Passes is an ongoing collaborative artwork between Jenny Polak and Dread Scott. It draws on research begun during a 2017 residency at the Camargo Foundation near Marseille. The project explores connections between the forced migrations of the French Slave Trade and present-day migrations from Africa to Europe.
The project began with research in Marseille archives and initially focused on Victor Régis, a leading 19th century trader of enslaved people and central figure in French and European colonial exploits in West Africa.
In our research we came across an account of an ‘origin story’ of wealth and capitalism, told by captured people from West Africa. The currency of the slave trade was the small money cowrie, and European traders found ways to amass vast quantities of them, in effect printing money. The targeted peoples told the story that to grow ever more cowries, traders would attach ropes to body parts of captured people who had died, and throw them into the water to attract the (supposedly) scavenger mollusks. Hauling them up, according to this myth, the traders would pick off the cowries and repeat the process.
Passes is not fixed in any one medium: we have so far made prints and performances. We synthesize the ideas in the research as we make art. From the origin myth of cowrie wealth we made a lithograph of a fantastical zombie intent on taking back what is owed to Africa. We printed an image of Chateau Régis, built with wealth extracted from Dahomey/Benin across generations, atop a mountain of “printed” cowries. Conversations we had with Guinean migrants living in Grenoble, France led to a lithograph depicting contemporary food delivery drivers positioned in front of burning cane fields—evoking images of the Haitian revolution. And research in the Lorient maritime museum generated a performance in which we brought an 8 meter long banner depicting the slave ship Aurore through the streets of the town to the museum of the Compagnie des Indes—the company that built the Aurore, and whose wealth was built on enslavement.