Archival Disruptions for a Poetics of Futurity by Ilaria Conti

Shiraz Bayjoo: Apart Bez, Tu Korek at 20 Clerkenwell Green
June 15, 2021
Shiraz Bayjoo, 'Nu Ban Ansyen' (diptych), 2021. Acrylic and resin on wood.
Shiraz Bayjoo, 'Nu Ban Ansyen' (diptych), 2021. Acrylic and resin on wood.

 Shiraz Bayjoo deconstructs the material and visual languages of coloniality to articulate new critical strategies for decolonial sovereignty in the present. The artist’s research-based practice, rooted in his Mauritian heritage, addresses the settlers’ endeavours that have marked the Indian Ocean by pursuing a transversal understanding of the region as a whole. His work investigates the implications of such interconnectedness, in resonance with Édouard Glissant’s notion of ‘poetics of relation’ and Patrick Chamoiseau’s interpretation of creolité.


Shiraz addresses these regional entanglements in recognition of how crucial the fluidity of movement among neighbouring islands such as Mauritius and Madagascar has been to the development of the wealth of empires. This circulation of peoples and goods is regarded by the artist as the key building block of what sociologist Aníbal Quijano defined as the ‘coloniality of power’: “the control of all forms of control of the subjectivity/intersubjectivity, of culture, and especially of knowledge, of the production of knowledge.”[1]


The inquiry into the perverse, intimate relation that the exploitation of beings and territories entertains with the production of colonial knowledge is central to Apart Bez, Tu Korek (creole for “Everything’s Fine Except for the Fuckery”). The exhibition sheds light on the multiple technologies that have allowed the colonialist project to thrive: sailing, extraction, vision, archives. It re-envisions them through a détournement that, to echo the words of Saidiya Hartman, aims to generate a “disruptive poetics.”[2]


The artworks presented appropriate the technological thinking of the colonial process, re-enacting its chronology to conjure new outcomes: the colonisers’ sails and stands transform into devices of resistance and affirmation in Sambo and San Vizyon; charming furnishings become mirrors of extractive violence in Coral Island; the normativity of vision that reinforced the colonial social order is sabotaged in En Cours.


The ceramic series Coral Island extends Shiraz Bayjoo’s ongoing reflection on the symbolical value of objects. The small sculptural pieces, mimicking French ornate frames similar to the ones historically used to cherish portraits of loved ones, reproduce the endearing quality of bourgeois comfort and social status. On closer inspection, however, images of colonial violence can be seen to inhabit these charming decorative ornaments. Underneath the ceramic glazes, which in their multiple colours and textures evoke marine seabeds, earthy landscapes, and volcanic soils, are crystallised images from the De Bry collection of voyages, a series of 25 volumes published in Frankfurt between 1590 and 1634 and collecting almost fifty accounts of colonial travel across India Occidentalis (present-day Americas) and India Orientalis (Africa and Asia).


The ceramics become vessels of the double violence that colonisers perpetrated on living beings and local ecologies in the Indian Ocean region. From settlers sitting on giant turtles to men trying to kill birds with a club, the naïve representations of exotic heavens provided by the explorers are manipulated to shed light on the relentless exploitation of land and bodies that such stereotypical imagery enabled. Coral Island thus forms a new narration, in which the colonial imaginary that continues to thrive today through seemingly innocent fantasies of paradise island vacations reveals its genocidal and ecocidal ferocity.


The En Cours painting series extends this subversion of the colonial vision by drawing from the archives of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The historical photographs, wielding the settlers’ gaze and assigning subordinate and racialised identities to members of the Malagasy society, are transfigured by the artist’s process of material thinking. Avoiding an acritical reproduction of such charged imagery, Shiraz incorporates the photographs into an artistic process in which layers, colours, and matter modulate the focal points, the atmospheres, and the inferences of the figures represented. 


Reversing the process that turned complex identities into archetypes, the resulting works defy the certainty of fixed racist categories. En Coursbrings to the surface presences that are from the past but are not relegated to it: they are to be seen and understood in their present-day significance. Through a process of painting that applies material layers as lenses capable of adjusting one’s vision, Shiraz generates a defiant and alternative archaeology of these images. He unearths the sovereignty of representation that colonial archives have historically erased through their ‘order of perception,’ in which, as described by scholar Rolando Vázquez, “the spectator knows little about what is not represented, what lays outside the artifice.”[3]


The rhizomatic constellations formed by the paintings further illuminate the artist’s approach to interconnectedness as methodology and to research-through-making. Each image becomes part of a broader network of meaning, forming a choral mosaic in which the aura conjured by the frames — which echo altarpieces and other religious representations — is transferred to the subjectivities liberated from colonial objectification. 


The imposing textile work San Vizyon amplifies this emancipatory process by tackling the symbology of royal banners as another technology of oppression to be overthrown. The figures at the centre of the photograph, most likely staged as an encounter with sauvages, do not simply return the gaze originally imposed on them. They appropriate the visual frame, asserting the autonomy of their bodies, identities, and surroundings and transforming the image into a space of affirmation. As the creole title of the work (“Without Vision”) suggests, through a material and conceptual manoeuvre, the hegemonic order of vision is here erased. 


Colonial legacies can be dismantled in the third dimension, too. In Sambo, Shiraz further articulates his object-based thinking. Realised in Sapele, an African timber referencing traditional East African and western Indian Ocean hardwoods, the sculpture operates a symbolic shift from seafaring to remembrance by substituting sails with Kanga fabrics. Celebrating these textiles as tools of identity affirmation and knowledge circulation, the work exudes familiarity thanks to the cloths’ mottos and vernacular language. Evoking the intimacy of places of spirituality and offerings, the sculpture delineates a space in which to envision new technologies of memory and affirmation that, in response to the urgent need to decolonise our present, substitute hegemony with relationality, owning with owing.[4]


Apart Bez, Tu Korek defies the inexorability of colonial history. It articulates forms of material and visual resistance that respond to the urgency of generating new narratives through which historically colonised/resilient subjects can re-exist in the future. Saidiya Hartman’s teachings on how to overcome the mortuary, deterministic violence of colonial archives, come to mind:


I navigated the limits of evidence by invoking a series of speculative arguments that exploited the capacities of the subjunctive—the what might have been—and by inhabiting a figural or affective relation to the past rather than a causal or linear one.[5]


By Ilaria Conti

[1] Aníbal Quijano. 2000. Colonialidad del poder, globalización y democracia. Caracas: Escula de Estudios Internacionales y diplomáticos “Pedro Gual”, p. 1-2

[2] Saidiya Hartman. “The Dead Book Revisited.” History of the Present 6, no. 2 (2016): p. 210

[3] Rolando Vázquez. 2020. Vistas of Modernity. Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund, p. 41

[4] Rolando Vázquez. 2020. Vistas of Modernity. Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund, p. 32

[5] Saidiya Hartman. “The Dead Book Revisited.” History of the Present 6, no. 2 (2016): 210

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