The Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni has over several decades been transformed into a form of cultural centre which not only engages with the history of the bagne and its role in the development of the town but also repurposes former camp buildings so that these now host multiple community and creative activities including a theatre, fab lab, media centre and the municipal library (as well as CIAP whose work is dedicated to the history and memorial of the Camp itself), named after the last living bagnard in Saint Laurent, Icek Baron.
In recent years, the Camp has offered artist residencies which conclude with a temporary exhibition housed in a building which runs alongside the Quartier de reclusion, the prison within a prison where convicts awaited trial (usually for failed escape attempts) in front of the Tribunal Maritime Spécial (TMS). The exhibition building houses the camp’s bell tower and while it can be accessed from outside the Quartier de reclusion, its windows give views directly onto the rows of cells that used to confine both rélégués and libérés. As such it is a kind of liminal space within the camp.
In its current incarnation as creative space, it exhibits work that is inspired by different aspects of French Guiana’s culture, history and geography beyond its role as penal colony. Previous exhibitions have included Léa Magnien’s Cartes postales de la Guyane and Au Royaume des Toulouous by Laure Chartefou and Anne Guillou. The current exhibition, Résister, vivre by Casimir Bationo (CasziB) has been timed to coincide with events commemorating the abolition of slavery in French Guiana. As a town, Saint Laurent did not exist prior to the arrival of the penal administration in the 1860s and thus did not bear witness to the slave plantations that predated the penal colony. This has led some to question the appropriateness of commemorating slavery at a site not directly implicated in the use of slave labour. At the same time there is also a danger in conflating two distinct historical moments in French Guiana especially via the all too easy misrepresentation of objects such as shackles at memorial sites. However, it is also important to emphasize the continuity between slave and convict labour and the persistence of racist ideologies that informed the evolution and ultimately closure of the bagne.
In Résister, vivre, CasziB shows us a disjointed and problematic history in which the fragments of the past are overlaid, in order to explore the nature of identity. The exhibition comprises of paintings on canvas and fabric hung around the once walls of the prison camp, showing a broad range of colour and abstract faces – all somewhat sombre and liberated at the same time. The artist uses this patchwork colour style seemingly to understand the nature of human experience and how identity is not a linear progression of events, rather the overlaid colour seems to suggest a village of identity amalgamated in the individual to make them who they have become.
This bold technique functions excellently in the space, as not only does the dominant narrative of the bagne involve a fragmented and collective combination of different stories and histories (Papillion being the most renowned example), but there also a confusion on a global stage of the difference in time and history between slavery and the penal colony; this exhibition then plays with this melange of the past so it is not just a story of individual identity, but moreover the identity of French Guiana.
Another striking aspect of the collection is that many of the works are named after woman, femme 1 and so on. This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, using the title femme to denote a patchwork image seems to not create a single identity, but rather pull it apart in order to tell a wider story of women within the history of slavery. If it is indeed an unmapping of a singular female identity onto the canvas then the artist risks undermining rather than showcasing the multitude of untold stories. On the other hand, it seems somewhat poignant to create a fragmented identity in order to piece together a female female narrative, often absent, from these periods. It is also interesting to bring the figure of the woman into the space of the Camp de la Transportation and, similar to the previous exhibition on the Touloulous, this move enacts a deliberate form of dislocation with the historically male space of the camp that challenges the idea of which stories get to be told and retold and in which spaces.
As the artist himself states in the exhibition catalogue:
‘La série de toiles exposées à l’occasion de cette commemoration dénonce l’innomable, des deportations en nombre mais aussi cette “force collective” permettant d’accéder à la liberté. Des visages singuliers viennent ponctuer cette exposition. Derrière cette foule d’individus déportés et réduits à l’esclavage, il y avait des hommes, des femmes, des enfants aux histoires et destins uniques.’
RS and SF