At first glance, the still photographs by Fabrice Monteiro in his series Marrons, Les esclaves fugitifs (Maroons: The Fugitive Slaves) are the stuff of nightmare. They are hard to look at, and even harder to turn away from. These startling black-and-white photographs depict West African men wearing the kinds of metal devices used to inflict punishment under slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas. These include a heavy set of hooks, used to stop slaves from escaping through thick brush; a set of bells that made silent escape impossible; and heavy metal masks that prevented slaves from eating fruit or sugar cane while laboring in the fields.1
Monteiro, of Belgian and Beninois descent, explains that he produced the work partly in remembrance of his enslaved paternal ancestor, who initially bore the Yoruba name Ayedabo Adogun Odo. Taken as a slave from the Benin region of present-day Nigeria to Brazil, Ayedabo was later “repatriated” from Brazil to Ouidah, having taken the name Pedro Monteiro. At this point, as the artist understands, his ancestor's status hovered somewhere between slavery and freedom. He was engaged, under conditions evidently not entirely of his own choosing, in the domestic slave trade, on slave trading ventures north of Ouidah. (It is possible that Fabrice's ancestor was under the control of Francisco Antonio Monteiro, mentioned as one of fourteen Brazilian slave traders in Ouidah in Richard Burton's report as British Consul in Whydah to the British Parliament.) In this sense, the Maroons series can be understood as a critical reflection on the ethical complexities of complicity in a time of terror, a complexity that defies, the artist insists, simple black/white dichotomies.
The artist, based in Dakar, Senegal, initially undertook archival research at the Quai Branly in Paris. Among his inspirations were images of “Negro Heads” in Richard Bridgens's book West India Scenery: With illustrations of Negro character, the process of making sugar … from sketches taken during a voyage to, and residence of seven years in, the island of Trinidad (c. 1836) (Fig. A) He also drew upon images in Thomas Branagan's The Penitential Tyrant; or, Slave Trader Reformed (New York, 1807) (Fig. B). He carefully consulted the infamous Code Noir of 1685, governing the treatment of slaves in the French colonies. Building on his training as an industrial engineer, the artist created detailed design drawings of varied slavery-era instruments of punishment and torture. He presented these sketches to local blacksmiths in Ouidah, Benin, his ancestral city and an important transshipment point in the slave trade.
Monteiro then approached a number of men whom he met on the city's streets, asking them to don the metal instruments and be photographed within a special box constructed for the purpose. Some men were initially concerned that the metallic masks were a form of witchcraft, but once they learned of Monteiro's family history and his longing to honor and understand the experiences of his ancestor, they readily agreed to assist him.
Monteiro insists that he did not pose the models; rather they responded to the sensory, tactile power of the shackles: “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” (quoted in Libeskal 2014). The artist recalls that upon putting on the metal instruments, all the men began to sweat: “You could see, they felt the weight of it.”2 He notes that his goal in this series is not specifically to address white complicity in the slave trade, but rather to pose universal questions about the origins of human cruelty and terror, anchored in avarice and unfettered global capitalism. “Sugar,” he notes, “was the oil of its day, and this drive for profit, this desire to legitimate this traffic in human beings, drove the rise of racialism, which we still live with today.” By the same token, he insists, the series holds up a mirror to all of us, asking to reflect on our modern-day shackles, including our addiction to consumption and environmentally unsustainable practices, from which we must liberate ourselves if humanity is to survive.3
It is for this reason, in part, that the artist chose to shoot his subjects not on the city streets of contemporary Ouidah, but rather with a black box space, carefully lit to create what he terms a “ghostly effect” These figures are anchored in history, but they are not purely of any specific historical moment or geographical location, for they partially stand outside of history, in a space of spiritual possibility. They come out of the darkness, he explains, to remind us of our shared history and to force us to reflect upon our common past and our future pathways.
