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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 3 JULY 2009 — This season at the Parc de la Villette in Paris is built around Creole culture. Opening the season is a contemporary art exhibition, Kréyol Factory, which, I was told, is "a factory where Creole culture is made".

Dedicated to the memory of Afro-French poet, author and politician Aimé Césaire (1913 – 2008), this long-overdue show assembles the works of 60 artists from the Caribbean and the Indo-Oceanic world, as well as some hailing from Africa and the United States.

Works on view give priority to the French overseas departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana, and the countries of the Atlantic (Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haïti, and the Dominican Republic). France's more remote island regions of the Indian Ocean, Réunion and Mauritius, are also represented among the 82 works of visual artists and installations, 250 photographs and 9 documentary spaces.

Lyle Ashton Harris in collaboration with Renée Cox: Venus Hottentot 2000, 1994
Private collection
© Lyle Ashton Harris
Photo courtesy of La Villette

And while the show seeks to provide an opportunity for these artists to express other ideas besides those shared by a common history of slavery and colonization, the artists repeatedly return to such issues. The resulting highly creative mix and remix of techniques and media challenges the viewer's understanding (or ignorance), overturning fantasies and preconceived notions of what it means to have multiple roots in the Americas or the Indian Ocean. Questions of identity, gender, power, culture, religion, emigration and economics are in play.

The at times unwieldy, multidisciplinary exhibition opens with a section entitled "Traversées", with an eye-catching scene of five canoes, the cayucos used by the first Caribbean settlers who were known as the Tainos, attached vertically onto a wall and lighted theatrically from below. If one looks at them closely, the names of 500 of the earliest slaves deported to the Americas have been engraved across them. The five cayucos symbolize indigenous Arawaks, European colonists, African slaves, pirates and ship-wrecked, as well as the crossings of millions of poverty-stricken Southern Indians, brought across the Indian and Atlantic oceans to work on the rich sugar producing islands, taking the place of African slaves after the official abolition of slavery. The roots of how Caribbean and Indo-Oceanic societies were founded are thus illuminated.

In the following section, many photographs and designs, and in particular those by Lyle Ashton Harris, portray the condition of women in these societies. On the one hand, these women were often sexual objects, and slave owners appropriated babies born on their lands, depriving male children of any future paternal rights. This led, as illustrated in the exhibition, to a series of temporary unions where the mother became the financial, educational and emotional prop for her family — heavy maternal burdens which they bear to this day.

Belkis Ramirez: De mar en peor, 2001
© Photo: Mariano Hernández

Photo courtesy of La Villette

However, by far the most impressive installation was the reconstruction of a complete float made of giant-sized empty steel cans or drums, the sides of which are punctured with holes forming different, attractive designs. The original float, designed by Haitian artist Mario Benjamin and artists of the Gran’Rue, had been commissioned by the Haitian Ministry of Culture in Port-au-Prince for the carnival there in 2006.

While many of the patterns were simply decorative motifs, Voodoo symbols were apparent on several of the drums. Voodoo, the syncretistic religion that intermingled different African beliefs and rites with the practice of Catholicism, developed in islands such as Haiti as a result of the constraints of the plantation existence and successive colonization. At the same time, ideas began to be expressed via music, leading to Steel-bands, Bélé, Reggae, Maloya, and Calypso.

Mario Benjamin in collaboration with artists of the Gran’Rue:
Andre Eugene, Guyodo, Celeur Jean-Herard
Haitian Ministry of Culture float. Port-au-Prince Carnival, Haiti, 2006

A large section of the exhibition devoted to Voodoo rites is dominated by a rather disturbing statue by Patrick Vilaire, Baron Samedi. Leader of the spirits of the dead, Baron Samedi has the dual responsibility of being the guard of the cemeteries as well as being the god of fertility. Vilaire represents him wearing a top hat and partly bending, as he dances steps from "Banda", the most erotic moment in the dances of the dead. At the same time, he looks in four directions, indicating his domination over humans.

Patrick Vilaire: Baron Samedi, 1992
© Photo: Rafaelle Castera/Imagine Ayiti
Photo courtesy of La Villette

Complemented by documentary films and frequent quotations from the great Caribbean and Indian-Ocean essayists and poets, these works remind the public that Voodoo, like other religions, provides a distinctive way of looking at the world.

However, whatever one takes away from this thought-provoking exhibition, it can leave no one indifferent. Perhaps the overwhelming factor lies in the beauty, honesty and sincerity of what it has to say.

Kréyol Factory
Through 5 July 2009

Grande Halle de la Villette
Parc de la Villette
211 avenue Jean Jaurès
75019 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 40 03 75 79

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at She last wrote on the exhibition Filippo et Filippino Lippi: La Renaissance à Prato currently on view at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. 

CALENDAR TIPS: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers and travellers.

New York

Until 25 July 2009

Exit Art
475 Tenth Avenue
New York, NY 10018
Tel: (1) 212 966 7745

Jerry Rivera and N’Klabe
Free Concert
25 July 2009

Central Park SummerStage
Rumsey Playfield
New York, NY
Tel: (1) 212 360 27 77

In the Heights
Through 29 November 2009
Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Tel: (1) 212 239 62 00

Washington, DC

Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas
Through 26 July 2009
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution
950 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20560
Tel: (1) 202 633 46 00


The Notting Hill Carnival 2009
29 - 30 Aug 2009
Notting Hill Gate
United Kingdom
Tel: (44) (0)20 8964 0544

External Links

Repeating Islands: Aimé Césaire (1913 - 2008)

Democracy Now: Aime Cesaire, 1913 - 2008: Remembering the Life and Legacy of the Black Pride Poet and Anti-Colonial Activist

Tribute to Aimé Césaire, Official site (in French)

Mario Benjamin: Reinventing the Past

PBS: Africans in America/Part 1/Elmina Castle, trading outpost

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