The paintings in Clement Siatous’s exhibition ‘Sagren’ are seemingly touristic depictions of daily life in a tropical seaside village. Their backstory interrupts that idyllic image, however. Siatous hails from the Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where he – along with all the others who lived there – were forcibly evicted by the British government in the 1970s. The archipelago was then leased to the US for a military base involved in extraordinary rendition. Scant photographic evidence of pre-eviction life helped to support the claim of the Western powers that nobody lived there. ‘Sagren’ argues otherwise.
At a time when indigenous-rights groups maintain Instagram accounts and Facebook pages – Chagossian refugees have used crowdfunding to support their cause via the lighthearted Chagos Island Football team project – Siatous’s decision to paint is striking. It is partially about creating a counter-memory, using one of the oldest technologies in the world, painting, to reassert the presence and identity of a culture distrustful of newer imaging technologies with their guise of objectivity. But it is also about an activist sense of time; the sum of the marks that went into their own slow creation. Patience is a radical gesture. More than four decades have passed since the Chagossians were deported and, if anything, the pressure to return has increased.
Siatous paints a matriarchy. He renders the women with facial details and personality not readily found in his depictions of men. Things were better, the artist seems to imply, when women ruled.
Porteuse de Coco pour plantation 1950 (Coconut Bearer for the Plantation 1950, 2003) is dominated by the portrait of a muscled woman with a open, toothy smile who balances a basket of coconuts on her head. Her floral dress could double as breastplate armour. She towers over the landscape. This was the show’s only close-up portrait, and her scale suggests that she’s more of a goddess of strength and abundance than a villager – a goddess with her bra strap showing. It’s an eye-catching detail for Siatous to include – and not a sexualized one – which humanizes the female colossus.
Her counterpart is a white captain in a white uniform and cap. He appears in two paintings, surveying the island then piloting the eviction ship away (Diego Garcia Katalina sur zil, 2015; Dernier Voyage des Chagossiens a bord du Nordvar anrade Diego Garcia, en 1973, 2006). Each time he’s hunched over on deck, hiding his face with binoculars. For this intruder, distance power and cowardice have fused into a single thing.
Diego (2015), the exhibition’s centrepiece, hung on a wall painted orange. A pair of coconut-touting women dressed in blue with their backs to us converse in the centre of the painting. The island scene appears to emanate outwards from them, as if what they remember is what we must see: self-sufficient people working amid abundant flora and fauna. On the right, a girl scratches her head as she unselfconsciously peers at the viewer; on the left, sits a dog. The gazes of the two figures who look directly at us suggest honesty, a way to say: ‘What I’m showing you is true.’
These paintings are documents. Outside of them, denial of Chagossian subjecthood is total. The basics of the situation can be grasped by quoting the entirety of a 1971 memo sent to UK officials by the US Chief of Naval Operations, regarding the archipelago’s thousands of inhabitants: ‘Absolutely must go.’ What happens at the level of that sentence mushrooms upward into shadowy statecraft, and it is precisely these clipped, official silencings that Siatous’s images defy. In a better world, Siatous’s paintings would claim their right to be kitsch. Until the Chagossians establish a right to return, they are much more than that.