Clement Siatous was born in 1947 on the Chagos Islands, a small isolated archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He spent most of his childhood on the island of Diego Garcia until he and his family were forcibly evicted. The entire population of the islands was expelled by the British Government to make way for a US naval base in 1973. The base on Diego Garcia, also known as Camp Justice or Footprint of Freedom has become one of the most strategic, integral bases for the US global War on Terror and known as a transit site for CIA rendition exercises. The UK Government has been accused of creating the fiction that a permanent population never existed on the Chagos Islands. This claim was made easier to uphold due to sparse photographic documentation that until recently mainly existed in dispersed military and government archives. As with many evicted Chagossians, compelled to leave their belongings behind, Siatous had no documentation of his heritage. In direct response to the continued political denial, he began to render a counterpoint to this official record.
Working with acrylic on canvas and employing vivid colour, Siatous illustrates his former everyday life in exhaustive detail, documenting the villages and homes of Chagos as well as its copra and fishing industries. The works in his new exhibition form part of a comprehensive chronicle of life on the islands.
Curator Paula Naughton, Director of Simon Preston Gallery in New York, started researching the tragic history of the Chagossians in 2010. To bear witness to this untold history she has developed a multi-media project called The New Atlantis, which manoeuvres through testimonials and archival material obtained from a variety of sources, such as retired US Navy Seabees, military museums and WikiLeaks.
Clement Siatous’ solo exhibition at Simon Preston Gallery (which runs until 17 October) forms part of this on-going project and is the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work outside of Mauritius.
PART 1: CURATOR, PAULA NAUGHTON
FNND: How did this project start for you?
Paula Naughton: I have had a longstanding interest in the history of photography and previously worked on projects concerned with memory, migration and ideas of home, the journey away and the fallow space left behind. I first learned of the Chagos Islands during a conversation about generational and inherited memory when I was living in London. When I heard the horrendous history of the Chagos Islands, I was outraged that it had happened so recently. It sounded more like a shocking colonial act and I couldn’t comprehend that it was still happening to Chagossians today. I began to research the history of the Chagos Islands so I could understand how something like this could be enacted politically. It was then that I became aware that half of the Chagossian community were living in Crawley in the outskirts of London since the late 2000s. I contacted the Chagos Refugees Group and the project slowly began, evolving into a multi-media documentary project. I had no idea at the time what I was beginning and the journey it would take me on. The project has been led and formed by the relationships I have developed over the years. In particular by friendships with Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, and Marie Sabrina Jean, who represents the Chagos Refugees Group in the UK. And very fortunately, I met Clement Siatous whom I have begun to collaborate with on his important practice.
FNND: Can you tell me a bit about the title – The New Atlantis?
PN: The New Atlantis refers to Francis Bacon’s utopian novel about the future of human discovery and knowledge. Bacon, the 17th Century philosopher, played a role in colonising North America and the novel refers to the political ideologies of imperialism, colonialism, and overseas expansion. The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was one of the last colonies Britain created as a result of Cold War policies. The US and UK further collaborated on military expansion as part of the global war on terror. Not only were the Chagossians forcibly evicted but for decades both the US and British governments denied their existence. There was an attempt to literally erase them and any record of their culture from history.
FNND: How did you meet Clement and how does his role fit into the wider ‘New Atlantis’ project?
PN: I began the project because I needed to understand what [happened] and how this could have happened and to create a visual narrative and history of the Islands. I felt that although serious momentum is finally building behind the Chagos Refugees Group campaign to return, I still could not see the community, as their voices were often lost behind news headlines. So initially I began recording testimonials from Chagossians, as an attempt to document their memories of life on Chagos and accounts of the deportation. It was during this process that I first became acquainted with Clement, five years ago now. I remember meeting him on a very dull overcast rainy day in Crawley, but through his paintings was transported to another place and time. Each canvas functions like a film-set, the story unravelling through the depictions. Until that point I had only heard through people’s accounts what life was like on the Chagos Islands, then in Clement’s paintings I could clearly see what so many people had described. For example, in the painting Dernier Voyage des Chagossiens a bord du Nordver anrade Diego Garcia,en 1973 the actual final deportation is illustrated in haunting detail. A difficult and emotional event to capture, [but] the painting manages to encapsulate the narrative of the eviction: the empty village lies behind a looming boat called the Nordver carrying distraught Chagossians, the naval personnel with their backs turned away, a metaphor for what was to come. Because the community did not have records to substantiate their right of belonging, Clement is acting as a radical historian in order to validate their history.
