INTERVIEW: NÈFTA POETRY | ITSLIQUID

INTERVIEW: NÈFTA POETRY

Interviews | September 11, 2022 |

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

Interview: Nèfta Poetry
Luca Curci talks with Nèfta Poetry during the 15th Edition of VENICE INTERNATIONAL ART FAIR 2022, at Palazzo Bembo.

Stéphanie Melyon-Reinette – Nèfta Poetry – is a performer, poet, choreographer, independent scholar (cultural studies, political science, performance studies, Caribbean/American studies) and feminist and curator. Intrinsically, she is a researcher, materializing reflections and catharsis through body and mind. She identifies as a performer and has been creating live performances in natural settings, video performances and choreographies both as a soloist and with her company ANAMNESIS-K, founded in 2016 shortly after her return to her native archipelago, to quench her thirst for memory. As a creative and activist, she has been curating the transdisciplinary Cri de Femmes festival since 2011, wherein she also curates exhibitions around gender-based awareness.

From Guadeloupe to Paris and New York City, her artistic training encompasses mainly research-and-workshop-based classes. She practised dance from an early age (Bogat dance workshop, Deshauteurs dance school, Blou’s CDEC, etc.), while experimenting with choreography and scenography, from her teenage years, getting involved in both fields in the production of her dance school galas firstly, assisting choreographers then, until choreographing her own pieces today. Through her scholarly journey, she has been developing a thorough exploration of Black/colonial bodies in performance, giving her more insight into and through her own performance and writing.

She graduated with a PhD in US Civilization (thesis on the Haitian Diaspora of New York City) in 2008 at the University of the French West Indies. This long initiation brought her to live in NYC for three years, with circular movements in-between with her native Guadeloupe as she lectured at the university. She regularly publishes scientific journals, and collective works and participates in international conferences and symposiums. Poetry is one of her earliest forms of expression. She published, as Nèfta Poetry, three poem collections, Les Bleus de l’existence (The Bruises of Life, 2009), “Ombres” (Shadows – Éditions Persée, 2011) and “Mousmée – diary of an orchid woman” (2013 – trilingual, self-published edition). She performs live concerts (acoustic poetry and Jazz Poetry) and produced an album with singer-songwriter Gerald Toto (Melt In Motherland). 

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

Luca Curci – Which subject are you working on?
Nèfta Poetry – I would deliberately say that the subjects I am working on are constantly evolving and remaining constantly the same all at once. In fact, I have been working on the same subjects for more than two decades now. As a French-Caribbean, Black woman, I have been undertaking a real identity quest and exploring the various legacies of the African Diaspora, the Black Atlantic in the Gilroyan sense, drawing on this enriching cultural, cultural, ritual, chorographical idiosyncrasies of the numerous communities and peoples descending from the deported and enslaved Africans. Although I am more and more valuing my manifold genetical backgrounds, cherishing my African ancestry without denying my European-White, Indian, Chinese and Carib (Native-Indian) ones, I identify as Black and not mixed. I guess it has to do with the political experience of discovering one’s Blackness through this Fanonian awakening, many of us French-Caribbeans, have experimented with migrating to France for studying. We are French and yet, neither embraced nor welcomed, as fellow citizens and compatriots. What other choice do we have to fall back on our heritage? Thus, the subjects I am working on are perpetually mutating as I discover more and perform deeper. In short, I am exploring the depths of Black romanticism, of Afrodescendent memory. I am memorializing. I am writing my part of our history. I would deliberately say that the subjects I am working on are constantly evolving and remaining constantly the same all at once. In fact, I have been working on the same subjects for more than two decades now. As a French-Caribbean, Black women, I have been undertaking a real identity quest and exploring the various legacies of the African Diaspora, the Black Atlantic in the Gilroyan sense, drawing on this enriching cultural, cultual, ritual, choreographical idiosyncrasies of the numerous communities and peoples descending from the deported and enslaved Africans. Although I am more and more valuing my manifold genetical backgrounds, cherishing my African ancestry without denying my European-White, Indian, Chinese and Carib (Native-Indian) ones, I identify as Black and not mixed. I guess it has to do with the political experience of discovering one’s Blackness through this Fanonian awakening, many of us French-Caribbeans, have experimented with migrating to France for studying. We are French and yet, neither embraced nor welcomed, as fellow citizens and compatriots. What other choice do we have to fall back on our heritage? Thus, the subjects I am working on are perpetually mutating as I discover more and perform deeper. In short, I am exploring the depths of Black romanticism, of Afrodescendent memory. I am memorializing. I am writing my part of our history. 

