In 1968, in coordination with the United States, the British government began to forcibly expel nearly 2,000 inhabitants of Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands chain in the Indian Ocean. Despite their historical and cultural presence on the island for at least six generations—Chagossians speak a dialect of Creole unheard anywhere else in the world—the British government classified the island to the United Nations as one with “no native population,” and put it up for sale.
Remarkably, the U.S. military had quietly been in the market for an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean. In 1976, shortly after the last Chagossian family was expelled, the U.S. signed a fifty-year lease with the British government and began to build on Diego Garcia what would become one of the largest naval bases outside of U.S. territory. Today, Camp Justice (a name unironically shared with bases at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Kadhimiya, Iraq) has been described by the U.S. government as “indispensible,” presumably for its convenient location directly south of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Chagossian artist Clement Siatous was in his twenties when his family was evicted. Now living in Mauritius, an island 2,000 kilometers away where islanders were shuffled into impoverished housing with no electricity or running water, he paints vivid, bustling scenes of his former life on Diego Garcia. Fourteen of his paintings were recently exhibited at Simon Preston Gallery in New York as part of “The New Atlantis,” a project founded by gallery director Paula Naughton that aims to give voice to the silenced Chagossians.
Each scene in Siatous’s work is reconstructed from forty year-old memories. A man and child skin coconuts on a pristine beach; a large fishing vessel docs with its bountiful daily catch; a hulky, tan-skinned woman beams as she balances an overflowing basket of produce. His colors are thick and lustrous, and the dazzling cerulean blue of his ocean could strike even the most die-hard New Yorker with feverish envy. In Salamon Bordero pilser coco fam la batin (2015), the largest painting in the exhibition at nearly five feet across, men and women harvest coconuts with tools called “piques” specific to the island. Despite the postcard-perfect beach, not a single person is at rest; figures are in postures of exertion and muscles ripple in the sun. These are not Gauguin’s harems of bronzed odalisques against verdant grounds; they are bodies consumed with physical labor of the land.
When forced onto boats in the late ’60s, the Chagossians were each allowed only one suitcase. Other than short reels of film, taken by missionaries in the 1950s, little photographic evidence exists of the Chagossians—outside their own oral history. This lack of written history is precisely why the British were able to successfully wipe the island clean. Siatous works within this absence, dating each painting to a specific year previous to Diego Garcia’s depopulation. For example, Plague de Perhos Berhos, an ebullient scene in which fisherman, children and roosters freely roam around a tall white cross constructed on the beach, is dated 1954 at the bottom of the canvas, but was actually painted in 2014. The artist’s stated intention is not to rewrite history, as was often done in history paintings of the Western academy, but merely to exhume it, building a visual archive for a population whose legacy has been systematically erased. These are conceptual landscapes, each painting an act of political defiance.
As a painter Siatous may not be technically superb; his work displays a condensed depth of field reminiscent of fellow self-taught artists like Henri Rousseau or Henry Darger. Yet it is his subtle polemic of agrarian tableaux that captivates. His practice of painting the mundane—daily activities that evolved from living on a specific plot of earth for nearly two centuries—gives these works their striking power. Looking at the works in “Sagren,” the Creole word for overwhelming sorrow and longing, we see not migrants or nomads, not a “floating population” as a British official wrote in a recently released memo from 1967. We see inhabitants.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.