Haitian born photographer and artist Fabiola Jean-Louis has created a series of painterly styled photos that explore the black experience through the lens of elite European dress of the 15th-19th centuries. The photos make the black women featured appear as oil-based portraits, styled in noble dress with details alluding to black abuse, trauma, history and lineage. 

“This series speaks to the shocking treatment of Blacks throughout history and the trauma inflicted on their bodies as juxtaposed with the abstract idea of black freedom,” Jean-Louis wrote on her site. “Simultaneously, it engages with a vision of the future – one of hope, resilience, and justice.”

This illustration of black abuse is fused with striking symbolism and juxtaposed with the beauty of the portrait, creating a balance that both elevates and praises the black woman and black life while also acknowledging the hardships of black womanhood. 

Viewers must look closely to discern the harsh details, carefully placed by Jean-Louis, which serve as social commentary. In one portrait, a woman wearing a graceful gold gown stands and admires a photo of a black man whose back has presumably been whipped open. These same distinct characteristics of a lashing can be noticed as embroidery on the back of the woman’s dress – mixing beauty and pain that illustrates how one had to endure, shirtless, sitting and hurt, for her to stand, elegant and unharmed. However, as she wears the dress proudly, it is understood that these two will be her scars to bare. 

“I hope that people walk away with the understanding that there is much work to do in the fight for justice,” Jean-Louis told My Modern Met. “That blackness is omnipresent, and that we (blacks) should not have to fight for our existence.”

Jean-Louis not only conceptualized, styled and photographed the series, she also created the ball gowns using paper. Taking careful skill, she brought her concept to life with arduous dedication. As Jean-Louis conceptualized her work, everything remained cerebral. She does not sketch any of her work beforehand, for fear of feeling ‘limited’ to a potential blueprint.

“I don’t have just one thing that I do,” Jean-Louis said in a video. “I integrate all of my passions and loves into one thing. I have always had a passion for period gowns and when I would go to the museums, I would spend hours in the old master painting section. I noticed there were never any women of color, and my work has always centered on the black female body… I started thinking about what it would be to work on a series that started introducing the black and brown body into this genre.”

When commenting on how she would approach discussing the systemic abuse of black bodies, Jean-Louis told My Modern Met. “We live in a desensitized world… Unfortunately, it means that society has gotten used to the public murders of people of color… Because of that, I chose to let beauty be the vehicle that I would carry those ugly truths in. I wanted all the details to symbolize all the intricacies of our existence and history.”

The Rewriting History series is currently on display at the Brooklyn Creative Center as a part of an exhibit challenging the relationship of two countries – Haiti and the Dominican Republic – living as one. Admission is free until the end of the exhibit's duration on April 29, 2018. 

“It is important for people – especially marginalized groups – to know that one of their own is in conversation with them through art,” Jean-Louis told My Modern Met. “It is important to understand the perspective of the artist.”