New Performance Art Festival Challenges the Cruising Body

By Marsha Pearce Tuesday, May 16th, 2017 Categories: Features, Festivals, Performance, Reviews, Updates
 

Marsha Pearce shares a review of the inaugural Festival International d’Art Performance (FIAP), which was co-directed by Annabel Guérédrat and Henri Tauliaut and took place in Martinique between April 17 – 23, 2017 at Hôtel L’Impératrice, Fort-de-France. Pearce examines the work of a selection of participating artists, considering their performances from both a consumerist, tourism-driven perspective often associated with the Caribbean, as well as what they reveal about the introspection and acts of reclamation demonstrated by the artists. Read the full review below:

Cruise ships regularly dock at Martinique. Photograph courtesy Jean Baptiste Barret.

Cruise ships regularly dock at Martinique. Photograph courtesy Jean Baptiste Barret.

Prints on the walls of the Hôtel L’Impératrice. All photographs by Marsha Pearce, except where otherwise credited.

Prints on the walls of the Hôtel L’Impératrice. All photographs by Marsha Pearce, except where otherwise credited.

There is a dominant corporeal presence in Martinique’s capital city of Fort-de-France: that of the cruising body. Mammoth cruise ships dock regularly at the Pointe Simon terminal, bringing bodies that will stay briefly to get a taste of the island. A few streets away, artworks hung in the rooms and shared corridors of the Hôtel L’Impératrice – the main site for the inaugural Festival International d’Art Performance (FIAP) – spotlight and reinforce a history of leisure cruising. Prints of the Queen of Bermuda, Ocean Monarch and SS Normandie cruise ships, among others, are reminders that even if you have not come by luxury boat, a certain way of anchoring your body to the place is encouraged; a connecting to place that is just enough to delight but no deeper; an experience framed and constrained by a ship’s porthole. These images become visual cues for performances by a body that is expected to cruise [1]. As Jeb Sprague-Silgado observes in his article on the Caribbean cruise ship business, these bodies on holiday enjoy “pleasurable experiences [but they] are disconnected from understanding the social, economic, political and ecological nature of the phenomena in which they partake” (2017: p.102). The FIAP is now part of an art history of projects, which have/are addressing an alienation from a wider context of experiences in the Caribbean region (the Pool Art Fair and the International Biennale of Martinique are examples of other initiatives worthy of exploration). With its schedule of ephemeral performance art, the FIAP reinforces a rewriting of what it means to dock for a little while – challenging the cruising body. Moments enacted by the featured artists moored audiences to place (local, regional, diasporic) socio-historical concerns and other bodies with a deep, binding effect felt after the performances came to an end.

Madras textiles are used in various ways to market Martinique.

Madras textiles are used in various ways to market Martinique.

Nyugen Smith planting his flag, constructed with madras fabric, at La Savane des Pétrifications.

Nyugen Smith planting his flag, constructed with madras fabric, at La Savane des Pétrifications.

Artist Nyugen Smith’s Untitled work engaged the nuanced politics of the madras textile, the emblematic fabric of Martinique brought to the Francophone Caribbean by Indian indentured servants and found today incorporated in an array of tourism products used to market the island, including bags, aprons, fans and plastic packages for sugar. Smith deployed the fabric to produce a version of Martinique’s independentist flag, bringing concerns with cultural identity, race and class into relationships with competing notions of dependency and autonomy. In one of his performances, he repeated actions of planting the flag in a powerful gesture that attended to issues of nationalism, a reclamation of space and the recuperation of the black body.

Nyugen Smith performing in the lobby of the Hôtel L’Impératrice.

Nyugen Smith performing in the lobby of the Hôtel L’Impératrice.

In his performance at the lobby of the hotel, Smith drew on further research, using his understanding of the local Martinican creole language as having ties to West African Yoruba, and an awareness that cloth is significant in the world of the Yoruba. The artist used this link to explore the madras textile as a creole form in the Caribbean. He recast the fabric as a mask, in the tradition of the Odun Egungun masquerade festival of the Yoruba people, which honours the dead. As a mask covering the entire body, the madras became a symbol that acknowledged a lingering past – a strong ancestral presence in the now. Smith heightened this perspective by covering members of the audience with the fabric along with instances in which he sat opposite a figure cloaked in madras, in an act of confronting lineage and time: hours, minutes, seconds that stretch back while marching ahead.

Hector Canonge performs “Inconnu” at the Schoelcher Library.

Hector Canonge performs “Inconnu” at the Schoelcher Library.

Hector Canonge’s “Inconnu/Unknown” was a performed intervention at the Schoelcher Library. The Argentinian-born artist used the space of knowledge for introspection – to investigate his fraught colonised body. Through literal acts of unwrapping and unpacking (Canonge pulled and dispersed feathers which were stuffed in his clothing and removed layers of garb in slow, lyrical motions) he revealed various dimensions of self and exposed knowing as a difficult process. Once stripped to his underwear, Canonge exited the library, closing the gates and shutting the audience inside. Do we follow him as he navigates passing cars and crosses the street? If Canonge found self in the space of the library, he seemed to head to another unknown. Across from the library, he dropped to the ground and curled up in the foetal position, vulnerable – echoing the posture of the homeless people seen in the Martinican environs – and perhaps awaiting to be reborn. Is knowledge power? One can know and still be broken.

Gwladys Gambie as the “Beautiful Monster” on the streets of Fort-de-France.

Gwladys Gambie as the “Beautiful Monster” on the streets of Fort-de-France.

