Cartes postales du bagne

Exposition temporaire

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.

View of the Quartier de réclusion from the Salle d’exposition temporaire

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

Rochefort & Île d’Aix – life history narratives in museums

A view of Fort Boyard from the boat on the way to Île d’Aix © AS

Between 10-14 June 2019 Sophie and I (Ayshka) travelled to the Île de Ré (et environs) to visit sites where former convicts were held before deportation to the French colonies. The island is popular with French tourists and retirees profiting from the peaceful surroundings, we saw a number of couples exploring the island en velo during our visit. In conversation with one of the local museum’s curators, we learned that many visitors are unaware of the island’s penal heritage and are even more surprised to learn that Île de Ré’s links with the penal system are not only historic, since the site also houses a large Maison Centrale for inmates completing lengthy sentences (see Sophie’s recent blog post for more information about this modern day prison).

Aerial view of Vauban’s fortifications on the Île de Ré © Criminocorpus.

First stop on our itinerary was the Musée Nationale de la Marine in Rochefort. We were keen to see how the history of the bagnard was represented in this museum space, since Rochefort had functioned as a prison for just under a century, between 1767 and 1854, closing when overseas penal colonies were established. The town’s naval history was the primary focus of the museum and the ‘vie du bagnard’ did not feature heavily. There were a couple of information boards focusing on the daily life of the convict, accompanied by a small number of artefacts on display. Including the bell photographed below.

Bell from the former bagne portuaire in Rochefort © SF.

The connection between the bagnard and the town’s naval history was not explicit in the museum and the target audience seemed to be maritime enthusiasts keen to see model ships, the fairly extensive collection of figureheads, and the vessels moored outside. Reviews on Tripadvisor reinforce that the ships are the main attraction (‘It’s on boats!’ and ‘Boatiful’), as well as the bar/restaurant on the top deck of the final navire. Human narratives and life histories from former bagnards were absent and it was difficult to get a sense of what their prison experiences had been.

Musée Napoleon on Île d’Aix with commemorative plaque © AS.

The lack of life history narratives from bagnards was also evident in our visit to the Île d’Aix the following day. Although the island is popular with tourists for day trips from the mainland, the population is only around 230 and there are no cars permitted. The island’s connection with Napoleon is celebrated – he famously spent his last days in France on the island in 1815, following his defeat at Waterloo – and the former commander’s house, commissioned by Napoleon and pictured above, is now a museum.

Fort Liédot, a semi-buried fortification on the north of the island, which was commissioned by Napoleon, houses a second museum promising to introduce the visitor to the soldiers and prisoners who were stationed and incarcerated there. The Fort held Communards in 1871 and various prisoners during the First World War and Algerian War. There was little evidence of prisoner’s narratives in the museum – there were no photographs, letters, or diary entries relating to those held there. As shown in the image below, the museum’s primary focus seemed to be on the island’s connection to Fort Boyard (both the gameshow and the edifice).

Fort Boyard display at Fort Liédot © AS

Life history narratives (letters, diaries, photographs) have proved particularly useful in under-documented areas of history, as the narratives ‘suggest hypotheses, provide personal details, reveal local colour, facilitate insights and preserve individuality’ (Kedward 1993:vii). They have also been mobilised effectively in the museum space. Including life history research in museums foregrounds unique life stories and provides personal examples of the broader political and cultural histories which are being documented. The absence of personal narratives in the museums in Rochefort and Fort Liédot meant that the visitor did not get a sense of life as a bagnard in either location. Instead, the dominant narrative in Rochefort focused on maritime vessels, human histories were largely absent, and in Fort Liédot, visitors were invited to discover ‘Les Mystères du Fort Boyard’ with tv screens showing the famous gameshow. The inclusion of some personal narratives from former convicts might be one way of broadening the memory narratives which are promoted at these historical sites to include the under-documented area of the penalscape in mainland France.

Bibliography
https://www.rochefort-ocean.com/en/explore/fort-liedot-in-aix-island
https://www.ohs.org.uk/information-for/museums/
https://criminocorpus.hypotheses.org/7388
http://en.musee-marine.fr/rochefort


Object of the game vs. game as object

Over the past month, the Postcards from the bagne team has been discussing different approaches to creating a boardgame as a way of engaging different audiences and telling alternative stories relating to the bagne that are often overlooked in favour of those which privilege a select few (see for example, Ayshka’s post on boardgames and agonistic memory). Within the wider context of the project, this is not simply about engaging more people in the general history of the penal colony but also to explore relationships between different sites relating to the bagne and the ongoing interconnectedness of these sites today. A boardgame seems to offer up the potential to emphasize these links both visually and textually.

One of the things which most appeals about creating a boardgame is its materiality – the opportunity to design counters, dice, cards, the board and so on using different materials. This is, of course, part of the wider appeal of boardgames and the reason they have over the past decade enjoyed a resurgence in popularity with adult gamers. However, if their materiality is part of what makes them a useful pedagogical tool (as witnessed in particular at museums in New Caledonia), designing a game not only as a means of engaging a wider audience with research but, potentially, as a research tool in itself raises questions about exclusivity and accessibility.

