Cartes postales du bagne

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).