Widline Cadet remembers playing soccer and catching birds that flocked to a backyard grapefruit tree in her birthplace, Haiti. But she migrated to the United States in 2002, at the age of ten, and hasn’t been back to Haiti since 2016. Many of her childhood memories have slipped away, and she now speaks more English than Creole, her first language. Cadet made her first body of work, the photo series “Home Bodies,” when she received a fellowship to travel back to Haiti just after earning her BA in studio art from the City College of New York (she now holds an MFA from Syracuse University). But Cadet is othered in both places; she doesn’t know much about her family history beyond her grandparents, and she occasionally forgets certain English words, betraying her experience as an immigrant.
At first glance, this seems like a story about displacement. And it is, partly. But Cadet has not simply been uprooted, separated from Haiti by time and distance. Her photographs of family, friends, and strangers alike serve as reminders of continuity, rebirth, and connection. The checked gingham pattern and brilliant bursts of bougainvillea in her images are reverberations of her first country. Cadet also places family photos, some more than two decades old, alongside and within newer prints, acknowledging her place as observer and participant, outsider and insider. And she finds community in other places, including New York, with friends and fellow artists.
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Recently, Cadet told me via video chat that she likes shooting in Los Angeles because the terrain reminds her of Haiti’s. In her work Bougenvilye, ki itilize pou Bote, Vi Prive sou Liy Kloti, ak pwoteksyon Pikan (Bougainvillea, Used for Beauty, Privacy on Fence Lines, and Thorny Protection), 2019, the titular vines cradle a blanket that bears the imprint of a person. Though nobody appears in the photo, a presence remains. When we leave a place, she implies, we do not wholly disappear—we leave traces of ourselves.
Cadet included this image, as well as others mentioned here, in her first solo exhibition, “Se Sou Ou Mwen Mete Espwa m (I Put All My Hopes on You),” at Deli Gallery in New York in 2021. Like snippets of dreams recalled upon waking, tiny pictures of Cadet’s parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews appeared throughout the gallery, including two Instax photos tucked into a corner. Cadet took some of these photos herself, while others were shot by unnamed photographers and plucked from the family collection. The show’s layering of multiple generations of Cadet’s family—in images placed near other pictures’ boundaries and thrust into anachronistic contexts—helped establish a historical timeline that was more cyclical than linear. Take Sé Sou Ou Mwen Mété Espwa m #3 (I Put All My Hopes on You #3), 2021. It’s a photo of one corner of a verdant but foreboding yard, a red sky and distant trees peeking over the pristine white fence that otherwise blocks the view of the background. Nestled in the top right of the work is a framed 4-by-6-inch photograph of family members gathered happily on an unmade sofa bed. In this work, Cadet presents a nearly otherworldly landscape that completely envelops a small and fleeting moment in her personal history, reckoning with how one’s perspective can inflate or dissipate memories and reality.
As a descendant, Cadet is part of a sequence, from her ancestors to herself, that resonates—and she reflects it back. Her work consistently captures echoes, sometimes in direct ways. In Jiskaske Enfinite Vini Nan Yon Fen (Until Infinity Comes to an End), 2021, the artist is one of three young women in identical powder-blue dresses who stand angled away from the camera and stare into the distance. Nou Fè Pati, Nou Se, Nou Anvi (We Belong, We Be, We Long), 2020, shows bodies bent over that blend into one another and into the red-and-white gingham backdrop, converging in an indecipherable configuration of limbs. In Yon Etranje ki pa Sanble Youn #3 (A Stranger Who Doesn’t Look Like One #3), 2019, Cadet delicately rests her head on the stomach of someone whose short hair and relaxed yet confident gaze mirror her own.
Even in works portraying people with whom she has no close relationship—like those she took in New York City parks for the black-and-white series “Soft” (2017–20)—Cadet uses resemblance, replication, entanglement, and intimacy to make sense of the sticky webs that lineage, cultural identity, and national identity spin. There’s optimism in her assertion that the passage of time, a difference in backgrounds, or thousands of miles of separation do not mean all hope of connection is lost.