In July, Guadeloupe will open the doors to one of the largest cultural centres dedicated to the memory of slave trade, in a brand new building that marks a new chapter for art and architecture in the region.
On May 10, France's national day of remembrance of slavery and abolition, President Francois Hollande visited the former colony and current French territory along with a bevy of his ministers, heads of state and delegates from Africa and the Caribbean to inaugurate the new Mémorial ACTe in Pointe-à-Pitre. Sitting on the former bayside site of a sugar refinery that processed cane from slave plantations, the MACTe stands as a monument to the region's history of slavery and heroes of the resistance. But this isn't just a memorial to the past, it also serves as a point of reflection on the present and future.
Designed by Guadeloupe architecture group Berthelot/Mocka-Célestine (their concept of 'silver roots on a black box' was selected in 2008 from 27 international proposals), the building's matte metal lattice obscures the main black granite volume as a representation of the African Diaspora through slave trade. The elevated 'roots', which wrap around the top portion of the building, appear to shoot into the sky in all directions. A total of 7,800 sq m - two buildings around a central patio - includes spaces for permanent and temporary exhibitions, a performance space, an interactive genealogical research centre and two restaurants.
The suspended footbridge by French architect Marc Mimram, linking the building and the panoramic hilltop garden, connects the memorial and the sky 'like a thread to the memory of slavery,' architect Pascal Berthelot said. A rusted obelisk stands at the entrance as a contemporary Tree of Life - a towering universal symbol architect Berthelot said is intended to draw the eye upward and in turn make the observer bow in reverence as they lower their head.
With some 500 objects and 25 contemporary works mixed in, the permanent collection is divided into 37 'islands' grouped in six 'archipelagos' along a black corridor watched over by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Malcom X, and other historical heroes on hanging banners. The exhibition tells the story of slave trade in the region starting with the arrival of conquistadors up to modern day trafficking around the world.
Curator Jean-François Manicom brings history to life - sometimes literally, as in the opening video installation of actors recounting destinies of four key figures through dramatic monologues, and at other times more subtly, as in a series of lifelike African busts wearing slave chain collars. Environmental works inhabit several rooms, such as a recreation of a pirate ship bow, and an installation that puts visitors in the middle of a colourful carnival masquerade.
A photography exhibition in the temporary space shows contemporary works from Caribbean photographers ranging from conceptual images, fashion, photojournalism and video, as well as a series of antique stereovision photos. As the first space of its kind in the region, the MACTe will offer Caribbean artists a space to exhibit their work.
Overlooking the Caribbean waters, the MACTe will be the new face of Pointe-à-Pitre to passing cruise ships, whose passengers will glimpse the gleaming building. Officials also hope the MACTe will bring cohesive development and transformation to the area. Even though the €83 million project has been controversial for the region in economic crisis, the MACTe should eventually prove to be a point of pride, not just for Guadeloupe but all of the Caribbean as the cultural centre finds its footing and grows. 'Mémorial ACTe is located in Guadeloupe, but it does not belong to us,' said Victorin Lurel, Guadeloupe regional president. 'It's a beginning.'