Honore Feliciano de Souza is the current head of the Agoudas community and the direct heir of Chacha I (1754–1848), who was one of the foremost middle-men in the slave trade between the Kingdom of Dahomey and the Europeans, early 19th century. To honor their ancestor, the family seemingly runs a sort of memorial in Singbomey, where Chacha I is buried in the family cemetery. According to Honore Feliciano’s unlikely opinion, “the Chacha was not involved in such a slave trade as this. At the time when the Kingdom of Dahomey was killing people, he preferred to take them to Brazil to make them work. He was in fact saving people and that is the reason why today there is some admiration for him,” he says. “Nowadays, no one would want to be a Chacha. Being Chacha is facing many hardships. I haven’t chosen to be one. On October 1995, everyone gathered here and I was appointed Chacha VIII, I cried that day. It’s a life-long mandate.” © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Tchamba.
LEGACIES AND TRACES OF COLONIALISM
Culture is a complex thing, especially when it is emergent from centuries of violence, oppression and bondage. The Atlantic slave trade moved millions of bodies and reordered the geographies of peoples and their customs. There are as many histories as there were individuals who lived and suffered, were bought and sold.
Photographer Nicola Lo Calzo has waded deep into this history for his ongoing, serialised project Cham. For five years, he has investigated slavery’s legacy in Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe.
“From the destruction and the uprooting imposed by the Europeans, to the conquered and deported peoples, the history of slavery is inseparable from the odyssey of Western colonialism,” says Lo Calzo. “But it is also the history of resistance to slavery.”
Elements of resistance are visible in the myriad of visual cultures and traditions upon which Lo Calzo has turned his lens. There no longer exists clear icons or customs that are squarely of a single experience or people. Over the centuries, and at different moments, descendants of slaves across the Atlantic region have won freedom, moved and settled, mixed, revived ancient traditions, and reclaimed symbols of the slavery era. Everything, visual culture included, is in constant flux.
“I’m interested in exploring through photography how and why these groups re-appropriate their slavery past, the ways and manners by which they are transferring this memory to the next generation, as well as its impact on modern societies,” says Lo Calzo.
The founder of the David Akplogan Godonou Dossou family was a wealthy merchant of Gouns ethnicity, coming from Porto Novo. “Akplogan” referred to his function as cult minister under King Toffa. According to Mirabelle G. D., great great granddaughter of the founder, “at the peak of the French domination, he decided to change his name and give up voodoo”. Like most of the city’s rich merchants, he owned “mede”, literally “chosen people”, a dozen of domestic slaves, according to his descendant’s testimony. In this picture shot in the nineteen-twenties, at the height of his economic power, he is seen sitting in the main courtyard of his property. Porto Novo, Benin. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Tchamba.
In Buryan, Death embodies also the spirit of the slaves’ master, who is the founder of their community, Don Francisco Felix de Souza, known as the Chacha I. This double figure of the “Death-Master” is the protector of the hierarchy within the community, while becoming the oppressor of those who would violate it. Buryan perpetuates its original signification in confirming and consolidating the hierarchy and casts among the members of the community: the De Souza of servile ascent on one hand, and the De Souza of direct lineage on the other. Oiudah Beach, Benin. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Tchamba.
Sitting in the center of the picture, Conforte, aged 30, now lives in this house built by her great-grandfather David Godonou Dossou, in the early 19th century. Like the majority of the merchant families, he owned Médé, literally meaning “chosen people,” a dozen of them according to her. These slaves were employed for domestic tasks; construction works in the family concession and in the palm oil plantations. This house is one of the highest examples of Afro-Brazilian architecture in West Africa. “Everyone wanted to abandon our ancestral property as we lacked resources and personnel,” says Mirabelle G. D., the great great granddaughter of the founder. “We’ve been brave enough not to let the house crumble down. The UNESCO has asked for the house to be maintained but we are still waiting for all the heirs’ approval.” Porto Novo, Benin. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Tchamba.
Clement is a member of this family originally from Marseille, France. His ancestor, Olivier de Montaguere, was the nineteenth steward of the French Fort for Louis XVI. He arrived in Ouidah in 1776. He brought with him his wife and their three children, Joseph, Nicolas and Jean Baptiste and organized the slave trade with the French West Indies, He disappeared during one of his trips to the Caribbean and he is never returned to Ouidah said Clement Olivier of Montaguere. Their descendants still live today in the old compound of their ancestor. Unlike many other local families, they have no voodoo altars in their homes, and while claiming their European origins, they strictly observe the catholic religion. Today, in the family cemetery (where I got the pictures), the oldest tomb is to Nicolas Olivier de Montaguere’s. According to the tradition, Nicolas grew up with the king of Dahomey Agonglo (1789–1797). After his adolescence spent in Abomey with the king, he returned to Ouidah in his father’s family home when he continued to deal palm oil . Nicolas and Joseph’s descendants still live in the old compound of their ancestors. They have maintained a position of prestige in the society, and historically occupy important positions in the public administration. Ouidah, Benin. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Tchamba.
