Reclaiming Joy // Reimagining Community :Madjeen Isaac
Native Brooklynites are rare these days, but there’s something to be said about how we interpret and interact with our community — one that’s seen an immense transformation in recent years. Through her paintings, murals, and programming, Haitian-American artist Madjeen Isaac spotlights the borough’s Caribbean community, paying special attention to her Flatbush neighborhood. Juxtaposing urban and tropical landscapes, Madjeen imagines an idyllic Brooklyn — one that feels out of reach for most of the city’s Black community, but a Brooklyn that she feels is “very real.” With the grittiness of New York layered beneath a color-splashed surface and expressive characters, Madjeen invites us to follow her lead and reimagine our neighborhoods as well.
With work rooted in your Haitian-American identity and Afro-diasporic narratives, I can see that a lot of your inspiration comes from your community, specifically Flatbush, a Caribbean neighborhood with a large Haitian presence. What about your community particularly inspires you?
I love observing the people who reside here and how they function and go about life. I would say all the Caribbean immigrants and first-generation Americans coexisting in this space, the hustle and bustle, the businesses that arise and have been here for years, the stores, the music, the food — all these things that come together and create a hybrid culture. We all take things from our native lands to recreate a space where we feel comfortable.
Many of the scenes depicted in your paintings are infused with Brooklyn flair, and there’s definitely a familiarity of what it’s like to live in our community — braiding shops appear, buildings are marked with graffiti, and people wait on subway platforms. On the contrary, Brooklyn appears as a backdrop to an idyllic, plant-saturated, tropical paradise. Why is it important to show this juxtaposition?
I love merging urban and tropical landscapes. Having this juxtaposition is my way of being here, as well as holding space for Caribbean immigrants who reside here and haven’t been back home in years. My paintings are very real to me — it feels like I’m living in them. Although it may not look like that right now, I’ve learned so much about my upbringing, my culture, my Haitian-American culture, and other cultures from living in Flatbush. I wanted to embody that by incorporating mountains, banana trees, and palm trees among large buildings.
I felt this way when I was given an assignment in undergrad to create a painting about culture. I thought, why not dive into my culture? It became more than a project — it’s been an ongoing journey for me. Right before my thesis in undergrad, I realized that the folks in my Flatbush community function the same as the folks in Haiti. I thought it was cool how we can migrate and find ways to create a sense of home somewhere else. I was drawn to that and like to depict that. I think it’s important to create space for that.
Although I started with painting about my upbringing and my Haitian American identity, I love that others can see themselves in my work — Jamaicans, Guyanese, Trinidadians, everyone! I love that folks can find their own narratives and make up their own ways of thinking about themselves.
Last fall, you were awarded the City Artist Corp grant and started to co-facilitate a free art-making workshop, “Re:Imagine Your Hood,” with a focus on reimagining neighborhoods as utopias. What are your takeaways from facilitating this workshop, and what did you want participants to gain?
This was a really fun workshop! I love the conversations that came up. I first had participants share where they’re from and what they love about their neighborhoods. I wanted to set the tone for what it means or how it feels to love a place you come from. It then turned into what we wish we could see and transform.
I love the collage medium, and I thought it would be an accessible medium for people to tap into their artistry, so we had a bunch of magazines. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I gave them the collage assignment, but I was very happy to see them. Some of them were picture heavy, some were picture and text-heavy, some were just text.
There were also different people from different neighborhoods — not just Flatbush. I was inspired to know that everyone is thinking about these things or wants to think about these things and see differently. Having the space to think about these things is a luxury because we’re constantly on the go and working like crazy, so I would love to hold space for more of these conversations to take place.
How often did these workshops happen, and what demographics participated?
I only had the workshop once, but I was asked to do it in the Bronx at the start of this year. I see myself traveling with this workshop and would love to see how different black and brown communities go about it. The demographic for this one was a nice range — from young adults in their twenties to older people in their fifties.
That’s amazing! I wouldn’t imagine older adults having the time to attend something like this. It’s a big success that you were able to get those different generations in one room to imagine their neighborhoods in new ways.
I’d love to [hold another workshop] when it’s warmer so we can be outside. I love holding space and being in conversation with older folks too. It’s a nice intergenerational connection, and they have so much to share. When I was painting a mural in 2020, there were a lot of older people coming by and sharing their experiences of living in Flatbush for 50+ years. I really loved that! I never thought that painting a mural would evoke storytelling.
Can you describe your role at the Haiti Culture Exchange and how it coincides with your practice?
I work at Haiti Culture Exchange as a Programs Associate. I help with expanding their current programming and even create new programming. I’ve only been there for a couple of months, so a lot of what we’re doing, especially since we’re still in a pandemic, has been trying to create outdoor and public-facing programs. Over the summer, we did a lot of community garden projects and public programming within community gardens. We tend to forget that we come from these spaces, and we come to the concrete jungle and think it’s all about work. We had two or three programs in these community gardens, and it was great to enjoy music in a green space and make art relating to the Haitian culture.
Both the U.S. & Haiti are experiencing crises, but despite these crises, your work steadfastly projects joy, rest, community, and celebration. What makes this perspective integral to your practice?
I always say that I’m painting what I need or what I haven’t necessarily had. Sometimes I get asked why I don’t paint what I’m feeling or my struggles, but that has already been done in the past. In some ways, my paintings emulate the struggles I’ve been through, the chaotic lifestyle of being in NYC and Flatbush since it’s super fast-paced, and the idea of balancing two different cultures and having to assimilate. It shows up in the composition and the layers, but it’s somewhat hidden. I prefer the idea of joy and liberation, and the image of Black folks having a good time and being in community. That’s super important and needs to be in the forefront more. I also love the conversations that come up when people see my work, and I want to keep that going.
