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Young Maroon Photographers Reappropriate Their Own History

The exhibition “Marronnage: The Art of Breaking One’s Chains,” presented at the Maison d’Amérique Latine in Paris, features a section dedicated to photography by young Maroon artists who are taking possession of their own history.
Karl Joseph
Ma Atema, obiaoeman, 2019 © Karl Joseph

“Wherever you look, in any country where they were brought by force, you will find slaves running away. They are called Maroons. The term is derived from the French adjective marron, by way of the Spanish cimarrón. They are said to have marooned. Colonial governments and plantation owners considered them to be enemies and dangerous examples. Marooning was treated as a crime.” This is how the curators Geneviève Wiels and Thomas Mouzard introduce the Maroons. “From the mid-seventeenth century, six communities were successively founded through marronnage: Saamaka, Dyuka, Paamaka, Boni/Aluku, Matawaï, and Kwinti.” The exhibition “Marronnage: The Art of Breaking One’s Chains” featured at the Maison d’Amérique Latine focuses on the artistic evolution of Maroons and their descendants. For the first time, different forms of contemporary artistic expression are confronted with works collected in the 1930s and currently held at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac. One section, devoted to photography, showcases the first ethnographic images by Pierre Verger and Jean Hurault next to more contemporary photographs by young Maroon artists who use the medium to reappropriate their own history. Below, we present extract of three interviews with the exhibited photographers, to be read in their entirety in the exhibition catalog published jointly by Maison d’Amérique Latine and Loco editions.

Karl Joseph

Karl Joseph
Ritual bath, in Charvein, 2019 © Karl Joseph
Karl Joseph
The intermediary, 2019 © Karl Joseph

Born in Cayenne in 1973, Karl Joseph had his first encounter with mainland France as a student. Eight years later, he enthusiastically rediscovered Guyana, and hasn’t parted with his camera since. Sharing his life between Sète and Cayenne, in 2011 he co-founded the festival Rencontres photographiques de Guyane, of which he is the artistic director. “The Boni: this was the generic term used to describe brown people in my Creole childhood in Cayenne. Few people around me bothered with nuance when it came to knowing, and even less to understanding, these societies. We were probably too busy healing our own wounds—colonisation oblige; probably too busy trying to assimilate—France oblige. My first experience of this ‘other country,’ as I have long called it, was in 2001. With two friends, we had decided to go up the Maroni River as far as we could. … This ‘other country” thus unfolded before me to the rhythm of landscapes passed in a boat with a perilous waterline. With each jump, the wood of the hull creaked and warped. We prayed to stay afloat and looked into the face and the eyes of our Maroon “boatswain” who took in every ripple on the water’s surface with calm intent, letting us know he could read the river and that once again we would skip over the rocks. During those few days, I watched from our pirogue the luminous, ephemeral traces of a hidden Guyana. That Guyana has its own languages, its own architecture, its own codes, its own history: it is one and yet divisible. I knew that I would return, and, a stranger in my own native land, I have returned often to satisfy my greatest pleasure, that of meeting the other, my other self.”

More about Karl Joseph on his instagram.

Ramon Ngwete

Ramon Ngwete
In Atjoni the departure becomes clear on the Sipaliwini river, 2014 © Ramon Ngwete

Born in 1992 in Kourou, where he grew up in a Saamaka village, Ramon Ngwete began his career as a self-taught photographer at the age of twenty. “I started photographing after having drawn for a long time. At school, I was not very good at reading, and I learned to read from comic books. They taught me to love images. I grew up and lived in the Saamaka village of Kourou, until it burned down in 2004. We had a small wooden house, I slept in a hammock. We didn’t have to lock the door, life was peaceful and happy, even though we were poor. During the rainy season, the shanty town would get flooded. With friends, we used to transport journalists in the hulls of refrigerators that we used like dugouts. … I would love to have owned a camera at that age, to capture those moments, the wooden houses, the neighborhood, the women together, the homemade meals, the celebrations, what life was like. … The photos presented here were taken in the Saamaka country, in Surinam. There they grow manioc and women wash their clothes by the river… It is beautiful to see that people still live like that today. And at the same time, they have adapted to the modern world. I won’t lie to you, my grandmother has a phone, she uses WhatsApp. A cousin asked me recently: ‘Hey, Ramon, have you seen that series on Netflix?’ While in Guyana we launch rockets, inland communes have connection problems! I want to do a project about the Saamaka people. We tend to say that ‘the white man came to do a reportage and said a lot of nonsense.’ Rather than complaining, all we had to do was to make sure he was well-informed and show him around. Better yet, if we don’t want outsiders to come and tell our story, we should do it ourselves!” 

More about Ramon Ngwete on his website and instagram.

Gerno Odang

Gerno Odang
Paul Afoeja Kago, captain dyuka, in front of the prefecture in Cayenne in March 2017 © Gerno Odang

Born in 1992 in Suriname in the district of Sipaliwini on the Saamak River, Gerno Odang arrived at a very young age in Kourou, Guyana, where he lives today. “I assimilated very quickly, but I regularly return to the village of my ancestors where my mother still lives. Participating in a short film workshop in Kourou as a unit still photographer, I acquired a taste for images. I posted my work on social networks, I saw that my photos were liked, so I continued to train myself as an autodidact. … I want to show the beauty of our Bushinenge culture. These past years, my work has been exciting: I participated in the shooting of the series Guyane produced by Canal+; it took me away from my home, from Kourou. We went everywhere: I discovered Guyana, in fact. I was a photographer’s assistant on the shooting locations, and he taught me a lot. … I also participated, with other artists from the Caribbean, in the exhibition “Echo-Natures” in Miami. Since then, I have had no problem earning a living, but I have also trained myself as an audiovisual maintenance technician, just in case. The precariousness of a photographer’s life forces me to always invent, create, and be one step ahead, like in a game of chess, which has been my other passion since high school.”

More about Gerno Odang on his instagram.

“Marronnage: L’art de briser ses chaînes”

Curators: Geneviève Wiels and Thomas Mouzard 

Until September 24, 2022.

Maison d’Amérique latine, 217, boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 75007.

Free admission.

Marronnage: l’art de briser ses chaînes, Loco Editions and the Maison d’Amérique latine, €25.

Gerno Odang
The surprise, 2018 © Gerno Odang

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