‘Inheritance is never a given, it is always a task’ – so wrote Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx (1993), a line that Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc once cited in an interview, adding, ‘It is this task that preoccupies me’. That the past might leave a responsibility or task for the present is felt in much of the polyphonic practice of the artist (French Guiana). As a result, his engravings, slideshows, lectures, sculptures and films often find their centre in those moments when historical truth, lapses in memory and the contestatory power of politically or culturally loaded images are in question.
With Abonnenc acting as a historian as much as an artist, his production often emerges from and is shaped by elaborate archival research, enquiries into modernity’s postcolonial legacies and the reevaluation of forgotten, politically engaged figures. But while the histories of colonialisation or decolonialisation and the militancy they inspired recur as subjects in Abonnenc’s work, the undermining of his role as auteur (in order to better circulate the work of others) is an equally insistent red thread in his oeuvre. Indeed Abonnenc’s output is often made in relation to the specific legacy of others (whether Guadeloupian pioneer of militant cinema Sarah Maldoror, theoretician of decolonialisation Frantz Fanon, African- American composer Julius Eastman or the Havana-based, leftist revolutionary journal Tricontinental).
His is an exploration of once politically potent acts – whether Maldoror’s filming of Des Fusils pour Banta (Guns for Banta, 1970), a never-released film about the revolutionary struggle in Guinea and Cape Verde against colonial rule, or Tricontinental’s transmission of images and information meant to represent and further the lusophone struggle for independence – which Abonnenc features in works that pay homage to the past as much as they reactivate for the present. Such works bear the imprints of a methodology and aesthetic sense that is Abonnenc’s own, which can be as hesitant and questioning as it is critical and violent in its implications. Importantly, they also announce that in an artworld that often promotes either the apathetic consumption of spectacular goods or the celebration of radical chic, Abonnenc’s complex interventions are neither.
Perhaps the best example of this is a recent project in which the artist dares to tackle politically compromised histories and create wilfully ambivalent objects that result, like his revisitation of Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti’s controversial film Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World, 1962), which is thought to have instigated as much as documented the colonial atrocities that it captured on celluloid. That film inspired one of Abonnenc’s own, An Italian Film (Africa Addio) (2012), and its related objects, Untitled (Bodies in a Pile) (2012), for which he turned to a typical colonial act of appropriation, melting down a form of early-twentieth-century currency from the copper-lined region of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The artist used precisely this metal, so imbricated in the West’s interest in the Congo, to make a series of thin bars of copper, minimalist in form and roughly replicating human height – the ‘bodies’ of the title. Abonnenc’s gesture, echoing the acts of Belgian colonialists when they discovered large stocks of such Katanga artefacts, inescapably asks if the offensiveness of the artist’s act as a repetition of past acts could be expressed in the mute facticity of the resulting, almost elegant objects. In other words, can things speak of the violent processes (historical, political, conceptual) that rendered them possible? These, like so much of Abonnenc’s work, thus take as their ‘task’ the attempt to render unspeakable histories that are glaringly palpable in our present.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.