At the dawn of this century, I launched my project Femmes du Monde (Women of the World). It was an excellent pretext for coming to Oceania, and dedicating one of the first chapters to Polynesian women. “It is the way of long voyages that we find something quite different from that which we set out to find”, wrote Nicolas Bouvier. My portraits hardly resemble Gauguin’s imagery, as he painted his celebrated creatures with their innate inclination for love. I have Patrick Cerf to thank for this, whom I met in Papeete. This obstetric gynecologist had written an anthropology thesis about the female condition, entitled “La domination des femmes à Tahiti. Des violences envers les femmes au discours du matriarcat (The domination of women in Tahiti. Violence towards women and the matriarchy debate, published by Vent des Îles, 2009 ). Patrick enlightened me about the myths and realities of the Polynesian woman, often outwardly resembling the vahine on the postcard, but rarely conforming to the ideal. The era of the Pacific Experimentation Center had come to an end several years previously. The last nuclear tests had been carried out in the Tuamotu Islands, but the catastrophic social consequences were now becoming more and more apparent in Papeete’s suburbs. The yawning chasm of social inequality has continued to grow ever wider, the principle victims being women and a struggling youth.
Titouan Lamazou : Femmes du monde (Women of the World, 2001-2002)
Poe, my first model from Tahiti in 2001, was the archetypal Polynesian beauty, as envisioned by our Western collective memory. Except that she bore the scars of a broken childhood, embodying everything Patrick had observed. In Papeete, I also painted portraits of Heiata and Janine, joyful souls in perfect harmony with the accepted image, playing up to it with delight. Then there was Sabrina, a beautiful voice from the Leeward Society Islands, and devotee of the carpe diem, little given to vain ambitions: “People often forget that they could die at any moment. They preoccupy themselves with the material and forget what’s most important”. Like Corina and Dalhia, craftswomen from the Tuamotu, making pearl necklaces and tiare flower leis, running a guesthouse, working alongside their husbands fishing, farming and making coprah, under the timeless starry skies that guided their ancestors to the atoll thousands of years ago. In the Austral Islands, the “mamas”, Raquel, Mama Paré, Mama Taro admitted their nostalgia for the good old days of the schooners.
And the young girl, the beautiful Chavely from Tubuai, fiu in the islands, her wistful gaze turned north to the horizon, towards the untold wonders of Papeete. In the Marquesas, I met Yvonne for the first time, the guardian of Nuku Hiva’s memory. And the adorable little Gwendoline, whose dream at that time was to find herself a kind husband when she grew up. Diverse origins, unique destinies, each with their intensely personal and individual aspirations.
L'errance et le divers (Wandering and Miscellany, 2017-2018)
The opposite side of the Tahitian postcard, two tough women, with sharpened quills and angry souls, undoubtedly used to best effect in their literature. I met the novelists Chantal Spitz and Titaua Peu during my last visit to Tahiti in 2018, fifteen years after Femmes du monde. The Quai Branly Museum had given me free rein to develop an exhibition. I proposed a theme that was dear to me, bringing together the musings of my life, ‘Wanderings and Miscellany’, accompanied with quotes from Victor Segalen and Édouard Glissant. This exhibition conjured up the dreams of my youth, the writings of Stevenson and London, and paintings by Gauguin, each of them having travelled the shores of Polynesia in their time.