Nancy Gewolb performs “Alzheimer” at the Hôtel L’Impératrice.

Nancy Gewolb performs “Alzheimer” at the Hôtel L’Impératrice.

Martinican artist Gwladys Gambie interrogated negative perceptions of black, kinky hair – popularly called chivé grennen – in her living sculpture titled the “Beautiful Monster.” Gambie walked the streets of Fort-de-France, interacting with passers-by who responded with a mix of terror, curiosity and uncomfortable delight. She invoked a fantastical creature with hair standing on end like tentacles in a mobile manifesto that spoke to ideas of appeal, femininity, the grotesque and the erotic. Like Gambie, Chilean artist Nancy Gewolb used personal considerations as a point of departure for examining collective features of existence. Her piece “Alzheimer” comprised tense efforts by the 78-year-old artist to break free from a casing of tightly spun cloth – actions that drew attention to ageing and the shackles of forgetting. Gewolb used a blade to make cuts within her confines – movements that threatened at times to cause self-harm. Loosened strips of material eventually exposed candles in a circular tray fastened to Gewolb’s mid-section, which audiences were encouraged to light in a participatory ritual of remembrance. By inviting this shared interaction, she summoned Derek Walcott’s words: “All of the Antilles, every island, is an effort of memory; every mind…culminating in amnesia and fog” (1992). Gewolb rose from the floor carrying the heat and glow of the candles like “pieces of sunlight through the fog,” to quote Walcott again here, demonstrating “the labour of the Antillean imagination” (ibid).

Annabel Guérédrat makes eco-feminist statements and asserts a bad girl identity.

Annabel Guérédrat makes eco-feminist statements and asserts a bad girl identity.

While Gewolb fought her way out of a tight wrapping and Gambie dealt with a “fearsome” identity, co-director of FIAP and artist Annabel Guérédrat buried herself in large algae and claimed a selfhood through her own probing of monstrosity. Guérédrat’s heavy breathing beneath the algae animated the aquatic plants so that flora and the human body moved in chorus to create a critical eco-feminist statement. Guérédrat then emerged from this hybrid state of being and climbed to higher ground, taking as much algae as she could carry with her – the plant serving as a symbolic part of herself; the domination of nature and the exploitation of women taken as intertwined narratives. Keeping the algae close, she asserted herself as a powerful she-beast – part lion, part horse – as she read from Anna Colin’s book Witches: Hunted, Appropriated, Empowered, Queered. “[I]n rock music, in films, in fiction, even in pornography, women are grasping the she-beast of demonology for themselves” (1994: p.11) says historian Marina Warner. Guérédrat’s performance visualised this subversive seizing of a dread identity. “The bad girl is the heroine of our times, and transgression a staple entertainment,” Guérédrat chanted, reciting Warner’s words quoted in Colin’s book.

Ayana Evans performs “Sparkles.”

Ayana Evans performs “Sparkles.”

Such performances at FIAP resisted any illusions of a surface-level cruise. If as Diana Taylor observes: “performance, as acts of intervention, can interrupt the circuits of the cultural industries that create products for consumption” (2016: p.51), then I wonder about the deployment of FIAP in possible festival tourism strategies and the implications for the event in how Martinique is marketed and experienced in the future. My argument in this article has foregrounded the tourist’s or visitor’s body but what is also clear, given the local audiences in attendance at the festival, is FIAP’s potential reach beyond the tourist. Ayana Evans performance of “Sparkles,” which incited taunts from a local man and her unflinching reply to him while continuing to expose onlookers to her intimate dismantling of her polished veneer (she washes herself and changes out of a tiger-print cat suit and high-heel shoes into a relaxed T-shirt), is one example of other lines of interaction. The festival has the capacity to dislodge locals from comfortable states of being – urging greater effort and engagement from bodies that may be in cruise control.

The first edition of the International Festival of Performance Art (FIAP) was held at the Hôtel L’Impératrice, Fort-de-France, Martinique from April 17–April 23. The festival was co-directed by Annabel Guérédrat & Henri Tauliaut of Artincidence.

Participating artists: Ange Bonello, Hector Canonge, Alejandro Chellet, Ian Deleón, Ayana Evans, Marvin Fabien, Gwladys Gambie, Nancy Gewolb, Annabel Guérédrat, Erik Hokanson, Jill McDermid, Ana Monteiro, Audrey Phibel, Tif Robinette, Nyugen Smith and Henri Tauliaut.

Note

[1] I acknowledge other artwork featured at the Hôtel L’Impératrice, including a wall in the lobby designed by Martinican artist Joseph René-Corail (known as Khokho) and Martine Kiener’s gestural paintings of animated human figures and bodies in repose – paintings displayed with their prices and the artist’s contact information. While these works add layers to the hotel’s display of art, I am particularly interested in an impulse to exhibit/promote images of cruise ships/cruising and the intersection of that instinct with the machine of tourism and the consumption of the Caribbean.

References

Sprague-Silgado, Jeb. “The Caribbean Cruise Ship Business and the Emergence of a Transnational Capitalist Class.” Journal of World-Systems Research 23.1 (2017): 93-125.

Taylor, Diana. Performance. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Walcott, Derek. “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1992.

Warner, Marina. Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time – The 1994 Reith Lectures. London: Vintage Books, 1994.

Marsha Pearce
Marsha Pearce

Marsha Pearce is ARC’s Senior Arts Writer and Editor. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. She lectures in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI and is also a freelance arts writer for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper. Pearce is the 2006 Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Cultural Studies Fellow.