The French artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (born 1977), who was awarded the Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel 2015, created a series of large format colour photographs at the end of last year for his exhibition at the Baloise Art Forum. The photographs were taken in French Guiana, an overseas department on the north coast of South America, where the artist spent his childhood. The title of the series of photographs – Vieux-Wacapou – refers to a place on the Maroni River, which was the destination for Abonnenc's journey into the interior of the country last year.
As early as the beginning of the 20th century, migrants from English-speaking St Lucia and the neighbouring French-speaking Antilles settled in this place in the middle of the jungle. Most of the settlers were descendants of people from Africa, who had been working as slaves on the Antilles since the 17th century. Wacapou developed over the decades into a prosperous
small town dependent on gold mining. In the middle of the 1980s, the artist's mother decided to buy a house in this hamlet from former gold miner Joseph Bernes. The wooden house, which was surrounded by a vegetable garden, was intended to be the only property that Abonnenc's mother would ever own. However, a post-colonial civil war that broke out in neighbouring Surinam in the summer of 1986 thwarted her plan to live in Wacapou from time to time with her family. It became dangerous to stay in the border town.
A period of more than thirty years lies between the war events in Surinam and Abonnenc's decision to travel to Wacapou. The series of photographs entitled Vieux-Wacapou documents the artist's search for the town he knew as a child. Today, the remains of the abandoned settlement are buried under a dense layer of vegetation. Abonnenc therefore had to proceed like an archaeologist in order to uncover the jungle's secrets. His photographs of the remains of the Wacapou settlement capture a rich and complex amalgam of European colonial history, contemporary history and family history. At the same time as concentrating on the history of his mother's house, Abonnenc is faced with questions that go beyond the personal reasons for his journey.
He explains: “The questions that I want to address are proving to be productive: To whom does this land belong? From whom did they obtain it? Where is their house? These three narrative elements determine the interpretation of the locations that I want to find in order to try and give
pictorial shape to my fragile memory of the house.”
(M.K.Abonnenc, Maraudeur, 2017).