The Cham project

CHAM, Memories of colonial slavery: a photographic investigation

I started the Cham (1) project with the urgency of answering this question: How was made possible the deportation of twelve million men and women from African continent to the Americas and Europe. How was organized the social, political and moral consensus around the slave trade for four centuries, and then, how it was possible to erase this tragedy of the collective memory of the West countries (and not only), even in textbooks? Have the memories of slavery, discarded by the rails of official history, survived to this day and, if so, in what forms, in what practices and places? How these memories, repressed by some, preserved by others, define our everyday relationships, our perception of others and the place of everyone in society?

With Cham, I travel through the legacy of colonial slavery in the Atlantic world in the 21st century. I am interested in the intangible heritage still existing, in the multiple descendants and various manifestations of memories of colonial slavery, its resistances and its abolitions.

The genesis of the Cham project is rooted in a personal questioning about identity. What is the other? How is it made, by whom, and by what system? It's a kind of questions that arise when one discovers belonging to a minority - as is the case for me. Since my childhood, I have always been the “other” of someone else. This violence pushed me to look for survival mechanisms to stay visible and not "disappear". My Photographic work has developed spontaneously around minorities (whether depending on gender, race, sexual orientation or class), their struggles, their negotiations and their strategies to exist in the face of a dominant system.

Faced with this generalized amnesia, memories of slavery carried by Afro-descendants, constitute a real way of being in the world and of resisting a system that still claims deny or minimize them. Hence, their eminently political value. In my work, I do not wear no moral judgment about the people or communities I meet. It's about rather for me to show what exists today in terms of practices and living memories. I want to question myself and ask ourselves about our own present, to deconstruct it through a historical perspective.
Colonial slavery was an economic and social system that organized life in Europe, America and Africa for four centuries. He fabricated the ideology of the race and racial hierarchy. For reasons of economy and accumulation of capital, he produced the white privilege and strengthened the heterosexual patriarchy that structure our contemporary societies. We are all heirs to this story that influences always the way to represent others, to classify them, even to deny them. The aftermath of slavery does not exist only in terms of representations, but also in terms of opportunities and social conditions for Afro-descendants today: some forms of enslavement - I think of African farmers exploited in the tomato plantations of southern Italy, in the camps of prisoners in Libya ...- and the poverty in which most Africans live today and Afro-descendant communities in America and Europe are the result of a political economic at work since the fifteenth century. It is necessary to invent the Other, as "migrant", "clandestine",  or "foreigner", make him/her invisible as an individual in order legitimize his/her exploitation. The ends have not changed over the centuries: profit above all.
The contribution of anthropological studies has been decisive in the choice of places and subjects. But it is especially once there, through the meeting of people (artists, researchers, associations, institutions, families), that I understand what interests me and through what angle and with what perspective I wish to tell it. Most of my photographs come from encounters and / or friendships I have made with the people I photograph.
Practices, that I had the opportunity to photograph during those years, remain very alive. Unfortunately they are often not visible to the general public, even totally occluded. They are given little interest because they are worn by minority groups without real media weight or social power. Often, we persist in thinking these practices as isolated community memories. We often forget that they are the fruit of a common history, that of the meeting / confrontation between Europe, Africa and the Americas, that of the conquest of the European powers, the colonialism, Western slavery of Africans, and the multitude of cultures developed to its against.
Cham is not a systematic inventory of all existing memories. This is not the purpose of this projet. Cham is above all a subjective journey through a new geography of memory and world, that wants to "move the center"(2) and raise awareness about knowledges and practices at the margin, their custodial peoples and their incessant circulation beyond Atlantic.
Nicola Lo Calzo

(1) The name Cham is a reference to the biblical episode of Genesis known as the curse of Ham (or Cam, or Ham), in which Canaan, and with him all his descendants, is cursed by his grandfather Noah for a sin committed by his father Ham. The biblical narrative of the curse comes at the end of the deluge. In Europe, the use of the curse of  Ham people (identified as the Black people) as justification of the inferiority of black African peoples and the legality of slavery appeared in the 17th century. The first real appearance of the myth took place in the Dutch Protestant circles, in correspondence with the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade.
(2) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, 1993

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

Become a partner

To date, the work in progress Cham has been funded by artist residencies, print sales, press publications, talks, exhibitions and donations. Any form of collective or individual support for the production or the diffusion of the project is truly important for the advancement of research.
You can become a partner and support the Cham project in different ways: sponsorship, purchase of a print or through, a donation. For further information, write to:

Unesco, Fondation Fokal, Fondation zinsou, Fondation Joan Mitchell, Fonds de dotation Buchet-Ponsoye, Dominique Fiat, La Balsa Arte, Luz, Afrique in Visu, La Tête dans les Images, CPMHE, Ministère des Outre-Mer, Tropenmuseum, LightWork, Lagosphoto, Portrait(s), Region Guadeloupe, Bnf, Archivi Alinari, Vogue Italia, Internazionale, Le Monde, Lille3000, Macaal, Château des Ducs de Brétagne, Aides.


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