Shiraz Bayjoo: “the unimaginable distances”

Two ships2Shiraz Bayjoo, Invertay: Two Ships & Port Victoria, 2013, Acrylic, resin, reclaimed furniture, 77 x 91 x 67 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

 

Shiraz Bayjoo was born in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1980 moving to England as a child. Growing up in the UK, he continued to spend his holidays in Mauritius and the figure of his Mauritian grandmother is an important presence in his own memories and encounters with the past. The Indian Ocean and its islands figure prominently in a major body of work that encompasses found objects, mixed-media painting, photography and the moving image. In conversation with Bayjoo at his Hackney studio, I asked him about the impetus for these works and the processes – intellectual, personal and creative – that have underpinned their making. How does the artist encounter the histories and the memories of the Indian Ocean through the material lives and textures of objects and materials? Bayjoo has explored archival sources as well as the work of historians (both professional and amateur). He also engages the stories, memories, spaces and objects that relate both to his own family history and to the histories of the descendants of slaves, traders and colonial settlers. The objects, materials, images and sounds that enter his work brush against histories, memories, and the various kinds of spaces in which they linger, or are housed (architectural structures; graveyards, ruins, quotidian things, literary texts, maps and court records; and the natural environment spanning the ocean and the forest vibrating with their own sounds and silences). His work brings emotions, affects and sensations into a dialogue with history and memory as it is lived and felt.

This interview is the beginning of a dialogue that seeks to find a language to talk about what it means to emerge from the geographical and historical space of the Indian Ocean region: I was raised in the Seychelles archipelago on Mahé Island as the descendent of French settlers (living there from the 1970s to the early 1990s). How do we find ourselves in the histories and experiences that have shaped us?

Ma Coeur- edition7Shiraz Bayjoo, Ma Coeur, 2016, Acrylic, resin, wood, plaster. Image courtesy the artist.

Yvette Greslé: What is the impetus for your interest in the ocean? The ocean is such an important presence in the work you have made (you explore the Indian Ocean and Mauritius in particular). You make use of maps. There’s also a watery-ness about the resin you apply over painted surfaces (you paint onto found objects including jewellery trays and mass produced, post-war 20th century furniture).

Shiraz Bayjoo: Imagination, and our relationship to imagination, is an important starting point. What happens when we think about the worlds we belong to or are a part of? Ever since I was little, the Indian Ocean has been my world. Even when I was here (in the UK), I always imagined Europe as this grey little patch at the edge of the bluer bits where so much takes place. I suppose it was my own romanticism as a child. I read books about sailing between the Java islands, the sorts of stories you have as a kid. When I came back to explore these spaces in my work in around 2011, I thought of the ocean as this expanse where so much is lost. Think about the complexity of navigating this and the unimaginable distances.

Can you expand on how you think about the relationship between the ocean, loss and emptiness?

Since I was little, I have always had a sense of things disappearing and being eroded and lost (memories and histories). I spent a lot of time with my grandmother when I was younger. She was born in Mauritius. Her father was from Iran and he had travelled through India along the indenture routes as a lot of traders did. He was an Iranian Shirazi (hence my name). A lot of people were leaving the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and using routes that the British had set up. Many travelled the Zanzibar Island route and Mauritius was the last place you could get to. It was the end of the road as it were. My grandmother was from a Shia Muslim community and there were a lot of them in Zanzibar and Madagascar. She told me many stories and I had an imaginary sense of what the world was like in the early twentieth century (her early life). My grandfather died very young and so my grandmother brought up all her daughters on her own. It was a very precarious existence. The possibility of becoming completely destitute was always around the corner for them. I was fascinated by how dangerous that world was and how things could just change. I was always interested in her stories. My grandmother died when I was about 17. She was bedridden in the five years before her death. I felt like I couldn’t get enough of her stories. I couldn’t learn enough before it was just going to be over for ever. I had this sense that there was no writing down of this. She was illiterate. There was no recording of these histories and these stories.

