It’s not a huge secret that I love Martinique. I try and play it cool like it’s a place like any other, with its good and bad, people and places. Just another Caribbean island but with a French twist, but that’s a lie. The truth is that I love this complicated place despite myself. And several seemingly unconnected innocuous events will help me explain why.
First, there was the night I debated and discussed until I fell asleep. Exhausted, we all crashed out on our sofa. Me, and the husband and wife creative team I’ve been calling housemates this past summer. The subject? The private view had of Hélène Raffestin‘s art exhibition ‘Sois belle et plais toi’ which I’ll translate as ‘be beautiful and make yourself happy’ (‘please yourself’ has distinctly sexual connotations in English). The title had intrigued my housie who noticed the play on the play of words on the charming French expression ‘Sois belle et tais toi’ aka ‘be beautiful and shut up’. Who says the French aren’t romantic? We were both looking forward to seeing how her desire to look at ‘the role of women in our contemporary society’ would manifest itself in her art.
She did a good job. Art is supposed to provoke debate and emotions and she certainly did that. According to the flyer, Raffestin lives and works in Martinique, did her first art school here, and we infer was born here. The picture of her is shadowy, so although she looks ‘kinda white’ she could also be mixed. Why is that important? Because this is Martinique. The personal, the impersonal, the private, the public, it’s all political! Martinique, an ‘overseas region of France’ exists as a complete anachronism. A colony in the classic Age of Empire sense of the world in the age of 21st century necolonialism. And it retains many of the features of a colony, such as skin colour as an arbiter of social class.
Raffestin’s critique of women in ‘our contemporary society’ threw up immediately the question of ‘which society?’ The 23 60s pop art style paintings with questions and slogans, the 5 dressmaker’s mannequins she’d painted her thoughts onto, and the four sculptures / full-sized mannequins that she designed in various styles, contained lots of images of women, and none of them were black.
I was with two politically-conscious Martinican girlfriends, making us a trio of black feminists. We oohed and ahhed at some of the messaging and what she’d done with the mannequins for the first 10 minutes. Then we were like, hold up, is she seriously not gonna include any black women in this exhibition? Our eyebrows began to furrow and our eyes to narrow. We began to walk more cautiously, almost afraid of having our fears confirmed. They were. The artist had crafted a whole exhibit around a womanhood that excluded the majority of women in Martinique, presumably in the hope of appealing to white artistic folk in Paris (although the Parisian artist pal assures me that that nonsense wouldn’t fly there either).
As my co-viewer summarised with a dismissive air ‘it’s very first wave feminism.’ Not to mention NUTS!! The artist, recorder and subverter of societal norms believed that she could put on a show in the capital of Martinique, one which aimed to critique the place of women in contemporary society, without a single black (or non-white) face in her exhibition. And this would not be problematic. Incredible. I’m writing this several weeks after the fact and am still amazed. What exactly does she see when she walks out of her front door? Who does she interact with when she goes to the shops? Who does she beep at when zooming around Fort-de-France? Chocolate people? Animated statues? Does she see the black womanhood, manifest and majority, all around her in Martinique, as some sort of aberration on correct white French femininity which inspires her?
I remain flabbergasted. Perhaps because I am a foreigner and don’t understand the intricacies of France’s relationship with Martinique. What inflamed me, merely disgusted my Martinican pals. This is life on the margins of French cultural life apparently.
But more remarkable events have been happening in Martinique! One of the things Martinique is becoming
awesome famous for, is headless statues. The first one (as far as I’m aware) is the Empress Josephine. In case you didn’t know, Napoleon’s beloved first wife was a béké. That is to say she was a Martinican woman born and raised, but in the Caribbean era often referred to as a plantocracy, and white, Jo was no cane cutter. Think Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, but with a happier ending. Ascending to the dizzying heights of eighteenth century European nobility as the wife of France’s big cheese of the day, Martinique’s majority black population were not so keen on their island’s claim to fame being…her. Although whether they prefer Josephine to Fanon is another question…
I’m sorry I am a horrible storyteller. And historian because I’m not exactly when it happened. But suffice to say that one night about three or four decades ago (like I said, inexact) some Martinicans decided to make their feelings known about having Jo’s likeness standing tall in the centre of the capital like some sort of national hero. In the true French revolutionary tradition, they yelled ‘Off with her head!’ and lopped off the head of the statue of Josephine which stands in the middle of Fort-de-France. Okay so that was a bit of poetic licence…I have no idea what was said at the moment of the guillotining.
