Withered banana leaves lay on the floor of Signal in Malmö. One leaf has been placed in a glass cylinder filled with water, another lies squeezed in the narrow space between floor and wall. Minia Biabiany’s exhibition Spelling is reminiscent of an ongoing catastrophe in Guadeloupe in the West Indies, where pesticides has poisoned the country’s banana plantations. The plantation owners are descendants of the French colonizers, and the use of pesticides has been possible due to French government complicity. The land is expected to be uncultivable for decades to come.
On a monitor by the exhibition’s entrance there is a video recorded at night time in Guadeloupe. Frogs and grasshoppers singing pervade the exhibition. Further in there is a drawing in chalk on black panel, and an animation that shows the process behind the drawing: strings attached with adhesive tape and what looks like a portrait, which appears and disappears before the viewer. In another part of the room there is a smaller projection showing the different stages of a drawing, juxtaposed against the exhibition’s most explicitly political material: the artist’s voice giving an account of how Sweden in 1813 was “handed” a colony – Swedish Guadeloupe – after taking part in the Napoleonic Wars. The Swedish colony was short lived, already becoming the property of France the subsequent year. Guadeloupe has to this day remained a department of France.
There is a silence in the exhibition that results from Biabiany’s method, in which an erasure or reconsideration encounters a forgotten history. She has previously engaged with Édouard Glissant’s notion of a relational poetics, and the idea to replace the concept of origin with fluid identities. This is expressed through a practice that emphasizes the transience of different materials, and that subjects the space to formal and delimitating strategies that evolve during the course of the exhibition. This process reinforces the installation as a field of experimentation, where the works are presented without individual titles, as part of an ongoing process rather than as finished works shown in an exhibition.
What forgetfulness is given attention here? I learn that in the education system in Guadeloupe, knowledge about historical resistance movements is in large parts neglected. This is a critical topic in the Swedish context as well: how many are aware of the history that led Sweden to procure power over the colony Guadeloupe? Ylva Habel, lecturer in media and communication studies at Södertörn University, applies the concept of “Swedish exceptionalism” to explain a national identity which uses Sweden’s supposed international solidarity in the 20th century to suppress the darker sides to its history.
There is a tendency to describe Swedish colonialism as exceptionally humane, yet slavery existed on Saint Barthélemy until 1846, during its rule by the Swedish Crown (1784 –1878). Slaves were subjected to physical punishment without due process, and local traditions were strictly prohibited by the laws that constricted people’s rights. Furthermore, Sweden played an integral part in the profoundly inhumane transatlantic slave trade.
Visiting Signal a second time, one week after the opening, I notice that a few plaster sculptures have broken, perhaps as the result of other visitors’ footsteps. As for the rest, it has more or less remained the same. In spite of this I am forced to confront the uncertainty of my own memory of the exhibition. I come to think of the traumatized body that, according to Nietzsche, questions every history written from a supposed neutral ground, where there is no place for the body to hesitate. If Biabiany’s work opens up for a critical memory, it is perhaps by giving priority to such bodily experience, which frees the exhibition space from every form of history’s perceived neutrality.
Note: The text was edited on 31 May, to correct an error in the original article.