jean-françois boclé
Rajesh Punj, UK-2016--ref612
Rajesh Punj

Text by Rajesh Punj (writter and curator), about the performance Colombo IN Colombo, Colombo Biennale, Sri Lanka.

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Colombo IN Colombo 

The original model of the Biennale as a platform for the arts has since the 1990’s been adopted internationally as an opportunity to elevate and emancipate aesthetics of its specific geography; in order to allow for a temporary landscape or biennalescape that is intended to facilitate cross-cultural colloquies. Art historian and curator Federica Martini argues “besides being mainly focused on the present (the “here and now” where the cultural event takes place and their effect of "spectacularisation of the everyday"), because of their site-specificity cultural events may refer back to, produce or frame the history of the site and communities' collective memory.” The Biennale as cultural currency in South Asia includes the Kochi Muziris Biennale in the South Western state of Kerala, Lahore’s newly intended Biennale opening in 2017, the Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh, and Colombo’s fourth Biennale among others. That as a continent’s contribution to the arts is intended to cultivate culture as content to a lucid and very elastic debate about the strength of people as the audience and agents of art. As everything including painting, performance, sculpture and film, in a biennale style setting are intended to create a context from within which to engage with everything as an elixir for social exchange.

For this year’s Colombo Biennale Paris based Martinique born artist Jean-François Boclé sees the social significance of art bound up in the conversation and cuisine of the island’s and city’s inhabitants; of those born in Colombo or resettled in the suburbs of Paris. And how such circumstances demonstrate a greater history of social upheaval, originally as a consequence of slavery but now fashioned by economic interests. As demonstrated by the systematic movement of people from country to country, taking with them their own sensibilities for survival. COLOMBO IN COLOMBO is a performance led by the artist as a laboured love of cooking, with the added intention of influencing people of various cultures across continents to engage in a series of interrelated conversations as the basis for a conference that draws attention to the coloniality of the cuisine and its individual ingredients. Initiating a perishable performance as part of the opening of the Biennale, Boclé uses its setting and the city’s geographical juncture to explore how the island mirrors something of the social history and politics of the artist’s place of birth in Martinique, and the diaspora of Caribbean islands beyond. From where Boclé, under the influence of French academic Françoise Vergès - grew in La Réunion and Algeria -, wishes to cook a native dish to Martinique and Guadeloupe called Colombo, a Creole Chicken Curry. The origins of which lies with the Sri Lankans, who were historically shipped to the French West Indies in the late 19th and early 20th century to work on the vast reserves of sugar plantations, and bought curry powder with them.

In deciding to cultivate and culture the dish as a performative piece on an unprecedented scale (with the artist wishing to cook for as many as one hundred to one hundred and fifty people, over the course of one evening), Boclé investigates the origins of our culinary palette as evidence of historical economic and social movement, manufactured and maintained by generations of people. As a measure of how such civil and celebratory characteristic of one’s culture, including our choice of cuisine, language and dress code come to distinguish us one from another; and how such traits have been disseminated across countries and continents as the substance of our soul. Cooking intensely for a specific period of time to a predetermined menu for a participatory audience, Boclé wants to suffer the labour of attempting to cook for the public as an act of recognition and reciprocity; in order that he can energise his invited audience into a positive and problematic debate about the coloniality of the contents of the curry that they are being served. As this specific dish is Boclé’s attempt to acknowledge the heavy history of slavery that once connected Martinique with Sri Lanka. And of how such basic elements and indulgences are intrinsically affected by our collective histories. Significantly in his own words Boclé acknowledges “that suffering can be as intrinsic to a landscape as its soil”, as he goes onto explain the work in its previous incarnation. “I have an existing project I would want to adapt for the Colombo Biennale; of a performance for which I cook a big curry from Martinique, which is called ‘Colombo’.” Adding “my father was a pharmacist, who also had many restaurants, and for us cooking became very integral to our lives.”

“For my original performance of the work in Burkina Faso in 2001, I created a dish for between one hundred and fifty people, all of whom were victims of HIV; and for Colombo making this specific curry dish would be an attempt to acknowledge the very tragic history of slavery that once connected Martinique with Sri Lanka.” That in relation to the biennale’s theme of ‘conceiving space’, contrasts the fortunes of the many negotiating space as a place of permanence; as location and landscape in this context act as a boundary from which to perform on a scale that allows for the participation of as many people as possible. All of whose liberties have come about as a consequence of the incrassation of scores of people historically. Seeing space as “public and private, space as protest and contestation, space as tangible and imagined, as community, memory and legacy, space as architectural, performative, temporal, spiritual and rhythmic, space as liminal and ritualistic, space as embodied and meditative, and space as virtual and transcendent.” Scrutinising space Boclé sees it as much a liberty as a liability.

Going further as Federica Martini does to describe space as a place of memory that manifests itself as “an archaeology of the present”, when referring to the immigrant communities close to him in Paris. “I am thinking to imagine that we could think of the space, in which I perform as a space of memory, but really linked to the present as an archaeology of the present. I live in an area of Paris with a large Sri Lankan community, who cook and work very close to my window. And as part of the performative work I would envisage drawing on accounts from those communities, (discussing their identity and adapted cultures) for the biennale.”

