Jean-François Boclé: “Decolonizing the retinas”

In « Jean-François Boclé: Décoloniser les rétines » [Decolonizing the retinas] Horschamp artistic directors Léolo and Luci Garcia interview Martinican artist Jean-François Boclé. Here is my translation of several excerpts from the interview (led by Léolo and Luci Garcia and transcribed by Adrien Socha).

Jean-François Boclé, could you tell us about your childhood?  My childhood was spent in Martinique, in the small rural town of Saint-Esprit. At home in Martinique or Guadeloupe, we always claim to be part of a family but also part of the geographical location where we come from. I am therefore a Boclé of Saint-Esprit. Later I moved to Fort-de-France, the capital, then to Schoelcher. I lived in Martinique for almost 17 years.

What was your first connection to art?  It’s a pretty good story that I’ve never forgotten. I was very young, in kindergarten, and a teacher noticed my qualities in fine arts. We heard about a painting competition all over Martinique and it was decided that I would represent my town there. I remember that I really wanted to paint the sea, the blue of the sea. Already at a very young age, blue. But the theme of the competition was quite different: fairgrounds. A theme that does not really “speak” to us there; it is a tradition that comes to us rather from mainland France … So much so that, despite the theme of the competition, I still decided to paint my sea, all blue, annoying, in passing, one of the teachers in my family. I didn’t win this competition, but it all started here, and throughout my education, art classes have always been very important to me. I also had a great aunt who was engaged in painting full time. By the time my father passed away, he had recovered many of her paintings. It struck me then that we can give our life to art.

 [. . .] Something very interesting in your work, in Consommons Racial in particular, is the large part of the invisible that we find in your works; you seem to want to leave a lot of conversation hanging, only suggested, and to appeal to the viewer’s own knowledge. How important is this place that you leave to this invisibility? And what does it mean?

Yes, quite. Either way, I try to empathize with the audience. But when someone comes to tell me, in reference to a type of packaging present in my work, in Banania for example, that they have never seen it, I have to see it as denial. When viewers see for the first time the work I did with the Banania brand in 2003—the Banania Monochrome installation—they very often exclaim that fortunately, this no longer exists and that this chocolate powder is now part of another era. But the sad truth resides precisely there; it can still be seen today in all supermarkets in France. There is a concrete laissez-faire that still needs to be stated. The company that owns the Banania brand, Nutrimaine, allies the unconscious of the public with their business strategy. For example, by having modified the face of the brand by a cute child but in whom we still find all the physical racial stereotypes.

[. . .]  You write that people often point out to you, after seeing your work, that, in the past, they had gone through life without seeing these different racialized consumers in everyday images. There is denial of course, but is there not also, more serious and inexcusable, the question of assimilation, and of the confrontation between the two?

Yes, it’s true. But when I say denial, I don’t mean it as an excusable behavior. This is very active and almost conscious behavior, in my view. And many are hiding behind these arguments to relieve themselves of guilt, or in any case to relieve our society of guilt. But it is clear that there is still denial today.

By the way, since the tragic and monstrous death of George Floyd, no less than six world products found in Consommons Racial will undergo a packaging modification. These are Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Gemima and another product in the United States, Los Congitos in Spain, and Limpido and Beso de negra in Colombia. There is still a long way to go.

Will these six products then be removed from your installation?

No. The shelf has a design date and it is a work in progress. I will add and not take away. Moreover, the 2005-2016 version has just been acquired by the FNAC Fond National d’Art Contemporain with those six products. It is a work with a historic role. [. . .]

[Photo above from Jean-François Boclé, The Tears of Bananaman, 2009-2012, installation: 300 kilos of bananas, with the artist’s writings scarified on bananas, wooden base (330 x 130 x 25 cm). Premiered at Encuentro Bienal di Caribe, « Happy islands, » Aruba, 2012. ©Jean-François Boclé /Adagp.]

Translated by Ivette Romero. For full article, in French, see

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