The Exile Pavilion
Institut Français, Saint Louis
Saint-Louis of Senegal. A city I visited in 2000, on the occasion of my first participation in the Dakar biennale. That same year, the city was classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It was founded by Europeans in West Africa in 1659, and named Saint-Louis in honor of the king of France Louis XIV, after his ancestor king Saint Louis. It must be reminded that the city was often called the “Venice of Africa” and that it was one of the most important centers for the trade of gold, ivory and, above all, slaves.
In the painting “Scene of a Shipwreck”, better known as “The Raft of the Medusa”, French painter Théodore Géricault immortalized a tragic episode in the history of the French navy, the wreck of the frigate Medusa that was transporting civil servants and soldiers to what would become the colony of Senegal. After enduring hunger, madness and even cannibalism, only a handful of men eventually set foot in Saint Louis. The sea swallowing up men, a story as old as time that reminds us how humanity was always interested in questions of migration and nomadism.
The verb “to migrate” comes from the Indo-European term “meigw”, meaning to change, but also to move, to go towards something. This became the Latin word “migrare”, which applied specifically to moving house. “Nomad” is a Greek term for “shepherd”, because shepherds have to follow their flocks. And lastly, the word “exile”, from the Latin “ex-solum”, meaning “coming from the ground” or “out of the ground”.
As artists, are we ungrounded by default, since our work is destined to travel and that we are often forced to follow it? It’s in this context that we set up in Saint-Louis of Senegal to prepare a stopover of the Exile Pavilion project, with the help of about 30 Senegalese and international artists who agreed to embark upon this journey with us.
With over 30 international artists, the Exile Pavilion’s stop in Saint-Louis exhibits about forty artworks using all types of media and addressing the questions of exile, displacement, the situation of exiled populations, the history of exile and diasporas. About the Exile Pavilion, mounir fatmi writes: “From this necessity, this permanent urgency to reflect upon exile, the Exile Pavilion project was born, as a traveling project, offering an alternative cartography, a free geography of temporary exhibits taking the form of stopovers in different countries.”
The project poses the question of exile as a new space to be reinvented, re-imagined and ultimately occupied. That’s why, as a sort of mise en abyme, the chosen works, like Marcel Duchamp’s “suitcase”, can be transported or easily re-created, spreading out in the space to physically invest it. The Senegal River, along which the gallery of the French institute is located, a symbol of exile, departure and distant shores, immediately stood out as a strong source of inspiration for this new stopover. Through its history, strongly linked to human trafficking for over two centuries, the question of the African diaspora is reactivated and superimposed on today’s exiles, thus feeding the parallel that Achille Membé creates between the Atlantic in the 15th century, at the bottom of which rest the remains of thousands of men and women, and the Mediterranean in the 21st century. But the river also evokes the opening of possibilities, a form of hope, freedom, a right – the right to live elsewhere – and sometimes a chance, as writes the Martiniquais writer Patrick Chamoiseau. A chance, perhaps even more so for those who welcome than for those who seek to leave. “You could see”, writes this theoretician of Creoleness, “migration flows as the awakening of the blood of the earth” outlining the real landscapes of our common destiny.
To talk about exile is not, as Michel Foucault points out, “to scratch the earth to find something like bones from the past, a monument to the dead, inert ruins to which we should painstakingly give life and a date”, but to “find the voice that has disappeared behind the silence” and to outline the foundations of globalness. The possibility of exile, and more broadly that of displacement, suggests that “the Earth doesn’t belong to anyone. It signifies that the Earth is shared by all and that we should be able to travel across it freely, without constraints”, also writes Chamoiseau. That idea nourishes our modern world’s need for “open identities”, for a world that is a “unified world”, but it also re-emerges from the entire history of humanity. Establishment and exile concern us all. They always have.
Just like there are borders and territories, the stateless and the exiled are permanent figures in the history of men and peoples, as much as the hope – the myth – of the return. So is the question of exile truly modern? Or does it simply seem more tragic and harsher to us today? Whatever the case may be, it is a vivid reality of the world we live in. The “common world” Hannah Arendt spoke of, the one we must perpetually build and in whose construction works of art participate, has perhaps always been a world in which exile is the ordinary condition, and today, a globalized world that can be defined not by the fact that some people wander whereas others are firmly established, but where no one is “home” forever. The artists of this Exile Pavilion, each in their own way, address these questions, alternating between individual stories and collective history, between tragedy and hope, uprooting and reappropriation, nostalgia and the reinvention of oneself.