A shimmering xerographic map on nine vellum panels caught my eye as I entered Jean-Ulrick Désert’s monographic exhibition “Visible Invisibility” at SAVVY Contemporary. The waters of Kiskeya/Quisqueya, 2017, focuses on a crafted visualization of the Caribbean islands and surrounding ocean contours, infused with detailed drawings of flora, fauna, Creole spiritual entities and colonial vehicles. Each of the islands is marked by a number, as in a colonial survey, but instead of an imperial taxonomy, the artist constructs his own legend. This slippery urge to resist easy classification presents a lens through which to view the Haitian-born, Berlin-based artist’s varied work. Two single-channel video works, WHITE And GLORIE, both from 2017, part of Désert’s plan for the unrealized Haitian pavilion at the fifty-eighth Venice Biennale, imbue stereotypical representations with the same complexity. In GLORIE, a hole in a shelf of hardcover books reveals the open mouth of a black figure contorted with hunger. A hand reaches out to feed the hidden body a selection of German meats, juxtaposing the illusion of sexual freedom in Berlin with the violence faced by racialized bodies seeking access to European economies of resources and desire.

Featuring works from 1997 to 2023, this exhibition is part of the Wi Di Mimba Wi Commission Prize for Germany-based artists of color launched by SAVVY and AKB Stiftung, of which Désert is the first recipient. Illustrating the need for such a subsidy, the new commission The Archive / a work in progress, 2023, offers one of the most meaningful uses of extended reality technology I’ve come across recently. It extends the pattern of the cosmological map from Sky above Port-au-Prince Haiti January 12, 2010, 21:53 UTC, 2012, through a mobile application that evokes detailed 3D experiences of five Yoruba sculptures locked in the vaults of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. Seeing the “ghosts” of these looted items against the dazzled blood-red map of Sky above Port-au-PrinceI couldn’t help but mourn the extent of all that has been looted and lost or made visible and invisible.

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