It was also an invitation to include the work of contemporary artists and authors who struck a chord with me, like Patrick Chamoiseau, but also Chantal Spitz and Titaua Peu. Titaua is the author of Pina, the portrait of a young girl fighting to survive, a poignant family saga set in working class Tahiti at the end of the twentieth century (Au Vent des Îles, 2016). Chantal is a pioneer, the first female Tahitian author of a novel published in French, in 1991. Four other books have followed since, from L’île des rêves écrasés (The Island of Broken Dreams, Au Vent des Îles, 2017) to Cartes postales (Postcards, Au Vent des Îles, 2015), she is always looking to scratch away at the hackneyed image. If it was necessary, reading their works and the discussions we had toppled the myth of the vahine once and for all, frozen there in her blissfully sensuous pose. Nevertheless, I still take great pleasure in rereading Stevenson, London, Gauguin and Segalen, who travelled around the same archipelagos around the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Chantal Spitz believes they should all be tossed overboard, “I’m referring to all of those books. Those by the discoverers, by Bougainville, by Loti, by Gauguin… and all the other stuff by those who have come here and written about it. Some are better than others. But it is only this year that I have actually read a book by a foreigner, Bluff, by David Fauquemberg, in which I found nothing objectionable or shocking. It is a first. The only one. In all the others, I always find judgment or assumptions. Always”. It cannot be denied that the accounts these masters, authors and artists from the past left us, are not lacking in ambiguity. We cannot however accuse Segalen, Gauguin or London’s travels of being tainted by dreams of imperialism or fortune-seeking; and I am deeply grateful to them for the role they played in shaping my adolescent mind. They collectively abhorred the colonial administration and held religious fervor at arm’s length. However, while they verbally defended these ideas, after reading their works the impression left on the reader is often similar to that of the authors Segalen vehemently denounced as “peddlers of exoticism”. Writers such as Pierre Loti among others who sold tales of oriental travel experiences, intentionally titillating, a type of genre that the public of the time lapped up. The epitome of this genre would come later, with the various romanticized Hollywood productions of Mutiny on the Bounty. And nothing has changed up to this day, tour operators perpetuate Bougainville’s myth of New Cythera ad infinitum, illustrating it with a Gauguin inspired imagery. A multitude of postcards untiringly portraying scantily clad young girls, against a backdrop of blue lagoons, for the punter’s viewing pleasure. Melville, with his novel Taïpi, played a decisive role influencing the literary work of the young wanderer London and the broader collective memory of the western world.
It tells of the adventures the author had after deserting a whaleboat in Nuku Hiva, discovering the unexplored Taïpi valley, hiding out with a tribe of the same name, and with a fearsome reputation. He clears the name of a wonderful Marquesan “noble savage”, wrongfully accused of being a cannibal, by the abominable French colonists. Sold at the time as a genuine account of real events, but written with such flights of fancy, it is fair to ask whether it is not entirely fictitious, like a true oriental fable, written to quench the public’s insatiable thirst for exoticism.
A passage describing a canoe journey on lake Taïpi accompanied by a magnificent indigenous maiden, whose favors he had not failed to attract, are the perfect example: “I was paddling the vessel to the windy side of the lake. As soon as I had turned the canoe, Faïaoahé, who had accompanied me, appeared to be struck by a marvelous idea. With a cry of delight, she untied the large length of tapa that she was wearing, attached at her shoulder, (worn to protect her from the sun) and, turning it into an improvised sail, she held her arms out straight, at the canoe’s prow.”(Herman Melville, Taïpi, published by Gallimard, 1952). It is a charming vision, incredibly evocative, of a beautiful young girl suddenly reaching maturity; but fanciful to put it mildly. To start with there is no a lake in the Taïpi valley… Don’t try and tell Chantal Spitz that her foremothers rushed into the beds of the passing sailors, “Sailors from that time, arriving after six months at sea, had scurvy, their gums bled and their teeth were falling out! They were called popaa, or “burnt skins”. Their skin was peeling, they had beards down to there. They stank because they didn’t wash. Naturally, there were some romantic entanglements! But it was common sense. Throughout history, women have been an important commodity to trade.”
