Samson Tonton’s happiest place is in his studio, brush in hand. “It’s wake up in the morning and paint and in the nighttime paint and then wake up and paint again,” the Haitian-born artist tells EBONY. Known for his Cubism style—in which sharp-edged shapes create a vision that evokes raw, blunt emotion—some might compare him to another famous Cubism artist but Tonton declares, “This is an African style. It’s what we were doing with sculpture and wood cutting. It’s ours.” Tonton's work pays homage to his African roots and celebrates Black artistry and culture.
While U.S. museums only carry about 1.2 percent of art created by Black artists, Tonton is quickly gaining a large spotlight, and it won’t be long before he finds himself in some hallowed hall. He is ready and eager to unleash his squared vision on the world.
EBONY: What inspired you to start painting?
Samson Tonton: Don’t laugh, but I first used to do it to impress girls. I start painting well when I was 16 and made my first piece. I got married young and then that ended. Early on, I hadn’t found myself yet. I didn't know what I want to say or talk about. I spent five years in college and studied media and animation and decided after college that I will focus seriously on painting and come back to it. And thank God I did. I've been painting heavily for the past seven years.
How did you discover your Cubism art style?
In college, we used software where we would take one little block and then break it down and turn it into a human being. This is where my cubism really came from. I started expressing my art in that way. But one thing young artists usually have problems with is what leads the artist to what they are supposed to do, and I had that problem. You get to a point where you get comfortable with whatever training you have, and now you have to let the artist within you express whatever it needs to. I started studying the greats. They were doing what they do, but they were more polished and a lot stronger than me. I realized I got to work on it and work on it and work on it. Now art has become second nature. My [inner] artist comes and uses the gift.
Who are some artists that inspire you?
My big influence is Haitian artist Jean Francois Portillo, he's the one who really got me to say, "Wow, I can do this." And Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’ll be honest, I used to think his work was primitive. And then somebody told me, why don't you take a moment and go see a piece? Now I wish I could shake his hand. I was so judgmental of him without knowing what was the idea behind the work. This was a guy that let his artistic nature express itself. He didn’t hold anything back, he let the artist within do whatever the artist needed to do. And that is the gift.
What is one piece that really defines you as an artist?
I have a piece I named Motherhood that I value deeply. It’s about my mom, her life and every woman in general. When you look at my work I talk a lot about women and this is all about expressing my mom. She was a single woman with seven children and struggled with it along the way. But she still managed to do it. That means a lot to me.
You’ve been compared to Pablo Picasso—
One of my teachers in college called me the next Picasso but I disagree with that statement. I'm the next Samson!
What are some of the challenges Black artists face when trying to get their work showcased?
As a Black man, it's always hard for us to get into museums and places where you can actually see our work. I remember a collector told me your work needs to be seen, but you gotta make a way for it to be seen. It doesn't matter where it is. I want the world to see.
What more can be done to create those opportunities?
We lack support and it's one thing that most of us scream about. You have a day job and you have the commitment to go to work; you leave for work and then eight hours later you come back home and it's dragging you from the joy of making art. When we get the support, we are allowed to be free to express ourselves and let the artist live. I’m a simple guy, I don’t talk about support, but it’d be nice to let us in a little bit. Let the world see us.
Does the artist within you know where he wants to go next? Or is it still the unknown?
We never know, so what we must plan to do is just paint. What's been called one of the best pieces I've created is The Puppet. What happened is that I slept and I woke up in the morning and I painted, maybe for 20 hours. And when I ended the piece was complete. You need that freedom for the magic to happen. The artist wants to be free to paint: to wake up during the day or in the middle of the night and let that spark of joy happen.