Somewhat creepy chess game intended to emphasize the complex political struggles in Nouméa at the end of the 19th Century. Musée de la ville de Nouméa.

Like the video game industry, the boardgames industry markets itself on exclusivity and novelty. New games as well as extension packs can be prohibitively expensive to casual players and a testament to the commitment of serious gamers. One of the things we have been discussing is how to appeal to different audiences all the way up to serious adult gamers via the combination of complex narratives and challenging game play. At the same time, we recognise the scope to explore the boardgame as a research methodology which suggests trying different formats and approaches. Of key importance here is the question of accessibility and how to reconcile this with the materiality of the boardgame which can be expensive and difficult to distribute? Another option is to design a ‘print and play’ game similar to other projects (see for example the Counter-Cartographies Collective project on counter-mapping Queen Mary) produced in and around the space of the university. A ‘print and play’ game has potential to be circulated widely and perhaps reach those less interested in the game as object in itself. At the same time, it places limitations on the type and amount of text and graphics that can be used. There are reasons why this can be both useful and restricting, something we shall hopefully reflect on in future posts.

L’art du voyager

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.

Saint Martin de Ré twinned with Saint Laurent du Maroni

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.

Overlooking the roofs of Saint Martin. It is possible to make out the Maison Centrale in the distance

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.’

CIAP, Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni

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.

A selection of canvases from the ‘L’Art du voyager project

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.

SF

Aerial Views of the Camp de la Transportation

Guest post by Ross Smith @gutterbal

Representations of space involve multiple approaches and perspectives. An approach might emphasize the individual, personal investment and significance of a particular space. Alternatively, space could be framed as exotic, casting a desirable light on far off places. Another perspective, as presented her, is the aerial view. 

The 2013 graphic novel, Cayenne, Matricule 51793 by Blanco and Perrin, tells the story of a bagnard dreaming of freedom and attempting to flee from prison, a similar story to many graphic novels coming from the Hexagon. When the protagonist finds himself at Saint-Laurent, we are given an aerial view of the camp, almost cartographic in its presentation. While the decision to present the camp from this perspective is not necessarily new or surprising, it does pose certain questions about how stories are being told.

Aerial view of the Camp de la Transportation in Blanco and Perrin, Cayenne (2013)

Whilst in the archive at the Camp du Transportation, I was lucky enough to find a document which detailed an archeological dig which took place at the site also in 2013. The file, as one would assume, detailed things found in the dig, the nature of soil, how deep they dug, and what their research entailed. The figure which was of interest however, was an aerial view plan of the site showing the location of barracks and buildings for their dig. The plan showed, in a scientific and detached way, the layout of the camp and some of its key characteristics. 

Inrap (2013)

The aerial view, used in these different contexts, raises some interesting questions. My first response was to see its use in Cayenne, not as an objective, quasi-scientific portrayal of the camp as a space in which history took place and events took place rather than in terms of the sensational events and encounters that are often fetishized in prison narratives. However, this almost Lévi-Straussian approach to the space feels to limit the importance of the space of the camp, and deny or gloss over what actually happened there. This then leads to my second reflection, which is that an aerial depiction of space much like a map or plan can also show all that a space encapsulates. In this sense, it zooms out from the story of the bagnard with the matricule 51793, and allows for an understanding of the space viewed at a remove. Much like that of the archeological document, it is necessary to see the space as a large colonial project, so while his story is important – it was not the only one which can be told from this space. 

A third reading of this space, is emphasised by the title of the novel. There is not a representation of the space of Cayenne in this manner in the graphic novel, and it is in Saint-Laurent that character lives, attempts escape, and ultimately dies, yet the title still bears the name of Cayenne. Therefore, this aerial documentation is not merely an important tool in emphasizing how an individual bagnard is part a network of stories: it is also draws our attention to how the bagne was not just Cayenne (for French people) or Devil’s Island (for Americans). After the bagne began its operation in 1852, Saint Laurent du Maroni was conceived as a town focused around the penal administration unlike Cayenne.

Whilst these are just the beginnings of a wider project involving graphic novels and the bagne, I think immediately it is clear that uses of space in comic images play an important role in how we understand the bagne which also draw upon and create links with forms of scientific diagram, plan or map as used in fields such as archaeology. RS

References

Blanco, Stéphane and Laurent Perrin, Cayenne, Matricule 51793 (Paris: Aubin, 2013).

Inrap, Guyane, Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Camp de la Transportation (Grand Sud-Ouest: octobre 2013).

Applying Agonistic Memory Theory to a Board Game?

I (Ayshka) was invited to attend a workshop on Agonistic Memory and Museums on 13 May 2019 at the University of Bath run by the Horizon 2020 funded UNREST project. The workshop targeted museum practitioners who had either applied agonistic memory to their own settings already, or who had expressed an interest in learning more about the theory and how it might be mobilized. I worked as a post-doc researcher for UNREST until March 2019, so am familiar with the project and theory, but I was keen to explore how agonistic memory might be applied to my current research as part of the Postcards from the Bagne project. 