Whatever the nature of the writings about Polynesia, even when they are not the tantalizing prose, accepted ideas, the image of Polynesia is so firmly anchored in the collective memory that there is an annoying tendency to only remember what we want to see. The cliché is even voluntarily maintained by some. “What I reproach my country for is its need to exist through the perception of others”, Titaua Peu tells us ,“I’m not upset by the outsider’s impressions. Somewhere it is not even really their fault. What upsets me is that we indulge the image. We are mired in it. But it’s an illness that we’ve kept quiet about for far too long. I think it’s because we’ve always been told to ‘Conform to the image of the Polynesian woman, laughing and having a good time!’.” Wherever I go, literature is my only guide. My favorite authors travelled in the wakes of sailors who imagined themselves the “discoverers” of “new worlds”. They tell of the intoxication of these pioneers, and often of their arrogance. Through the warped lens of their enchantment, they describe countries likened to the very Garden of Eden, only just tainted by the colonist’s arrival. Then there were the encounters, the arrangements between powers, those surviving and the reality. Chantal and Titaua’s books are eyeopening, without truly tarnishing the image, the complexity of which is brought into sharper focus. Revealing the multiple layers, that have little to do with the picture postcard, and that Segalen was the first to grasp.
By Titouan Lamazou
Titouan Lamazou, nomadic artist
Titouan Lamazou is a man of many talents, and has been sailing for many years across the rich sea of life. Nothing seems out of reach to this artist who is driven by curiosity, his dedication and innate sense of human values. Long-term traveller, Titouan scours the globe in search of colorful souls and authentic places; he watches people, their beauty, and their diversity. Then, as if to bear witness, he captures the images of all that fall under his paintbrush, memorialized in watercolor on blank pages, and sometimes, when brushstrokes fall short of portraying the complexities of the soul, he writes, interviews and transcribes, in collusion with his daughter Zoé who accompanies him. Titouan Lamazou loves painting women and men, but also landscapes that captivate. The places he paints emanate a magic, a sometimes irrational universe. The stars guide the way, they give meaning to life, showing the direction to take, in the way described by his friend, Jean-Claude Teriierooterai, a researcher specializing in ancestral Polynesian navigation techniques.
Titouan Lamazou : from sailing to painting
Titouan Lamazou discovered the Marquesas at age 22, in 1977, much like the great travellers from previous centuries that had inspired him so, for instance London, Stevenson, Gauguin or Segalen. A student of the Fine Arts with a real wanderlust, he embarked on the Pen Duick II, along with Eric Tabarly’s crew, to learn the art of sailing, at the feet of the masters, which he duly did, in his turn becoming one of the best in the world, winning the first ever single-handed round the world Vendée Globe, and then in the same year the transatlantic Route du Rhum in the single-hull category, later being crowned offshore racing World Champion in 1991. In 1994, Titouan Lamazou returned to painting, producing his first travel diaries; it was the start of his “Wanderer’s Works”. His artist’s journey and his commitment got him nominated as UNESCO Artist for Peace.
Encountering the Marquesas
An encounter with the Marquesas was a true revelation for this artist. The archipelago’s isolation has preserved it in “pristine” condition. According to him, this part of the world has been relatively untouched, and the men and women living there continue to protect it. The island of Tahiti is, for its part, more “open to the four winds”. In “ L’errance et le divers (Wanderings and Miscellany)”, a book published by Gallimard, Titouan Lamazou tells of his meetings with Chantal Spitz and Titaua Peu, authoresses from Tahiti. They feel a real anger and also great concern for the Fenua’s future generations. They describe the depraved and sometimes dangerous effects of “development” that, in their eyes, constitutes an insiduous type of violation or colonialism.
The studio boat project
For the artist, wandering is a must, but after all his years of racing, he no longer wants to rush, he is searching for a slower rhythm. He wants to observe humankind’s diversity within the broader biodiversity to which it belongs. The idea of total immersion, nomadism, that he considers so necessary for nurturing creativity, inspires him and has become his lifelong project: the studio boat. “You have to try to see the world from the point of view of where you are and not that of where you have come from”.
