FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — It is the official opening day of the first International Festival of Performance Art (FIAP) organized by Artincidence, and everyone is still wearing their clothes. Being familiar with several of the artists who have been specifically selected by the festival organizers — Artincidence founders Annabel Guérédrat and Henri Tauliaut — I imagine that this situation will not last long. (The very next day I would be proven right about this.)
I had arrived two days early for FIAP, which runs April 17–23 in the southern end of Martinique, in Fort-de-France. During my first night in the hotel, the terrace on the floor below held a very fire-and-brimstone church service that was well attended. A few days later, this same space would be used by the artists who invoked raucous and wild practices, using their bodies as vehicles for their ideas.
Guérédrat, who is a performance artist and was born in Martinique, invited the participating performers to do what they want without thematic direction or much curatorial oversight. Though over tea at the hotel L’Impératrice, where I and most of the 13 artists are staying (along with a few other academics and members of the press), it becomes clear that Guérédrat has politics in mind — particularly those that shape and condition Martinique, an overseas region of the French republic.
In her performance work, Guérédrat has found a younger and more open energy in the Americas — away from the stodgy, traditionalist French culture that, according to her, has consistently questioned her legitimacy as an artist. In France, she said, she encountered the critique that her work “was too sexual, too bestial.” Partly because of this experience, she became interested in bringing a performance program to Martinique that was more open and free, grounded in the work of artists living in the Americas — of which she stresses Martinique is a part. Performance art, according to Guérédrat and Tauliaut, is still a burgeoning form in Martinique, where theater or dance are more common. (Indeed, Guérédrat began her artistic training as a dancer.) I also spoke with Tauliaut, who said the couple alternatively found that performance artists in New York, particularly those they connected with at Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn “shared a common language” of performance. To that end, most of the performers, writers, and academics who accepted Guérédrat and Tauliaut’s personal invitations are from New York City and nearby (such as Nyugen Smith and Ayana Evans), and others have traveled from the Caribbean (Audrey Phibel, Marsha Pearce). There are local Martinique performers as well, such as Ange Bonello.
From what I’ve seen, the performers here tend not to be theatrical, but rather conceptual. There are no spectacular light shows or hypnotic soundtracks, but instead the performers deal with rare and odd states of being — states that are not easily explained by verbal language. In his performance on Thursday, Hector Canonge appeared with his feet stained by ash, slowly unwrapping himself from a costume of black cloth and leaves, chewing the dead leaves like some penitent awoke from a long slumber, finding himself suddenly alive when he did not expect to be, and shedding his clothing to remember who he is.
Earlier in the day we had all packed into small vans and were driven to a remote beach for a performance workshop where we dressed in various costumes (I ended up wearing a black, polyester full-body suit to pose with Evans who was wearing a horse mask). The artists were experimenting with movement and personas, donning and shedding clothing to enter into a different relation with each other, with the coastal land, and the sea water.
What makes this festival a true adventure is that it is decidedly not thematic. FIAP in its structure is a model of artistic freedom: allowing artists the liberty to find their own way in the spaces they are given to work in (though I find out that Canonge’s original plans for his performance had to be revised, because the administration didn’t permit him to swing from a rope suspended from a high balcony).
Guérédrat would like for the people of Martinique who attend the festival to gain or heighten their critical consciousness through their experiences there. This hope is certainly a projection of her own concerns with forging a post-colonial identity that is not in thrall to the French Republic. As she says, she hopes the audiences “can identify themselves, by their own black bodies and say, ‘yes, we can do it; yes, we can emancipate ourselves.’” However, the artists will undoubtedly bring a wide variety of concerns. Despite there being an official program and schedule, I have little idea what will happen later today and tomorrow as all the performers present their work. It may be that the artists surprise her, and me, and even themselves.
The first edition of the International Festival of Performance Art (FIAP) continues at the Hôtel L’Impératrice (15 Rue De La Liberté, Fort-de-France, Martinique) through April 23.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by the International Festival of Performance Art.