Winner of the Baloise Art Prize 2015.
Since 2017 French artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc has been working on a series of large-format color photographs under the title Vieux-Wacapou. The photographs were taken in French Guiana, a overseas department and region of France on the north-eastern coast of South America, where the artist spent his childhood. The title of the series refers to the Maroni river, which is the destination of Abonnenc’s journeys into the interior.
Already in the early 20th century, this was a settlement that attracted newcomers from the English-speaking island country of Saint Lucia and the French-speaking neighboring islands of the Antilles. Most of the settlers were people of African descent whose ancestors had been slaves in the Antilles. In the course of time, Wacapou developed into a prosperous village that was supported primarily by gold panning. In the mid-1980s, the artist’s mother decided to buy a house there, which had previously been occupied by a former gold panner named Joseph Bernes. However, her plans for her family to stay sometimes in this modest wooden house on stilts were thwarted by the postcolonial civil war that broke out in neighboring Suriname in the summer of 1986, making it dangerous to remain in such a volatile border area.
It was not until 30 years after the violent upheaval in Suriname that Abonnenc took the decision to travel to Wacapou. The photographic series Vieux-Wacapou documents the artist’s quest for the place of his childhood. Today, the remains of the abandoned settlement are buried beneath a dense layer of vegetation. Abonnenc had to apply himself as an archaeologist in order to uncover the secrets of the jungle. Just as our eyes adjust only gradually to the darkness, so too do we recognize, in time, the traces of the former village and its history: the stilts of the houses, the gas bottles, the crosses in the graveyard, the concrete steps of the jetty. Abonnenc’s photographs of the abandoned village of Wacapou are a complex amalgam of European colonial history, the march of time, and family history. At the same time, Abonnenc’s exploration of the history of his mother’s house confronts him with questions that go far beyond his immediate quest. As he puts it: Wherever I turn, especially in South America, the questions I want to pose, for my own edification, prove to be productive: Whose land is this? Who did you get it from? Where is your house? These three narrative strands direct the way I interpret the places that I would like to visit in my bid to capture an image portraying the fragile memory of this home.