Cartes postales du bagne

sketches 2.

Musée Franconie, Cayenne, 7 June 2018

For this plan of the section of the museum dedicated to objects related to the bagne, I used a ruler. I find lined paper helps provide a grid but is perhaps distracting to look at it. There was a small double seat in the corner of the museum where I sat to make the sketch. It didn’t take very long but sitting there facing the artworks by Francis Lagrange I wondered about how many hours he must have sat in the Cathedral museum in Rouen preparing the details for his forgery.

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Site visit #2. Musée Alexandre Franconie

7 June 2018 – Cayenne, French Guiana

Located across from the Bar des Palmistes, next to the town hall, the Musée Alexandre Franconie and its adjoining library is something of a local institution in Cayenne. It is often referred to as the “musée loca” and anyone growing up in Cayenne is likely at some point to have been taken on a school trip there.

Document Name downstairs view

As the museum’s brochure tells us, Gustave Franconie and his family sold the building and donated his father Alexandre’s library to the French government in 1885. The museum was inaugurated in 1901. The ground floor of the museum is predominantly taken up with Guyane’s natural history and features and extensive selection of wildlife taxidermy. There is also reference to prominent local figures including Jean Galmot and Justin Catayée. At the back of the museum is an air-conditioned annex dedicated to the museum’s insect collection. The staff encourage you to visit this part of the museum and I think this is mainly so they can come and sit in the air-conditioned space for a while.

The first floor focuses on the cultural history of the department including that of the indigenous Amerindian population, the abolition of slavery and, the operation of the penal colony [bagne]. The section on the bagne is a small self-contained section divided off by wood paneling. There are a few glass cabinets containing objects that are well-known as part of the iconography of the penal colony including bricks marked A.P., handcrafted miniature guillotines (see also Clare Anderson’s post on this as part of the Convict Voyages project) and engraved coconuts. Most bizarre and disturbing, perhaps, is the giant plaster of Paris foot produced from a mould of a convict’s foot that had swollen beyond recognition due to the excessive use of leg irons. In the centre of the space are two custom-made display cabinet featuring dioramas of the Iles du Salut and the camp at Saint Jean du Maroni. I list these things not with the intention of providing an exhaustive account of the museum’s collection on the bagne but, rather, in an attempt to evoke the limited and arbitrary nature of its collection. Standing by an open window which looks out onto Avenue de Charles de Gaulle, one of the main streets in Cayenne, is a mannequin dressed in the stripy pyjamas and straw hat of the bagnard. The brim of the hat and the bright sunlight from outside maintain the mannequin’s face in the shadows. Similar to the mannequins that populated the prison museum at Abashiri, the mannequin presence is affirmed by his silence.

Document Name Mannequin

In contrast to the complying silence of the mannequin-bagnard are the brightly coloured paintings produced by counterfeiter turned convict, Francis Lagrange, which adorn the wood panelling opposite. The paintings depict numerous scenes from Lagrange’s time on the Iles du Salut in Saint Laurent du Maroni and Cayenne. Although originally arrested for producing counterfeit currency, Lagrange almost got away with replacing the triptych located in the museum at Rouen Cathedral with a forgery. It is not without a certain irony therefore that his images in the Musée Franconie are not originals but actually reproductions. Although Lagrange produced them himself, the original series was done for a restaurant owner who then sold them to an American. Lagrange did another set which is the one now displayed in the Musée Franconie. The original series is now owned by the University of Saint Louis in Missouri.

Document Name Paintings view

Leafing through the museum’s visitor’s book, most people who visit the museum seem to enjoy it for what it is, a museum of ‘curiosities’, a living example of what museums once were. Only a few visitors complained about the poor labelling of the exhibits, peeling paintwork or requested the introduction of audio guides. There is no prescription as to what you look at or in what order. The open windows upstairs allow you to look out into the town, affirming the museum’s role as part of Cayenne and its community, not a sealed off vacuum. Although people have told me there are factual inaccuracies in some of the displays, there is also no overbearing narrative telling me what to think. At a moment where contemporary museums are taken up with intangible heritage, audience participation and storytelling, the Musée Franconie reminds us of the power of objects and their display.

Text SF, Photos CR

 

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.

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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.

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

 

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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).

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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

 

 

References

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: http://www.la-seyne.fr/Musee-Balaguier/index.html