In November, I was fortunate to be invited as a delegate at the second edition of the biennial festival of performance art in Martinique, FIAP19. Curated by Annabel Guérédrat and Henri Tauliaut, the festival is a platform for a range of performance artists from around the world, attracting a number of curators, programmers and art critics.
The festival opened with Nouvel Jenerasyson Tout Moun jwenn Rara Peyi, a Haitian carnival processional group, who welcomed the audience and got people moving with live music and dance. The procession leader (the King) gave libations as a means of a blessing, acknowledging the importance of spirituality and the need to give thanks. The instruments were made from found materials reminiscence of the old Tamboo Bamboo bands found in Trinidad or the death bands associated with funerals in Haiti. The interplay of life and death was an undercurrent to the festival as it traversed into the next pieces, all with the notion of call and response, procession, control and expectation.
Following on from the carnival procession, solo artist (Henri Tauliaut) created intrigue around performance and expectation. The King (Henri) pushed the audience, whilst carefully selecting those to take part. Once the audience were in the moment he then left the event and the audience, who waited to be navigated to the next step. That didn’t happen. For those that broke away, and walked into the next performance which started with the burning of incense in the same way you would pure rum as part of a ritual/libations, giving thanks or speaking to the ancestors.
Nyugen Smith, the third artist to perform, in a collaborative work with Mavin Fabien, joined by Yorly Agosta. The work responded to the impact of tourism on disadvantaged communities where disaster has struck; such as hurricanes, earthquakes etc. Using elements of carnival arts as the medium to convey the narrative. As the story unfolded into procession and spirituality, it was resonant of creole funeral processions in Louisiana (New Orleans Mardi Gras) with the lead character Rex (King) orchestrating the procession. This was then followed by his proclamation on the state of affairs on environmental issues and the impact/relationship with several Caribbean islands.
All three launch performances delved into socio-political commentary on the state of society how we interact. Our relationship with nature, and the lack of respect for nature and humanity. The Caribbean setting was significant given the historical and political backdrop, navigating the realities for those whose lives it’s directly impacts and others whose heritage locate them within a Caribbean culture.
Set inside an indoor market that is the heart of the local community, selling food, clothes and artefacts, Grand Marché Couvert De Fort De France is an important part of culture of Martinique. A recent fire in the market has left stallholders for weeks without basic amenities such as light and the struggle to keep things going, with no intervention from the local council/government, has made it hard for the stallholders.
The arrival of a provocative artistic programme that seemed to have not informed them about the type of work that was going to be shown stimulated debate, anarchy and outrage. Emotions associated with audiences is not considered part of western culture, emotion is a private or internally located, the west tend to have a very academic responses to performance rather than emotional.
At Grand Marché with a mixed audience of local stallholders, showed great insight, passion and care as a response to the performance. The intended audience looked at the display of anger as if the stallholders were mad/a nuisance. The reality is the stallholder had a greater understanding of what was taking place and the political backdrop to the lives of local people. The performance became lost as it was dealing with spirituality and Santería, not recognising the religion in Martinique. It was a Friday, a religious day, and the locals felt that for those from a Spanish/Puerto Rican background, who had moved away from being Black, smoking, piercing and acting out something that they had shown no empathy was deemed as disrespectful. The stallholders felt as though no basic courtesy was given, there is a time a place for everything and religion/spirituality should be respected.
The artists completed the 50-minute work to a diminishing artistic audience but with the stallholders still on fire about how they had been treated. The event was covered by national television news jeopardising the festival and focusing the organiser to remind the artists that when they go home and leave, they themselves still have to live and function in Martinique. It is important to push boundaries, but artists should be considerate of the context in which they are placing their work.
This is the most important point as context and reality is key to the circumstance of working and living in Caribbean. The fact that Martinique is trying to position itself as a cultural hub within the Caribbean is really significant. The artistic construct of the Caribbean is currently built on tourism, carnival, limbo dancing, steel pan and calypso. The reinvention of Martinique, raising its head to remind the world that they had and have great literary thinkers and artists (Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, Frantz Fanon, Joseph Zobel, Patrick Chamoiseau) at a time of chaos across Europe and America focused on identity politics.
The performances challenged many conceptions and often provoked considerable reaction from local audiences. A naked Alicja Korek lay in a bath of molten chocolate before covering herself in pieces of animal hair and walking out on to the street. Andre Eric Letourneau with collaborator Laurent Troudart took over the handrail for the steps ascending from the cruise terminal to Fort de France’s most prestigious hotel.
For me, one of the most thought-provoking performances came from Annabel Guérédrat with her work BB Beloved Baby. At seven months pregnant she covered herself in gold glitter and took the audience through the streets of Fort De France. Defiant and radiant, this simple yet impactful expression of motherhood was truly a sight to behold. FIAP should have ended with this as we started with three kings and could have ended with the Queen, covered in gold honey, gathering her workers as she paraded through the streets.
As a result of this inspiring week, a number of new connections have been made that will influence our programmes and partnership working in the future. We are delighted to be welcoming Annabel Guérédrat and Henri Tauliaut for LDIF20 with a new version of their seminal work Nudes Descending the Staircase at New Walk Museum, Leicester. Provocative and collaborative, FIAP19 provided food for thought around the positioning of artistic practice within a Caribbean context. I left Martinique grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this dialogue.