Black History in the Making: Alumna's Art Tackles Race, Culture and Womanhood

Written by: Shydale James,
"Mammy Was Here: Patterns Through Time" created by College of Architecture and Design Alumna Dominique Duroseau
"My work challenges you to pay attention, even when you don’t like what you see.”

"Artists are here to disturb the peace."
-James Baldwin

First things first: Dominique Duroseau isn’t here to make you comfortable.

The College of Architecture and Design (CoAD) alumna’s unflinching exhibit, “Black Things in White Spaces,” caused quite a stir when it opened at Gallery Aferro during the 16th Annual Open Doors Citywide Arts Festival in Newark.

“I’ve had some good feedback as well as some bad feedback,” she laughed. “With art, you have control to do and say whatever you want. But the creativity and freedom you have in school doesn’t always translate so easily in the real world.”

Dominique Duroseau recontextualizes issues, with a focus on black culture.

Duroseau has learned the hard way that high art, even when showcased in the most open artistic climates, isn’t above reproach. She’s watched frustrated viewers turn their backs on her pieces, been labeled a troublemaker, had the validity of her work questioned – she’s even been told that her art is “out of line” and “degrading.”

“Some people just love to be left in the dark,” she said. “What people take away from the work is based on their knowledge and experience and what they’re open to receiving. But on some level,” she added, “they are also closing themselves off.”

"Eighteen Layers to Start" (2017)

On aesthetics alone, “Black Things in White Spaces” (curated by Jeanne Brasile, director of the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University) is a grim shrine: the decapitated mannequins, the stark white walls swathed in pierced black fabric, recontextualized Life magazines featuring cover stars with brown faces and white bodies. But Duroseau dives beneath the cryptic play on color and contrast to render a salient narrative about the black American experience and the objectification of women.

“I wanted to create a space for dialogue, as opposed to giving answers,” she explained. “We’re living in an Instagram age; everyone wants instant gratification. People have forgotten how to think and analyze. My work challenges you to pay attention, even when you don’t like what you see.”

"(negro)-Life" (2017)

Born in Chicago and raised in Haiti, the Newark-based artist says her interest in the concept of legacy is what led her to NJIT to study architecture.

“I thought I was going to be an architect,” she said. “I wanted to design structures that would exist long after I’m gone.”

But after completing CoAD’s rigorous academic program and earning a B.Arch. in the midst of the global financial crisis, she couldn’t find a job.

“I was going stir crazy,” she lamented.

To figure out her next move, Duroseau locked herself in her mother’s basement for months. The self-imposed sequester gave her the time and space to explore, study and experiment with her talent. She taught herself how to make paper beads and jewelry, which Duroseau was able to sell during a friend’s fundraising event to help the millions of people devastated by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“I was the only one who sold in that show,” she recalled. “My friend knew how hard I had been fighting to be an architect. After the show, she said, ‘maybe your calling is in something else.’”

"Mammy Was Here - Patterns Through Time" (2017)

Duroseau decided to change career paths at the postgraduate level, enrolling at Kean University where she earned a master’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in studio arts. 

Her early work seethes with existentialism, serving as a precursor to the bold interrogations of black culture and racism, which are a recurring motif in her current creations.

“Doing work on a predominately personal level made me realize that the work I’m doing isn’t really about me,” she said. “It’s about a whole society of people.”

A viewer takes in "Dear Blackness" (2017).

Duroseau’s self-awareness is impressive, as is her ability to blend interdisciplinary concepts and tools to tell a story. Her body of work, wending as it does across photography, digital collage, sculpture, video, participatory performance, spoken (and written) word, affords Duroseau the artistic autonomy to spark important conversations in various forms.

“I want to be able to say something and maybe photography is the way for me to say it. So that means the photograph needs to happen no matter what,” she said.

Still from the participatory performance of ''Mammy Was Here - Into the Stillness" in the atrium of the Newark Museum

While her medium of choice may be hard to predict, you can rest assured that Duroseau’s art will continue to illuminate the darkest corners of discrimination and dehumanization – and her detractors will simply have to deal with it.

“My work isn’t supposed to be polished,” she affirmed. “It’s not supposed to be pretty. It’s not supposed to make you feel like puppies and sunshine. If I can create a situation or a dynamic that forces you to think and then feel uncomfortable…then I’ve done my job.”