The Hyphen Between Two Names

Aliya Ram talks to Agnès Poitevin-Navarre about cultural identity and being a late bloomer

Despite France’s seeming political progression to an anti-colonial nationalism that is blind to ugly questions about race and ethnicity, there survives beneath the surface an unsolved tangle of ethno-racial confusion. For Agnes Poitevin-Navarre, this confusion has been an inspiration – the stimulating source of her culturally concerned photograms, maps and multimedia installations.

Her most recent geographical wanderings brought her fast and focusedly from the Royal Geographic Society in London to the Kings’ Arts Centre in Cambridge. And she made no casual matter of her new destination. The centre-piece of the Kings’ exhibit was a ‘Proustian Map of Cambridge’, created for and in collaboration with Cambridge residents who answered questions like, “What lesson has life taught you” and “What is your greatest achievement”. The artist then compiled the answers into a large, somewhat astrological diagram with spidery lines that criss-crossed behind statements from Stone Hill and Great Shelford. The anonymity of the participants was highlighted by the piece, which allowed a viewer to dip into only such a tiny (albeit intimate) part of each Cantabrigian’s mind.

Poitevin-Navarre’s interest in mixing people who are bound together by a coincidence of location extends in some of her other work to include people bound together by a coincidence of vocation. Indeed the piece which gave the exhibit its name, Fellow Artists, Fellow Muses, places Poitevin-Navarre next to some of her favourite female contemporary artists whose locks of hair replace brush bristles and artist cv is crypted as lists of latitude and longitude coordinates.

It seems appropriate now, a few months after her exhibit at the Kings’ art room, to ask the artist about her work and where it might take her next.

INTERVIEWER: Since cultural identity plays such a large part in your work, it feels right to start by asking you how you identify yourself culturally.

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: As you can deduce from my name, I am French, but have lived in England for 22 years. I am the hyphen between the two names. ‘Poitevin’ means people who live in the Poitou region, and ‘Navarre’ was a kingdom between France and Spain. My late father was black and came from Guyane Française, a French colony in South America, famous for the Ariane rockets programme, the European version of NASA. He migrated to France in the early sixties. My mother is French French (she is white). When people ask where I am from, they are never satisfied when I say I am French. The ‘from’ question is always loaded, it is not about nationality, it is about ethnicity or about class.

INTERVIEWER: What part has this cultural background played in your work?

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: In France, we have an expression “Français de souche”, which means an indigenous white Frenchman. The expression is used to differentiate the gaulois [think Asterix & Obelix!] from successive waves of immigrants. There is a political subtext similar to that of Black British resisting being defined as Black English. Semantics betray a lot of colonial baggage in both languages.

INTERVIEWER: Have you been influenced by foreign artists?

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: You are framing an interesting question, I have never been asked about my influences in this way. It is strange to know that others see me as I am a foreigner. Indeed, my looks, my accent, my work say it all! The nationality of the artists I like is not something I would consciously flag. But you want names, don’t you! Gosh, the list could be very long indeed! Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Meret Oppenheim, I loved the surrealists, Sophie Calle, Lorna Simpson, Cornelia Parker, Anthony Gormley, Adrian Piper, Rebecca Horn, Bridget Riley, Janine Antoni, Nina Torp, Grayson Perry. I am a conceptual artist so I get a kick by appreciating how artists have translated their ideas into artwork.

INTERVIEWER: So how did you get to where you are now in England?

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: I am a late bloomer. Indeed I get comfort knowing that Louise Bourgeois was a “peripheral figure in art whose work was more admired than acclaimed”, and found success very late in her art career. She was experimental and had integrity. Getting a First Class (Hons.) Degree in Fine Art at Canterbury, and then going to the Slade for my MA has undeniably opened doors. If you are good, aim for the best school! By the end of my MA, my work was mildly admired but not acclaimed and the myths about curators and collectors picking artists didn’t apply to me. They have agendas for which sometimes you fit and sometimes you don’t. So nurture your belief and carry on making good work.

INTERVIEWER: How has your work changed with time?

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: My earlier work was totally autobiographical and then with time it became a platform through which to engage with my fellows humans. Hence the maps , ‘Fellow Artists, Fellow Muses’, ‘Twelve Degrees of Integration”. My work used to be really opaque. It took having my kids to kick-start my making art again, this time with clarity and enjoyment.