LC –  What are your thoughts while you perform? Do you have any habits or rituals while you work?
NP – While performing, I am not sure what I think. I try and become the message I am propelling, conveying, through my body language, and my bodily syntax. I reckon thinking is not an accurate word. There is no blank or analysis. There is embodiment. Re-enactment. While performing, I need to incarnate the topic. Become the experience, hoping to transcend the dimensions – soul, spirit, body from my flesh to the audience’s – and bring them with me. I would compare my creative process to birthing. Depending on the creation – poetry, acoustic poetry, performance, choreography – gestation is at the core of the matter. The gestation could be months-long or a few days or the artwork can appear in a fierce urgency. Like a spontaneous eruption. A flare-up. Creation happens mostly through corporal memory. Corporal memory is evoked by dancers as a primordial quality in order to deliver the highest level of performance. Although I embrace that definition, I also embrace it through the sense of digging into the self to find an epigenetic, muscular and spiritual memory. If rituals I have, they stand in the inner quest of the ancestor’s collective experiential Gehenna and resilience through my flesh fibres and my soul’s ether. 

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

LC – Are your artworks focused on a specific theme?
NP – My artworks explore my native island’s history – Guadeloupe history – by intrinsically including it in the greater narrative of the Black Atlantic. I have been researching Black people’s memories to be able to excavate mine. And vice versa. It is undeniable that all histories are linked and related. Thus, my studying the African American arts and idiosyncrasies is also an exploration of my own history, indirectly and yet inextricably and congenitally meshed and consubstantial. Aside from the memorializing work, I also develop a reflection on (eco)feminist matters, among which can be found women’s sexualities, sexual emancipation, desire as a social combustible, and the clitoridal revolution (specifically through my Clit Revowlution Project). As a scholar, I have been researching all those subjects and I find today a visceral interconnectedness between my arts and my sociological research, bridging the chasm created in me by a formatted society. I define myself as an explorer and researcher whose media declense from sociology papers to live video and photo performances, through poetry, choreography, and installations. My research themes quote and mingle identity, migration (first and foremost the primordial African forced migration of the Triangular Trade), femininities and feminisms, sexualities and gender, and memorialization and historicization. I had as much interest in the 1st Panafrican Festival dating back to 1969, in Algiers (Algeria), then the Mecca of the Revolutionary among whom Frantz Fanon and Sonny Rupaire, both poets, intellectuals and renegade French soldiers who joined the Algerian Liberation Army, as in the Indochinese presence in Guadeloupe. Inspired by the former, I wrote and embodied performance, in which a fictitious conversation between both Fanon and Rupaire happens from the Maroon Pantheon. Through this conversation, and poetry, and a whole set of actions performed on stage, I explore our tearing relationships with the French identity. In the latter, I performed a Butoh-inspired slow corporal performance, mixed with video and a soundtrack of a tale I wrote. This tale intertwines the Indochinese history in Guadeloupe and the esoteric legend of the sensitive (Mimosa Pudica). All in All, this performance titled “Sensitive” is a tale about femininity and memory, paying honour to my maternal grandmother’s roots whose mother was from Indochina. Those are two examples illustrative of my exploring (my) identities and society. Slavery – though we prefer using “enslavement” – is also a subject at the core of my practice. As a matter of fact, two performance triptychs of my creation, performed with my company or as a soloist, broach the subject in different manners. Kepone Experiment deals with the ill-treatment of the Black bodies in our islands, and more specifically with the Chlordecone-poisoning case. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, a cancer-provoking pesticide has been used for almost two decades after its prohibition in Metropolitan France and Europe, causing insufferable consequences and aftermaths in the banana plantation workers and their offspring for generations. The first performance Kepone Dust is the journey of the Black body from sugar cane crops to Chlordecone poisoning. The second one, Blue Code, deals with the emergency of an awakening and the behavioural duality or dual behavioural response in front of acknowledging one’s own contamination: angst versus fatalism. And the last performance, Pópót Léta (Government dolls), is a political reflection on the way the government use and abuses of our bodies through the vital resources we daily resort to water, staples, meat, fish, and so on. “Contaminated but compliant (with official standards)” is a common refrain in the red tape that I used as labels on our outfits to engage and challenge our submission to State handling.

