By Jean Noel Mugabo | Photos by Mark Mattos
“Contributing makes me feel like I’m being useful to the planet.”What is worse is not death, it is a minute before death.”— Tit de Baccarat
In the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, Titi de Baccarat, a survivor of torture in his home country of Gabon, found himself revisited by painful memories, including of what it felt like when he was sure he was about to die: “What is worse is not death, it is a minute before death.”
When Black Lives Matter protests erupted, they served as a balm to his wounded spirit – until the momentum of the protests waned, when his heart grew heavy again. “I remember that 2020 was crazy! We had the pandemic and the protest movement. But in 2022, there was nothing like that. I wondered what had happened,” he said.
As an artist and activist, de Baccarat observes the world around him with a keen eye. Following the George Floyd murder, he channeled his observations into the creation of a 70-page photographic book, Taking a Knee for Change. The result of a collaboration with a team of nine photographers, the book depicts people taking a knee in different locations across Maine. Aimed at igniting conversations about social justice and injustice, personal narratives accompany the photos, and an introduction by de Baccarat delves into his own trauma, experienced both in Africa and the U.S. Also included are poems by Mihku Paul and Catherine Ferrier.
The inspiration for the book dates back to 2015, when he first arrived in the U.S., and noticed someone take a knee to propose marriage. The episode left a lasting impression on him because kneeling to propose marriage is not something one does in Gabon. As the years went on, he observed Colin Kaepernick take a knee as an act of protest, and then the horrifying death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer who knelt on his neck.
“How could the powerful symbol Americans use for love and marriage proposals also be employed in protests and acts of violence?” de Baccarat wondered. The collection explores the contradictory meanings involved in taking a knee, and serves as a reminder of the importance of unity and collective action.
At the heart of de Baccarat’s work as a painter, sculptor, jeweler, clothing designer, and writer is contributing to the eradication of the shadows of injustice and working toward a world where the powers of unity, understanding, and change prevail. Among other projects associated with the publication of Taking a Knee for Change is the distribution of 200 copies to schools and social organizations, roundtables organized to discuss social change, and a graphic novel that invites readers to ponder what changes they would bring about if they were super-powered heroes.
The artist also envisions creating spaces that encourage people to interact, like the bench that was his collaboration with Allagash Brewery, where two figures kneel in unity, symbolizing solidarity. “There is only one rule [for sitting on the bench]. You must take a seat alongside someone else, encouraging meaningful conversation to unfold,” he said.
To learn more about the artist or to purchase the book, see www.titidebaccarat.com.