INTERVIEWER: When you say ‘a platform through which to engage with your fellow humans’, what exactly do you mean, what did you do to engage?

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: Well, the Proustian map is about encapsulating the ephemeral feel of a town by sharing anecdotal evidence of the greatness of anonymous individuals. The Fellow Artists Fellow Muses piece came for a realisation about how important validation of my art practice is to me.

INTERVIEWER: Was that one of your most important pieces?

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: Each piece of artwork shown in Cambridge is important because they trace my artistic journey until now.  The “Fellow Artists – Fellow Muses” is a key piece because it deals with feminist issues. It subverts the idea of a male (active) artist and a female (passive) muse as seen in art, fashion, music, etc. It is a take on what it means to be a contemporary female artist, playing on the assumption that a woman artist is a painter.

I am an idealist. I want to bring meaning to the table, beauty, poetry and relevance. I want my audience to be moved, I want my work to linger in their thoughts. The most beautiful dedication for the Cambridge map happened at the private view, when I spoke to one Proustian, an Australian woman I had never met before. She had been teaching in Cambridge for the past three years and she felt she had finally arrived when she saw her contribution on the map. What an amazing compliment! Her words of wisdom were “that those who drive on the superhighway of fear free up the wonderfully joyous back roads of nature and freedom”. What a jewel of an answer!! It is really inspiring stuff!!!

INTERVIEWER: Where do you think you’re going next with your work?

AGNES POITEVIN-NAVARRE: America is calling me! Still, my next commission is another version of the Proustian map for the London Transport Museum, to be shown in May 2012. The Cambridge show has been great on many levels. I want to thank the curator Natalie McIntyre for the opportunity to exhibit there, and also all the Proustians for making the exhibit very special indeed.

by Aliya Ram
Friday 20th January 2012
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Art: Fellow Artists, Fellow Muses

Jessica Cherry heads to the King’s College Cambridge Art Centre to see the thought-provoking and mind-stimulating work of Agnes Poitevin-Navarre

Agnes Poitevin-Navarre is not an artist who paints pretty pictures. She creates thought-provoking and mind-stimulating pieces that can at times render the viewer uncomfortable. The intimacy of the King’s Art Room adds to the sense that everyone can read your inspired thoughts.

Poitevin-Navarre is experimental with her ideas, and it is this daring that has enabled her to exhibit at the Royal Geographical Society. For this current exhibition, she needed the help of students and inhabitants of Cambridge and the surrounding villages to fill in a “Proustian Questionnaire”, revealing what their greatest achievement was, and what life has taught them. Using these answers, she created a map that interestingly shows great differences in outlook between those who live in the centre, and those who live further away. There seems to be a great age-divide, and what can be unsettling is that many of us in the same post-code area have the same thoughts. We may not be as individual as we imagine.

This individuality is further explored in two “Colour Coding” prints that depict heritage and culture, shown through the differences in skin and hair tones. The artist’s website says “The work of Agnes-Poitevin-Navarre plays with the concept of self and how it is defined through racial/cultural categorisation. In her art practice, she challenges perceptions of cultural, linguistic and racial hybridity.” This idea stems from Agnes’ French culture, where a person of mixed heritage is referred to as “café au lait”. In reaction to this, she playfully depicts how people could be labelled in the future, with other allusions to food and drink, whether this be caramel or vanilla. It is a topic that can be hard to deal with tastefully, but Poitevin-Navarre succeeds.

Diversity is also shown in the range of mediums she uses – hair, wood, photocopies, and computer images. Hair is fascinating as she uses it to sew a floor plan of King’s College, reminding us that we become woven into the fabric of Cambridge, just as much as Cambridge will always be a part of us. We can see our physical selves embedded in the architecture, forever a small part of history.

Who we are now and who we may become in the future is a frightening prospect that we are forced to consider whilst witnessing, and to a great extent, taking part in Poitevin-Navarre’s work. If you want to challenge your mind and consider your heritage, then this exhibition is at King’s College, until Saturday 26th November, free entry.

by Jessica Cherry
Friday 25th November 2011