For one weekend a year, over half a million Mauritians head to downtown Port Louis to eat, drink and marvel at the display of luminous public art. Charl Blignaut was one of a growing number of tourists filling the streets at the Porlwi By Light festival.
Queen Victoria is bathed in a red glow, lights dancing across her stern face. From her plinth in front of the Mauritian Parliament building, she has just presided over the opening ceremony of the second-ever Porlwi By Light festival, an event couched in racial harmony and progress.
The air is electric. Everywhere you look, trees and buildings and statues are illuminated by pops and sputterings and swathes of projected light. Sculpted figurines glow from rooftops and fly upward towards palm trees, lights knock playfully on doorways. Up on the hill a shrine shines like an alien landing site. On giant silos, a series of faces of historically influential Mauritians fade in and away again. In front of them a fountain in the harbour becomes a screen for an intricate laser projection that tells a mythical history of this place, discovered by the Arabs and colonised by the Dutch, the French and then the British before negotiating independence in 1968.
There are people everywhere. Brown, Indian, white, traders, tourists, town folk. Couples hold hands, parents herd children, stoners wield tech, teenage boys swagger past with the front tips of their hair curiously peroxided.
The garden of earthly delights
In the street ahead of us, giant banyan trees are bathed in a pinkish purple, then a singeing of red. As you approach the Company Garden, the old park is seething with an ancient, futurist energy. Crickets chirp in an electric jungle with great silver orbs rolling by in the distance, a woman singing, the sound of thunder, pregnant clouds hang among the entanglements of banyan roots.
Visitors queue around the block to get inside. On any other night they’d be advised to steer clear of the garden.
“Company Garden has a negative image in people’s minds, because this is where you will find sex workers at night,” says Nirveda Alleck, the petite, expressive, early-40s Mauritian artist and lecturer who created this enchantment in the park.
“I’ve never walked through here alone. There are pickpockets and things ... It’s used by lots of people, but it’s really bland. There’s just soil and dead plants and rubbish. My first thought was that it needed freshness. I wanted rain under the trees. But it was too expensive, so I decided to make the clouds and the ponds ... I brought in vegetation.”
Her hands sketch in the air as she talks, especially about politics on the island. She is well-regarded for her fiercely critical, post-colonial paintings. (See our cover for her work on the dispossessed inhabitants of the Chagos islands given to the British to secure Mauritian independence.) But she is also known for her “philosophy of feeling” when it comes to her art.
“I needed spheres, reflection, clouds. Then I remembered the painting by Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Maybe it was in my subconscious. It’s one of the few paintings from back then where there are black bodies that are more than slaves. The people in the painting I wanted to bring in as a performance, but it was getting too expensive by then. So, that’s where the mirrors come in, to reflect the people who come into the space.” Some of them distort images and others pixelate them, depending on the light.
“I decided to create a magical space for Porlwi By Light. The majority of the people do not ask themselves questions about post-colonialism, about concepts in art.” But they know what they feel when entering a space like this. In a way it’s like her early paintings, a cacophony of colour and instinct.
This park, she tells me, is also the only place in Mauritius where you can stage a public grievance.
“At this kiosk you can protest. You can hunger strike here if you’re not happy with the government.” Does it get used? “It gets used, yes, there was supposed to be one last week. They moved it for the festival.”
Party at the top of the world
Officials escort well-heeled guests up to the rooftop of the Air Mauritius building where we take in the full splendour of the light display. Adults blink like infants at the scale of it all. Offerings of Bulgari and champagne compensate for the drizzle that’s set in.
It’s early December and peak season is approaching for the tourist island where land and property development are now the primary currency, the closer to the sea, the more valuable.
The Mauritius Tourism Authority sponsors Porlwi By Light and its dates are strategic. “It’s already seen the low season grow by 30% and the gap between high and low season is closing,” says an official.
Last year, Porlwi By Light attracted an estimated 400 000 or so visitors. This year, I will later be told, they estimate that they hit 600 000. A good few are visitors, but that’s almost half the population of Mauritius.
“We want to get people out of their homes and out of the malls and back into the city,” says an organiser. “The city belongs to everyone.”
But on the street, a dissenting voice and supporter of Youth United in Voluntary Action (Yuva), a group of young people who want to create a new, decolonised political party, shrugs at such sentiments. “They will sell you the story that this island was created by a volcano and so everyone here is a visitor ... But colonialism is still happening here. Racial harmony is still just a dream here. In Mauritius the white community has the money. Even when slavery was abolished, the white citizens created a huge bank to invest the 1835 slave compensations. Then they bought all the beautiful beach property. The government says all beaches in Mauritius are public by law, but they’re not really. Not long ago a kid was mauled by a Rottweiler unleashed by security guarding a beach.”
