Banner image:  still from 'plastic flowers' (2021) by melissandre varin

Content warning: discussion of racism, queerphobia, and transphobia

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About the commission

plastic flowers (2021) by melissandre varin is a work in three parts commissioned by Shape Arts to mark Black History Month. In two films and an audio document, we are absorbed by the intimate landscape of melissandre’s family, biological and chosen, and allowed to touch and untangle the tense webs that make up these personal histories.

The vignettes of everyday life that melissandre offers us are paradoxical: at once familiar - family dinner around the kitchen table, the naive singing saved for solitary chores - and unsettling - saturated with tensions and ‘fugitive vocabularies.’ This work is a pursuit of loving environments but we feel the wounds and abrasions left as impressions, the cost of such a journey.

melissandre has masterfully balanced a series of juxtapositions which together evoke something uncannily universal about domesticity and family. Photographs of furnishings taken as though from a child’s perspective are interwoven with the distant sounds of infants playing as melissandre questions the sanctity of conventional family life. A lexicon of maps and topography is met with the frantic examination of a family painting of a ship, forcing us to confront distance, separation, all the while being taken ever deeper in and closer to this family fortress.

Through these tensions, which make themselves known as much to the senses as to the mind, we are brought full circle to melissandre’s original provocation: ‘how to return home, safely?’ Can ‘home’ ever be satisfyingly and reliably ‘safe’? Is there a way melissandre can truly build a family from the ground up that doesn’t compromise their past? How much of a role in our futures do our histories perform?

A note from melissandre

Intimate; around a kitchen table with my chosen family and in-between unspoken conversations with my biological one. i am attempting to find some comfort at the intersections of multi-languaging and fugitive vocabularies where tensions with and without words lie. This triptych is about family estrangement, extension of kinships, and abolition of institutions. Untangled in a soup for personal liberation are mentions of transphobia, queerphobia, and fatphobia, meshed with discussions of class, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, care, and abilities. It is (in)directly about all of that and, ultimately, a pursuit towards building loving environments. Trying to clean the garden, i share an unsolicited intimate, in-progress, and unsettling trialogue on what it takes to bloom.

Having been offered a commission by Shape Arts during Black History Month, it was important for me not to replicate or paraphrase the essential work done in celebrating and honouring Black heroic figures. The only way i could think of contributing to this historical month was to dig deeper into a difficult conversation within my communities; the one that touches upon cutting ties with biological family members, the one interrogating family as an institution.

As someone who has been estranged from my father for ten years, and slowly with most of my biological family members, i felt a need to invite others onto the dance floor for such conversations within Black communities. There is nothing grandiose, only debris of a raw quotidian as a perceived-as-silent refusal to enter/stay in the dance. i thank Shape Arts for championing what and how art organisations can practice care and cross-solidarity in a humbling way. A non-performative approach that is, from my experiences, all too rare within the arts sector.

a kitchen table/une table à manger

Jeremie from Martinique, Dayane from Mayotte, Manon and melissandre from the suburbs of Paris (95) investigate the built environments they grew up in by sharing intimate memories. Two to three years after the last time they sat together, they re-introduce themselves to one another speak about racism, colourism, class, and otherness; use stereotypes without filters, get stuff wrong. They speak lightly at a kitchen table after a long day and weave their different epistemological locations witnessed by a smartphone recording their iterations.

In the process of making an installation part of Coventry Biennial 2021 at the time of the conversation, melissandre dissects the how and why particular settings provide them with comfort or sense of dissociation. melissandre guides the conversation by bringing visual elements photographed a couple of days ago at their grandmother’s HLM (state funded housing setting) that inform their sense of aesthetics. 

“Parbleu les Blancs sont de grands guerriers

hosannah pour le maître et pour le châtre-nègre!

Victoire ! Victoire, vous dis-je : les vaincus sont contents !

Oh yes the Whites are great warriors

hosannah to the master and to the nigger-gelder!

Victory! Victory, I tell you: the defeated are content!”

"Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal/Notebook of a Return to the Native Land/Journal of a Homecoming" (1939)

Listen to the audio document:

Download the English transcript     Download the French transcript

plastic flowers

A reflection triggered by soon to be three-years-old Eole while visiting their biological family with their mother melissandre. Two years away from their last visit due to economic and sanitary reasons, their family spend a minute of joy: re-united, seeing loved ones after a long wait. This intense moment is followed by observations on the lack of intimacy and the lack of desire to rebuild a fictitious sense of belonging. The composition is made of this aftermath.

plastic flowers is inspired by the film work of Mona Hatoum that melissandre consumed while briefly studying letters and arts in Paris when living with their grandmother a decade ago. melissandre shares smartphone images of this environment in the short piece. A letter to us that never made it to the other. Instead of speaking to their nearby grandmother, melissandre takes poetic notes, performing family membership while waiting to breath again once the duty ends. plastic flowers is about the impossibility posed by transphobia, queerphobia, and class transitions and its impact on a Black family from the suburbs of Paris.

Audio description summary: 

the anachoreography of family

A poetry note made while traveling on the RER D between Paris Gare du Nord and Villier-le-bel Gonesse. It emanated from the reading of maroon choreography by fahima ife, which ended up as the name of the last piece of the triptych on family estrangement offered by melissandre.

melissandre remember a sequence of ideas shared by Roo Dhissou a close friend: ‘when you'll be ready, you’ll let them go - on your own time.' This film is the manifestation of them being ready to show up for themselves. melissandre interrogates themselves on what it costs to let go and for them to be let go in return? Would they ever be free from each other? Or would they carry biological family project failures as a burden forever?

Those are some of the themes the material shared is attentive to. Open questions. A film that is ever on-going within them but also from an aesthetic standpoint as melissandre ceased making of the film when it simply did not hurt that much anymore, instead of aiming at presenting a finished version of a reflection on the topic.

Audio description summary: 

Download the transcript

Find out more about melissandre    Read about our BHM commission