Chagossians use the Creole term, sagren, to describe their profound sorrow and longing to return to their homeland. A complex emotion to render, yet Clement encapsulates this and more through his work. As my research continued I gathered archive material from a variety of sources, including some previously unseen footage, showing the different processes of the copra industry. It was incredible to see how accurate Clement’s scenes were. In the very real actions of the US and British governments, they created a fiction that a population never existed. There was an attempt to defeat the population by silencing their voice. Through his memory and imagination, Clement’s paintings reveal an alternate ‘truth’. His works memorialise the memories of all Chagossians and in turn I hope the project can help contextualise his practice.
FNND: Is this project a political act and, in the wider fight that the Chagossians are undertaking with the British government, how do you hope this plays a role?
PN: My processes locate me in a creative space of duality, approaching the project through a bifocal lens, that of film-maker and curator. First and foremost, I hope the project can act as a visual record for the previously cloaked story of the Chagos Islands. The community’s entire existence has been one of defiance and resistance in order to claim their own heritage and to even call themselves Chagossian. Over the decades, against all odds, they have managed to rebuild their fractured community and network, and through this process are claiming back their voice and identity. Most of the archival photos and footage I collected were dispersed in government or military archives. Eschewing traditional narrative, I aim to merge fragments of material and memory to construct a history of the displaced individuals still affected today. I hope by sharing the images with the community, The New Atlantis can help give voice to their history and return these materials to the rightful custodians.
FNND: There is a hope that the Chagossians will return home. Would you say that Clement’s work provides an alternative archive of the Chagos Islands or would you say it points to the future of the islands?
PN: Clement and the community have a very realistic idea of what re-settlement will be like. They know life as they knew it on the islands can never be brought back again. Clement is creating an extensive chronicle of what life used to be like. Through this very act he brings to light what was stolen and expresses the paralysis of a community in limbo.
Clement’s exhibition, Sagren, comes at a crucial time. Both the US and UK Governments are under increased international pressure following a recent ruling by the United Nations that the UK government acted illegally in creating a marine reserve around the Chagos Islands. When the islands were originally leased by the US Government from the British, it was under a 50-year lease that expires next year. Additionally, in January a British Government study found no significant legal barriers to resettling the islands. There was a Supreme Court hearing that took place in London on June 22nd 2015 appealing a right of return, the results of which will be announced any day now. The British Government pre-empted this and proposed a re-settlement plan. Although this is momentous and an indicator that they are finally realising they can no longer ignore the Chagos community, it was not a moment of celebration as their proposed terms are akin to a modern day form of indentured labour. The community rejects these terms and we are all eagerly anticipating the result of the court hearing. Finally, after decades of fighting it feels that the British Government need to find a way to let them return.
FNND: I’m interested in photography as a tool that governs the appearance of statements or truths, particularly in light of the fiction that the British government fabricated in order to remove the Chagossians from their home. With this project, do you in any way reconfigure or interrogate these archival materials or do they stand singularly as testaments to what was and what happened? Also, could you tell me a bit about your own relationship to photography as a key to memory, truth, and lost realities?
PN: Through the process of collecting and editing, I have gathered the materials to illuminate a lost narrative. This curatorial exercise of rendering a story arc brings different images together through a confluence of voices. It is, however, not linear narrative that intrigues me. I’m interested in the asynchronous, the fragmental, and also the Rashomon effect of storytelling and the interpretation of these complexities. In Clement’s exhaustive body of work, he amalgamates memory and imagination, but in doing so he reveals more truths than any photographic image and has created a much needed physical body of evidence.
FNND: What are your plans for the project?
PN: The project will unfold in several chapters. The first chapter was the launch ofThe New Atlantis Project website (www.newatlantisproject.com), that I developed specifically to give Chagossians a forum to share and retain their collective history. The next chapter, Sagren, which I am particularly excited about, is Clement Siatous’ first solo exhibition outside Mauritius. The exhibition features just a small selection of his work as an introduction for a new audience. We are collaborating further on a publication of his extended practice as a chronicle of the Chagos Islands. It will be very interesting to see how the art world responds. I am also currently editing a documentary film weaving together a history of the Chagos Islands from the narratives exposed through my research.