Monteiro draws on many cultural and historical referents in this series of images, beyond the chilling engravings of slave plantations and the text of the Code Noir. The efficacy of these tableaus, for the artist and perhaps for the human models, is bound up in the sacral symbolism of iron in Vodun, the Afro-Atlantic religious system that has existed for centuries in southern Benin. Metal ornaments of all sorts are infused by the divinity Gu; the metal staffs known as asen are used to mark the graves of venerated ancestors (Bay 2008). In multiple senses, Monteiro is actively “binding” his subjects to ancestral figures, including those taken away from Ouidah on the Middle Passage, and to those who returned after emancipation, still bearing the psychic and physical marks of enslavement. The artist understands the power of these reconstructed metal instruments, combined with the power of the camera lens, to induce a state of possession, in which the ostensible pastness of slavery times is viscerally re-embodied in the present moment. Indeed, it is interesting that Monteiro reports that the men he attempted to recruit to pose in the project initially feared witchcraft; metal is widely held to heal or to harm and can conduct the powers of beneficent and maleficent spirits.
Monteiro is also influenced by the four rather abstract copper sculptures created by Dominique Kouass, representing enslaved families breaking their chains, that flank the monumental Door of No Return memorial near Ouidah, marking the captured slaves' point of embarkation for the Americas. The memorial is an important site in the UNESCO-backed Slave Route Project, linking Benin and Haiti. The monument incorporates sacred imagery of Vodun and Yoruba ancestral divinities facing out towards the Atlantic, implying, as Ana Lucia Araujo (2012) notes, that the spirits of the enslaved will someday return to their African homeland.
Monteiro also draws upon local traditions of masking. For adherents of Yoruba-derived faiths in Benin and environs, the mask is a kind of portal between visible and invisible worlds. A dancing worshipper hosting the Egungun (concealed power) ancestral mask embodies the spirit of the mask, giving the ancestral being tangible, enlivened form during its return to the world of mortals. In regional Vodun masquerades, the practitioner through his dancing body serves as a temporary host to the spirit of the mask, so that the Vodun divinity, often called up from the inner domains of the earth, may become manifest in the surface human world.
In a comparable sense, Monteiro “masks” his photographic subjects in metallic objects that, although reconstructed in the present day, convey the spiritual essence of long-dead enslaved persons. Hence, the subjects' postures and expressions dramatically alter the moment they put on these horrific instruments. For the duration of the photographic session, they are no longer modern residents of Ouidah, but are suspended somewhere between Benin and the Americas, between present and past, between the domains of the Living and the Dead.
These dynamics help account for the rather enigmatic title of the series, Maroons: The Fugitive Slaves. The term “Maroons,” normally refers to former enslaved people who created autonomous communities in isolated regions, often in inaccessible swamps or mountains. Yet in these images we do not see self-liberated people living under rural conditions of their choosing. Rather, they are encased in metallic instruments of torture that expressly seek to prevent escape. They are not shown in landscapes of safety but are rather starkly presented against monochromatic black backgrounds, framed within horrific iron prostheses. Why should this be?
I suggest that, rather like the Vodun sculptures along the Benin coast that invite the souls of long-dead slaves to return to the ancestral homeland, Monteiro's haunting images do not simply address the Living. They vigorously reach out to the distant souls who died enslaved in Brazil, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the New World, as well as those drowned in the Atlantic during the Middle Passage. Through the potent intervention of reconstructed metallic instruments of torture and imprisonment, surrounding the bodies of modern, free African citizens, the pictures invite the long-unsettled Dead to return to a settled place of refugee. The pictures, to be sure, are horrifying, shocking, and deeply unsettling. Yet, as in Benin's many masquerade traditions, fear and danger are not summoned up without purpose. The shock of recognition seen in the transmuted faces and bodies of these men, reaches across the generations, across the Atlantic, across histories of unspeakable suffering, across the void. The enslaved Dead, so long torn from their loved ones and the lands of their birth, are in an uncanny fashion brought back into our immediate presence, into the here and now. In a strange way, they escape from the plantation of old, even as they are re-confined before our eyes. At the same time, even as these haunting and haunted figures are summoned into our presence, we know that they cannot linger here long. Beheld in the blazing after-image of History, they will soon return to that other place, that zone of ancient terror, the domain of the night. They flash before us, only to fade away. These images, are, to the last, fugitive.
