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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Essays

Acts of Camouflage: On Suzanne Roussi Césaire

Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich sits with “an artist who didn’t want to be remembered.”

By Yasmina Price

October 10, 2023

Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Too Bright to See (Part I), Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2023-24, photo by Oriol Tarridas, courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami.


Performing a partial and speculative reenactment, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s Too Bright to See (Part I) (2023) weaves an intricate weft of fragments in remembrance of Suzanne Roussi Césaire (1915–1966), the Martinican writer, theorist, and educator.


Roussi Césaire was a critical contributor to Caribbean thought and the explosion of anticolonial literary, cultural, and political activity surrounding the Négritude movement. She cofounded and wrote for the Martinican cultural journal Tropiques (1941–1945), and her known writings comprise seven essays, one lost play, and innumerable epistolary exchanges. Although the incandescent Roussi Césaire sketched a renewed trajectory for an emancipatory psychogeography of Caribbean culture, she was ultimately unseen and silenced.

With the installation of Too Bright to See (Part I) at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Hunt-Ehrlich offers a sensuous recentering of Roussi Césaire. Along with scholar Anny-Dominique Curtius, the filmmaker is part of a small but blossoming coterie engaged in this project of recovery. During her lifetime, Roussi Césaire channeled her imaginative and insightful writings in service of what she called a “cannibalistic” aesthetic. Her unique synthetic sensibility proved crucial in motivating a new, collectively authored cultural identity for Martinique and forged a blazing vision for Tropiques, which proved to be a decisive capsule of the literary, political, and aesthetic convergence of surrealism and Black liberation. Despite these significant and innovative contributions, she suffered the fate of either going unrecognized or having her ideas misattributed and subsumed under masculine myopia.


Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Too Bright to See (Part I), Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2023-24, photo by Oriol Tarridas, courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami.

As a corrective, Hunt-Ehrlich has taken up a devotional excavation, its ethos embedded in Roussi Césaire’s own knowledge system. This alignment allows the filmmaker to evade the potential danger of salvaging her stifled memory only to subject her to the intellectual or artistic equivalents of the patriarchal and colonialist logics that discarded her. In cinematic terms, such logics could have produced the rigid, invasive absolutism of a conventional biopic. Rather, Hunt-Ehrlich offers an alternative to the normative approach, delicately honoring Roussi Césaire while troubling the very premise of such efforts of remembrance. She resurfaces her subject through a fragmented prism, respecting all the ways she cannot be made fully knowable. Too Bright to See (Part I) invites Roussi Césaire back into the present by becoming a vehicle for her texts, opening up a portal for this never-fully-forgotten Black woman intellectual and artist to be encountered again. As the author writes in a letter written from Haïti to her friend, literary critic and writer Yassu Gauclère, on July 25, 19441, cited almost prophetically in the film:

Hello to the discoverers, for whom this finding will return to objects and beings their authenticity. And I believe that from the moment you take the first step, in desiring to destroy the surface-level skin between you and objects, you will always be able to take the next step, putting yourself at the heart of the poem.

Staying close to Roussi Césaire’s own modes of self-expression, Hunt-Ehrlich’s imaginative recovery articulates an ethical position. While the film creates a verbal collage of transcripts from interviews with her children and secondary criticism, it relies most on the vitality of the writer’s own letters and essays, the latter of which were collected and published in the original French in Le Grand Camouflage: Ecrits de dissidence (1941–1945) in 2009, edited by Daniel Maxim. Roussi Césaire’s writings also dictate the multilingualism of Too Bright to See (Part I), which includes Kreyol in its closing song and is otherwise split between French and English: Roussi Césaire’s words are primarily read in French by actor Zita Hanrot, producing a linguistic alchemy that animates its transcultural and pan-Africanist dimension. Sequenced with shots of a warm peach sun, verdant landscapes, a brief historical reenactment, and even a musical performance, much of the film sees Hanrot gliding across the screen, surrounded by palm trees or sitting on the grass, performing Roussi Césaire’s language. Hanrot appears not so much as an incarnation but a suggestion of the writer, while also playing a fictionalized version of herself as an actor in this role—an essential aspect of the ethics of Hunt-Ehrlich’s method, to openly embrace this elastic artifice.

