[July 22 2020]
Not many people know so much about Réunion island, it’s an overseas territory of France, so it does not have its own independence, correct?
Fabien Vilrus: Yes, we’ve been part of France for years. We have the French passport, French papers, French identity cards, everything is French.
Nicolas Guichard: At the same time, there is a real discrepancy because geographically, we are in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of South East Africa. We are French, but we have our own identity and I think that’s what creates a little bit of a grey area among the people of Réunion. We have our own culture, our own cuisine, our own music.
Fabien Vilrus: In fact, you don’t feel like you’re really French. It’s kind of a weird feeling.
Fabien, did you start taking these photos with the end goal of curating an exhibition, or was it more of a personal project?
Fabien Vilrus: I think it started from a desire to really show something to as many people as possible. And the exhibition seemed to us to be the best medium to reveal these photos, to get our message across. We wanted something pretty powerful, something that stands the test of time and that’s why we chose to do an exhibition. A place where people can study the photos and really take their time with them. My photos you don’t necessarily want to see just in magazines or online publications, it’s too quick. You see the photos, and you forget them. In a gallery, the photos are real, and there is more of a connection with the material.
Nicolas Guichard: I also find that an exhibition is the best way to really feel the spirit of the image. In a magazine, you see the photos then, it’s over, you move on to something else.
Why a project about Réunion now?
Fabien Vilrus: In fact, it’s so complex. It started with an emotion to want to return, to want to show something of our island. It was very visual for me. I had these photos in flash and I told Nicolas about it and I told him, “We have to do this for our island. It has to be for us, it’s important.”
Nicolas Guichard: I said yes. I agreed right away. I immediately felt the same thing as Fabien. I told myself that it was important that we had to do do this.
Fabien Vilrus: We saw this lack as we had never really seen a project coming from Réunion, especially at a global level.
Juan, how did you become involved with the project?
Juan Corrales: I started working with Nicolas a while ago. I accompanied him with the styling and consulting for his brand and I met Fabien when we made his first lookbook last year. We talked about Fabien’s project in Réunion, and he showed me the photos and I immediately started to work with them for curation and exhibition proposals. It was a very natural and very cool process.
The famed political scientist, Françoise Vergès, wrote a very powerful text for your exhibition. Did you plan from the beginning for her to be a part of the project?
Nicolas Guichard: I think Françoise, for us, is the person we thought of directly in relation to this project and very, very early on.
Fabien Vilrus: Yes, it’s true that at the beginning, we had thought of her because she is a part of a very well-known political family in Réunion. She is a feminist, activist, political scientist, sociologist who wants to decolonize the arts and has always pushed this agenda. So, we thought that she was the perfect person to talk about this project, to put her words into to our exhibition. It feels good to hear it clearly and with words as correct as those of Françoise.
What is the most important message that you are trying to convey with this body of work?
Fabien Vilrus: What we want to show is simply our home, it’s faces. It is the faces that are not necessarily understood in France because we come from a great crossbreeding in Réunion; Africa, India, China and elsewhere. When we arrived in Paris, we realized that we weren’t necessarily understood, especially when we work in fashion. We really felt more and more far from our roots and and I think that as an artist, you can’t stray too far from your roots. You must always be connected to them in someway.
Nicolas Guichard: In addition, it was important to show the houses too. We wanted to document the traditions of architecture, as we’ve noticed that it gets diluted over the years. We realized that every time we went to Réunion, we were losing our ‘Period Houses’, which were replaced suddenly, with new houses inspired by Western culture. So when we took pictures of these houses, we wanted to show people that maybe we shouldn’t destroy these historic houses and replace with Western homes, but to take inspiration from our traditions to create new homes.
So the work is less exactly the Réunion island as it is, but more what your vision of Réunion island and what it can be?
Fabien Vilrus: I think that series is not completely documentary. It borders on documentation, but it’s also of a certain form of narration. I think it’s a Réunion as we would like to have it. From our point of view, it is warm and tender but at the same time complex. That’s what we tried to push, while trying to stay as organic as possible in the photos, particularly by showing real people, real faces, real homes. It’s not set design, we tried to keep things as natural as possible.
Do you think your exhibition and Françoise’s text accurately highlight the problems of colonialism in Réunion? What do you hope for the future of Réunion?
Fabien Vilrus: There are many other questions to which we still have no answers, it’s a super complex, political and sociological subject. We tried to detect that, little by little with the photographic work, and with Françoise’s text. But I think it’s a fight, it’s more laborious, it will have to take time. We hope that with people like Françoise, like us, that we awaken minds on Réunion so that others also take the initiative to do these kind of projects. I think we have been stifled creatively and today we are reaching the point where we have to start talking about it.
Nicolas Guichard: I think we would like to have a community there. I think that with this exhibition in Paris, we would like other Réunionese who are in visual arts, can say that now is the time to highlight the islands… Instead of not talking about it or saying that it is not worth doing it, we would like there to be work about it.
It is not always easy to represent a country and its people when their representation has been marked by slavery, colonialism and racism. Indeed, the slave and colonial outlook has long dominated representations of Reunion Island, its landscapes, its people and its culture. Between racism and paternalism, these images have absented the Reunionese. From the 1960s onwards, other images appeared that were intended to reflect a social reality – poverty, work, working-class rituals. In the 1980s, tourism imposed the image of “the island of all mixings” and “the intense island”, which once again masked the complexity and multiplicity of the Reunionese people and the form of modernisation imposed by the French state. Then more and more Reunionese artists took up photography and explored this form of representation.
With La Kaz, Fabien Vilrus and Nicolas Guichard offer a look at a youth and a habitat that are often invisible. A youth whose practices, desires and aspirations we know little about, and whose individuality is very often ignored. 21% of the population of Reunion Island is young, but this youth is more affected by school failure than in France (31% of young people leaving the school system do not have a diploma) and has an unemployment rate twice as high as in France. But what do these figures do in a text accompanying a photo exhibition? Certainly these figures say nothing about individual lives and differences due to class, gender, sexuality, racialization, but they do point to a reality, that of coloniality in the 21st century.
La Kaz is a habitat that is disappearing, to be replaced by buildings that have very little to do with the climate and whose architecture usually disregards the requirements of daily life of a population whose majority lives below the poverty line. By photographing this habitat identified as belonging to a tradition that would be inferior to a modernity, Fabien Vilrus and Nicolas Guichard revalue a local architecture, born of an economy and a culture. Because if the kaz deserved to be developed, its disappearance contributes to an accelerated francization of the island. To live is not only to have a roof, it is to build a space that welcomes, that does not close in, that does not split. In Reunion Island, as elsewhere, housing has been, and remains, a social, racial and cultural marker. What used to be part of a collective and supportive life is being marginalized in favour of a strongly individualistic life where the shopping centre has become a meeting place for young women and men. A new sociability remains to be invented.
Photography by Fabien Vilrus, Clothing design by Nicolas Guichard, Curated by Juan Corrales