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.


Site Visit #1. Fort Balaguier Part 3

5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France

Read Part 1. “Ceinture de Fer” here

Read Part 2. The Doctor and the “plan” here

Part 3. The Chapel

The Musée Balaguier is an unusual site for a prison museum in that, despite operating as a fort, it has never been used for detention. Its link to the bagne lies instead to the proximity of the Fort to Toulon, one of the original dockyard prisons. As mentioned in an earlier post, the museum’s collection of objects from both French Guiana and New Caledonia is largely a result of doctors working in France’s colonies retiring to the South of France producing a neat circularity.

The Chapel which houses the exhibition on the bagne

The Fort’s main tower houses temporary exhibitions often linked to the region itself. The small chapel located in the grounds of the fort is where the permanent exhibition on the bagnes is located although the museum frequently loans its objects to other museums and galleries. The chapel is cool and dark and immediately creates an aura. Although the dark and musty interior is perhaps reminiscent of the interior of a stone prison cell, this effect is complicated by the evocation of the sacred space of organized religion still present in the tiny stained glass porthole and stone altar. The objects carefully crafted by convicts appear almost as sacred relics with the reproduction of leg irons used to restrain convicts at night suggesting a quasi-religious level of suffering and thus the potential for redemption.

Wooden matchboxes in the form of clogs (similar to those issued by the A.P.) made by convicts


Église Saint-Joseph, Iracoubo

The chapel as prison museum seems to constitute the apotheosis of the ongoing relationship between Church and State in matters of punishment. And this at a time when other state institutions were forcibly decoupled from the Catholic Church in France. Elsewhere the church has provided a different form of repository for convict art. Having once stolen artwork from the cathedral in Rouen, replacing it with forgeries, Francis Lagrange (also known as Flag) was later put to work painting frescoes in the chapel on Île Royale. Similarly, the church (Église Saint-Joseph) in the small town of Iracoubo (which now functions as a border control despite being an hour and half drive from French Guiana’s river border with Suriname – more on this later) features elaborate frescoes by another lesser-known convict, Pierre Huguet.

Can we read this in terms of an acknowledgment of redemption via artistic creativity fostered by the priests and chaplains assigned to French Guiana? This marks a notable shift from the disciplinary mechanisms found in the religious and penal institutions of 19th century England and France (as delineated in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish).

Lincoln prison museum



Or, and this is perhaps a more cynical reading, is this redirection of ‘creativity’ towards authorized sites and activities not only a means of circumventing the convict’s use of his skill or talent within the Système D but at the same time an indication of the investment of the penal administration and its chaplaincy in this system? A complicated (and slightly confused) question and one that seems to pose itself in the contemporary context of offender art as creative labour and the appropriation of this by different organisations. SF




Épailly, Eugène, Francis Lagrange: Bagnard, faussaire génial (1994).

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues

 Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.

Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.

Museum website: