If you looked down from the sky or had an aerial view of the Memorial ACTe (Caribbean Centre for the Expressions and Memory of African Slave Trade & Slavery), the new memorial museum that opened in Guadeloupe in 2015, it might remind you of the head and plume of a bird. Perhaps the white egret so plentiful on the island both in the strait that connects the two wings of the butterfly that is Guadeloupe and in the fields atop grazing cattle ubiquitous along the countryside.
MACTe sits at the mouth of the bay in the Carénage district of Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, on what used to be a sugar factory and rum distillery called Darboussier, named after the French pirate and merchant, Jean d'Arboussier, who settled in Guadeloupe during the 18th century. In that era, the sugar mill processed all the sugar cane from all the slave plantations on the island and was once one of the most prosperous enterprises in Guadeloupe, until a hurricane wiped it off the face of the map in 1928. The area evolved into a big industrial site over the years, but then the Darboussier Rum distillery closed shop in 1980 and its closure – combined with an overall economic downturn – had a devastating impact on the city. Carénage evolved into a neighborhood of run-down cottages and poor folks hustling for a living, notwithstanding the presence of the university, several really fine restaurants, and the marina and shipyard nearby, where sailors park their yachts and small boats for repair. Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was where tourists went to find hookers and other contraband. But in 2006 it became the designated site for MACTe, not only because of its historical significance, but also in an effort to revitalize that district of Pointe-a-Pitre and become an iconic symbol of a city moving forward.
I was really looking forward to seeing this new museum. First of all, as someone who’d spent a lot of time visiting Guadeloupe and having made friends with a lot of hip people there, many of them in the arts, I thought I was in the know, so to speak, about what was happening culturally on the island. I had even attended a dedication ceremony for a small memorial depicting the slave castle at Gorée Island at Guadeloupe’s international airport in 2006, with novelist Maryse Condé, whose cottage in Montebello, Petit-Bourg, my husband Quincy and I rented for several years. Other people at this dedication included Luc Reinette, a celebrated member of the separatist movement of Guadeloupe in the 1970s-80s, who I’ve subsequently learned originated the idea in 1998 of having a commemorative museum. Guadeloupe and Martinique remain two of the few colonies (officially “overseas departments” or “regions”) France still owns. I don’t remember hearing that Reinette’s idea had received approval from France or that the former regional president of Guadeloupe, Victorin Lurel, had adopted the cause and moved on it, nor anything about the design competition or the subsequent struggle and controversy to get the museum built, etc., etc. By 2010, we’d given up our place in Goyave (after we’d moved from Maryse Condé’s in 2007), which probably explains how I got so far out of the loop.
It was not until Quincy returned to Gwada (local slang) at the end of 2015 that I got the news about MACTe. When I saw the amount of scholarship, thoughtfulness, passion, and love that had been poured into this new project in the catalog Quincy brought home, my immediate reaction was: I’ve got to see this place! The anthropologist, cultural and scientific project manager, Thierry L’Étang, a Guadeloupian, is responsible for this more magnificent achievement.
Looking up at the Memorial ACTe, you see two structures 2-story high encrusted in a silvery mesh spanning 275 ft over a black box of granite speckled with quartz. A silvery, latticed bridge arching over and casting crisscrossing shadows onto a landscaped plaza below unites the rectangular building with the other rounded structure – the head and beak of the egret if you will – that houses the two exhibition spaces. The rectangular building houses a 200+ seat auditorium/performance space and restaurant. French architect Marc Mimram designed the 35 ft high by 150 ft long footpath that looms overhead, connecting MACTe to Morne Memoire (“memory hill”), a commemorative garden where enslaved workers were allowed to go on Sundays for a little R&R. (That’s probably where slaves fomented the 1794 revolt guillotining the aristocrats in the Place de la Victoire in Pointe-a-Pitre!) On Memory Hill are five monumental marble books with the names of 1480 slaves freed during abolition. Today, Guadeloupians may go there to trace their African lineage. By the way, it was in Guadeloupe that the first slave rebellion occurred, not in Martinique, which might give a clue about the difference in the temperaments some have noticed about the Black folks on these two islands.
The permanent exhibition, tracing the history of the slave trade, the enslavement of Africans, the abolition of slavery, and modern historical milestones of Africans in the diaspora – the Caribbean, the Americas, and around the world – is the main attraction at MACTe. There is also a space for temporary exhibitions in this building. The Guadeloupian architectural firm of Pascal Berthelot, ATELIER ARCHITECTURE B M C, designed the memorial, inspired by the roots of the fig tree notorious for engulfing, while preserving and protecting, long abandoned historical sites on the island. The black granite represents African people; the embedded quartz, the millions disappeared during the “holocaust” of slavery; the silvery mesh, the roots of the fig tree.
Upon entering the circular courtyard at the rounded building, I was flabbergasted at the gorgeous, rusted Corten steel sculpture in the center of the courtyard. It is Bertholet’s artwork, “Tree of Life.” It recalls a “poto mitan,” representing in voodoo ceremonies the pathway where the loa arrive from the underground to “ride their horses” before ascending to the heavens. Even not knowing its metaphorical significance, visitors are stunned by its majesty.
There is an information desk outside the entrance to the building. Upon entering it, there is another reception area where visitors pay 15 euros (seniors pay 10 euros) for admittance to the permanent exhibition tracing the history of slavery and the slave trade. To see the exhibition in the contemporary gallery is an additional cost. The price of admittance covers an audio guide (headset) available in French, English, Spanish, and Creole. Visitors must deposit their handbags, packages, cameras, cell phones, and what have you, into a storage bank that requires a coin (one euro - refundable) to lock before being allowed through turnstiles to enter the exhibition hall. Docents control the number of people allowed to enter at one time – kind of puzzling until you go inside and see that the exhibition hall is divided into fairly small cells or “islands.” The museum refers to them as “archipelagos” (Guadeloupe is an archipelago of five islands). You may opt to visit without the digital guide.
Everything is black. The walls, desk, and floor of the reception area are black. The docents are Black. Their clothes are black. When you enter the black exhibition corridor, there are 37 archipelagos that begin with the arrival of the first Black conquistadors who traveled with Christopher Columbus to Guadeloupe, a display of indigenous artifacts of the native Indians inhabits already living on the island – Arawak, Caribs, Taino (“Karukera” was their name for Guadeloupe). Then there is on display of the arrival of the Europeans, the decimation of the natives, some of the conquerors’ weaponry, body armor, instruments of torture – a multimedia cornucopia of images and artifacts both real and re-imagined, including a fantastic full wall video of a reenactment of the battle on the high seas between the French and the British for control of the island, a long rectangular table displays a video describing early settler life, slave shackles religious reliquary, founding documents, ordinances, period clothing, the Black Madonna, and intermingled among these are contemporary art works from artists throughout the diaspora. The “Tree of Forgetting” by Cameroonian artist, Pascale Marthine Tayou is particularly memorable.
The permanent exhibition continues to astound throughout various periods of history up to and through the 1960s Civil Rights movement. It speaks to the experience of African people as they have encountered Europeans not only in the Americas but in Europe and Africa too. The experience is simultaneously engrossing, comprehensive, dynamic, intriguing, interactive, and thoroughly exhausting. A journey through a tragic, heart-wrenchingly cruel and violent history, all gorgeously and immaculately installed.
Outside the bright sunshine shocks, as you wander in contemplation of all you’ve experienced inside. If you still have the stamina, you can walk down the steps in front of the memorial to the ocean. Not merely a memorial to the past, MACTe is a place for reconciliation and reflection on the past, the present, and the future. Go.