Her words still ringing in my ears, we head to the Caudan Waterfront, a thriving commercial development of hotels and shops, a casino and restaurants. At a popular waterfront hotel nearby we eat dinner.
Outside there is a lively dance floor crammed with rich kids who stand at tables groaning under the weight of drinks and platters of deep-fried food. With each arriving water taxi the dance floor ebbs and flows. Later the crowd is older, sweating rich people partying hard as they hop from hotel to hotel.
We are driven back to our own paradise hotel further down the coast, passing a huge warehouse with floating blue orbs visible through the windows, intriguing the night. We vow to visit it.
Squeals of joy
The next night a threat of rain hangs in the air. Above us in the street a row of umbrellas made of light is suspended. The lights are powered by people on bicycles on the pavement. The work is by the 31-year-old designer Richa Gujadhur, famous for her award-winning furniture design crafted from the same local plastic material used to weave baskets. I stop and chat to her and her mother. She has no interest in unpacking colonialism. She wants to bring people together by making her work interactive.
In the warehouse of the blue orbs there is a lesson in what public art can do to bring people together. A row of children are holding hands to power the orbs, which change colour, eliciting squeals of joy. The cosmos is displayed on another wall. When you touch it the heat from your hands makes it swirl. Giant virtual reality animations allow visitors to inhabit cartoon bodies. Everywhere people are smiling.
A beautiful, disused old theatre in the city centre forms a canvas for an extraordinary work of projections involving dancers. It’s lit as a jungle as a narrative unfurls. An old man is writing. He travels back through his memories and his writings are projected on to the theatre.
“They are memories of a love and she’s a figment of his imagination,” says Azim Moollan, the director of photography and artist who created it with a team of young film and dance enthusiasts.
The internet changed everything
What is Mauritian culture? I ask the warm, lovely, bearded 31-year-old when we sit down to chat.
“Ah! Oof!” comes Moollan’s reply. We laugh.
“Mauritian culture is in constant formation. If you look at a lot of Mauritian artwork, there’s a complete identity crisis.
“There were discussions about this festival. That’s not Mauritian culture, that’s just importing culture. But then, what is Mauritian culture? Being enclosed in this hermetic idea of culture is not good. But it’s also that so many cultures have come in to this isolated place and there have been cultural mixes, in terms of food, art. As a society we’re still a generation away. Pockets of kids are mixing.”
It’s the internet, he says, that will change things.
“In the last couple of years alone you’ve seen the level of what these kids are making, with digital cameras and the like, that you’d never expect. These kids haven’t travelled, they had no access. It’s coming because of the internet.”
The grain hits the fan
In between the light displays there are other signs of a new school of young, conscious artists emerging. We find several at The Granary, an old industrial structure along the waterfront. It’s next to the powerful Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site that commemorates the indentured servitude that allowed the sugar industry to thrive here.
At The Granary, Porlwi By Light has themed an exhibition around the intersection of craft and art. The theme has unlocked a conversation around land, resources and identity. A performance artist sits at the foot of a giant painting of himself as a farm worker. When you climb inside an igloo of coconut shells there is an old video of a labourer shucking coconuts, pained. Bags of grain fly from a chute, suspended in motion. The last one has hit the wall. It’s difficult not to read post-colonial politics into the show. I decide to ask Alleck about it.
Reimaging the syllabus
We’re back in the Company Garden, chatting. Two security guards are doing bench presses to boost their ginormous biceps. A giant silver globe floats past.
“Before independence people would just look up whatever was happening in Europe and copy paste and bring it here,” she tells me. “But looking at history critically, it’s starting now.”
She teaches at the art school at the university. For the past few years, the syllabus has been changing. “We’re getting students to relook and meet some of the local artists who are still here. In the past, Mauritian art wasn’t being taught. They were teaching European art, a little bit of Indian art. The students who have left in the past two years, you see the difference in their work. Some of them are in The Granary. If you teach this to children, this will come out.”
We return to The Granary for another look and while we’re inside the clouds break and torrential rain pours over Port Louis. It ends the festival for the night, but somehow it’s fitting. The elements are bigger even than the biggest display of light man can make.
*Blignaut was hosted by the Mauritian Tourism Authority (tourismauthority.mu/en/). He was flown courtesy of Air Mauritius (airmauritius.com) and stayed on the island courtesy of Veranda Resorts (veranda-resorts.com)