. “He said, ‘Let me recycle those!’ So he painted our backyard table for us.”

Guirand submitted his portfolio online to the Agora Gallery, named one of the “Top Six Contemporary Art Galleries in New York” by CBS News last August, as a way to expand his market.

The gallery accepted, citing the “exotic” symbolism in Guirand’s work as a major drawing factor. Though Agora has occasionally drawn criticism for charging nearly $3,000 to market clients they exhibit, Guirand called the fare a necessary step in order to finally break into Chelsea’s gallery district, and paid.

“His enigmatic perspective is layered with cultural influences as well as a palette rich with color, texture and rhythmic movement,” Angela Di Bello, Agora’s executive director and a former curator at Lincoln Center, said in an email.

While many of Guirand’s admirers outside the Haitian community describe his work as “exotic” or “enigmatic” – Nero-Reid said she didn’t quite understand the themes in Guirand’s work until her son, an art student, explained Haitian mysticism to her – Guirand said he detests any effort to make Voodoo culture seem strange or mysterious.

“When I paint, I’m just trying to get back into my adolescence,” he said, tapping a finger to his temple.


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