“And it may be that such testimonies come as a consequence of my cooking in Paris for them, as the geography of the work is determined by localities that prove of significance to me. From where I come (Martinique and the Caribbean), where I live (Paris, in the Tamil areas of the city), and where I am going, (Colombo). I think that this map is about mixing everything, like the curry. As each curry is defined by a certain way of combining the same spices together. Thus there could be an on-going dialogue within the work of how different curries are made; and of the origins of their ingredients. As the work could be extended to my writing with curry powder; emotive sentences and political phrases that are there to be digested”; as Boclé’s sees his participatory performance as part of an initiative of his seeking to understand colonialism as the common history between the islands Sri Lanka, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Indeed by involving his audience and critical colleagues the artist endeavours to challenge the codes of conversing or conferencing.

Further Jean-François Boclé proves critically and curatorially engaging for his ability to deal with the cannons of colonialism and capitalism combined. And having already conceived of a series of significant works, including his vast plastic bag installation; Boclé is of a generation of artist dealing with their identity as it challenges their wellbeing. Recalling social politics and drawing on personal testament, the artist is driven by a spirited ambition to rewrite history. Not only for himself and his country but for all of those whose countries were captured and colonialised by external forces. The collateral damage of which has been the upheaval of generations of people who were historically either forcibly cast out, or voluntarily took to the open seas to resettle in Europe and America. As the endeavour of those original immigrates has now become endemic of a different kind of social and civil unrest. Yet Boclé’s work is not entirely about his wanting to redress the historical unevenness of one country’s power over another. Politics aside his practice proliferates into intense and very tender works concentrating on the interconnected narratives of the lives of the individual, as they have impressed themselves upon countries and continents the world over. Whether in Fort-de-France, Kingstown, Basse-Terre, Kuala Lumpur or Colombo, Boclé is absorbed by the cross-cultural pollinisation of societal influences and their patriotic practices, as they affect one’s own freedom.

Significant works from Boclé’s practice include plastic bag installation Tout doit disparaître!/Everything Must Go 2014, (recently shown as part of a major group shows of contemporary African and Caribbean art, Pangaea II, at Saatchi Gallery), which is testament to an incredibly beautiful aesthetic, industrial in scale. Depositing some 97,000 clinically coloured plastic bags into an elongated carpet like setting, Boclé’s work reads as much like a theatrical seascape, as it might appear as a monument to consumerism. The intense disarray of thousands of plastic bags tightly pressed one upon another proves hauntingly attractive, for the artist’s perfection for moulding this emerging submarine styled shape onto the floor of the gallery. As the intoxicating blue appears to positively draw an audience into the first gallery. Conjuring one’s own perverse pleasure of wanting to physically lie down on the work, and effectively becoming entirely consumed by thousands of agents of consumerism.

Such desired intervention though is a distraction from the greater politics of Boclé’s practice, as he is preoccupied with the burden of capitalism and post-colonial history. As they serve as narratives for the basis of his work. Tout doit disparaître!/Everything Must Go is a playful but incredibly poignant homage to the lives lost at sea during the transatlantic slave trade. And in magnifying a disposable plastic bag by sheer numbers, Boclé appears to want to draw attention to the complexities of modern history. As the connotations of consumption and exchange become the sub-plots from which he understands the original ills of colonialism.

Boat 2004 sees Jean-Franҫois Boclé create a cardboard installation of several thousand mercantile signs taken and torn from transitory packing. Which are tightly drawn together in neat parcels and piled one upon another, in an effort to create the rudimentary layout of a floating vessel. That will either carry cargo, or immigrants across wider oceans, and into unknown territories. Precariously held together, the work is illuminated by a thread of loosely hanging light-blubs that suggest something of the duration of such voyages across unpredictable waters. Tu me Copieras 2004 is another work that has Boclé reinterpreting history, as an almost traumatic performance in which he labours to write and rewrite a colonial text. Delivered as audio to the artist who acts entirely subserviently. For Boclé the transformation of the ‘black board’ directly in front of him, from black to white by his hand, is as much about the change of colours, as it is about the details of history. Applying a series of legible and illegible chalk marks to the board, Boclé acts entirely upon instruction; but in so doing so also provides his audience with a context in which to scrutinise historical fact, as a vehicle for change.

As an artist, immigrant, Boclé sees in his own history as an anatomical explanation for the social make-up of communities, street for street, cities and societies, in those countries that become the point of destination; France, Switzerland, Germany; with those of departure; Sri Lanka, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Bangladesh. As countries and continents have by favour and misfortune become the breading ground for generations of resettled people who see the landscape as a situation. It was once that geography and identity determined people’s destinies, now one’s name and location are the tools that entitle you to choose. And for Boclé art as an action serves to remind us of ourselves, as we carry our cultures with us, from room to room, across cities and states, as a physical phenomena.

Rajesh Punj, November 2016

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