Martinique is conjured through a substitution, as the film was shot in Miami’s enchanting tree archive at the Montgomery Palmetum & Palm Collection of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. During a public talk with Curtius, the filmmaker revealed a stunning connection to the poetics and politics of Sarah Maldoror and her 1987 film about Roussi Césaire’s husband, Aimé Césaire, le masque des mots.2 Hunt-Ehrlich situates how her own generative artifice drew on Maldoror’s method of pan-African geographic reordering, scrambling colonial divisions to re-engineer a sense of borderless Black internationalism and global métissage. This form of rearranging joins the braiding of linguistic fragments and gently mesmerizing images that thread the film via a Black, anticolonial rubric.


Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Too Bright to See (Part I), Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2023-24, photo by Oriol Tarridas, courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami.

At stake are questions of memory, historical authorship, and authority over remembrance, tied to the particular enigma of whether Roussi Césaire was not—or not only—erased, or chose to camouflage herself, leaving few traces so her absence would be on her own terms. Too Bright to See (Part I) luxuriates in this ambivalence, the rich possibility of unknowing and accepting what may need to remain hidden. Consequently, Hunt-Ehrlich accomplishes something more significant than a film about Roussi Césaire; instead, the film performs a process of learning. Roussi Césaire’s perceptual innovations find a corollary in Hunt-Ehrlich’s cinematic practice. Just as the writer was steadfastly positioned against the assimilation of Martinicans into colonial and imperial culture and knowledge systems, the film’s creative protocol safeguards against another form of assimilation: the deceptively celebratory tones of elegiac recuperation. Too Bright to See (Part I)’s elliptical sketch of Roussi Césaire could never be used to ground a totemic figuration of her, or to add to any number of vague universalizing rosters of importance. Roussi Césaire emerges through an invitation to meet her in plurality, as impossible to essentialize as the hybrid “hummingbird-women, tropical flower-women, the women of four races and dozens of bloodlines”3 she wrote about.

Citationally as well as conceptually, Too Bright to See (Part I) draws significantly on Roussi Césaire’s last published essay from 1945, “Le Grand Camouflage,” her touchstone piece. In it, she took on the task of demystifying the image of a paradisiacal Caribbean, which continues to suppress the historical lacerations of transatlantic slavery, plantation economies, and brutal extractions of colonial domination. As she writes, “The degrading forms of the modern wage system continue to find in our homeland a ground on which to flourish without constraint.”4 Roussi Césaire pierced through amnesiac perceptions to expose how casting those geographies in exoticized and romanticized terms only ever served the interests of camouflaging the atrocities against the land and its supplanted and re-rooted peoples, thereby weakening the capacities of resistance.

Deployed on gendered terms, Roussi Césaire’s Caribbean ecopoetics not only rejected the dominant logics surrounding falsely Edenic visions of the Caribbean as a plundered paradise, but also challenged them with the uncontainable, unassimilable kinetic force of nature herself. This stance, which centers flux and multiplicity, also shapes Too Bright to See (Part I). The film’s textuality and fragmented visioning are part of a speculative visual terrain that figures across Hunt-Ehrlich’s filmography, evident in such works as Spit on the Broom (2019), which the artist herself has called a “surrealist documentary.” The filmmaker’s own hybridization demonstrates an encounter of Black aesthetics and political demands enmeshed with surrealism in a way that echoes Roussi Césaire’s cannibalistic integration of surrealism into Caribbean intellectual and artistic currents as a “powerful war weaponry” whose utility is cemented in one of the film’s adapted citations: “Our surrealism will enable us to finally transcend the present. Colonial idiocy will be purified in the welder’s blue flame.”


Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Too Bright to See (Part I), Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2023-24, photo by Oriol Tarridas, courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Approaching it as a liberatory tool in the task of unmaking and remaking the world, Roussi Césaire was inspired by surrealism’s methods of unsettling norms to make way for alternative horizons. A key aspect was sensorial derangement, a way of upsetting the standing hierarchy that places the visual at the preferential top. As poetically announced in the film’s title—drawn from the last line of “Le Grand Camouflage”—at the heart of the work is a crisis of seeing, which involves a play with visibility, opacity, screens, disappearances, and reappearances. With what bell hooks could have named an oppositional Black gaze5, Hunt-Ehrlich attends to absences and silences with an aesthetic mechanism that makes room for them, draws on them, and does not mask the gaps but finds a place for them as part of the scaffolding of remembrance.

Too Bright to See (Part I) suggests a tension between being visualized and being seen, a reminder that a reappearance is not necessarily a recovery. In her insightful and groundbreaking book, Suzanne Césaire: Archéologie littéraire et artistique d’ une mémoire empêchée,6 Curtius tends to how Roussi Césaire was relegated to being just a light-skinned beauty, a photographic aestheticized object, an image denied her due as a Black woman with interiority, let alone for her astral intellectual and artistic abilities. This incisive reading points to the sensitivity of Hunt-Ehrlich’s method, which circumvents reiterating that sort of vacuous visual confinement by having Hanrot only briefly appear dressed and coiffed to represent Roussi Césaire, with those moments themselves undermined by the ones where she plays herself as an actor. Hanrot is not a replacement for the writer, and there are no photographs of Roussi Césaire; she appears predominantly through the method she chose for herself: her words.


Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Too Bright to See (Part I), Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2023-24, photo by Oriol Tarridas, courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Roussi Césaire was at all times many things, including a mother to six children. Maternal concerns were written into the affective sociality of the film’s production, with both Hunt-Ehrlich and Hanrot having recently become mothers. Too Bright to See (Part I) highlights the plural labor of many women artists and intellectuals, perhaps especially for those referred to as the wives of great men. Roussi Césaire’s position as a mother was a critical factor in her ability to write. In reference to her discarded writings, Hanrot reads out the words of one of Roussi Césaire’s children, saying she “got rid of them in a very simple way . . . by tearing them up and putting them in the trash.” A specific reference to those destroyed writings as “aborted works” immediately following a reference to her maternal duties is suggestively doubly valenced, evoking complicated negotiations and gendered compromises. Switching from French to English, Hanrot adds, “She threw most of her writing away. So we are making a film about an artist who didn’t want to be remembered,” with the second sentence spoken directly to the camera before she turns her back for the relief of a pensive cigarette. Yet even the film’s devotional honoring of Roussi Césaire’s words renders the claim that she did not want to be remembered ambivalent—testifying to the ways she did leave a mark, with the film itself as proof of the exhilarating ripple effects of Roussi Césaire’s writing.

Too Bright to See (Part I) begins and ends with a look: Hanrot acting as Roussi Césaire stares evenly into the camera, her gaze of lucid clairvoyance bookending the film. Nurturing these traces of ecstatic potential, Hunt-Ehrlich rechoreographs memory, enacting the very mobility and plurality of Caribbean poetics that Roussi Césaire herself channeled in writing.


Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Too Bright to See (Part I), Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2023-24, photo by Oriol Tarridas, courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich: Too Bright to See (part 1) continues through January 28, 2024 at the Perez Art Museum Miami. The exhibition was curated by Iberia Pérez González.


Footnotes:

1. The letter is referred to in Anny-Dominique Curtius, Suzanne Césaire: Archéologie Littéraire et Artistique d’une Mémoire Empêchée (Paris: Karthala Editions, 2020).

2. Maldoror (1929–2020) was one of the rare women filmmakers working in the lineages of African cinema and militant cultural production of the 1960s and 1970s, whose recognition has only come belatedly. The contributions of this pan-Africanist artist are monumental, and her stunning first feature, Sambizanga (1972), centering a mother in a narrative dealing with the Angolan liberation struggle, made her one of the first women of African descent to direct a feature film on the African continent.

3. Suzanne Césaire, “The Great Camouflage,” The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941–1945), ed. Daniel Maximin (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), 40.

4. Césaire, Camoflauge, 42.

5. bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115–32.

6. Anny-Dominique Curtius, Suzanne Césaire: Archéologie littéraire et artistique d’une mémoire empêchée (Paris: Karthala Editions, 2020).