Marron, is a beautiful nightmare. A photographic re-enactment of one of the horrors of slavery – the shackle. The devices depicted are based on historical documentation of these savage devices used to subdue, prevent escape and punish.
Shot in Benin these contemporary portraits are meant to conjure the not so distant past, and to sit uneasily with us. Fabrice Monteiro, the former model turned photographer speaks to Another Africa on how this project came about, the menace it contends to show, and how his own personal history led him to make this project.
© Fabrice Monteiro. Marrons, Les esclaves fugitifs. Courtesy of the artist.
Missla Libsekal | ‘Marrons’ is quite the departure from your fashion editorial background; as I understand it is a project informed by your own history and ancestors.
Fabrice Monteiro | The first time I encountered images of slavery, I was about 9 years old. It was in a comic strip. I was shocked by the physical resemblance in those images to the people that surrounding me. It was only later, when I was older that my father told me about our family’s history.
You are based in Dakar, one of the gateways of slavery. Has being in this city, near the infamous Goree Island, influenced you?
My first engagement with the topic actually came earlier than Marrons; slavery is part of my own history. My surname, Monteiro is Portuguese, and the slave name given to one of my ancestors when he was taken to Brazil. Eventually he returned to Benin but kept the name of his master. Marrons takes place in Ouidah, the place where my family originates. Historically it was also a major outpost for the slave trade. My original name though is Yoruba, Ayedabo Adogun Odo.
What lead you to develop these tableaus? and what research did you make to develop this idea, and how did your findings inform your creative decisions?
My aim for this project was to confront human beings. I wanted these portraits to say — “See, this is what we are able to do to our equals in the name of nothing but money. Racialism and later racism were nothing but alibis to justify that treatment.” That’s why it was so important for me that the shackles were realistic, and had to be as close as possible to the original ones.
How did you choose Benin as the site for this project?
Ouidah was a natural choice. The people still have the same facial features which resemble the faces of the men and women who ended up in Jamaica, Haiti, the West Indies… I went a couple of times to Haiti and was amazed to discover that some Haitians look so much like Beninese people.
Can you tell me the background of the title ‘Marron’ and its significance?
Marrons (marroons) comes from the Spanish word “cimarron” (living on the hills) and describes domestic animals returned to the wild. Slaves that managed to escape from their captors farms were also called maroons. The slave masters used shackles either to prevent their slaves from escaping or for punishment.
This work is poignant, recreating a painful history. What kind of emotions did it raise for you, your collaborators the blacksmiths who made the shackles and your models?
The Beninese blacksmiths made the shackles so perfectly and with such ease that it reminded me that the very first pieces were designed on African land. For the models, I did a sort of street casting. Their first concern was that this wasn’t witchcraft. Aside from slavery, Ouidah is the very cradle of voodoo and also explains how voodoo was brought to Cuba, Haiti and Brazil through the slave trade.
The poses that your models hold vary from ominous close-ups to almost playful stances, as in the image with the man casually placing his hand by his waist. What aura were you hoping to convey?
I actually didn’t give any direction to the models. As soon as I would put the cold, heavy shackles around their necks, their expressions and attitude would change automatically. I just shot what they were giving me.
Where has this work been exhibited and what has been the response to it?
This work has never been exhibited so far, maybe because of the uncomfortable truth of it.
Are you currently researching and developing any projects in a similar vein as ‘Marrons’?
I have way too many subjects that I want to explore to limit myself to only one direction. At the moment, I am working on contemporary topic – a series about the environment. It’s a collaboration with a great Senegalese designer and the web platform ecofund.org. Called “The Prophecy,” we are focusing on 10 major environmental issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, one image per topic. We’ve finished the first one, that looks at our consumption of plastic and the recycling of garbage but are looking to get the public’s support to finance the project. You can learn more about the project on Ecofund.
See, this is what we are able to do to our equals in the name of nothing but money. Racialism and later racism were nothing but alibis to justify that treatment.
– Fabrice Monteiro
Fabrice Monteiro is an emerging artist working in the fields of photojournalism, fashion photography, and portraiture. Born to a Beninese father and a Belgian mother, his childhood was nurtured in transculturalism. Monteiro studied industrial engineering before turning to photography. His first foray as a professional model afforded him the chance to become aware of the complexities of composition, lighting and posture. Traveling the world inspired him to develop more creative projects, Monteiro was not destined to become a photographer, photography came to him.
In 2007, he would meet the New York photographer Alfonse Pagano, who quickly becomes his friend and mentor. Assuming his creative predilection, Monteiro strives to build a visual world in his own multicultural image, mastering the aesthetics that allows his images to carry the weight of traditions and modernity. He is represented by M.I.A. Gallery.
Written by Missla Libsekal.
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All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.