The story in this book begins in the fifteenth century, when Christopher Columbus discovered the Indies. Wars of conquest, forced labor conditions, and European diseases rapidly killed off the indigenous workforce. The Spanish therefore decided to bring enslaved workers over from Africa, who, after long voyages aboard rudimentary sailing ships, were kept in stockades on Caribbean islands and from there sold to places across the mainland.
Reduced to the condition of “beasts of burden,” they worked in mines or in coastal plantations for the nascent agricultural trade, as was the case in Venezuela. A hundred and fifty years ago, before slavery was officially abolished, many of them escaped and formed Maroon settlements. Others settled on the same plantations or haciendas where they had been enslaved or, in more recent times, migrated to cities in search of better opportunities.
Many of the settlements they established still exist today. It is estimated that only ten percent of Venezuela’s population is of African origin. Their small number, added to the process of racial mixing and a characteristically Hispanic social hierarchy that privileges lighter-skinned individuals were among the factors that led to the gradual loss of the African heritage. These historical events, a general dearth of research on the subject, and the poor quality of existing compilations of visual documents proved to be setbacks in the planning of this project.
The contents of this book are the result of two years of fieldwork, which entailed traveling a total distance of 45,000 kilometers and taking roughly 10,000 photographs (1).
Excerpted from Christian Belpaire’s text published in Negro soy negro (Biblioteca Nacional de Venezuela, 1984).
The distinguished Congolese photographer Christian Belpaire devoted a part of his efforts to advertising photography and photojournalism. He is one of the foremost photographers to document the Yanomami culture, the region of Los Llanos (The Plains), and the Afrodescendant communities of Venezuela, in images that highlight the bellicose character of the attire of the people portrayed. He is the author of El llano (Editorial Arte Caracas, 1986), Dejaste atrás lo lejano (Fundación Neumann, 1985), and Negro soy negro (Editorial Palladium, 1984). After studying photography in the studio of Jean-Pierre Sudre in 1970, he worked as a photojournalist in South America for the Camera Press photo agency. He also did documentary work in Belgium, France, England, and Chile. In September of 2003, Belpaire took his own life in New York City.
1. Anthropologist Sheila Walker draws attention to the fact that the indigenous workforce was not exterminated, but that it was decimated by epidemics, wars of conquest, and the conditions of forced labor. She also points out that the Caribbean islands were not used as a place to hold enslaved Africans, although islands such as Curaçao were used as redistribution hubs, and that the vast majority of enslaved Africans were taken directly to the continental Americas, without any stopover in the Caribbean. Walker also considers the term “beasts of burden” to be inadequate, since many Africans possessed the technological skills that existed in the age, particularly in the field of gold extraction. Finally, Walker points out how statistics show that Afro-Venezuelans made up more than 10% of the country’s population at the time.
Despite having played a fundamental role in the anti-slavery struggle and identity construction of the African diaspora in the Americas, marronage is still poorly understood.
Marronage created communities that wrested themselves free of slavery and proclaimed their sovereignty in the New World. These communities of runaway slaves were found throughout the Americas, from Louisiana to Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Brazil and the Guianas. Some of the descendants of these societies continue to exist today. They are the gatekeepers of a little known self-emancipation narrative. This is the story of the Maroons of the Guianas, also known as Businenge or Bushinengue.
The Obia photographic project ―undertaken in the historical Maroon territories of Saamaka and Maroni, in both Suriname and French Guiana (1)― seeks to examine the links between the exceptional magical-religious legacy of Maroon people and the new challenges that stem from modernity: the ongoing acculturation among new generations and the counterweight produced by deculturation. Additionally, Obia calls for a rethink of the connections between historical marronage and challenges pertaining to contemporary immigration and, not least, between the memories of the colonial past and accommodations with the postcolonial present.
Nicola Lo Calzo
Nicola Lo Calzo has focused his photographic practice and research on issues of identity, colonialism, and inter-sectionality. His images show how minority groups interact with their environment and devise strategies of survival and resistance. Over the past seven years, Lo Calzo has been engaged in an ambitious research project, entitled The Cham, about memories of the slave trade and slavery, which includes various series of photographs taken in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Under the Kehrer Verlag imprint, he has published Regla (2017), Obia (2015), and Inside Niger (2012). He is a contributor to Le Monde, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
1. This region, known now as the town of Saint-Laurent-du-Maronio, is located on the Maroni River, between French Guiana and Surinam.