Participants sharing during an activity at the UNREST workshop (© UNREST twitter feed)

In this project, we are considering how best to disseminate our research findings outside academia, i.e. beyond publications in academic journals. One consideration is to create a board game based on experiences of bagnards in French Guiana. We are keen to nuance and challenge dominant narratives of escape by presenting the multiplicity of bagnards’ lived experiences, which were more commonly shaped by incarceration, deprivation and death, than escape. We are also eager to introduce perspectives other than the prisoners, for example prison guards, doctors, bounty hunters, to create a richer picture of life as part of this penal colony.

Charles Forsdick and Claire Reddleman play the ‘Jeu du Bagne’ based on bagnards’ experiences in New Caledonia (© Sophie Fuggle)

How then might agonistic memory help with the creation of this board game? In Cento Bull and Hansen’s article ‘On Agonistic Memory’ (2016), they outline the characteristics of agonistic memory, taking as their starting point the failure of the cosmopolitan memory mode to prevent the rise of antagonistic memories constructed by populist, neo-nationalist movements. The traits of this memory mode include:

  • Multiperspectivism– hearing the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators, as well as witnesses, bystanders, spies, and traitors. It is believed that the testimonies of perpetrators can help us to understand when, how, and why people turn into perpetrators.
  • Emotions and passions– agonism argues that passion is an important force to reinvigorate politics and can be used to create a sense of solidarity without demonising the ‘evil other.’ Empathy with victims is the first step in promoting understanding.
  • Reconstructing the historical context – avoiding pitting ‘good’ against ‘evil’, ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Instead, agonistic memory acknowledges the human capacity for evil in specific circumstances and in certain social and political contexts.

Presentation on Agonistic Games (© Daniela de Angeli)

These theoretical concepts have been applied to the creation of museum exhibitions, theatre performances, and significantly for this project, computer games. An online version of the computer game created by UNREST, Umschlagplatz, can be played here. Players can choose from four characters, a brief background about each character is given to players which outlines the specific historical and social context at the time, players then need to make choices to save themselves and can either share true or false statements or spread rumours about other players. The decisions and consequences triggered by players’ choices are designed to create an unsettling experience for those involved in the game, causing them to question how and why they made particular decisions. 

Visitors playing ‘Umschlagplatz’ at the Krieg.Macht.Sinn exhibition at the Ruhr Museum in Germany (© Daniela de Angeli)

Agonistic characteristics, such as multiperspectivism, unsettling experiences, the importance of historical and social contexts, and the acknowledgement of emotions and passions might be applied in the creation of our board game. Life history narratives (letters, diaries, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs) could be successfully employed to highlight the ‘unknown majority’ (Thompson, 2000, p.24) who were part of French Guiana’s penal colony. The inclusion of testimonies from historical actors other than bagnards could shed light on the specific historical context which might cause former prisoners to become bounty hunters, for example, or prison guards to become perpetrators. Lesser-known objects and artefacts associated with the French Guiana’s penalscape could also be represented in the board game to complicate and challenge the dominant narrative of escape. 

More detailed discussions about our board game are to follow, but the workshop was certainly a productive brainstorming exercise and an excellent opportunity to hear from museum and heritage practitioners who are looking to develop new ways of representing difficult histories. 

References

Bull, A. C., & Hansen, H. L. (2016). On agonistic memory. Memory Studies, 9(4), 390–404. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750698015615935

Thompson, P. 2000. The Voice of the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Site visit #20. Camp Est and the penalscape*

Camp Est still operates as New Caledonia’s prison today

If you take the bus up to the university on Île Nou one of the first vestiges you pass is not a vestige at all but rather Camp Est which continues to operate as a prison. The bus that takes you around Ile Nou drives right up to the prison. As it loops around you can see the old chapel inside. It’s also possible to drive along the perimeter wall which is covered in graffiti before you arrive at a few squats.

graffiti on the perimeter wall of Camp Est

The prison has been termed the ‘prison postcolonial’ by the Observatoire International des Prisons due to its overcrowding and poor conditions. While the quartier cellulaire on Ile Nou was destroyed after the closure of the bagne as the most visible architecture of imprisonment there are nevertheless continuities with the present day. In addition to Camp Est, the psychiatric hospital is located in the grounds of the former prison hospital. 

View of the chapel inside Camp Est from the bus

Thus where we conceived the project as looking at the legacy of the bagne as attesting to a moment (albeit drawn out) of decarceration, what also emerges in exploring the ‘penalscape’ of Ile Nou is how the legacy of the bagne does not just involve the restoration of architecture as museum, theatre or university buildings but also in the evolution of what Goffman terms the ‘total institution’ within existing spaces of imprisonment.

View of the former boulangerie site of the proposed Museé du Bagne on Ile Nou as seen from the bus

*The term ‘penalscape’ first appears in Joy James’ Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy (Duke University Press, 2007). Our use of the term which has developed as part of this project expands the notion of a penalscape beyond a very specific U.S. context.