Eddy Firmin is a visual artist, art researcher, professor, and editorialist with a radical take on art making. Extending beyond universalizing European narratives of art and beauty, Firmin’s work takes interest, instead, with the global, and highly imbalanced, systems of knowledge-production logic behind artistic creation itself. His views are informed by postcolonial philosophy as well as his personal Creole identity, the artist being native to the French territory of Guadeloupe.
Packed with theoretical insight, Firmin’s artwork calls on the philosophical concept of the episteme: a culture’s knowledge production structures. In short, an episteme is the unsaid or a priori paradigm which grounds all discussions of truth and “defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge” as explained by philosopher Foucault. In effect, Eddy Firmin’s art conveys the ways in which the West not only colonized indigenous economies and politics, but also, non-western epistemes. To this end, the artist aims to challenge the default western imaginary by reproducing the creole system of his caribbean episteme.
Visually, his works are primarily three-dimensional, multi-media installations that integrate figurative representations with pop culture and historical references, all the while adopting an aesthetic of discord. The artist frequently incorporates hidden symbols of resistance, or pairs together mediums that seem to conflict with their forms. Drawing on the slave created Afro-Caribbean artistic tradition of Gwoka, Firmin’s art often mirrors the conventions of art forms developed to disguise colonial protest.
I was first curious about Firmin’s self-identification, asking out of his many titles of visual artist, academician, writer, speaker, editorialist, philosopher, and professor, which one he considered himself first.
“In fact, none of these titles suit me. Rather, I choose the title of conteur creole [or creole storyteller], that who narrates the story which teaches.” Indeed, Firmin has a markedly pedagogical vision of the artist. Challenging the western idea of art as autonomous, Firmin holds that art is a response or reaction to social functions, notably, that of knowledge sharing.
The artist elaborates on how art serves to disseminate knowledge in his native Guadeloupe. Within the art of gwoka, a combined, drum,dance and storytelling art form, the conventions are so widely recognizable that any difference in rhythm would render the viewer cognizant of a change in plot or conveyed emotion.
Importantly, this was a medium developed during the French colonial regime due to the ban on indigenous visual and, often doubly, spiritual traditions. Because of imperialism, Firmin explains, the episteme of colonized cultures was forced to evolve to live without images.
“There is a return to the oral arts, often referred to as oraliture.”
Importantly, to understand the Creole episteme and imagination is not only to know the pre-colonial culture, but to chart its epistemic adaptation to colonialism. Moreover, for Firmin to be a Creole storyteller and not a creole painter, sculpture, or otherwise visual artist is truly for him to embody this evolution as he embraces the eloquence of oraliture.
Growing up in the Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe, Firmin was educated in the French system through university. This experience gave him the anecdotal evidence to qualify the colonizing tendencies of the western episteme.
“With its educational structures, the west has put into place politics of knowledge,” says the artist. Yet, Firmin explains that this in of itself isn’t an issue. Each culture, each art style, each episteme has its own intellectual conventions and politics, but the problem with the West is that “it has imposed its Matrix as the Matrix.”
To contextualize further, Firmin explained the two major epistemic political types: the ego-politics of knowledge of the West, and the corpo-politics of knowledge otherwise. As he explains, these two systems have completely incompatible logics.
“The western ego-politics of knowledge sharing emphasize extreme transparency and coherence. There is this taxonomic need to differentiate, compartmentalize, and categorize everything.” This has led to the dominance of writing (as it conflicts, of course, with oraliture) because of its ability to concretize knowledge.
“The library comes to function as a bank, as each book permanently designates the owner of any thought. And this is the very system in which the university is implicated as well: to collect and capitalize on the products of others.” Conclusively, the ego-politics of knowledge is a fundamentally capitalist system.
On the other hand, the corpo-politics of knowledge operates on a distinguishingly more “organic” basis, in the words of the artist.
“In the corpo-politics of knowledge the body becomes the library.” To return to Gwoka, the dancer’s body holds an encyclopedia of knowledge around mythology. It is a highly vertical system of knowledge sharing where opacity, rather than articled analysis, is aesthetically valued.
“There is a popular saying that when an old man dies, a library burns” the artist continues. Corpo-politics of knowledge always return to the body, rather than words or books, as a support for ideas and objects.
This is entirely relevant for Firmin considering the abundance of the artist’s self-representations within his work. In the historical western understanding, an artist’s self-portrait often serves to stamp or author the work but for Firmin the significance of his many self-representations is rather to continue the legacy of this corpo-political tradition. For example, within his 2016 Ego Portrait collection, the artist features a black painted bust of himself, from the mouth up covered in luxury fashion branding and a gold-colored collar. Here, we see the artist’s body being used as a transposable canvas to convey an anti-capitalist message, while mirroring its ancestral bodily memory of colonialism.
And it’s on this footing that considering his doubly European and Guadeloupean culture, Eddy Firmin compares himself to a “computer with two memory chips that don’t go together.”
Finally, as an art history student, I questioned Firmin as to his position on the so-called artistic canon and how he compares his work to it. In brief, the canon is a small collection of western artworks throughout history which have separated themselves from the rest as ‘masterpieces.” In art history lessons, the theme of great work or artistic genius being defined by canon-shattering originality arises constantly. Firmin’s take?
“I’m not trying to break any canons,” he asserts. “We say ‘canon-breaking’ but each time a European comes to destroy their own history, oh, it’s but another branch that sprouts on the tree […] We can’t break codes, we add others.” The canon system, being quintessentially an agent of the capitalist and ego-politics of knowledge, cannot be attacked by a weapon so egoistic as the personal agency of any artist. Rather, the canon-breaker only becomes the new ‘precedent’ to shatter.
Overall, Eddy Firmin’s art is an elegant articulation of his personal epistemic paradox, grappling with his own doubly western and creole imagination. And in as much as he investigates his own imagination, the artist simultaneously asks the viewer to interrogate their preconceived epistemes and theories on art history, as well as their views on the equity of cultural production.