How do you think the absence of writing and the prominence of the spoken word has informed your practice as an artist? As I listen to you speak, I have a sense of you as a chronicler and observer.

This is exactly how I think of the role of the artist. I have always thought of the artist as presenting the subtleties of reality or the gaps between things (the things that are not so obvious). Not as a way of judging. I certainly don’t approach historical narratives as a way of presenting a political position or a judgement on groups. How do we imagine ourselves? How do we move forward? What are the ways in which we can imagine new paths ahead?

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Shiraz Bayjoo, En Famille #7, #8, #9, 2015, Acrylic, resin and photographic transfer on wood, 47.5 x 30.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

How do you imagine navigating these concerns through a visual world? You are not writing. You are not speaking. You’re making images. You’re also making images that move. Found objects are an important aspect of your practice as well as archival materials including maps and photographs from family albums. You apply paint and  resin to wood surfaces. The passing of time marks the surfaces of objects in the form of unevenness, scratches, marks and chips. You also think carefully about how you frame your mixed-media paintings.

Before I began making this work, I spent quite a few years resisting looking at my own history. I felt as though I wanted my practice to get to a place in which the language was strong enough in order to better approach these histories and these subjects. I worked a lot with diaspora groups around London. I worked with people from many different social backgrounds. In workshops, I used to ask people to create identity maps. I would get them to bring in their family photos. I would ask them to find symbols on the Internet, things that they felt they had some kind of connection to. It didn’t matter why: “what can you grab that feels like it has something to do with you?”. We’d start to lay out the images and then we would overlay them with paint (using colours that were all about emotion, not necessarily having to worry about meaning). It’s only afterwards that we would start to say: “What does this mean? What does this tell us about you, about who you are?” I did this for years. In some way, it was about trying to get people to break away from the stereotypical language that they might use to describe themselves (particularly young people).

Maps are an important source? 

Maps are a major source. The technical drawings that are used in naval maps have this intense beauty and yet they are also about survival. They’re about not losing so many ships on journeys. The maps start to create this idea of what the world is and what it looks like. As soon as you map a place you have created it in the image of your imagination, your psyche. The British Empire set up telegraph positions in every territory that it took over. The post office was one of the first things to arrive in Mauritius. Then it was almost sovereign. As soon as you map a place you’re the one who has created the image of what this place is. There is already an imprint without having necessarily to draw out a garrison or an army. The maps and oceanic spaces are about the imagination we had as children. We wondered about what these places were, about their remoteness and their inter-connectedness. Often the ideas that I had were so far from reality: they were over-romanticised.

Do you visit physical archives and are your maps drawn from these? Do you search for materials from on-line sources?

In terms of the archive, all of these layers are important. At the very centre of this archival research, there is the traditional, physical archive. In London, we have the British Library, the British Museum archives, the National Archives in Kew, we have the National Geographic Society. We have all of these sorts of spaces. There are also on-line archives which are becoming more and more abundant. There are also the books and documents that you might be able to get hold of second hand or on-line. Perhaps most important or most precious are the archival materials that are in private hands; the ones that you have to negotiate to access. As soon as you step out of Europe, that’s where the archives are at.

How does a sense of what is felt and sensed inform your practice?

This goes hand in hand with the archive. The archive suggests the idea of presenting factual evidence: “this is how it was”. Yet, we know that the photograph (if we think of it as an archival document) can tell us so many different things. It is subjective. You can re-interpret it in a lot of different ways. It is this balance between the way that we remember and the way that we feel about a history or a time. What are we holding on to when we have this sense of who we are and what we belong to (what we’re a part of)? None of this is grounded in solid ideas. These ideas and feelings are not necessarily text-based or written descriptions of things. They’re images that flash in the back of our heads. They’re colours. They’re associations that we link to. It is emotional.

In our childhoods, we link to certain things because it was a good memory or it was a bad memory. A good thing happens and we link to a colour or a sense of it. For me, the interpretation of who we are today and how that links to the things that fed into that (from our past or our parent’s past, or our grandparent’s past) is about an emotional connection. It’s not a factual or an objective connection.