To do that you must have an open spirit and be in a place where you are free of all material constraints, so that you can freely devote yourself to your observations and to the work. This is the principle of the studio boat, a home for artists, be they visual artists, writers, or even researchers, it allows them to meet people and to have a perfectly equipped space on board the catamaran. “Those who conceive things very intuitively do not necessarily express themselves clearly,” he explains. “This is why in my work as an artist, I have felt the need to get to know writers, philosophers and intellectuals that have a way with words. I’ve also felt a need to cooperate with scientific researchers, if only to substantiate or disprove my feelings about things in this world”. The boat is currently being built, and the project will be launched in the Pacific for its maiden voyage.
Oeuvres vagabondes (Wanderer's works)
The exhibition “Oeuvres vagabondes (Wanderer’s Works)” will be on display at the Customs House at the Saint-Palais-sur-Mer in Charente Maritime, until November 3. It retraces fifty years of Titouan Lamazou’s journey, along with his first travel diaries, his portraits, his testimonies, his encounters. A selection of pieces produced in the Marquesas between 2017 and 2018 for the exhibition Le bateau atelier de Titouan Lamazou (Titouan Lamazou’s studio boat) at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris are also on display.
Titouan Lamazou’s advice to travellers coming to French Polynesia?
Take your time. When you are travelling so far, you have to take your time. And then come back. You can’t understand everything the first time. You have to visit and then revisit.
A question for Titouan Lamazou
When looking back over your journey, over many years, you get the impression that you are on a constant quest to meet powerful souls, authentic places, unsullied by all “human incursions”, how would you briefly sum up your work, your objectives?
I’m very interested in a vision of the world that is not the type of blinkered view that comes from our civilization; a unilateral consumerist view of exploitation. The big lesson that we can learn from the peoples of Oceania is their system of taboos, a sort of divine set-aside scheme. You had to ask the village chief first, who communicated directly with the divinities, if you wanted to cut down a breadfruit tree or coconut palm… and so for centuries the islands were preserved thanks to a redeeming polytheism that today has been totally swept away. The first thing that the “new arrivals” did was to change all the names. But today, a wonderful work has been undertaken. Since the 70s, they are trying to retrieve that memory, to find all the names that tell a story, that tell of the past, because, in Oceanian languages the future is imperfect, it does not yet exist, it is the present. The past is actually conceptualized, but unlike for us, the past is in front of them. Because the future is hazy, you keep your feet in the present, looking to the past. This is a broader feature of oral civilizations, that have generally been looked down upon by Westerners. But, fortunately, there are researchers that have been able to rediscover the oral tradition, and better understand these civilizations that were in fact extremely well organized. The Western vision is clearly that of a God who made us in his image and placed us above all, while in many parts of the world, where man is in contact with Nature, there is a god for all things; there is a respect, man lives in harmony and knows that he belongs to the living world, at one with nature.
Collaboration with "Au vent des îles", publisher in Papeete
To help support the studio boat project, that is Titouan’s lifetime project, the publishing house Au Vent des îles co-editing with Gallimard, is launching a book collection that will be called La bibliothèque du bateau-atelier (The studio boat library). It will be a third background and two thirds contemporary literature, with a portrait of the author painted by Titouan Lamazou on the cover of each edition, a presentation of the author, their origins, and the text. This collection will be made available to the boat’s residents. “We are going to start with Chantal Spitz’s “Hombo”, because it fits nicely into the concept. She describes two worlds. The first impacts of modernization are starting to be felt on Huahine, with television, serials, networks, the grandparents working in the fa’a’apu, then, the changes start, the idleness of the younger generations, homelessness… The studio boat is a project supported by sponsorship, grants, donations, patronage. There will be a selection committee with very strict criteria. The candidates will send us their projects, and then the committee will meet and select the residents”, explain Christian Robert, director of the publishing house Au Vent des îles.
Magazine : Reva Tahiti Magazine
Text : Nathalie Montelle
Pictures : Gwen Le Bras, Pascal Erhel Hatuuku