THE SPECIFIC IMAGES
These eleven images all depict men. (Monteiro was concerned it would be improper to ask women of the community to pose in a semi-unclothed state in this context.) All the subjects are naked above the waist, wearing only a simple piece of cloth that recalls both the simple adornment worn by many slaves in New World plantation cane fields, as well as the attire with which Christ is often shown in traditional depictions of his martyrdom. Significantly, Monteiro asked each man to tie the cloth wrap in a manner of his own choosing, consistent with the varied local traditions of wrap-tying.
The first image depicts a man missing a right leg, leaning on a metallic or wooden peg (Fig. 1). Monteiro explains that this configuration references Article 38 of the Code Noir, the 1685 royal document that governed the treatment of slaves in the French colonies:
The fugitive slave who has been on the run for one month from the day his master reported him to the police, shall have his ears cut off and shall be branded with a fleur de lys on one shoulder. If he commits the same infraction for another month, again counting from the day he is reported, he shall have his hamstring cut and be branded with a fleur de lys on the other shoulder. The third time, he shall be put to death.
The second image is consistent with the iconography of Christ carrying the cross, a common theme in Western art history (Fig. 2). Here we behold a close-up of a man's head shot from above; his eyes look up towards us. Around his neck is a gruesome metal instrument; from its iron collar emanate, in a cross-like shape, four extensions, each ending in a double hook that once ensnared a fugitive attempting to escape through thick brush.
As disturbing as this image is, it is also redolent with spiritual promise. The iron cross recalls the veve or sacred symbol of Legba, the divinity of the sun and of the crossroads, who opens the door between worlds at the opening of all spiritual rites in the Vodun tradition. We may thus read this photograph as an invocation, initiating us into a mystical journey across space and time, into zones of anguish and defiance.
Figures 3 and 4 depict men facing us wearing a metal instrument that covers their mouth area with a metal plate pierced with small holes. Such devices were used to punish slaves who attempted to eat fruit or sugar cane in the fields; the contraption allowed them to drink with difficulty, but not to eat or speak. We see their eyes, although each man's nose and mouth are obscured. In Figure 3, a man stands with his shoulders relaxed, but in Figure 4, the man's shoulders are hunched, so that we feel the terrible, searing weight of the device; appropriately, sweat streaks down his torso.
Figures 5 and 6 present men wearing a metal mask with a large nose covering that entirely obscures the wearer's face. In Figure 5 we see a man in profile, only his right ear visible. In Figure 6, the same mask is worn by a man who faces us directly, his torso leaning to his right, his left arm crooked and resting on his side.
In Figure 7 we see a man in three-quarter profile, wearing, it would appear, the same muzzle-like instrument seen in Figures 3 and 4. Only his left eye is visible; the other is obscured by the metal band that traverses his face horizontally.
Figures 8 and 9 show us different men wearing the same torturous instrument introduced in Figure 3, made out of the four double hooks extending for the metal neck collar. Figure 8 presents us a man in three-quarter profile, his eyes directly turned to us in silent supplication. We can only see three of the cross-like extensions. Here we glimpse hints of Legba's cross-like veve, opening up the doors between worlds—as the martyr looks up at us across the great gulf of the generations. The composition recalls with particular force Christ's martyrdom at Calvary: the central hook, projecting towards us, almost seems to pierce his chest, in a manner analogous to the Roman soldier's spear piercing the side of Jesus. His left arm is crooked, his hand resting lightly over his heart, a near-universal sign of our common humanity. Figure 9, in turn, shows us a more robust, younger man, wearing the same instrument. He looks directly ahead, his arms resting loosely at his sides.
The next image, Figure 10, shows us two figures facing us directly. To the left, in the rear, a little out of focus, we see an older man wearing an instrument with three arms and spherical bells, another device that gave an alarm in case of escape. His fuzziness gives him a watery appearance, perhaps evoking the presence of a drowned martyr, lost during the Middle Passage. To our right, more sharply in focus, is a young man, who is in reality the son of the older man. Monteiro explains that the image overtly references article 13 of the Code Noir, “We desire that if a male slave has married a free woman, their children, either male or female, shall be free as is their mother, regardless of their father's condition of slavery. And if the father is free and the mother a slave, the children shall also be slaves.” This father and son, like millions caught up in the Atlantic slavery system, could easily, Monteiro emphasizes, have been torn asunder from one another by the system's legal mechanism. In a sense, this family grouping, including the absent mother figure, can be read as collective parents of all those persons of African descent held in the state of enslavement in the New World.