By situating the idea of the archive in relation to the emotional, we can start to challenge what truth is. What are the senses of who we actually are based on? Can we actually start to get to something that reveals a different type of truth or a different position? What is the potential of this?

EF5Shiraz Bayjoo, En Famille #5, 2015, Acrylic, resin and photographic transfer on wood, 47.5 x 30.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

You have spoken to me about the importance of female figures in your family memory (your family archive).

I grew up in a matriarchal family because my grandfather died young and my father wasn’t around. My grandmother’s life, and my mother’s early life, was a very precarious one. There was poverty, there were the challenges of living in a male-dominated environment. Women did not live in a world that enabled them to work and earn in the same way as men. There were opportunities for others to take advantage of them. In a way, this is a disempowered way of looking at where you come from. I can certainly see how some of the male figures in my family could have felt a sense of disempowerment. But I look at it like this: I listen to these stories and I see a huge amount of strength. I think: “Wow. This is a story of a woman who brought up seven daughters in a world where anything could have happened to them.” Anybody could have turned up on their doorstep and said: “Right! You’re going to do what I say”. There wouldn’t have been anything they could have done about it. I think about the way that they negotiated their world. I listen to my aunt’s stories and how they were able to get into work. They worked for big businesses and manoeuvred themselves. They got themselves educated. In one generation, they completely changed their situation from one of poverty to one of comfortable middle class. I just see so much strength. This is a generation of women who have navigated a very complex world. This is a simple way of re-looking, re-positioning and changing the way that one feels about oneself. I author myself from a place of strength. The archive sits together with these stories, histories and memories in my work.

Where did you source the photographs for the jewellery trays?

They are from a colonial family album. I visited the Blue Penny Museum in Port Louis; a museum owned by the Mauritian colonial bank. It is one of those banks that was set up with the compensation money of slavery after abolition. It is quite a contentious institution. But they put a lot of money behind collecting anything that relates to the island’s history (in a historical sense, not in a contemporary sense). They have a museum run by its director/curator/archivist. It was an obvious place for me to try and access material because so much is held there in one place. Often what I have found is that there are multiple copies of material. The same material will appear in different places. For example, there is a Mauritian National Archive. It’s under-resourced. It’s not very big or well-maintained or preserved. They had photocopies of photos that I had seen in somebody’s private collection (I saw an original print in the museum’s archive). It was in this museum archive that I came across the family portrait album which the Blue Penny Museum has now published as a book. They publish a lot of their material into books that you can buy (they are not too expensive). It makes it accessible to others. It is localised publishing. The material is not necessarily placed in critical context but it is made visible and I think this is important. They’ve been quite willing for me to work with them and the director of the museum was interested in this idea of putting the photographs into a context.

What draws you to the jewellery trays and the found picture frames?

I come across objects and I feel that things should be placed in them. People give me things as well. For example, the oval frames were acquired in France. An artist gave them to me. He thought that they could be interesting for me. Sometimes you come across very odd objects. The jewellery trays are not quite frames. They aren’t quite box frames. They’re quite delicate. They weren’t brilliantly made. You can tell things that have been made by a local carpenter’s hands bespoke for a specific thing. The frames are not proper ovals: they’ve been made for somebody’s exact specification. They haven’t been mass produced. It’s that process of sitting with the object, the photograph or the archival materials.

I think about balance and the relationships between things. You find the right image or the right object and you see how these two things can come together. For example, let’s look at the works (in progress) that I am making for the oval frames. I want to keep the nautical, oceanic theme but at the same time I feel like there needs to be a very strong sense of the relationship to land. There is something about the shape of these, and about the darkness of them that feels ominous. There is something about the violence that takes place; the violence of the landscape and its relationship to the sea. I think that perhaps the painting needs to be darker and earthier. I am thinking a lot about the right tonality and balance. I’m talking about quite obscure senses of things. I’m trying to pull that out and it takes time.

Your work is so sensory.  There’s a sense of feeling, seeing/not seeing, of experiences  that are opaque or buried.  I am made aware of how I come to understand things as I look (from the perspective of my own subjectivity). Colour is very important to your work: you re-visit blues, turquoises and greens. 

