ARNAUDVILLE — Through the common language of art, four artists from different parts of the world hope to open dialogue in Acadiana about race and the painful history of slavery.
“The pain of slavery, both physical and mentally, remains. The pain remains. People can feel the pain, and it is like a scar — mental and physical,” said Alex Bien-Aimé, a Haitian painter who has been in residency at NUNU Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville.
Bien-Aimé and three other artists are part of an international collaborative organized by Shackles of Memory, a cultural tourism program that seeks to call attention to slave trade sites and encourage artists to create pieces for exhibition. The initiative is part of TOSTEM, the French acronym for Cultural Tourism through the Footsteps of Slavery.
The goal is to open dialogue about race and slavery. The TOSTEM initiative is bringing together artists from Louisiana, Haiti, Antigua/Barbudos, Cameroon, Senegal, and Nantes, France, to create work for an exhibition that will tour in five countries across Europe, North America and Africa. A separate group of artists will be in residency in Senegal starting in November.
The four artists — Bien-Amié; painters George Marks, of Arnaudville, and Mark Brown, of Antigua; and French photographer Philippe Monges, of Nantes, have been in residency in Arnaudville for the past month. They visited local landmarks, including the African-American Museum in St. Martinville and Whitney Plantation in Wallace and also visited with descendants of slaves and free people of color. Part of their research involved discussions with academics and government and cultural tourism officials on the effects of slavery.
The experience has been one of growth, both artistically and personally, the artists said.
“I saw this as an opportunity to challenge myself,” said Brown.
Brown admitted he has shied away from uncomfortable discussions about slavery, even refusing to watch movies on the topic.
“This continues to be a huge challenge for me, because I can get real emotional,” he said.
One of the visits the group made was to Whitney Plantation, a slavery museum in St. John the Baptist Parish that made national headlines when it opened last year.
In an interview before the trip, Brown said he knew it would be a difficult one to make.
“I hope for it to be a turning point in how I relate to slavery and my own identity and understanding of who I am and where I came from,” Brown said.
Marks said it’s his hope the work they create will spark difficult conversations.
“We never talk about it,” he said of slavery’s history and current race relations. “You may not know what to say or not say.”
Marks said he hopes the piece he creates will make the viewer “see themselves in it. See them reflected in it.”
Monges said the collaborative is a unique opportunity because it draws together artists who do not know each other and requires them to go through this experience together.
The field trips have led to conversations among the four about how it impacts them personally and how it may influence their work, Monges said.
While each artist is creating a separate work, the goal is a cohesive statement that will prompt the viewer to reflect upon slavery and ask, “What is the link from the past and the present?” Monges said.
Too often, people want to avert their eyes, ears and minds from the discussion about racial injustices and the painful reality that humans were enslaved or that racism exists in their own communities, the artists said.
Brown recalled an almost home feeling when he first arrived in Acadiana earlier this month. Similar architecture and a warmth from the people reminded him of his island home, but he then had a wake-up call over lunch.
“We were having a discussion about the (project), and someone talked about slavery not being a big deal and used the analogy of treating animals good so they could work for you,” Brown said, still in disbelief.
The insulting statement happened immediately after the group’s visit to the African-American Museum in St. Martinville and the offender knew of the group’s intentions.
“I was shocked,” Brown said. “That brought things home in how people rationalized it by saying, ‘Slaves weren’t treated so badly.’ For the first time, I felt black — not just black but slave black.”
At that point, Brown said, he was inspired to engage more in conversations about race and the past.
“I feel more driven to speak louder and more frankly about the issue,” he said. “It’s not a black and white issue. It is the issue of someone who was enslaved and someone who enslaved. I expected more sensitivity.”
Marks nodded his head in agreement.
“These conversations need to happen, and often they don’t happen,” he said.
For Bien-Amié, the visit to the St. Martinville museum was an emotional one wrought with painful memories.
“It felt like my family was still enslaved,” he said. “I want to work to educate others about slavery. We can do better. We are a global village. I hope the artistic expression will help with the exchange of dialogue.”
Marks echoed Bien-Amié’s sentiments, saying the artistic and cultural exchange they’re a part of is like a new form of diplomacy.
“Art makes conversations that are difficult easier to have,” Marks said. “I think it’s a good practice for all of us.”
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Friday, Sept. 25, to remove a sentence stating that none of the artists were available for comment.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.