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©Kanawa, caravelle &Co, work in progress


According to Michel Foucault’s concept, the boat epitomises a heterotopia, that is, « a thing floating in space, a place without a place, that lives by itself, enclosed on itself and at the same time given up to the infinity of the sea. From port to port, from broadside to broadside, from brothel to brothel, the boat sails all the way to the colonies, looking for what is most precious in their gardens. So you can see why, from the 16th century until today, our civilisation has seen the boat not only as the most important instrument of economic development, of course, […], but also as the most important vehicle for the imagination. The ship epitomises a heterotopia. In boatless civilisations, dreams dry up, spying replaces adventure and the police replace buccaneers. » (1) Yet the boat is part of an ambivalent poetry.

Heroes, sailors, pirates, buccaneers and privateers, from Homer’s Odyssey to Christopher Columbus, Surcouf, Long John Silver, Moonfleet or Redbeard continue to haunt the imaginations of adventure-lovers. But a boat can be, in turns, Noah’s protecting and life-saving ark or the funereal skiff of the soul’s ferryman, Charon. Boats can open the way to the oceans and the continents, exploring and conquering a new world, and even the hope of a better life elsewhere, but can also embody slave deportations, the forced migrations of boat people, danger and death.

 For EdouardGlissant, the boat is the location of the original traumatism, the deportation of Africans. But EdouardGlissant also shows how the boat has acted as a fertile womb, where the diaspora’s identity was forged… « The womb of this particular boat dissolves you and ejects you into a non-world where you cry out. The boat is a matrix, a womb-abyss.  Generating your protests.  And also producing all future unanimity.  Because although you are alone in your suffering, you share the unknown with a few others, people you don’t yet know. But the boat is a womb, a matrix, that ejects you. It contains both the dead and those living on borrowed time ». (2)

The boat also brought colonisation and capitalism to the Caribbean. The post-Columbian Caribbean was not shaped by a simple caravel, but by a machine, as understood by Deleuze and Guattari, a machine that, in order to enjoy the riches of the Carribean, configured and modelled it, in the words of Antonio Benitez-Rojo.

Yet the boat, « a microsystem of linguistic and cultural hybridity », had a definite function in building the « Black Atlantic », which Paul Gilroy drew attention to: « The ship was a dynamic way to link different points scattered over the Atlantic. The boat was a mobile element that played the role of a moving space between fixed spots, bringing them into relation with each other. This is why we need to see it as a cultural and political unity and not as the abstract embodiment of triangular trade ». (4)

How do plastic artists in the Caribbean embody this founding paradigm of their region? Dugout canoes and paddles (in French Pirogues et Pagaies), foretops and rope ladders (in French Hunes et Haubans), Balseros and Boat People…. This  is an invitation to travel on board artistic kanawas, caravels, canoes and cargo ships.

Dominique Brebion- 2018


1 Foucault, Michel, 1984,  Des espaces autres [Conference at the Cercle d’Études Architecturales, 14 March 1967], Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, no 5, p. 46-49.

2 Glissant, Édouard, 1990, Poétique de la Relation, Paris, Gallimard. 

3 Benitez-Rojo, Antonio, 1996, The repeating island: The Caribbean and the post-modern perspective Benitez Rojo -, The Repeating Island, Durham, Duke University Press

4 Gilroy, Paul, 1993, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press

Click on the first image to scroll through the slideshow and read the captions…


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