As it’s a statue and not a real person, just so that there could be no doubt that it was not a strong gust of wind or any other act of God taking a clean sweep at Josie’s neck, the marble white statue was also doused in red paint, dripped to look like blood down her dress. Gotta love it when politics and creativity meet.
As legend has it, the horrified French authorities quickly moved to restore the statue, cleaning off the ‘blood’, and replacing the head. In case you’re wondering why the determination to erase the statement, local (Guadeloupean) rapper Fola recently articulated more verbally the tension between France’s beloved son and his wife, and the Caribbean memory of them. ‘Chez nous, Napoleon n’a jamais été un héros/In our country Napoleon has never been a hero.’ Rather, Napoleon is credited with reinstating slavery in the French Caribbean after the revolutionary French assembly had previously declared equality could not be a bedfellow of slavery (causing the slave-owning békés to ‘invite’ the British to invade and slavery to remain in Martinique until the position was reversed).
Thus Josephine’s new head also rolled and a fresh spattering of blood convinced the authorities that perhaps a beheaded statue could be artistic; ‘dissent registered’. That’s decapitated statue number one and a long-time must-see for any tourist spending any time in Martinique.
And now there’s another one!
The French equivalent of Britain’s beloved abolitionist William Wilberforce is Victor Schoelcher. Living in the town named after him, my strolls around town have often taken me across his statue. Now when I pass it, it has a different air. A lot where facial features used to be, to be precise. I don’t know if following the Josephine débacle, the authorities reinforced the necks of their statues, or if the artists were simply being poetic in rendering him faceless, but Schoelcher met Josephine’s fate a few weeks ago. On a day not so different from today, my route to work was subject to an unspecified diversion away from the centre of town. The cause? The face of Schoelcher was lopped off and a number of slogans explained the thinking behind the action, but the most succinct said ‘This man gave us nothing. The little we have was acquired through suffering.’
Photo credit: bondamanjak
I quite like the beheaded statues. Statues are somewhat meaningless if the people whose likeness they bear don’t resonate with the population. These beheadings bring history back into the public domain. They challenge discourses about who should be remembered and why, which few of us worry about on most days. Although we should. When we forgot those who went before us, we waste energy on and get excited about wins that have already been won, but that we’d forgotten about. It encourages us to think that the wins we know about were the final goal of those who fought for them. It turns us into hamsters on a wheel, never learning, forever satisfied with the present, never noticing that for all the energy expended and movement, we’ve not actually gone anywhere.
But I digress again.
Other super cool things in Martinique!
My last post included the short from local director Khris Burton who’d been shortlisted for the international filminute film festival. I may have suggested that you check out the short and vote. Well, breaking news! It was announced today that the sole entry from the Caribbean beat the rest – 24 other films from around the world – to take the People’s Choice Award and 1st commendation from the Jury! It was also the top rated film in the festival! Nice going Martinique! According to my fb, there are a lot of Martinicans walking around with their heads held a little higher today. Which is always nice. If you didn’t see that post, you can see the minute-long short film here:
And finally. What does Martinique look like? I realise I’m not especially good at posting pictures, but then this music video caught my eye.
I got all excited about places that I frequent being the location for a catchy tune’s music video and thought I’d share it. It’s by a local artist called Madoo Nina and the video happens to feature some fantastic street art. If you like it, watch out for a post on Graffitti here coming soon as rumour has it there’s a festival dedicated to Martinique’s amazing murals this month.
This is where moving while black has taken me this month; to all sorts of interesting things happening in Martinique! It’s been a very exciting month.