Following the collective of Mauritian and international artists who exhibited in the country’s first national pavilion in Venice in 2015, a new survey of work by Clement Siatous at the Simon Preston Gallery reiterates the relevance of the small island nation in the flows and exchanges between global superpowers – in this case, Britain and the United States. Though Siatous holds Mauritian residency, he was born in the Chagos Islands, and now represents a group of refugees from the Chagos Archipelago—sixty islands in the Indian Ocean between Africa, India, and Malaysia—who were forcibly displaced in the 1960s by the British military, eventually making way for a United States naval base during the Cold War.
Representing the last twenty-five years of Siatous’ work, the paintings at Simon Preston Gallery are of Chagos are re-created from memory and serve to reconstruct an archive of Chagossian life before the indigenous population was forcibly deported between 1965 and 1971. Scattered between the Seychelles, Mauritius, and the U.K., the Chagossians have spent the subsequent decades petitioning the U.N. and the British government for the right to return. Curator Paula Naughton’s New Atlantis Project recounts how the House of Lords and the Queen herself ruled against the Chagossians’ return, citing the islands’ lack of population before the 18th century as grounds for nullifying the Chagossians’ claim as an indigenous population. With the Chagossians’ former world inaccessible and overgrown with generations of palm trees, the New Atlantis Project sought remnants of Chagossian history. From colonial correspondence, to furtive U.K.-U.S. communications, to metallic work implements in a distant military museum collection, there is a disturbing dispersal of Chagos’ history that echoes the diasporic journeys of its people. Herein lies the great value of Siatous’ contribution—with few written records and photographs, with their possessions and tools of life left behind on the islands during the mass deportation period, Siatous employs paint as memory and his oeuvre as archive.
The exhibition primarily consists of outdoor scenes filled with figures who greet the tasks of the day: crushing coconut meat for oil, preparing fresh seafood, digging for roots, or bundling the cargo for a ship. Despite the attention to individual figures or their dress and routines, the paintings do not represent particular historical moments in the same indexical fashion of a photograph or postcard. Subject to the fallibility of human memory, Siatous paints scenes in sequence, capturing the realities of daily life and colonial presences through the entirety of his series. Some are recreated memories to which he has direct access: in Diego, figures engaged in labors typical to his father’s generation, or the instruments used in the sega dance. Others, like the image of the ship Nordvar carrying away the remnants of the population (“Dernier Voyage des Chagossiens a bord du Nordvar anrade Diego Garcia, en 1973”) was not an event witnessed by Siatous, but the embodiment of a communal memory.
Siatous’ technique of juxtaposing island paradise with portents of sorrow creates a productive tension, especially once viewers realize that the deceivingly idyllic life is complicated by the presence of British colonial officers, military vessels, or a rusting shipwreck. An uncritical viewer might read the paintings as personal musings by a naïve autodidact, but for Siatous, his personal memories commingle with the oral history shared among the Chagossian community to enact distinctly political ends.
Here, history is a tenuous blend of fact and memory—an uncomfortable balance not dissimilar to the canonized ‘histories’ of colonized populations. The difference is Siatous’ transparency. Though he paints with conviction, employing each image as a resolute statement about the existence and validity of Chagossian history, he acknowledges that no single scene has the authority to define an entire narrative. He works with larger scale painting because the borders of his own memory, and his responsibility to record it, expand beyond vignettes. Even with the generous canvas size, the majority of images crop the edge of a building or a passing boat or a dynamic figure, generating the sensation that another bustling scene is just outside the viewer’s purview. The ability to author Chagossian history is left open to other voices, his fellow refugees, whose careful guarding of traditional culture or relentless political action also shape this people’s evolving narrative.
After being denied re-entry in 1962, Siatous did not set eye on the islands’ coastlines again until 2012 when he was able to witness the erasure of his people’s presence. The now overgrown island that was once his birthplace and home, Perhos Banhos, is the poignant subject of “I’sle Perhos Banhos abandonnees en 1973.”
This is the sole image in the exhibition lacking human figures. Split horizontally at the midpoint with a band of text identifying the setting, the two registers depict the island from close-up and long-range vantage points. In the upper register, the dense vegetation is paused in a cycle of death and regeneration as older palms collapse while the strong saplings burst through the canopy. The contemporary state of the island embodies the British reasoning for denying the Chagossians indigenous status, with its uninhabited nature echoing the primal condition from centuries ago. Siatous, however, unabashedly contrasts the untamed island with the dilapidated remnants of a dock, an indelible mark of human presence and unjust deportation. In painting the remnants of Chagossian life at Perhos Banhos, Siatous reasserts his voice against the dominating British narrative that dictates a totalizing absence of life, activity, and civilization prior to their arrival, and offers the viewer a more complex interpretation of history through personal and collective memory.