Magical beauty and deep pain in Gregory Halpern’s homage to Guadeloupe
Guided by the surrealist writings of Aimé Césaire, Halpern attempts to create a visual ode to the Caribbean archipelago, compelled by the dissonance between its natural beauty and terrible history, and struggling with his position as a white outsider
Off the northwestern coast of South America, amid a string of islands nestled in the eastern Caribbean Sea, Guadeloupe extends its wings: the archipelago’s two main islands resemble a misshapen butterfly, around which a collection of smaller islets sit. Then, at ground level, paradise emerges into full view: azure skies and deep blue sea; endless beaches dusted in lemon-yellow sand; lush flora and fauna creeping into urban dwellings; and a rich, golden light coating it all.
But, beneath its beauty, lingers the residue of a terrible past. The arrival of Christopher Columbus on Guadeloupe’s shores in 1493 marked the advent of ceaseless attempts at colonisation by European countries. These began with Spain. However, France expelled the Spaniards at the start of the 17th-century. And, for the most part, the French maintained sovereignty over the land. In 1650, Guadeloupe entered the Atlantic triangular slave trade, and a plantation system grew. Although slavery was briefly prohibited in Guadeloupe following the French Revolution, it took another two centuries, until 1848, for its final abolition in the archipelago.
The complete history of the former colony, which remains an overseas department of France today, is tumultuous and violent. Reminders of its past abound, and its memorials are ubiquitous. One statue remembers the first abolition of slavery in 1794 (eight years later, the First French Empire, under Napoleon Bonaparte, reinstated it); while another memorialises La mulâtresse Solitude, an enslaved domestic worker who became a heroine of the resistance, fighting against slavery’s re-establishment, only to be imprisoned and executed.
One might describe the island as a gorgeous butterfly with broken wings; verdant and beautiful, but scarred by its history. And it was this dissonance that compelled Gregory Halpern when he decided to make work about it: driven to make sense of its beauty compounded with the scars of its past. An image of a Ficus citrifolia (above), or shortleaf fig tree, encapsulates this. Its mighty roots unfurl within the ruins of a former slave prison in the town of Petit-Canal. They rip across the decaying structure; nature at once avenging the horrors and memorialising the loss of the past.
As the 2018 laureate of Immersion (a French-American Photography Commission launched in 2014 by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès), Halpern arrived in Guadeloupe with no final plan. Instead, he allowed himself to wander in the surrealist sense of the term. As a “modest recording instrument” in the words of André Breton (1896-1966) — the father of surrealism and companion of the poet, author and politician Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), whose writings profoundly influenced Halpern’s work. The French Afro-Caribbean author was a co-founder of anti-colonialist literary review L’Étudiant noir (‘The Black Student’), in which he conceived of the concept of Négritude: a form of Black pride.
Halpern read Césaire’s 1948 collection of 72 poems Soleil cou coupé (published in English as Solar Throat Slashed) ahead of his first trip to Guadeloupe. “[The poems] are full of such extremes — magical beauty, as well as deep pain and rage; all mixed, tense and contradictory,” says Halpern.
The explosive anthology tackles subjects of political and historical urgency through prose laden with Surrealist techniques; writing, which draws upon free association, chance, dreams, and the unconscious. Halpern too endeavoured to open himself up to serendipity. However, he was deeply aware of his privileged point of view — a white man and an outsider. “As a white, American man with institutional support, I’ll never fully understand his experience, or what it is to be Black or Caribbean,” reflects Halpern. “But, I am still deeply moved by [Césaire’s] work, and my hope is that I have done it justice; that by responding to it I have engaged in a positive form of creative exchange, an homage.”
This is a point Halpern delves deeper into during a conversation with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, which also accompanies the work. He discusses his position as an outsider, and the importance of marginalised groups taking ownership of their narratives after centuries of “(mis)representation”. However, he also expresses a commitment to wanting to connect: “To create something transcendent, or to look for the shared weight of experience across those lines that separate us.” In this sense, Halpern presents his Soleil cou coupé as an attempt to absorb the history, politics, and present of a place, and make images informed by that knowledge and his intuition as an artist. The resulting series emerges as a visual poem, attempting to respond to both Guadeloupe’s beauty and its terrible past.
To coincide with the publication of Soleil cou coupé, (Let the Sun Beheaded Be), by Aperture, and ahead of an exhibition of the same name opening on 08 September 2020 at the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, Halpern discusses what compelled him to make work about Guadeloupe and the difficulties he faced in doing so.
What drew you to Guadeloupe and what about the work of Aimé Césaire initially inspired you?