For me, the sensory language emerges from the visual. Firstly, there’s the object: these days the object tends to be wood. I work the paint into the grain of the wood and this is also part of the performative aspect of my work. The paint will work its way into the grain (as opposed to the way it works on canvas). In a way, these objects aren’t meant to be painted on. They have lived their lives. They have been witnesses to the things that have taken place around them. They have physically absorbed the atmosphere and the dust.

They have been used by people that are unknown to us and these people may no longer be alive. Throughout the history of art, objects have been mobilised to speak to the human condition, to the passing of time, to transience and mortality. The traditions of Vanitas or Memento Mori are always figured through objects.

This is really important. The paint also might have its own trajectory. In the early stages of the painting, I want the paint to settle in its own way. I want it to move in its own way. There is that pouring and allowing of the paint. I pay attention to how the paint moves and I observe the textures that then come through. There is the fragmenting, intensity, iridescence, and the contrasts that allow you spaces to breathe (at the same time you bring back energy and intensity). When we think about a time or place, or an event, our emotions ebb and flow through that thought process.

You don’t change the objects themselves? You make use them with all their flaws. In some cases, they were painted by previous owners and you can see where the paint has dripped and not been tidied up.

Yes. In some of the works the resin doesn’t cover everything exactly. You can see the layers of paint on the surface of the object. You also have a direct relationship to that texture. It’s also about you having a direct link to the surface.

In the mixed-media paintings on the furniture, you have created a resin layer over printed images and painted surfaces. The paint-resin surface appears sea-like but also like a form of mapping. The relationship between sea and land is ambiguous, what is sea and what is land? The resin produces a watery sensation.

In some works I have deliberately covered a surface with the resin. In others, I have not and the resin creates its own shape, its own painted layer. The resin seals off the painted or printed surface (applied to the wooden object). The object is no longer simply an object in the world experiencing history, experiencing its environment, slowly ageing with the people and the things around it. It is now an artwork and it is preserved as such. The resin literally preserves the paint and it’s also transforming the object into something else. Everything that happened to the object before is here, but it no longer moves forward in time as it was.

The layering is very important – it’s that balancing between what’s seen, what’s known. Ultimately, it’s about creating an emotional space. Often, these images I make are placed in things that are not traditionally the perfect way of looking at a painting:  I don’t always present my images at the right height. You have to bend down to see. For example, in Invertay: Two Ships & Port Victoria (2013) the drawers in which I have painted are a bit deep. It creates a shadow and it forces you to bend in more closely to look. I am trying to push and pull the audience in different ways (physically). You’re looking and you’re looking at details. As you’re approaching, you’re seeing the whole map. You’re asking: “Is that an oceanic view? Is that an atoll with sand banks around it?” It’s about the way you are engaging with the work physically. How are you looking at it?

 

DMD9

Shiraz Bayjoo. Dieu et Mon Droit, 2013, Acrylic, resin, reclaimed furniture, 70 x 77 x 55 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Where do you find the objects (including the ordinary household furniture which function in your work as found objects)? For example, Nous Sommes Arrivés: Indira Gandhi (2013).

Originally, I wanted the objects to reference the spaces that I am talking about or the histories. But that is not always possible because some places have an absolute absence of objects or materials. Either because of extreme poverty or the fact that in the tropics people don’t throw things away in quite the same amounts. Things also don’t last. The objects I have used are all found around East London.

Nous Sommes Arrivés is all about the democracy moment, the independence of the colony. I was thinking about particular individuals and events. Indira Ghandi came to Mauritius for independence. I think she had only been in power for a year. I was thinking also about Seewoosagur Ramgoolam the first prime minister. My uncle told me that he used to live next door to Ramgoolam and they used to swop newspapers over the fence every morning. I was thinking about these future national heroes. He is described today as the Father of the Nation. I was thinking about these grand titles. These political and aspirational conversations that take place around the kitchen table, the dining table, the domestic environment are of human proportions. This is a human world that we’re talking about.