Cham is made up of multiple chapters. Mas was made in French Antillas in collaboration with the Mas groups of Guadaloupe. Ayiti was shot in Haiti. The series Tchamba explores memory and experience in the African nations of Senegal, Ghana, Togo and Benin.
COMPLEXITY AND CONTRADICTION
During his work, Lo Calzo has encountered Creoles, descendants of revolutionaries, Voodoo practitioners and black resistance revivalists. Lineages and connections to past slavery are unique. Each generation that passes churns the mix. Lo Calzo, who resides in Paris, likes to use the French word ‘metissage’ when discussing the Cham. Metissage is a positive and politically-conscious term that celebrates diversity and the mix of race in culture.
“With all forms of creation and miscegenation, born as a result of the clash between the oppressed groups and the dominant system, the memory of slavery should be read and interpreted within this hybrid and metis universe,” says Lo Calzo. “It is characterized by ambiguity, mixture, juxtaposition and contradiction. I wish to make visible the connections — and also the contradictions — between these forgotten memories still living through the Atlantic world.”
To note the assimilation of colonial festivals, costume and figureheads is a potential political minefield. Yet, Lo Calzo is not celebrating the vestiges of Western colonizers. Rather, he is merely documenting them as fact. Sympathy toward, and faithfulness to, his subjects stories is Lo Calzo’s modus operandi. The African Yoruba and Nago communities in Benin and Togo have suffered especially, Lo Calzo has observed. So too, the Creole families of slave descendants in Guadaloupe.
Every evening after 6 pm, the group members meet each other in front of the headquarters, the old Fritz family store and they discuss politics, business, religion, and the next actions of the militant group. Pointe à Pitre. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Mas.
The role of the rebel, the resistant, the “Slave maroon” is staged through a particular technical and musical choice. The masks are chosen very simply and made from natural materials. The aim of these technical choices is to result in a direct incarnation of history in the individual’s body, who can claim their multiple origins and reaffirm their putting down of roots in the Guadelupian ground. The body is then becoming a direct carrier for the Caribbean identity and history, which scalds and wounds are expressed in the flesh, through the corporeal moves, through the sounds of the chains and whips. Voukoum headquarters, Basse Terre. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Mas.
Fritz Duncan is the group’s head as well as its religious leader. “After several years of thinking and of rejection by the other groups “a mas,” I created the group “An Bout a-y” (literally “at the end”), to pay tribute to the ancestors,” he says. The group claims to be part of the animist religion and it doesn’t participate in the Carnival. For this group, the Mas are a link between the world of the living and the dead enslaved ancestors. The group is part of the secessionist party LKP. Bas de Bourg, Basse Terre. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Mas.
In the group’s symbolism, the bathing in the sea or river concludes the “charge” on «Mardi Gras», the last day of the Carnival in the catholic calendar. It is an emblematic moment that allows the members firstly to purge themselves from the “mas” to reclaim their individual identity, and secondly, to be reconciled with the “treacherous” sea and to reaffirm their relationship to the island’s history: the place of the bathing is just beneath the Fort Delgrès, a hotbed of the resistance to slavery. Basse Terre. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Mas.
Marcellus, alias Jean Jacques Dessalines with Adrien Jean Saint Vil, alias Charlotin Marcadieu, “Movement for the Success of the Image of the Heroes of the Independence.” Croix-des-Bouquets. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Mas.
ACKNOWLEDGING DIFFERENCE, HONOURING SAMENESS
Cham emerges from Lo Calzo’s interest in the concept of ‘Otherness,’ which is defined as that which is alien and divergent from prescribed social norm or identity. ‘Otherness’ is the identification, definition and social categorization often of a supposedly inferior group — and, usually, to oppressive ends — by a dominant group.
“Colonialism is connected with the ideological construction of racism and the invention of the ‘Other,’” says Lo Calzo, whose reflections upon physical ability, race, gender, sexuality and ‘Otherness’ have been consistent throughout all of Lo Calzo’s photography series such as Morgante, The Promising Baby, and The Other Family.
