Alexis Peskine’s revisits the
Raft of Medusa in his new art show at Galerie le Manège at the
Institute Francais in Dakar

In 1816 Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, the newly appointed colonial governor of Senegal, departed France on a retired naval vessel named The Medusa. The ship had served French imperial interests in Indonesia and Guadeloupe, among other far flung destinations, before its decommission to civilian missions after the Seven Year’s war. It was the height of the colonial empires; the Treaty of Paris signed a few years before included small print detailing border disputes from Bengal to Louisiana. France and Britain had traded Senegal twice over the two decades preceding Schmaltz’ voyage, and he was on his way to claim the colony back once again.

Like the Medusa, the ship’s captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, was also retired. He hadn’t sailed in 20 years; his appointment to the helm was political. Distracted, arrogant and rushed, he tried to take the fast route close to the shore.  But the plan backfired, and the Medusa shipwrecked. Eventually the elites, including Schmaltz, climbed into the lifeboats, while the remaining 151 passengers assembled a makeshift raft. The lifeboats tried tugging them, but the burden slowed them and ultimately they decided to leave them adrift. After 13 days, only 15 survivors were rescued. 136 of them had drowned.

That summer the shipwreck was the talk of the town in Paris, a political scandal causing much handwringing. A young artist, Théodore Géricault, was inspired to paint a massive oeuvre in response, The Raft of Medusa (1819). Dark and dismal, the larger-than-life painting depicts the starvation, dehydration and despair of the straggling survivors on the Medusa’s raft.

In the 1980s a young Franco-Russian-Afro-Brazilian boy living in Paris named Alexis Peskine strolled through the halls of the Louvre museum. In the Salle Molliene, beneath bright skylights, he was “mesmerised” by the dramatic painting, suspended on the bright red walls. The young boy continued wandering, from the halls of the Louvre to Howard University in Washington DC, to his mother’s hometown in Bahia, migrating cyclically between New York, Paris and Dakar. He grew from an art observer to an internationally lauded artist, working in video, graphic design, photography and sculpture. His art reflects the contemporary face of globalisation, layering influences from his travels.

"I wanted to create a body of work around this theme and to talk about migrants;
talk about colonialism"

Last year, over 1million people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe. Just north and east of where the colonists shipwrecked two centuries earlier, 3,770 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. As he saw televised images of rafts, canoes, and boats toppling brown bodies into the sea, Peskine recalled the Géricault’s painting and made his own version, The Raft of the Medusa (2016). It began as a multimedia installation at the Dak’art Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Dakar in May. He has since expanded into a solo show Raft of Medusa le Retour de la Vague (the return of the wave), which is now on show at Galerie le Manège at the Institute Francais in Dakar.

In essence, mood and theme, the 2016 work reflects the iconic romantic painting, while the aesthetic is totally modern. Life size Senegalese fishing canoes, omnipresent on the beaches of Dakar, and lately repurposed to move migrants, are halved and stand erect. Pointillist portraits representing young migrants are made of gold nails hammered onto planks. The portraits are set into the boats, and also onto pushcarts in a nod to the economic hardship and menial labour young migrants face back home. Another canoe is cracked and splintered on the floor. Inside a screen loops a dreamy, hyper saturated video exploring the uncomfortable repercussions of centuries of exploitation.

“I wanted to create a body of work around this theme and to talk about migrants; talk about colonialism. Media generally talks about migrants without talking about the reasons,” Peskine says. “There’s still a dynamic of power and exploitation that happens that makes countries like France the fifth power… it almost always seems like it’s a conspiracy theory, when it’s really very real.”

In one scene a regal African woman, lavishly dressed and wearing a crown made of golden Eiffel Tower figurines, is seated in front of a relief depicting violent scenes from plantations in the Congo. She holds a glowingly peach white baby, feeding it ceebu jen (Senegalese rice) with her fingers bedecked in thick gold rings. The video pans the carved images of the colonists, then layers in the image of her nipple dripping gold.  “It’s like a nanny but it’s luscious,” Peskine says, “draped in gold and feeding the baby, so that’s the kind of symbolism.”

Later the video zooms into the faces of young men reclined and lethargic, drifting on a raft. They too wear the Eiffel tower crowns; others have wax print tied around their heads. The shot pans out and the raft has the same shape as Géricault’s rendition of the Raft of the Medusa, but the sail is made of Ghana-Must-Go bags, the oversize carryall plaid plastic totes people pack their lives into for journeys across and from the continent. As the camera pulls back, the raft shrinks into a tiny blot on a sea of bright blue.

To Peskine, the boat journeys between France and Senegal, though set two centuries apart, are part of the same narrative. “Their stories are intertwined. Colonialism was one migration, a little more radical one, a little more bullying, and the one that took more than the one that’s coming back now and being ostracised.”

But beyond the symbolic parallels of shipwrecks and imperialism, beyond the echoed imagery, the works also share a title. In Géricault’s version, Medusa is simply the ship name, but Peskine dug into the original Greek myth.  Medusa is known as a snake-haired monster so hideous anyone who sees her turns to stone. But she wasn’t always such. She started as a young woman so beautiful that the powerful goddess Athena jealously hated her. When Poseidon, god of the sea, raped Medusa in Athena’s temple, Athena punished her, transmuting the rape victim into a monster. “Medusa was Africa to me on a second read,” Peskine says. “We always talk about her as a monster, it’s kind of the way the media portrays Africa - not necessarily as a monster but as something negative.”

He was drawn to the rape narrative, and to Medusa’s complex power. “Africa is like that to me because… slavery and colonialism was an extreme loss in terms of the youth, the numbers of people... Then even colonialism today and the fact of exploitation today, the loss is there,” Peskine says. “But it’s a giant, it has the power to kick ass, basically, and it’s kind of like the awakening of Medusa.”

Alexis Peskine’s Raft of Medusa le Retour de la Vague is on show at Galerie le Manège at the Institute Francais, Dakar, until 30 January 2017

Photography Ricci Shryock

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