As a continuation of her projects created in Réunion, in 2009 Laura Henno began working in the neighbouring archipelago of the Comoros, the regional epicentre of migration and its related repercussions. Although until then she had focused on the representation of young people implicated in “marronage,” referring to the act of runaway slaves escaping from slavery, which is now again used to describe the fleeing strategies of migrants, here she looks at the landscape of migration and the lives of people smugglers. M’Tsamboro, the title of the new exhibition at the Galerie filles du calvaire, thus refers to a small uninhabited islet of the Comoros archipelago where unscrupulous people smugglers leave migrants they have tricked and who were hoping to arrive in Mayotte. This insular trap then becomes the place of the first disillusions for these exiled natives of the Comoros, obliged to hide from the border police and their dogs. Through several new pieces and the film Koropa, which has received many prizes, M’Tsamboro multiplies the perspectives on this territory full of contrasts, both illusory and very real, rendered in a poetic realism, but never idealised.
The M’Tsamboro installation, a triptych projected onto a single screen, places the visitor in front of the intersecting destinies of several children from the same family, who the artist has been following for four years, all of whom have trained to be people smugglers. At the helm of their small boats, they are brought back to a childlike innocence (noticeable by the decalomania of one, the satchel of another, and their pink customised paddles), which they nevertheless are on the way to losing. Frozen in a heroic posture (Eli backlit and bathed in a halo of light) or, on the contrary, confronted by the harsh realities of the job (Nasser ill, Mokatir with swollen feet), they embody the tragic condition of a humanity adrift, exposed to all risks and dangers. Placed in the opposite direction to the boat’s trajectory, in silence, the spectator witnesses the infinite wandering of these young driver-guides who seem to constantly return to their departure point. Freed from the narrative form, Laura Henno’s images here lend themselves with even greater ease to a game of interpretations: the children may be training or playing the role of prisoners unable to escape from the island, the doubt in their eyes recalls unattainable horizons, here symbolised by the islet of M’Tsamboro, which appears in the background, floating and unstable. This piece can be appreciated in direct continuity with the film Koropa, which depicted the passing on of people smuggling work between Ben and twelve-year-old Patron, whose point of view the current work adopts. Although the terse form sets up a certain distance, the frontal framing openly conveys the violence of the situation, that of a child who is made to grow up too fast and to take illegal routes where he risks his life.
The yells and whistles that resonate throughout the exhibition arise from the film Djo, which tackles the marronage question by focusing on the figure of the dog. Originally imported by Westerners to chase the “maroons” (runaway slaves), now used by the police to hunt down migrants, the animal was notably adopted by the people of Mayotte to protect their lands. The film takes the form of a timeless fable, in which Smogi recounts the story of Djo, the shepherd of the mangroves who he rescued and took in, before returning to the hills of Mayotte, only coming down again for the rainy season. Through these demonstrations of freedom, of which the entire work constitutes a vibrant plea for an animist vision, where dog and man would be equal, Laura Henno revitalises the beliefs of the Comoros people in an invisible world, within a culture where resorting to magic softens the grimness of reality.
The exhibition is complemented by photographs taken at the same time as the films were shot, as well as a new installation, for which Henno followed a group of young, undocumented Mayotte and Comoros natives, entitled Ge ouryao! (Why Are You Afraid!), a current interjection, which has become a leitmotiv in the dialogue between the artist and her subjects). These contemporary maroons, living in a group in a banga, an improvised shack built on the beach, also form a community with their dogs, which act as pets, a means of defence and attack weapons. Deconstructed and distributed around the gallery space, the installation reproduces the form of a shattered geography that reflects the lives adrift within its confines: at the crossroads of territories, the image conveys the way these lives are relegated to the periphery of society, the edges of the city or to the island’s shores. This marginal space, the site of forced clandestine behaviour and circumstances, has by this fact become the centre of an active resistance, of which the latest revolts on the island of Mayotte are the raw expression.
With M’Tsamboro, Henno nourishes a mysterious imaginative work like a place of release, for a poetic exile. Without preaching or taking a militant position, with this exhibition Laura Henno opens up a space of reflection, projection and escape, where fiction facilitates an access to reality. Children’s dreams, local beliefs and migrants’ life stories and fantasies in fact constitute so many narrative constructions through which spectators are made aware of concrete situations and can then form their own judgements and vision of the wandering man at a time of globalised migrations.
This exhibition is produced with the warm collaboration of Nathalie Gonthier and the support of the BBB Centre d’Art (Toulouse) and Fondation Carasso.