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

LC – Where do you find your inspiration?
NP – As aforementioned before, I am a researcher. Hence, some of my inspiration and commitment are induced by readings, questioning, aiming at rationalizing the loopholes in our memories. But a great part can be instinctive, even so much as they result from what I might coin a call. For instance, the color blue has been emotionally appealing to and triggering for me for years now, aroused that I am by the color in objects and all forms, so I decided to explore it. I have started an immersion into the “blue(s)” using artefacts, antiques, and items in all shades of blue I had collected to set up performances in the wild to let their meanings emerge through and in me. The outcome was the photo performance series INDIGOYA (June 2022) – for which I was assisted by photographer Jessica Laguerre with whom I have worked consistently in a very productive exchange for a few two years now. Although the proposal is bound to evolve with more series and videos, the treatment of the subject was visceral and then analytical. In fact, the radiation of the color and its energy transpired through me, transcended me, and transmigrated in me. In the case of Mwen Pa Priyé Zacca (I have not prayed Zacca), seeking the meaning of the blue in the communities of African ancestry or African communities beyond the universalized occidental meaning, I merged my anthropological work of the Haitian Vodou culture and recognized the blue as the color of Zacca, loa (Haitian vodou spirit) of harvesting and agriculture. Exploring the symbols, offerings and colors associated with the lwa ou loas of the Vodou pantheon, Zacca was an echo to our Chlordecone experience and estranged relationship with the land. Certainly, the analytical  thought can be subsequent to an emotional incentive into the work.

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

LC – What is the message linked to the artwork you have shown in this event? How is it connected to the theme of the entire exhibition?
NP – The artworks of mine presented at the Venice International Art Fair at Palazzo Bembo and Palazzo Albrizzi-Capello deal with topics belonging to our hidden identities. I have already emphasized plenty of times how desecrated our histories and bodies were throughout history, from the discoveries of the West Indies to Slavery and colonization. My work aims at struggling against this relentless anamnesis (notice that this is also my company’s name). The two videos  I am presenting are both set in the present time but diving into universal mindsets and mind states expanding from past to future. Behind those works, are an ambitious vow of unlocking our memories, to reincarnate them and transform our bodies, spaces and identities. BLÜD questions the ruptured ecology of our bodies split from nature. This is an exploration of the source of life, of female bodies and vaginas and wombs as sources of life, such as blood is the indicator of life and death. This multidimensionality reverberates through the watering of the plants and the breeding ground – and per se femininity – and the bleeding of female sap, lifeblood. MWEN PA PRIYE ZACCA is also a reflection of our bodies in an ecosystem imposed on us and rejection/exploitation of the land provoking a poisoning incurred, suffered and sustained. The ritualized dance I perform is praise to Zacca that my ancestors’ uprooting and alienation, impaired our bond to the ether and invisible. Once ecologies are ruptured, the balance is disturbed, social, urban and cultural spaces are tainted and seeds for violence, inflicted to self and the surroundings.

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

LC –  Can you explain something about the artworks you have in our exhibition?
NP – I have been performing a lot but for a long time refused to have my performances filmed. Though I had images, I wanted the audience to live through it, and experiment with the moment, because obviously certain dimensions of it are cancelled because of the video format. There is always an olfactive and tactile experience. The matters and substances used have distinct odors that contribute to creating the atmospheres of the performances, are part of the experience. Consequently, though I had already produced short movies and videos, this part of my work remained in the ephemeral but completeness of the live experiments. The Covid Crisis urged me to show my work differently, because our exportation opportunities vanished with the onset of the pandemic. I am sure more will come. However, I was drawn to have one of my performances filmed in its real length and for offering the viewers the most complete live sensation. The smell still misses the settings. This is how my video performances took more momentum in my work.

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

LC – What do you think about ITSLIQUID Platform?
NP – I was honored to be selected and to have my video performances exhibited. ITSLIQUID is a huge platform that branches out in many directions, territories, spaces and cultures. This is a worldwide platform which seems really inclusive. As a French Caribbean artist, this is a real opportunity to break with the ostracism and invisibility we are undergoing due to a strong dependency on the French institutionalized and ghettoizing platforms restraining us to their margins and a real encounter between our imaginaries and creativities and the world. Our works need to be seen and criticized through others’ eyes.

LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
NP – Integrating the network could be a real blessing for an artist. I am happy to have been part of this exhibition. 

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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry
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Image courtesy of Nèfta Poetry

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