Whenever Lo Calzo travels he partners with local anthropologists, historians or associations. Recently, he worked with the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans and this month (August) he is photographing in French Guyana and Suriname with the help of La Tete dans les Images. Such allies are important as many of his subjects — especially those who live in societies with racial tensions — are reluctant or unable to speak about slavery. Still, Lo Calzo brings a respectful curiosity to the topic and presses the points.
“To think about ones own enslaved ancestry can pose identity, social and existential problems,” he says. “Who I am? Where do I come from? How can I integrate my family past in my present? What can I do to transmit this memory to the next generation? Why does society still looks at me through the outdated racial categories? What I can do to change it?”
The success of the Cham rests upon its breadth and the way Lo Calzo mirrors the complexity, and sometimes ambiguity, of history in his photographs. This complexity though does ask a lot of the audience. His greatest challenge is to tear down entrenched Eurocentric and Americentric attitudes which prohibit nuanced understanding of groups’ and nations’ uniqueness.
“We act and think through predefined categories of thought, without realizing these categories are daughters of colonialism and are no longer suitable for reading and interpreting the modern world,” explains Lo Calzo. “For example, in the western imagination, Haiti is a country of misery, a ‘neverland,’ a country without history. This dogma is obviously a falsehood created by the colonialist propaganda and integrated deeply into Western thought.”
Lo Calzo forecasts he’ll be making photographs for one more year to complete his complex statement. The entire project will be exhibited internationally in 2016, accompanied by book. The contribution is forever timely.
“The memory of slavery is a delicate subject,” says Lo Calzo. “The wounds of slavery are alive and present.”
In the water basin, a spirit named Lovana appears in the guise of a fish. The faithful come to pray around the basin, on Tuesdays and Fridays. A big party takes place there on September 5, the eve of the pilgrimage in Bord-de-Mer de Lemonade, to honour the Voodoo deity St. Philomena, also called “Lasyrenn” (the Mermaid). Today in Haiti, most of the Voodoo sacred places are located in the countryside, especially on the ruins of ancient colonial estates, which are thus affected by these community identity practices. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Ayiti.
Modeste (in the framed picture) was deported as a slave from Ethiopia to Haiti, in 1781, to the land of Francis Testas, a sugar grower in the south of Santo Domingo. Testas last wishes read, ‘I order that all my negroes here with me, are free, are fed and maintained at my expense, until they have chosen if they want or not to return to the city of Jeremie […] July 13, 1795, seven and a half in the morning, Philadelphia.’ After five years of research between the United States, France and Haiti, and despite some opposition of her parents, Lorraine Manuel Steed was able to reconstruct the life of her ancestor Martha Adelaide Modeste, an African slave.” © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Ayiti.
Preparation of the Mas-a-kongo déportaisyon, Voukoum group The phenomenon of the reinterpretation of the past and the African origin is clearly present in the case of the Mas-a-Kongo. This mask consists of coating the body and the face with a mixture of sugarcane syrup and soot collected in the chimneys of the sugar factories. Once again here, the elements have lost a part of their original meaning (referring to the cult of the bear or the savage man in the Indo-European carnival), to assume a new symbolism derived from the local context. Indeed, the Congo Mask is presented as symbolizing the African origin of the Caribbean people, because of its exacerbated black color. On the other hand, this image reflects of very occidental and colonial vision of the African savage. Nevertheless, this “Congo mask”, with its ambiguous origins, is considered the strongest symbol of the Antillean people’s Negro origins. Petit-Paris district, Basse Terre. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Ayiti.
The fugitive slave — or maroon — occupies a central place in the Haitian universe. He is the ancestor of the fathers of the nation. The maroon is the assurance of an uninterrupted genealogy, despite many ups and downs experienced by the young nation, since its birth in 1804. It is survival, resistance and refusal to abdicate. It is Haiti and vice versa, the incarnation of the Haitian Revolution. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Ayiti.
Theodore Taondreau is the manager of this group. The role of the rebel-resistant, the “maroon” is staged through a technical choice and a specific music. In the case of the “whipper” or “rope launcher”, the mask consists in coating the body and face with a syrup pack (sugar cane syrup) mixture, normally collected in stacks at sugar factories. Again, these elements have lost some of their original meaning (in reference to the cult of the bear or the wild man in the Indo-European carnival) to endorse a new symbolic meaning linked to the local context. Indeed, the “whipper” symbolizes the African origin of the Haitian people because of his exacerbated black colour. © Nicola Lo Calzo. From the series Ayiti.
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Cross-posted to Medium on January 6th, 2015.