Why the Caribbean Triggers Julien Creuzet’s Imagination

Here are excerpts from a conversation between curator Cédric Fauq and artist Julien Creuzet (Frieze, 15 December 2021):

Ahead of his first UK institutional exhibition at Camden Art Centre in London, the artist speaks with curator Cédric Fauq about how returning to Martinique after a decade made him rethink anti-colonial approaches

Cédric Fauq Last year, you were nominated for the Marcel Duchamp Prize, started teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, won the BMW Art Journey award, and prepared several exhibitions. 

Julien Creuzet Spending much of the year in lockdown meant I could take my time in the studio. It’s not very often that you have more than six months to focus purely on ideas. It was an opportunity to experience a slower pace – something I know other artists also crave – which made me wonder why we don’t have better working conditions and why we usually have fewer than three months to put a show together. 

CF What about your teaching experiences? 

JC Teaching is something I never thought I wanted to do, but I changed my mind when I went back to Martinique in July as part of the BMW Art Journey. I hadn’t been to the island in ten years and I had the opportunity to spend two days at the Beaux-Arts de Fort-de-France (Campus Caraïbéen des Arts). Working with these young people, I felt for the first time that I wanted to pass down what I had learned and to share my experiences.

One question, in particular, dominates the thinking of these young artists: should Martinique – which belongs to the French state – look to France culturally and artistically, which is thousands of kilometres away, or to the English and Spanish speaking Caribbean? This question is rooted in geography rather than the region’s history and government. With its potential for both isolation and dialogue,
I find Martinique fascinating in this regard.

CF It’s interesting to think that, despite the language barrier, the people of the French Caribbean could be closer culturally to someone in Mexico City or Bogotá. How did you feel returning to Martinique after such a long time?

JC Going back reaffirmed the sense that my history – with a capital H – and my subconscious are rooted in that place. Despite it being a decade since I last set foot there, within five minutes I didn’t need to use my GPS to get around. It was interesting to witness how language is evolving there and to see how anti-colonialist women activists challenge the status quo. 

CF In 2020, militants toppled a series of colonial statues in Martinique – including a monument to Empress Joséphine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte I – as a challenge to President Emmanuel Macron’s vow that France won’t take down statues of colonial-era figures as has happened in some other countries in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

JC It’s a strong gesture to destroy a statue and, while I’m by no means questioning that action, it is also an erasure. I asked someone who worked near to where Joséphine’s statue used to be located whether he knew about its conflicted history, and he replied that he wasn’t aware of it and felt his country’s past had been kept hidden from him. You and I are privileged to have the space to think about these questions: many people have more immediate needs to meet that preclude them reflecting on the presence of a statue or how history is narrated. The co-existence of these different realities is interesting to me. I don’t want to admonish or point fingers: I want to manipulate the various layers of history. An exhibition can never tell the whole truth; it hides secrets that shouldn’t be spoken out loud because they are too provocative or too intimate. [. . .]

CF How did you approach your exhibition at London’s Camden Art Centre, which opens this month? 

JC What interests me about showing my work in London is not only my relationship to the city but, more broadly, to the Anglo-Caribbean diaspora. Having grown up close to Saint Lucia and Dominica – islands you can literally see from Martinique, whose people share the same Francophone-Créole language, even though they are also English-speaking – I took my own relationship with that diaspora as the starting point for a new series.

I’m drawn to all these small countries that gained their independence in the 1960s and ’70s but are still part of the Commonwealth. Most of their economies now centre around tourism, whereas Martinique and Guadeloupe benefit from the euro and have a higher living wage. With less of a need to generate an economy from tourism, Martinique is totally independent, enabling its residents to decide how they wish to make a living. [. . .]

For full interview, see https://www.frieze.com/article/julien-creuzet-cedric-fauq-interview-issue-224

[First photograph by Fabian Frinze: Julien Creuzet’s People remain asleep during bad dreams (detail), 2020, plastic, wood and wire, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, High Art, Paris/Arles, and Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; second photograph by Bertrand Prévost: Julien Creuzet, ‘Backup, Blackness or Négritude …’, 2021, exhibition view, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Courtesy: the artist, High Art, Paris/Arles, and Centre Pompidou, Paris.]

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