Visual artist Charles Philippe Jean–Pierre is a busy man. At the time of our conversation, he had just finished a pottery workshop at Las Mujeres del Barro Rojo, a women artist cooperative an hour outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, where he studied indigenous art. That was just the latest stop for the Washingtonian—he’s been to five countries in less than three months. An internationally recognized artist, Jean-Pierre has shown his work in South Africa, Istanbul, Panama, Haiti, the United Kingdom, and France. Closer to home, his art has been displayed in several Smithsonian exhibitions; he’s been a featured artist at the Atlantic Festival and during the Obama administration he spoke at the White House on the role of the arts in youth justice.
Jean-Pierre arrived in D.C. 17 years ago to work on a master’s in sociology at Howard University. In the years since, he’s been teaching art at American University and has become a staple of the District’s arts community. His reputation as an artist and educator means he’s often sought out to teach would-be artists in other countries. This year, for the 60th anniversary of the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies program, Jean-Pierre was selected to exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Malawi and lecture at the University of Malawi.
His presence in Malawi was a novelty. “For many of those students, not only have they never met an American, they never met a Black American,” says Jean-Pierre. “And to see me represent my country and teach them about art in the global art market, I felt it was where I was supposed to be. It was well received and validating.”
While he’s traveling, learning, and teaching, his exhibition, Charles Philippe Jean-Pierre: Flare, is currently on view at Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art at Signature in Reston through Oct. 15. A mini retrospective of his work, the show includes art from four distinct projects, including collaged portraits, abstracted landscapes, and mixed media. (“The figurative work pretty much highlights the people. The landscape work is the place. And the abstraction that I collage represents the people in place,” he explains.) But it was his photographs of black, miniature sculptures against a white backdrop that originally attracted curator Hannah Barco.
The abstracted landscapes featured in Flare were influenced by Jean-Pierre’s time growing up in the Roman Catholic Church. The curves and lines are inspired by the shape of cathedral windows and archways. The collaged portraits, which he calls celestial bodies, are not replicas of the subject’s physical body but reflective of the light he sees in them. He considers the kind of identity that will remain after oppressive forces such as racism, sexism, and classism have been eradicated.
Approaching Flare raises questions about how each body of work interacts with the other and makes the viewer consider where connections lie. Flare is a triple entendre that lends itself to the exhibition having three disparate meanings: a lit flare as a call to action, the actual solar flare represented by natural light, and, lastly, flair to express style or swagger.
The exhibition shows us where Jean-Pierre has been with the exciting portraits and landscape paintings that beg for greater attention. The collage technique against the vibrant backgrounds of the portraits help to extend them from the canvas and animates the piece. His landscape paintings are not literal landscapes, but collaged grids abstractly suggesting a matrix of locations. From Jean-Pierre’s oeuvre, we can see his proficiency with many techniques and his penchant for experimenting. The diversity of the artworks on display in Flare don’t indicate in which direction he’ll go next.
He considers himself a conceptual artist whose ideas are more important than the finished art object because his “physical skills are catching up” with his conceptual ideas. He continues, “It’s a constant pushing of one another. I feel like my theories and concepts are coaching or motivating or asking my physical talent to catch up. But it’s not a process that can be rushed.”
Paraphrasing the abstract artist Norman Lewis, Jean-Pierre describes how he’d like his artwork to be received: “[Lewis] doesn’t want his work to be legible or readable from the first sight. He wants the viewer to be active and create their own narratives and dialogues when they see the work without over explaining the work.”
Painting was not the first artistic skill Jean-Pierre attempted. As a child, his mother enrolled him in piano lessons, but his teacher recognized that he wasn’t fit for the instrument, so she suggested that he take up a more visual art form. Jean-Pierre’s mother agreed after some persuasion from him and an agreement to practice with the same discipline as if art were piano lessons; an artist was born.
His parents are of Haitian descent. His father, who died in 2022, was a videographer of community events around Chicago, where Jean-Pierre grew up. As a child, Jean-Pierre accompanied his father to Black exposition and Black fashion shows, where he learned a great deal about both creativity and creating a business from watching his father build professional relationships. “Following my dad and his entrepreneurship helped me out with my art a lot,” he says.
His mother is a collector of Haitian art. On visits to the United States, Haitian family members would bring new artwork for her collection. Jean-Pierre calls these occurrences “a new opportunity to study.” Her art collection was like “candy for me,” he recalls.
“My mom collected all different types of styles,” he says. “And I tried my best to understand all of those styles. I wouldn’t say master them. I’d say understand them. And I had a range of works and influences that inspire my work today.”
As a Caribbean American artist, Jean-Pierre realizes he’s stepping into virtually uncharted territory. Several celebrated Black artists, including Jean–Michel Basquiat, Lorna Simpson, and Mickalene Thomas, have familial ties to the Caribbean, but their work is not based in that identity. “For me, it’s been important to step into the middle ground and stand firm even when the base isn’t solid,” he says. “Because we know what a Caribbean person is, we know what an American person is. But we don’t really know what Caribbean American really means. I think it takes artists, it takes writers, it takes creatives to define that and redefine that.”
As a teen, Jean-Pierre visited family in Brooklyn and Montreal during the summers. In those cities, he grew familiar with their strong Caribbean communities. Traveling continues pushing him to consider his identity.
Twenty-two miles outside Oaxaca, Jean-Pierre learned from the indigenous potter Macrina Mateo, who creates pots the way the Zapotec community of San Marcos Tlapazola has for 20 generations. As a woman, she atypically traveled outside of her village to learn ceramic techniques and now has her red clay works featured in the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
After sharing her story, Jean-Pierre reflected, “Learning about all of these practices and all these traditions can allow us to really make informed decisions about the way to go.”
Flare will be on view at Tephra ICA at Signature until Oct. 15. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. tephraica.org.