The idea of domestic spaces and activities is present also in the photographs as well as the found furniture. I am thinking not only of the copies of photographs from family archives but also the photographs you take yourself of domestic interiors and private spaces (such as a woman’s dressing table with all its objects laid out). What is so compelling about the domestic world?

It tells us so much about how we think. We arrange our minds through objects. What does this mean to the outside world? What does this mean to the greater experience? As Stuart Hall says, if we were all children of the Empire then we were all authoring on the same landscape. We were all authoring on the same sphere, on the same spectrum. In theory, what happens in the centre and what happens on the edges should be as equally important. We’re all authoring from the same experience and aspirations. Post-war Europe is about a better standard of living and these objects are all about this. This furniture is affordable design. For the first time ever, in the history of the working classes in Europe there is suddenly this ability to have objects that are not just purely functional they are also about looking good.  Affordability is brought about after the war. Trade unionism also plays a central role in this and I’m thinking of factory worker’s rights, the right to live and work in a safe environment, the right to a funeral, rights that support the family if the head of the household dies. These ideas all started here in the great, impoverished East End where so many of the trade unions started (they were also linked to others in France and Russia). The idea that: “We fought for your freedom in the Second World War and now we want ours”. But “ours” is not defined by a great gesture of freedom. It’s actually the idea of just having it better than we had it before because before it was dire. On the colony, people are looking for exactly the same things. It’s not manifested through design objects but it’s all about independence and the notion of freedom. It’s not about this grand gesture of self-authoring. It’s about a better standard of living.

What is interesting for you about circulation and movement (the movement of ideas, of materials, of people)?

It’s the process of dissemination. It’s difficult for me to exactly describe because a lot of the time it’s more about a feeling. In a sense, there are certain things that I do, the process of mark-making is very particular. It’s there for that moment, that performance is happening in that moment. There is a lot of process in the work and there is a gestural performance that takes place. This is quite important. There is this constant application of paint to a surface: removing, sanding back, re-applying. There is pouring of paint. There’s physical mark-making. There is a process of balancing how much I expose, how much I cover. Printed images, in contrast, have come from the archive and there is something about them that is familiar: they’ve been seen and they’ve been disseminated. They’ve been graphically printed. It’s not particular to me, to my hand.

The printed images reference nineteenth/twentieth century usages of graphic printed media. For me, it’s also a historical acknowledgement of the presence of materiality, of the printed graphic, the ability to distribute the idea, the image, and the printed word. These things are quite important for me to reference in the work.

 

Fig. 5

Shiraz Bayjoo, 2016, Acrylic, resin wood, 12 x 17 x 2.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

 

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Shiraz Bayjoo, Île de France, 2009, HD film (still images). Courtesy the artist.

 

Place is a very important part of your work as an artist. How do you think about place in your work; in a visual and tactile sense? You have strong connections to east London, for example, and to Mauritius. You have worked with the memories of your grandmother (she passed these down to you). You dig deep into a place? You don’t just skirt along its surface?

I spend time in places as part of my research process. This is why the work takes time. I just spent a couple of months in India and spent a month in residency in Mumbai. The purpose of which is to develop the film work (the second part to the Île de France film). I’m not, as you say, just looking at a surface. You have to throw your net very wide. You have to look at things in different ways. It’s not just about looking at different things or talking to different kinds of people. It’s also about thinking carefully about the manner in which you do that and in different ways. There is the physical documenting. There is visiting physical sites. There is talking to historians. By historians, I mean not necessarily big ones or well-published ones. I prefer to talk to the amateur ones. Their histories are not always correct and are often tinted with their particular identity or their position within the country or the society. But you talk to enough of them and you start to get different perspectives. It’s about talking to different people who might not know anything about their own history or the history of the place they live in. But they can just talk to you about how they feel about their connection to a place.  There will be these little anecdotal moments.

What brought you to the moving image? What was the impetus for the Île de France film?