I was fascinated by how Guadalupe sits in-between the Americas and Europe, both culturally and geographically. I was also interested in looking at France through the lens of Guadeloupe, as a former colony. I wanted to reconsider what images, what locations, and what people come to mind when one thinks of ‘France’. I was curious about the places that existed beyond the tourism industry, and I was also interested in exploring the relationship between colonialism and tourism.
As for Aimé Césaire, when I decided I was going to Guadeloupe, I knew I needed to delve into his work, and, for me, his book Soleil cou coupé was key. I think the poems are amazing and remarkably visual. They are full of such extremes — magical beauty, as well as deep pain and rage; all mixed, tense and contradictory, which I tend to like in art. He holds back nothing and is not afraid to write about what’s dark, or taboo, or repulsive. I don’t often have this kind of response to reading, but his poems made me want to go out and make pictures.
How did you translate the surrealist writings of Aimé Césaire into your images? Do they reflect his work? Did elements of surrealism guide your process in any way?
I liked the contradictions in his work and wanted that tension and dissonance in my pictures as well. However, I’m not sure if or how my images ‘reflect his work’; his writing has been filtered through the idiosyncrasies of my own perspective and the very different experiences of my life. As a white, American man with institutional support, I’ll never fully understand his experience, or what it is to be Black or Caribbean. But, I am still deeply moved by his work, and my hope is that I have done it justice; that by responding to it I have engaged in a positive form of creative exchange, a homage.
How have you endeavoured to acknowledge Guadeloupe’s history in your images, particularly given the beauty of the location?
The contrast between the beauty of the place, and its troubled past, is in part what drew me there. And I have tried to engage with that past almost more than any other aspect of Guadeloupe’s history. There are many images in the book that engage with that history very literally — images of slavery memorials, as well as monuments of important Black leaders. But, I also reference history symbolically: through images of pain and violence, as well as symbols of resistance.
From what I understand, there was no strict narrative, which you felt bound by when photographing in Guadeloupe. Instead, curiosity guided you. What compelled you? What drove you to take a picture?
When I go out with the camera, I start with a plan, but I like to be surprised or sidetracked. For the pictures to work, in the end, there has to be something that defies expectation, something that unsettles or nags at you. Something that makes you think. Not something that simply reaffirms what you already know or feel.
And when I think back on the creative process, a mix of conscious and unconscious decisions shaped it. Planning or research may have informed conscious decisions. Things like looking at maps, reading Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, learning about the Atlantic slave trade, interviewing historians, hiring tour guides, going to local museums, reading the local paper, attending public events. All those experiences were critical and often led directly to key images. But, sometimes they just sit there in the background, informing your intuition.
Less conscious decisions might have involved: returning to the same defaced Columbus monument an irrational number of times to see it in a different light, or allowing the path of a stray cat to change my plans for the day, or collecting discarded things in the trunk of my car in the hope that they might be the right prop at some point, or buying coffee at a café multiple times until I realised I was working up the nerve to ask the guy serving there if I could photograph him, only to be turned down.
Did you have a preconceived notion of how the project would emerge? Did the final work reflect this, or diverge, and, if so, how?
I don’t like to have a preconceived vision of a final project. I might have a vague outline of the key subjects I want, and how the colours might look, or how the light might feel. The biggest challenge for me was the language barrier, and my anxiety as an interloper compounded this, as did my questions about how, and if, I could do this work justice as a white man and an outsider. This made the inherently awkward practice of photographing strangers all the more awkward.
There is a troubling relationship between photography and hunting, or “trophy-keeping”, as photographer Sim Chi Yin once put it, and that’s in your mind all the time. This was the first time I made a body of work outside the US, and something I didn’t anticipate was how self-conscious I would be, at times, making pictures.
On bad days, there was a voice in my head telling me I was just another colonialist, extracting images from Guadeloupe for my benefit. On good days, the voice told me it was important for me, and other white people, to be thinking about this history and to be engaging with it visually, and that I would find a way to do it with sensitivity and respect.
Most days were somewhere in the middle. With all projects, I tend to struggle with a deep self-criticality, but, with this project, there were a lot of days I simply spiralled downward about the inevitable failure of the work, given my identity in relation to the subject.
An extended version of this interview will be published in the upcoming print edition of British Journal of Photography.
The exhibition Soleil cou coupé, (Let the Sun Beheaded Be), curated by Clément Chéroux in collaboration with Agnès Sire, is on show from 08 September to 18 October 2020 at the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, and will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, SFMOMA, California, in 2022. The exhibition is accompanied by Halpern’s monograph of the same name, published by Aperture. The project was made possible by Immersion: a French-American Photography Commission launched in 2014 by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès.
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