Paris expo highlights tembe art of 'Maroons' from Suriname, French Guyana

·3-min read

The exhibition "Escaping Slavery, the Art of Breaking One's Chains" introduces us to the history and artistic work of the "bushinenge" – descendants of African slaves who escaped the Dutch plantations in Suriname, in South America, and fled to French Guyana.

The Maison de l'Amérique Latine in Paris brings to the fore traditional objects and contemporary art of the descendants of the African slaves or "Maroons" from Suriname and French Guyana.

When they escaped the Dutch plantations in Suriname in the 18th century, the Maroons found shelter in the Amazon rainforests nearby.

The planters waged war against them in 1772, sending 1,200 mercenaries in pursuit. Some of the fugitives then crossed over to French Guyana, where they recreated communities: the Samamaka, Dyuka, Paamaka, Boni-Aluku, Matawai and Kwinti.

Around 1860, these "bushinenge" – meaning "men of the woods'" in the nenge tongo language that was built on English, French, Portuguese and Dutch – started to develop a specific form of art made up of geometric patterns.

Tembe art

"When they found themselves in the forest, the only means of expression that the 'bushinenge' had, was through wood," says Geneviève Wiels, curator of the exhibition called "Marronnage, l'Art de Briser ses Chaînes" in French.

"For a long time, they only used wood to make practical objects: houses, paddles ... eveything they needed. And then, when they were liberated, around 1860, they discovered something amazing, a resilience through art and creating beauty that they call 'moy'."

The Maroons took these ordinary objects, the house, the paddle or the comb that they used to offer to their wife, to their mother, they added motifs and they transformed them into something beautiful.

"We may call it art, but they say making 'tembe'. This art is both a way of creating beautiful motifs as well as a way of expressing themselves, of saying things to villagers, to their wives and of making beautiful things."

"In this art, we see geometric patterns. In fact, it is an art of expression, you could even say ‘speech’. It talks a lot about love and sex, and so on ... One of the artists in the exhibition who made the pediment of the Maison de l’Amérique Latine in Paris, Carlos Adaoudé, says that what he does is to create geometric poetry."

'Resilience through art'

The art encompasses resilience in the face of grief, distress and also the desire to please women, says Wiels.

"When a man returns from a trip, carrying things in a dugout canoe or chopping wood, he returns to the village with objects that he carved for his wife when he missed her," she says.

And the women respond to the men's gifts. They create fabrics, with embroidery, patchwork, crochet. They offer them to their husbands, to make loincloths (pangis), and take the fabrics out during mourning ceremonies.

"Men put the cloths in metal canteens and when they get old, they take them out regularly ... each cloth reminds him of the love a woman had for him.

"And at the time of burial, they will decorate the sky of the funeral hut which will be his coffin. There will be all these fabrics on display and he will be wrapped in one of these fabrics to be buried."

Women continue to carefully keep the items they have been given. They display in their house the most beautiful objects that their husband or companion has made for her.

Contemporary tembe art

Antoine Dinguiou was one of the first bushinenge artists to paint on canvas, creating motifs that represent "eternal love" or "the whirlpool, the navigation on the river".

Antoine Lamoraille, an artist of the previous generation, painted doors or house pediments. He was an independentist, condemned for his political activities and incarcerated in Paris, at the Santé prison, in the 1970s.

He agreed that his paintings, which could not be transported, could be reproduced. For him, the important thing is the political and philosophical message they carry.

Marronnage, l'Art de Briser ses Chaînes runs until 24 September 2022 at the Maison de l'Amérique Latine in Paris.

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