I sat in my grandmother’s house in Mauritius and thought about how to present the work (all of the work that thinks about the experience of the colony). Individual artworks are fragments of a story (intimate moments of a thing). I contemplated the history, the objects, bigger philosophical notions about self-authorship. I thought about the complexities of being able to do that and about the complexities of moving beyond the narratives of the past (and of consciously knowing whether you are doing that or not). I thought about how to present this and about how audiences internationally might relate to or care about this? You and I both sat on our little islands thinking about the enormity of the experience there. But what is its importance to anyone else outside of that?

Ultimately, it’s about looking at the relationship between communities. There were some basic ideas that I felt were important at the beginning. Through the process of making the work everything opens up and becomes more complex. I wanted to present the Whites, the Creoles and the Indians. I experience the Mauritius in a particular way, and I listen to how people feel about each other. There is still such huge inherent racism. It’s so apparent in the language which is why there’s so much anthropology going on in the Indian Ocean now (it’s so easy to access). Unlike other places where there’s been wars and revolutions and things have turned around over the last 30 years. In lots of the little islands that we’re from, that hasn’t happened. People are still using terms that, for me, are just unbelievable. I am fascinated that these terms are being used every day.  They’re such politically and historically loaded terms.

Does Mauritius use the term Grand Blanc?

Yes. And Grand Noir.

What do you feel talking to a descendent of so-called Grand Blanc and what this term means as historical and political memory? What do you feel about this dialogue? We have our particular relationships to Indian Ocean islands and now here we are in London.

We’re both dealing with what this means. We’re dealing with the language of this. We’re both trying to invent the new language with which to deal with it. We’re trying to create spaces in which people can feel like they can deal with this. For me, talking to you is not like talking to the old plantation owners who still live in situ. Many of them are very international and very aware of what their identity means. They do things to try and change that in their own way. But some of them still exist within that landscape and they are still playing out that history in so many ways. We are dealing with it and we are trying to develop the language around it. All of us who have decided to make this our life’s work in a sense, do it partly for ourselves, for our own sanity. This conversation is like the ones we have with many of our colleagues who are dealing with these things in different parts of the world.

Words such as Grand Blanc are so interesting and so loaded. And also Grand Noir. They love using that in Mauritius: “Who do you think you are? Grand Noir?” It is abhorrent when you think about what that really means and where that came from. Old forms of language are still alive in islands that once were colonies (such as Mauritius).  In the West, in many countries, there is a collective amnesia of colonial history and how that plays out in contemporary societies.

In Île de France you are engaging motion: you’re looking at surfaces and moving through different kinds of spaces.

I approach film as a painter. It is about the way that you would look at an artwork. I look at spaces in that way. I think about how it is we interact with objects in relation to different kinds of spaces. There had to be some kind of movement of time. There had to be something time-based.

In order to take the audience along, I felt as though I needed a piece of work that was a kind of introduction. This is why I talk about the film as an introduction to the landscape of colonialism. This is not literally the landscape of colonialism (some people have taken it literally). I am filming colonial spaces (or spaces that were once colonial spaces). I do film landscapes. But when I talk about landscapes I’m talking about the protagonists, the identities, the physical spaces that are manifested. I am also talking about the natural environment and the ways in which this dictates how things take place. This also leads us back to the importance of the ocean. There spaces are so vastly apart. Yet, they were being so purposefully colonised. The islands are vastly apart not only from Europe but also from each other (think about the distance between Mauritius and Seychelles). It’s a dangerous old sea passage if you get it wrong, which is easy, especially in those days.

I started to read theoretical work around the history of the Indian Ocean (the history and how this has played out into who people are, the relationships between the communities. I also looked at the anthropology. As I read, I began to think about the visual language that is going to allow me to tell this story. I identified two things: the natural environment and the built environment (the one is very closely connected to the other). I was also picking up on the stories of who the early white colonists were. I am not interested in demonising or any of that sort of thing. If I’m presenting the vulnerability of one group then I also have a duty to present the vulnerability of another. The early white colonists are not all aristocrats. Who was going to risk their lives going to the colony? Sea travel was very precarious. The first scene imagines the idea of the early colonist arriving: the Breton peasant (Brittany at that time was in abject poverty). The early colonists arrive in Mauritius and have no idea about how to survive in this environment. I wanted to show the determination to colonise. I wanted to show the intensity of the ocean. Either die in Europe in abject poverty or die at sea.

