Next week I am visiting Saint Martin de Ré where convicts from mainland France were held immediately before their departure for French Guiana aboard La Martinière. While it has become a pleasant port town and popular tourist destination, Saint Martin not only bears the scars of Vauban’s ‘Ceinture de fer’ in the form of foreboding ramparts and gates but also continues to operate a prison which houses inmates undertaking lengthy sentences.
The OIP (2013) reports that with 460 places, Saint Martin is the largest Maison Centrale in France with sentences averaging 18 years. Despite its centrality, the presence of the prison seems to go largely unnoticed by most of the tourists visiting Saint Martin despite the fact it is possible to cycle right past its front gates. For me, the site acts as an important and generally overlooked reminder that the end of the bagne saw many convicts returned to France’s Maison Centrales to finish up their sentences.
However, while the connection between Saint Martin and French Guiana has long been severed, limited to the story of transportation recounted in the small Musée Ernest Cognacq, a new link between those currently incarcerated at Saint Martin and the administrative centre of the bagne, Saint Laurent du Maroni, has recently been created. On display in the reception area of the Centre d’Interprétation de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (CIAP) located within the former Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent, is a small art exhibition entitled ‘L’art du voyager au travers de la peinture.’
The exhibition features artworks produced by inmates in Saint Martin which create a connection with French Guiana. Each piece features a scene from French Guiana’s landscape. At the centre of each canvas is a photograph which the inmates, who have never been to French Guiana, expand outwards to create a larger scene. The project draws upon the therapeutic role played by nature and its artistic reproduction of particular importance to those whose imprisonment limits their direct engagement with the natural environment.
At the same time, the project seems to have a wider symbolic value in shifting the position of French Guiana from common conceptions of the department as peripheral in order to highlight its central importance in terms of its biodiversity and location as part of the Amazon (the world’s lungs). Moreover, a new connection is forged with emphasizes French Guiana as a starting point for creative inspiration rather than the end point it once represented for those housed in Saint Martin. It is thus all the more moving that the canvases are now on display in the former Camp de la Transportation emphasizing the complex and sensitive ways in which former sites of punishment can offer a meaningful space for engaging with contemporary experiences of incarceration.