Prehistoric peoples were already drawing mysterious signs on rocks. The Egyptians decorated their walls, clothing, vases and jewellery with strange snakes, eyes, lines and dots. Even today, there are still isolated peoples conveying messages with carved signs and figures in wood and bark. For centuries, they have been transmitting messages, directly and clearly. In the early 20th century, a range of Western artists began to experiment with signs and symbols, using them independently of their original meaning, combining them in different ways and even inventing new ones. Signs, marks and writing have been very much in evidence in painting from the post-war years to today.
Do artists from Martinique use signs in a specific way? Do they paint signs or forms? A form, according to the definition given by the art historian, Henri Focillon (1881-1943), is whatever does not signify something or have an intrinsic meaning, unlike a sign, which points to something outside itself.
Signs can be used for memory, as in Anicet and Ozier Lafontaine’s origins writing; they can be real signs retranscribed, as in the hobo alphabet found in the work of Wolfric; the invented signs used by Habdaphaï, and the many other pictorial, sign-based experiments carried out by Nivor, Cabord, Medélice, Charron or Dumbardon.
Signs can be real or imaginary. Sometimes they convey a precise meaning, but other times they signify nothing in particular. They can be found from one picture to the next, from one series to the next, giving the composition structure through repetition.
Anicet and Wolfric both transpose two real signs on the canvas, with American Indian graphics for the former and the hobo alphabet for the latter.
Victor Anicet does not copy American Indian signs and symbols, but makes them his own by redesigning them, reproducing them using different tools, making them bigger, simpler and putting them to new uses. The ornamentation on Caribbean pottery – curves, rings and scrolls – the geometric designs, the engraved or carved lines in diamond-shaped meshes are given a new interpretation in the American Indian Invocations series.
The notches characterising the insular Saladoid period and made by American Indians using sharp shards on clay that was shaped and dried before firing, have been reproduced with acrylic paint in these pictures. Victor Anicet uses small touches of paint set close together in an Impressionist spirit. They are broad, ample, freer touches in different colours, with ochre, green, red and green, mauve or yellow predominating.
The word « hobo » is of uncertain origin. It was used to describe nomadic workers during the Great Depression, who made their way across the United States in search of a little job and ways to make ends meet. They tried to flee the poverty caused by the profound changes, industrialisation and urbanisation that affected American society in the first half of the 20th century. They travelled by road, but also stowed away on freight trains. To pass on information about the best regions to find a steady job, hobos drew symbols with chalk or coal. The aim was to let others know where to catch a train, where police presence was heavy, where to find a hot meal, where there were dangerous dogs and welcoming or unwelcoming houses. The hobo became a mythical figure in the American mind, appearing as a freedom-loving individual who could survive outside of social norms.
The signs invented by Habdaphaï and Nivor, like hobo symbols, have a precise, detailed but very personal meaning. Habdaphaï has created an alphabet of around 50 signs, which he combines in different ways from one painting to the next to tell a story – the story of multicultural individuals in search of their identity.
Bertin Nivor tries to find an artistic form to express the Creole outlook. He strives to represent the metaphors in the Creole language visually. His inventive and open-work hangings were originally designed to be displayed in the open countryside and set up a dialogue with poor farmers and tell a story in their own way. They evoke a crop symbolising Creole gardens, the xanthosoma (elephant’s ears) or the search for much-needed pan-African solidarity.
Signs are sometimes abstract and without signification in the works of Valérie John and Chantal Charron, and contribute to the work’s rhythm and composition. They are also more or less stylised in the works of Chantal Charron, Alain Dumbardon and Ricardo Ozier-Lafontaine, and act as a personal form of writing. Chantal Charron has created a fictional alphabet made up of human silhouettes on different scales. The silhouette figures are created on the picture by scraping, marking, incision or adding new materials. They make the picture medium their own, as someone might make the page of a lined exercise book their own. They bring out a form of writing in its formal sense, a fictive style of writing, an imaginary calligraphy. Signs cover the picture in a series, a juxtaposition and a succession of small superimposed silhouettes and act like a framework, a musical score or a text. The technique is spontaneous and playful, like a liberated form of calligraphy. Sometimes space is the focus in a picture, a free, light-filled and empty space. At the foot of the picture, like at the foot of a page, a group of silhouetted figures stands out. As these figures of various sizes move out of view, a rhythm is produced and gives rise to more or less abstract and disintegrating shapes. Sometimes the work on signs becomes a drawing, a sketch or a graphic design made with charcoal, Indian ink or walnut stain, at the limits or at the frontier of what can still be called painting on canvas, and rid of the least trace of a painter holding a brush in his hand.
In the sculptural drawings by Dumbardon, masks, arrows, fish, cutlasses and drums act as a simplified, dynamic and symbolic alphabet, a timeless form of writing or a vigorous and gestural calligraphy.
Fabienne Cabord plays on the opposition between graphic designs and flat tints. She aims at simplicity, often working quickly and improvising on all kinds of found or recycled media, displaying stories and applying part of her imaginary world to the real world.
« Bio-graphiques » evokes the feeling of saturation we can feel when faced with the huge amounts of information issuing from the social networks, from advertising and the television. Through the interplay of appropriation and « détournement » – putting objects to new uses (a metal cabinet door), advertising or corporate slogans, phrases taken from comic books – as well as irony and humour, Fabienne Cabord creates a sense of distance from this overload of images and slogans.
With the series by Raymond Medelice, Les Noces de Cana (Wedding at Cana) Le Repentir de Gilles de Rais (Gilles de Rais’ Repentance) and Le Dorliss (The Dorlis) we arrive at the ultimate graphic abundance, at aesthetic excess, repetition and the flamboyance of pure and fluorescent colours. The invasive occupation of the surfaces, the obsessional return of certain motifs – the revolver, playing cards, coins, funeral wreaths, decapitated heads with their tongues hanging out, broken and resewn hearts – and the use of embedded graphic techniques until the picture surface is completely saturated all combine to create an exuberance characteristic of the artist’s style. Scarification of the successive layers with wet pigments, an attempt to create a special background rhythm, and the swirling and curled figures that are part of the drying pictorial material help bring the surface of the picture to life in a virtual movement.