I wanted to present the forest space not simply as a beautiful tropical environment. I thought about the fear, the intensity of being in a place without any reference point. When you hear the footsteps walking in the film is it the maroon or is it the early colonist? Is this environment presenting the fear of who’s lurking, the alienation of a place. These environments were also alien to the slaves that were being brought there. Even the slaves that were brought from Madagascar would not have been familiar with this environment.

Growing up in Seychelles I also remember the fear of the supernatural world. At night it was so dark and nature was omnipresent. I remember the dogs barking across the mountain into the early hours of the morning, and the density of the sound the frogs made. My father would tell me the story of the bonhomme de bois and how he would put children in his sack! I grew up the belief that people could actually harm you through gris-gris

In the film, the camera also focuses on the objects in a colonial home, the piano keys that are visibly damaged, the rusting gramophone. There is a sense of the old aspirations to grandeur but now in the 21st century there is a sense of decay, of falling to pieces, the paint is peeling, the wood is being eaten up by ants.

You drew on the work of Megan Vaughn in the making of Île de France.

In Megan Vaughn’s book Creating the Creole Island (Duke University Press, 2005) she talks about a guy who is a maroon, an escaped slave. He’s called La Grand Barbe. He creates a group of bandits and they start to raid villages. They become the most notorious group (I think in the 18th century).  Megan describes how he become this super-masculine anti-hero. She found his court records which I then went and found. I documented these but I can’t read them (it’s in this 18th century French script). But I wanted the physical documentation of the thing. When I first came back from Mauritius after shooting the film I edited it in a residency at Iniva. I showed the first draft of the film there as well as the copies of the documents (which we displayed in a cabinet).

In Île de France you draw from literary and cultural sources notably Paul et Virginie, the novel by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Published in 1788, it’s set in Mauritius (then named Île de France).

There are a lot of these narratives within the film that were quite important. These relate to white identity and Creole identity and the relationships between. Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre comes to Mauritius (he visits twice in fact). He writes his best-selling novel Paul et Virginie. It’s very popular and there are statues of the characters Paul and Virginie in Paris. The novel tells the story of these two colonial children who are born in paradise and live at one with their slaves, they are kind to their slaves. There are numerous books and stories and even some of the white kids who I befriended in Mauritius have playing cards and children’s pictorial books of Paul and Virginie. It’s a beloved children’s story and it’s been put into print throughout it’s history. Megan writes about Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s diary which has been translated. I have all of these books and read the things that the historians are referencing. In the diary, there is a passage which is read in my film. Here Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s describes his journey in Mauritius. He talks about what he sees. He sees maroon hunting, he sees people being executed and having their limbs cut off, all of the violence. He sees the violence that is the colonial system which is built on violence. The passage talks about the practice of returning with the head of the escaped slave. It tells of a young black women who is tied around her neck. She carries a bag and is stopped and asked about what is in the bag. She opens it up and it’s the head of her lover. You can hear the frogs in the same way that you talk about hearing the frogs at night and that fear and that intensity, the ghosts of all that violence. Perhaps you don’t believe in ghosts but you believe in the power of energy: think about the amount of bloodshed that has taken place on these tiny territories. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre documents everyday life alongside the violence (I have this sense of the banality of violence).

In the film, you focus on the ocean, the forest, domestic interiors and the outside spaces of private homes. The emphasis is not on people.

This allows you to place yourself and different protagonists in these places. The absence of people makes you search for the clues more intensely. If the film is populated by people doing things then perhaps the story is told for you.

e- Ile Maurice No7

Shiraz Bayjoo. Ile Maurice, No.7, 2009, Gicleé print, 20 x 20 inches. Edition 10. Image courtesy of the artist.

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