The White Tent

12 Oct

I took this entry from a blog I used to write when I was living abroad on a French speaking island near Madagascar, called La Réunion. My time in La Réunion was well and truly one of the most interesting yet sometimes frustrating experiences I have ever had. The mix of French and Creole culture is both beautiful and fascinating but can sometimes be a source of contention. Many of my blog entries are just generic ramblings about life away from home but I found one experience particularly interesting. I wanted to include this entry here because I think the issues it raises are symptomatic of the underlying issues that still exist on the island.

So anyone who has had a conversation with me lately will know how disappointed I am by the fact that I don’t really know many Réunnionnais people here. I know a few French people but most of the friends that I spend time with are foreign. While I realise this could seem closed and small-minded on my part, this is really not from want of trying. The proof? The visual art exhibition I found myself at yesterday night. A visual and interactive exhibition called “La Théorie d’Antoine- Extension” which meant that I had to leave my bag outside and step into what can only be described as a room made out of sheet, kind of like a white rectangular tent.

Inside were four dancers, all dressed in white, and a chair in which they pushed me around and swung my legs. Through the course of this experimental session the four of them proceeded to carry me sky high, each dancer taking a limb and turning me clockwise like a twirling star in the sky. Afterwards I was led to a makeshift door, again made of cloth, with just a hand sticking out. Feeling very Alice in Wonderland-esqe, I took the hand and was led into a dark room where I was taken through the same procedure, only now in sheer darkness. As this finished, I was led back out into the terrace to view the rest of the exhibition. The whole concept focused on the role of choreography and how each new person who entered the tent played a role in this dance sequence without actually doing anything.

The exhibition, however interesting, was overshadowed by something else; I was there, surrounded by seemingly interesting people, but I had never felt so invisible. I purposely came by myself with an open mind and the intention to meet new people, but I didn’t talk to anyone. I’ve never silently pleaded anyone to talk to me like I did that night (even the scruffy guy, walking barefoot with  his shirt barely buttoned, I would have gladly talked to) If I had been rocking back and forth in the corner mumbling to myself, I’d have understood the reluctance to engage. But I’d like to think that I’m a fairly sociable creature and all I was looking for was someone to throw me a bone. I hoped that someone would at least maintain some eye contact or throw over a smile so I’d have something to cling onto, a hook so that I could reel myself into the start of a conversation. But I got absolutely nothing. What else could I do but obviously eat the free food?  At least to give my hands something to do except awkwardly shove them in my pockets.  It was so depressing, I kept on waiting for the silver lining (free wine?!) but as I left I realised there really wasn’t one.

However, from my awkward point of view came a more difficult observation. Standing there in my isolated corner, stripped of friends to distract me, I saw a terrace full of white faces. I suddenly felt really uncomfortable about the Metro (French)/Creole divide that I’ve always known about but never truly acknowledged here. I just felt disappointed that this kind of event seems unspokenly reserved for the minority and not for everyone to appreciate. Places in the west and south of the island such as St Gilles and St Pierre are places where there is more of a Metro population but not the hard faced business streets of the capital, St Denis. But that night I just felt so out of place, it really knocked me off my feet as I watched these people clink their wine and nibble on their cheese on sticks.  Conversations with my friend Lucy came swarming into my mind as I remembered her talking about her predominately white prestigious tennis club (black waiters work in the on site restaurant, I’ve noticed) and I just felt disappointed. Normally I see La Réunion as this blend of ethnicities and though I have never said or assumed it was perfect, far from it, I felt that I could have easily been in rural France.

I was forced to remember that this is in fact a modern day colony. La Réunion is an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, but it is technically owned by France.  As connotations of slavery and “educating” colonies are thankfully no more,  I’ve always seen this as neither a positive nor negative but as an event in history too deep-rooted  to change, especially considering all the positive and unique treasures La Réunion holds as a consequence. But this scene made me feel uncomfortable. Are the elite playing at living on this tropical island while the rest of us watch? They have no profound right to call it home, except the ex-colonial power of the country that they happen to be born into and in that case does that make me living here, as a European citizen, just as bad? I hate the underlying rift that can poke its head here. But standing invisible in an all too familiar scene that wouldn’t look too out of place in a rural town in Normandy, I was forced to wonder why doesn’t this art belong to everyone. Especially on an island famed for its all encompassing acceptance of “métissage” and the beauty that mixed races and cultures can bring.

I left early, somehow pushed out of this “white tent” exhibition. Two minutes away from the gallery I was back into the streets of St Denis.  Back into the racial melting pot, I was once again reassured by the fact that diversity still does exist here. However I am still left with a sense of unease about what I felt in that gallery as a stranger, foreigner and a minority and what La Réunion as a “French” island truly means….

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