SEYCHELLES AT THE VENICE BIENNALE – Léon Radegonde and George Camille tell their stories in the Garden of Disorder

ENGLISH TEXT

By Pat Matyot

Tableau 1

The staccato call of a whimbrel resounds through the afternoon. The water is a kaleidoscope of everything from powder blue to midnight green. The sunlight plays on the bare torso of the young fisherman as he turns from his boat and wades towards the shore. He flashes a smile at the tourist couple watching him as he steps onto the sand, where the sea laps tentatively. They catch a glimpse of the fish he is carrying: red snapper, green jobfish, spangled emperor, even a moontail seabass. He walks up the beach and disappears into a grove of coconut palms.

There is something deliciously escapist about the stereotype idyll of the remote tropical island. For those living in the industrialised, urbanised, overcrowded, polluted “West” or “First World”, subject to long cold seasons, it is the other world out there, the microcosm where small is beautiful, bathing in eternal sunshine, of simplicity, lush unspoiled (“pristine”) beauty, ecological integrity (unique flora and fauna), cultural authenticity (traditional if not outright primitive), peopled by noble islanders who are kind and generous (les bon sauvages).The works of writers like Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), and artists like Paul Gauguin, “the inventor of primitivism”, and more recently films like South Pacific, Blue Lagoon, The Beach and Pirates of the Caribbean, have contributed to nurturing the fantasy of the idealised tropical island.

For the tourism industry, the image of Seychelles as the quintessential earthly paradise is of course a major marketing point. But this variation of the 3-S model of seaside tourism – sea, sun and sand or whatever, with eco-tourism and ethnic tourism trimmings - is a cliché, at best unoriginal and incomplete, at worst brochure discourse attempting to describe what has been termed a “non-place … stripped of geographical and political specificity”, though clearly a part of the exotic “elsewhere”, the “pleasure periphery” of European, North American and Far Eastern metropolises. For all we know, Tableau 1 above could be set in Zanzibar, Bali, Hawaii or Tahiti. Interestingly, it has been highlighted by others that “the reduction of Tahiti to the island of Gauguin turns attention from the realities and the problems that are specific to Polynesia”. The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” All necessary myth-making, the economist will say, for a tourism-based economy. The global capitalist buying and selling tropical real estate will not disagree. The tourists themselves may remind us that “We all need to imagine a better place elsewhere…”

Consider this other slice of life though:

 

Tableau 2

The sound of a mobile ring tone is suddenly drowned out by the dancehall music pouring out of a car that erupts onto the scene and stops some distance away.  Stepping out, a young woman waves goodbye to the driver as he reverses, turns and heads back the way he came from. She is wearing very tight shorts and a skimpy blouse. She takes a long sip from the bottle of beer she is carrying and then runs over to the three men and the woman who have been drinking and gossiping for the past one hour and a half. The ground around them is strewn with discarded take-away meal boxes, plastic cups, empty bottles, condom wrappers, cigarette packs, bottle tops, half-buried under dead leaves. The group turns to watch a bare-chested young man coming out from among the nearby trees. He walks slowly. What looks like a T-shirt is tossed over his right shoulder. He is carrying a battered knapsack. He looks at them with an impassive glassy gaze.

What about Seychellois artists: what do they make of all this? The idyllic island identity of Eden+Utopia has been transposed into representations of the “Seychellois way of life” by many of them. No doubt some have internalised the stereotypes and consider it normal to see the islands through rose-coloured glasses as a place of sunny beaches, coconut palms and turquoise sea, peopled by fishermen.  Some have knowingly exploited the clichés, clearly with a view to earning their living, and offer foreign visitors what they expect or, indeed, desire. Others paint scenes depicting traditional activities and architecture of the “old days” to express “nostalgia for a world we have lost”. Yet others have appropriated and recontextualised elements of “island paradise”. In this light, it is interesting to consider the works of George Camille.

Clearly, he has gone through “periods”. There has been experimentation with not only visual vocabulary and grammar but also techniques such as etching. We see here and there the temptation of the objet trouvé. In many of his more recent works, fish, coco de mers, green geckos, leaves, etc. do not have a purely pictorial role – certainly not to depict the idealised insular environment described in Tableau 1 above. We have in mind here those paintings by George where these animals and objects are simplified, stylised, lose their figurative purpose, to take on, it seems, the function of symbols. There remains the need to ascertain to what extent this reappropriation of a familiar visual lexicon is research into the formal elements of art, a personal psychological exploration à la Carl Jung or even a reconstruction of identity, and/or social commentary.