In a more subtle sense, I suggest that the image of the son, paired with the out-of-focus shackled father, evokes persons in the region who are sometimes possessed by the spirits of long-ago slaves, a complex practice that reestablishes claims to ancestry and lineal continuity in the face of the horrific forces that have violated family ties of descent across the generations. Anthropologist Judy Rosenthal was once told by her Ewe Vodun informants in southern Togo: “Why should [you white Americans] not pay your debts to the slave spirits the way we Ewe do? You would be better off for it. Some of them died violently. Their spirits are powerful; they can help, heal and protect you when you need them, if you honor them fully” (Rosenthal 1998:153). Perhaps in this doubled image we are given a glimpse of the lines of spiritual descent binding long-dead slaves to modern living people who honor their memories, or whom the Dead unexpectedly possess.
Figure 11, the final photograph of the series, shows a man with his back to us, naked above the waist. His shoulders bear a metal contraption holding three bells within a single frame, which would toll if the fugitive tried to run. His right arm stretches behind his back, helping to maintain the weight or compensate for the strained back. The shape of the thin frame holding the bells recalls the shape of the man's neck and torso, while the configuration of three bells echoes the triangle of his head and two shoulder blades. Monteiro explains that the spirit or ghost is now leaving us, but stretches a hand behind us to maintain a connection to the living. The man, in effect, returns back into the chasm of History. Does he walk with Jesus, and with Legba, towards the Mystery of resurrection and eternal cycles of return? In this image, Monteiro explains, he seeks to honor those who refused, in a physical or spiritual sense, the status of slavery, who created Maroon communities of dignity and self-sufficiency. Here, amidst all the horror of enslavement, we are granted a final image of hope, a promise that a better world is possible, if only we will awake to remember our forgotten past and dream of a productive future.
REENACTMENT: INTEGRATING PAST AND PRESENT
In explaining his series to me, Monteiro insisted that his work is not only about the historical experience of Atlantic slavery, but equally about contemporary injustices inflicted on persons of color, from the United States to the Mediterranean:
When it comes to reenacting historical events and slavery in particular, to me it comes naturally—since this part of humanity's common history has been hidden or minimized for too long. These massive displacements of men and women had a huge influence on what the world is now demographically, economically, culturally and geopolitically. It is, to me, directly connected with the recent events in America and elsewhere, asking the question of “Black Humanity.” Why, fundamentally, is a black child killed by police “less traumatizing” then the loss of a white child? Why deep inside of us, 6,000 black migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea is considered “less traumatizing” than 6.000 white migrants? And actually why Africans moving to Europe are called migrants when Europeans moving to Africa are expatriates.
He then quoted a well-known passage from Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks: “The eye is not merely a mirror, but a correcting mirror. The eye should make it possible for us to correct cultural errors” (1967:202). In this passage, Fanon characterizes “the eye” of great literature and art, which transcends the monocular vision of racism and the colonial encounter, through which persons of color have long been viewed in ways that violate their autonomous being-in-the-world. Instead, Fanon imagines “the eye” that effortlessly moves across multiple perspectives, with grace, empathy, and deep imagination, free of the classic master/slave dualism that has so plagued human relationships.
Monteiro's camera offers us “the correcting eye” that Fanon long ago prophesied. The eyes of the men in Maroons, bridging the present and the brutal past of the plantation, function as mirrors in which we may glimpse refracted images of ourselves. In exchanging gazes with them, in looking through the violent prosthesis of the metal mask, we join in a dynamic, life-giving relationship with the souls of those who were long ago demeaned and tormented, who through these startling works of art become kindred to us all.
The Maroons series, created in 2011, received its first gallery installation in February 2016, in Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle. Monteiro has created many additional images of men reenacting the conditions of enslavement, but only considers the eleven images shown here to constitute the “Maroons” series in a formal sense.
This and all subsequent quotes from the artist are from personal conversations with the author.
Monteiro explicitly develops these themes of global environmental complicity and responsibility in his celebrated new work, The Prophecy, a series of nine images exploring nine environmental plagues stalking Senegal and the rest of the planet.