Tracy Murrell discovers Haiti in her DNA and celebrates the island in her art

“This exhibition is my love story to Haiti,” said Atlanta-based artist Tracy Murrell. Her solo exhibition, “Dans l’espoir d’un Avenir Meilleur (In Hope for a Better Future) . . . Exploring Haitian Transmigration Through the Female Lens” is on view through Dec. 16 at Hammonds House Museum, curated by longtime mentor, Arturo Lindsay.

From encaustic resin, collaging and sculptural elements to sketches and video and reading rooms, the vibrancy of Murrell’s work and love of humanity is palpable in each of the 44 works on display. Her experiences in Haiti, her curiosity and her compassion informed the exhibit.

Credit: Nyeusi Mwezi

Credit: Nyeusi Mwezi

Murrell was born on an Air Force base outside of Mobile, Alabama, and spent most of her childhood in Mississippi. While there are artists in her family, art wasn’t a career goal. She went to college in Louisiana aiming to be a psychiatrist, but quickly discovered it wasn’t for her.

This year, Murrell was awarded a Practitioner Fellowship at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. She’s participated in dozens of group shows and residencies, worked with the National Black Arts Festival, and has curated exhibits for Auburn Avenue Research Library and Hammonds House, where she served as curator for five years. She is a member of the Atlanta Beltline Public Art Advisory Council and was president of the Atlanta-based African Americans for The Arts (AAFTA) from 2011-2018.

Murrell spoke with ArtsATL about her exhibit, her DNA, her love of humanity and how she discovered Haiti.

Q: Why Haiti? What’s your connection?

A: I’d explored migration and had a monthlong residency in Tétouan, Morocco, a Spanish territory where Africans would go to try and cross to Spain. Initially, I wanted to do the exhibition on that experience. Then I took the National Geographic Genome Project that traces the migratory path of your DNA. My DNA showed close to 56 percent similarity to that of Haitians.

Credit: TRAVIS GRISSOM

Credit: TRAVIS GRISSOM

Q: You decided to go to Haiti, an island that is usually portrayed in American news media as a chaotic and troubled place. Were you thinking about your art during that trip, or just about your ancestry?

A: I realized I could read a whole lot of books, but until I had conversations with people, I didn’t really get a true understanding. There were times I had to step away because I made the mistake of watching the news and then I became angry. And I don’t create anger, you know?

My work is meant to highlight the beauty and grace of the people that I’m presenting. I knew the art would come out eventually. The people showed me that they were going to be the center [of the exhibit].

Q: How were you transformed by Haiti?

A: I wanted to see the everyday Haiti, to answer the “why?” Why would someone want to leave their home country where they speak a certain language and journey to another land in hope of a better life?

The conversations I had informed the kind of questions I was asking and the things I was seeking. I wanted to see what everyday life was because what you see on the news makes you wonder how anybody is surviving in that environment.

Q: What will viewers experience in this show?

A: I want to transport viewers to the Haiti that I went to, and to welcome them. You come into the room and you experience land, you experience sky and color. My style is very simplistic. I let the colors inform. I want everyone to feel peace, because the way Haiti is presented in this country, peace is never there.

In 2019, I was introduced to Rosebrune Vixamar, the founder and president of International Women of H.O.P.E. based in Lawrenceville, Georgia. She invited me and my partner Rubin Whitmore (a filmmaker) to travel with them to Cap-Haïtien, [a community in the north of the island]. They introduced me to my country.

Q: Did you find your “why?”

A: It was answered through the trip. I found out how different countries have destroyed the natural economy of Haiti and continue to do that. I found out what they’ve left behind, and how people [used to be] self-sufficient. But now you have all these imported goods coming in and they can’t compete.

There’s a history of leadership that has pretty much not only raped the country but destroyed it. And then you have people who are just trying to survive. That’s why the reading room is in the upstairs gallery. “Georges Woke Up Laughing” is a book that prepared me and informed this exhibition.

Credit: TRAVIS GRISSOM

Credit: TRAVIS GRISSOM

Q: What’s the story behind your signature blue silhouettes?

A: I fell in love once with that depth of blue and decided it was going to be my color. I want to remove that stigma of race associated with brown. Blue is my way of being, of showing universality of the human form. Even though it’s obvious they are people of color, it’s a way for me to have a double statement — underneath our skin, our blood is red.

If you’re standing in front of a silhouette, you see yourself. That’s what resin allows me to do. There’s enough negative space where you can see your reflection and I hope on some level that people connect with the work.

Q: You focus primarily on silhouettes of women in your work. How did this artistic lens inform your trip to Haiti and this exhibit?

A: Women are so important in Haitian society. They keep it moving, day to day, minute to minute, making sure you’re fed, have a place to sleep. I’m not taking away from what males provide, but I wanted women to be the focus because of what they’re doing every day.

They put their lives on the line just to make life better. [Many Haitians leave their family] and go into the unknown. That could’ve been my life.

Q: What’s your hope for the future?

A: I want to amplify individual stories, including with video. I want to go back to Haiti and I want this exhibition to travel. I want to find a way that what I do offers support. When I first started painting, I was painting from photos. Now I paint from people that I’ve met. It’s real personal. My work’s now giving you a view of what I’m experiencing.

IF YOU GO

“Dans l’espoir d’un Avenir Meilleur (In Hope for a Better Future)”

Through Dec. 18. $5-$10. Hammonds House Museum, 503 Peeples St. SW, Atlanta. 404-612-0481, hammondshouse.org.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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