Léon Radegonde has never shown interest in the stock fantasies around le soleil, les plages et la joie de vivre. For a long time his work, essentially collage, was dominated by plastic considerations: materials, form, colour, texture, composition, etc. in the context of a fascination with how time, climate and circumstance affect perhaps not only the outer appearance but the inner substance as well of objects – the dynamics of wear and tear. Documentary intentions – to create visual records of experiences – are apparently secondary but are never absent in Léon’s works. This is often in the form of a drawn face or body so effectively combined with the other elements of the collage as to be partly concealed or at least disguised. But are not all these elements themselves, these found materials, charged with their own history? The situation becomes even more complicated when the artist decides to act upon the materials himself, to join in, or recreate, the transformations that he observes.

It is clear that a superficial reformulation of sea, sun and sand, with or without coconut palms, would have been out of place at the Venice Biennale this year. The overall theme for this 56th edition is All the World’s Futures seen through several “filters”, including the Garden of Disorder. The challenge for artists is how to observe, record and report phenomena and events affecting the world today, “a troubled world, subjected to all manner of national conflicts and territorial and geopolitical disfigurations”.

George Camille has scrutinised the invasive creepers that are tightening their coils and tendrils around the Seychellois landscape. There is something in the elongated forms of creeping and climbing plants, and in their movements when the wind blows, that plays on our supposedly innate fear of snakes. Ophidiophobia aside, these alien creepers are like ropes that threaten to tie knots around us. “In the steady insidious progression of these pest plants,” George says, “I see a metaphor for the problems affecting Seychellois society.” His idea is to recreate the creepers using wire. His contribution to represent Seychelles at the Venice Biennale: an installation that will show these metallic creepers hanging, suggesting a sort of hybrid between vegetable life and a lifeless metallic construction, to remind us of everything from the electricity and telephone cables that criss-cross the landscape, and other aspects of environmental degradation, to the social ills with roots as invisible as those of the real-life creepers. For George, this is completely new ground in terms of technique, and an important addition to his conceptual and methodological repertoire. A more sober if not sombre picture, too, when we compare the installation with the colours that usually light up his works.

What Léon Radegonde has produced for Venice is a progression of, or extrapolation from, his previous work – in other words, it comes across as a logical development: we find the same passion for found materials, especially when they carry a “traditional” connotation (gunny sacks and wood, for example), materials that he knows all the more intimately in that he has participated in their “ageing” or “weathering” (such as by rubbing them with charcoal). But this time documentary intentions are more explicit. On a piece of jute fabric from a gunny sack there are inscriptions that make us think of a message in some ancient script, except that when we look at the material against the light the messages on both sides merge and confuse us. The jute fabric itself hangs from a piece of wood that has been nailed to another to make something reminiscent of a cross. “A crucified painting,” Radegonde confirms. Or a banner from a religious procession (Léon uses the French term “oriflamme”). He adds that he also wants to evoke the improvised sail billowing in the wind in Le radeau de la Méduse painted by French artist Théodore Géricault in 1818-1819 following a shipwreck. In the painting the wind blowing into the sail is pushing a raft filled with people dying of thirst and hunger towards the left instead of towards the boat that is coming to save them. “I also wanted to show something that is adrift,” Léon says. Slave, sea travel, Creole, plantation, sweat, breath, agriculture, culture, independence, yesterday, tomorrow – Léon has assembled not only materials and objects but concepts as well. “Roots and routes”again…

 With this year’s theme the Venice Biennale is challenging artists to ponder over the state of the world and where they stand with regard to this Garden of Disorder. A reflective and introspective approach that is not completely new for Léon Radegonde and George Camille – except that this time they are being driven to delve deeper into their storehouse of experiences and knowledge. From May 9 to November 22 2015 at least 300,000 visitors are expected to view the works in the Venice Biennale. Seychelles is there, and this time our artists have another story to tell.

 

 

 
 
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