The Cham project

CHAM, a work in progress

For seven years now, photographer Nicola Lo Calzo has documented the multiple lineages and the various manifestations of the memories of colonial slavery, of the resistances to it, of its abolitions.  He documents these memories because they create life, because they irrigate our present with wisdom and knowledge of the other that is essential to us.  He made his own Edouard Glissant’s affirmation: “To forget is to offend, and memory, when it is shared, abolishes this offense. We need each other’s memory, not for compassion or charity, but for a new lucidity in a process of Relation. And if we want to share the beauty of the world, if we want to be solidary with its suffering, we need to learn how to remember together.” Nicola Lo Calzo’s quest has brought him to West African coasts (Tchamba), the outskirts of Port au Prince (Ayiti), through the Mornes of Guadeloupe (Mas), the forgotten neighborhoods of New Orleans (Casta), the periphery of Santiago de Cuba (Regla), the banks of the Maroni River (Obia). The stays in all these places have been decisive moments in the photographer’s approach.  He seeks to restitute the spirit and the beauty of the way of life of those communities that resist amnesia by remembering the resistances to colonial slavery, this criminal enterprise unprecedented in the history of the humanities.  The photographer unveils the importance of living legacies that constitute the practices and knowledge of the communities that share this history. These legacies prolong a history that has too often been ignored. They transcend the political boundaries of the present and remind us that freedom lodges itself in the cracks, in unexpected places, in the differences; it is humanity’s salvation to know how to celebrate these differences like rays of light that illuminate our present and our future beyond the disasters too often misrepresented in the form of a desired “modernity.” Each of the photographs is a homage, reverence to the beauty of the world when beauty remembers itself. This beauty of the world is all the more, as much in the way one holds oneself in the face of crimes as in the way of inhabiting the world in all the éclat of one’s difference. 

Christopher Yggdre

Ghosts Among Us: The Living Presence of Slaves In Our World.  

“Slavery is a ghost, both the past and a living presence; and the problem of historical representation is how to represent that ghost, something that is and yet is not,” Haitian historian and post-colonial thinker Michel-Ralph Trouillot has written.[1] The problem of historical representation of colonial slavery is also, if not more so, the problem of visual representation. What should we see of something that “is and yet is not”? Of something that has been so central to the history of modernity, of the West and of the world, and yet has been so marginalized or erased in national European narratives? That remains a contentious issue in Africa, though historical revision is finally being done? Further, the representation of colonial slavery is tied with the representation of the Black body in Western imagination and of the transformation of skin color into a social and cultural marker. What must be shown? An how?

Slavery is inseparable from the world of Western consumption, of the introduction of the sweet and addictive products of slavery in the global market. Let us just think of how sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and chocolate deeply transformed and affected European imagination, tastes, social and cultural ways of being and receiving, of presenting oneself to the world, of becoming a man or a woman. Yet, we must be careful so that European representations of slavery do not become our only repertoire. We must shift our gaze from the Western pictorial construction of the enslaved to the world that slaves created with their knowledge, their languages, their cultural practices, and their philosophies. What must be seen? What must be shown?

The slave is a liminal figure, a ghost that haunts our world. His spectral presence must be preserved, Achille Mbembe has argued, so that “he” keeps alive the crime that was committed, “he” keeps open the wound of exile, despair, hope and resistance so that we continue to fight for the abolition of all forms of bondage and servitude. Indeed, in the Caribbean, in Africa, in the Americas, in the Indian Ocean, the memories of slavery are first and foremost the memories of the anti-slavery struggle. The cries, the songs and the texts of the enslaved, the oral memories of the Haitian revolutionaries, the epic of the maroons, the resistance of enslaved women, all constitute a repertoire, a vast library of what was and what is to come, that is a world where liberty and equality are not abstract principles but the foundations of living together.        

In his project “CHAM,” Nicola Lo Calzo explores the multiple forms in which the legacy of slavery has been passed down. Travelling in Senegal, Benin, Ghana, Togo, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti, Louisiana, Mississippi, Guiana, Surinam and soon Brazil, Cuba and Angola, Lo Calzo records forms of subjectivity and representation that link past and present. We glimpse several notions of identity discourse, ways of reinventing oneself, of reinventing tradition and of writing history from below. Lo Calzo even expands our understanding of the power of racial ideology with the astonishing pictures of white families descendants of slaves’ owners in Louisiana.

However, none of his photos seeks to provoke abstract indignation. This is their strength. For too long, the West has been looking at its history as colonial powers through a moralistic lens, marginalizing in the process its concrete and material but also narcissistic interests, in buying, deporting, and exploiting African women and men, reducing them into objects of commerce and a racialized and disposable workforce. Lo Calzo eschews this pitfall. He does not seek to produce in the spectator an easy and confortable position but rather he invites him/her to contemplate the memories of slavery as they are translated by individuals, by a group, by a community.

Nicola Lo Calzo, whom I met in 2009 when he first introduced me to his CHAM project, is contributing to the emerging body of art work that seeks to revise the representation of slavery. By taking the contemporary expressions of slavery as the central object of his work, he challenges the discourse that slavery is a thing from the past and shows its living presence. Taking inventory of this living presence, Lo Calzo weaves aesthetic and ethics together.       

Françoise Vergès    

[1] Michael-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History 
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), p. 147.

Press Review

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