L: On the Run (2020), oil on canvas; R: The Bittersweet Escape (2021), oil on canvas
I realized that a few characters make appearances in your paintings: goats, pigs, a mermaid. What’s their significance?
When I went to Haiti, I saw animals running freely, particularly hogs and pigs. Goats were usually tied up, but I wish they were able to run around. I always imagined what it would be like if we had other animals besides pigeons and squirrels running freely in New York. I just imagine if we could live harmoniously with animals. I learned that goats are natural lawnmowers which is really cool; what if they were out here helping us tend to the earth? It’s a humorous aspect, and I tapped into humor during the pandemic because a lot was going on, and I needed that.
There are always these stereotypes around Black folks and animals, bugs, the outdoors, and that we don’t go camping. My family has been going camping for six years now, so painting these things was super important. During the pandemic, we’ve come to realize we want to be around nature more often, so maybe painting these things will put a little idea into others’ heads and push them to do that. I’m excited to see how my paintings will help people or inspire them to do what they want to do.
It’s cool that you and your family go camping! A lot of people in my family enjoy gardening and love being outdoors, but being in this city definitely makes it difficult to appreciate nature. It’s always been in us, but we just need to be pushed towards it. Your paintings can be a way for the Black community to reclaim the outdoors.
I agree. I wish we could tap back into our ancestral practices. There are so many healing properties from being out, growing gardens, and not depending on the system. I hope that we come to realize that this is possible.
L: Peephole (2020), oil on canvas; R: Late Night Staple (2020), oil on canvas
Your 2020 series ‘Peeps, Places and Things‘ in Brooklyn has a different feeling to your larger paintings — colors are muted, a handful of scenes are devoid of people, and there’s more of a voyeuristic lens. What was your approach to this series?
I’m often taking photos on my phone when I’m on the go. I’m always observing when I’m out, especially in neighborhoods where it feels very communal.These are all photos I’ve taken on my phone, and I intend to use them for my work, but sometimes they just sit on my phone. I thought, why not make quick, little paintings of them. They’re different because they’re not necessarily deconstructed and reconstructed as utopias; they’re as-is. In many ways, they’re showing the reality we live in. A lot of them are just figures in their spaces, and there are a few where there’s green scaffolding to show we’re going through gentrification. I haven’t tapped back into it, but hopefully I will soon.
Given that your work is so interpersonal, how has the pandemic impacted how you create? Did you find inspiration despite the challenges?
The pandemic definitely did impact what I create and how I create. It was my mission to make it a bit humorous. I got a comment the other day that people are photobombing my paintings, and I love having figures in my paintings interact with the viewer. I’m not sure if you realize, but there’s this man I call sugarcane man; he shows up in the paintings and has striped pants. He’s always looking at what’s happening with binoculars or eating sugarcane somewhere. That’s a memory I had as a child of a man who used to be in Flatbush selling a wheelbarrow full of sugarcanes. Right now, I’m painting what I need and what others need.
Can you share a moment in your career that you’re proud of?
I would say the workshop. I facilitated something I’ve been thinking about and asked questions that I answered in my work. My works were also present in the space, which made it an accessible interaction for those there. Also, I allowed folks to create in their own right. All of that together was a fruitful experience, and I love having conversations about how people are thinking about their neighborhoods and environments, what they wish to see, and how it connects to their upbringing and their parents’ lives.
Who is an artist or project that has impacted you over the last year?
It’s been a while since I’ve delved into others’ work because sometimes it can be distracting. I’ve always loved Kerry James Marshall, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. These are artists I always tap back into because their work evokes community and their experiences growing up within their spaces.
Going out to shows recently has been pretty fruitful for me, especially to see how people are interacting with artwork. I think it’s cool to have my works in a space, but there’s more that needs to be done, like holding space for workshops and conversations. You can interact with work without the artist there, but facilitating and guiding conversations is much more important and a very intimate experience. Right now, I’ve been trying to observe and figure out how I want to show as an artist and have my work be more accessible.
Some artists that I love and have been following are Mark Fleuridor, Destiny Belgrave, Emily Manwaring, Audrey Lyall, and Paul Verdell. These are cool people I’ve been in conversation with about our practices. It’s important for me to talk to artists, and I’m trying to make that a habit to see where we’re at and how things are going for us.
Where do you envision yourself and your practice within the next year?
I’m still figuring it out. For some reason, things feel a little different. I think something is coming, and I’m not sure what that is, but I just feel it. I’ve been getting a lot of engagement on socials, and I’ve been applying to residencies. I’m hoping to see some good come out of that.
Provide a few tips for other artists
I’m currently redefining what success means for me, so this is great! Right now, I’m trying to understand what it means to play the long game because not every opportunity that presents itself is a good one. I’m saying this because I’ve experienced some not-so-great interactions, and luckily it wasn’t anything super traumatic, but it’s important as artists to protect ourselves from those who see our potential and just want a piece.
It’s hard, and I feel that it’s super important as a creator in general — really understanding how to read the room and read people, taking more time to say yes, and finding what aligns with who you are. Always remembering why you started is super important too. I think back to when I started and how things are going now. I think I’m doing really well and doing things I never imagined.