Earlier this year an article by Tom Devriendt was posted to the online discussion forum ‘Africa is a Country’ to commemorate the life and work of French filmmaker Alain Resnais (1922-2014), who passed away on 1st March (Devriendt, 2014). The central focus of this piece was to celebrate the achievements of Resnais and his co-director Chris Marker (1921-2012) in creating a ground-breaking film from the early 1950s about African art and French racism, Statues Also Die [Les statues meurent aussi] (Resnais and Marker, 1953) – commissioned and produced by the Parisian-based publishing house Présence Africaine. What is interesting about the film is the way it features a complex mixture of commentary on French museum practices from the 1950s, the history of French colonialism in Africa, and the public’s changing attitudes in the mid-20th century towards African art – referred to throughout the documentary as ‘black art’.
The close-up images of figural sculptures, masks, pots, funeral objects and other religious, spiritual or sacred items were primarily examples of palace art sourced from Benin and Nigeria – with some items instantly recognisable as examples from the British Museum’s collection of ‘Benin Bronzes‘; as reflected in the closing film credits which later confirm that Resnais and Marker sought the expertise of the curator William Fagg (then Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum) to supply artworks from the UK’s colonially-sourced collection for use in the film’s museum shots, and also to contribute insights on Nigerian art history to help animate the audio narration.
The opening sequence of the documentary featuring a woman of African descent walking into a gallery filled with African masks and figural sculptures makes a strong introductory statement about the importance of the museum setting as a site for debating socio-political and cultural change – both in terms of art and art audiences. The accompanying voice-over narration sets out and then challenges a series of colonialist assumptions widely held in Western Europe at that time about the African continent and African people – ranging from perceptions of Africa as a ‘land of enigmas’, Hamitic references to blackness as the ‘colour of sin’, and questions about how the complexity of ‘black art’ might be differently perceived and contemplated by contemporary African-descended audiences as opposed to the prevailing white European museum-going publics.
Speaking directly about the commercialisation of ‘black art’ throughout the era of colonial rule, particularly in relation to mid-20th century European tourist markets, the narration moves on to explore how the skilled techniques of African artists were systematically undermined and discouraged via the colonial art schools and ateliers, where colonialists coerced artists into concentrating on satisfying Western Europe’s (and particularly France’s) increasing desire for cheaper, more hastily produced craft objects and trinkets to meet the commercial demands of the tourist art market and, only as a secondary consideration, promoted enrolment into art workshops as a way of enabling artists to sustain a living from art production.
“The particular beauty of black art is substituted by a general ugliness. An art where the objects become bibelots, a cosmopolitan art. An art of the flower-pot, the paperweight and the souvenir pen-rack, where one sees, transparently, the Tower of Babel”
(Resnais and Marker, 1953: 21.05 – 21.14 mins.)
About two-thirds of the way into the film the commentary turns more directly and poignantly towards larger-scale issues of colonial exploitation, with Resnais and Marker interspersing film footage of white mice trapped in large laboratory storage jars with aerial camera shots panning over clearings in African savannah landscapes filled with small, round, uniform Igloo-shaped dwellings as if to suggest that colonial exploitation of the African terrain and African people was akin to the types of scientific experimentations on animals in laboratories that largely remain unseen by oblivious and distant beneficiaries located in modern and affluent Western metropolises. By the final sequence the narration and visual content becomes even more intense and forceful in its message about what Resnais and Marker refer to as the slow ‘degradation of black art’ by colonialists who reduced African artists to servile puppets.
“From such heights Africa is a wonderful laboratory where it is possible to partially prefabricate the kind of good blacks dreamt up by the good whites.”
(Resnais and Marker, 1953: 22.39 mins.)
Collectively, the obituaries and retrospective reviews of Resnais’ life and work circulating in the French media as well as the international film press during March 2014 evaluated Statues Also Die as a powerful articulation of anti-colonial sentiments and an expression of positive attitudes towards equalities in arts and in life deemed far ahead of its time – as the film’s concluding narration on the future hopes for our shared humanity demonstrates:
“Because there is no rupture between African civilization and ours. The faces of black art fell off from the same human face, like the serpent’s skin. Beyond their dead form we recognize this promise, common to all the great cultures, of a man who is victorious over the world. And, white or black, our future is made of this promise.”
(Resnais and Marker, 1953: 29.18-29.40 mins.)
In many ways Resnais and Marker were using the authoritative setting of the museum as a ‘temple of knowledge’ for asserting claims for equality on behalf of marginalised and minoritized voices. Their advocacy was also the message of the film’s producers Présence Africaine – the collective of African-descended writers and intellectuals based in France who founded the organisation in 1947 as a journal and publishing house for contemporary African literatures written in French, and as a political and cultural movement committed to advancing equalities agendas, the ideologies of ‘Négritude’ and campaigns for the right to self-determination for all formerly colonised people throughout the francophone world (Mudimbe, 1992). More than half a century later the museologist Mary Stevens acknowledges how under-represented communities positioned outside the current mainstream of museum-going publics continue to look to museums as a ‘recognizing authority’ for legitimising their presence and their lived experiences as equal citizens in a still divided, hierarchical and exclusionary Europe when she describes the 21st century context as follows:
“There are a number of reasons why museums in particular may be called upon to perform the work of recognition. First, as a devolved agency of the state, museums are seen as conferring legitimacy… Secondly, they can provide a relatively neutral space for the negotiation of competing claims. And thirdly, within the museum, groups position themselves in relation not only to each other but also with regard to multiple heritages; the possibility for both spatial and temporal positioning is one of its specificities.”
(Stevens, 2007: 32)
It is worth contrasting the images and the audio narration in Statues Also Die with later exhibition narratives about African art that have followed in its wake – not least Magiciens de la Terre (1989) staged at the Centre Georges Pompidou and Grande Halle de la Villette during the year Paris was designated European Capital of Culture, and the more recent Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (2004-2007) that was displayed at the Pompidou in 2005 as part of a three-year, six-site world tour. These later representations of continental African art and artworks by African diaspora artists working across a range of traditional and contemporary artistic genres have benefitted from being presented to audiences during more progressive, culturally pluralist, post-colonial times, characterised by increasing diversification and democratisation of arts spaces and their visiting publics.
The more open and positive attitudes observed towards facilitating international and cross-cultural artistic dialogues in 21st century French museums and galleries have developed, in part, as a result of the nation-wide, socio-political events of May 1968 and October 2005. In both cases, the activism on the streets was a call for greater democracy, transparency into the workings of national institutions, accessibility and equality of opportunity for all, and found its way into museums and galleries through the creative expressions of individual curators, artists and arts collectives who observed and (in some instances) actively participated in these pivotal events.
Artistic political agency has regularly helped to convey powerful demands and utopian aspirations for a better, more culturally pluralist future – as in the case of the curatorship of Jean-Hubert Martin giving prominence to radical, activist artists such as Senegalese pop artist and satirist Chéri Samba, Nigerian painter Twins Seven Seven (later named as a UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2005) and Beninese sculptor Ciprien Tokoudagba as part of Magiciens de la Terre (1989).
Martin’s expressed vision for the exhibition was for it to be seen as a break free from the ‘contamination’ of Western codes of artistic behaviour imposed on artists in the Global South during the colonial era (Martin, 2013: 218). Similarly, the artistic director Simon Njami openly demonstrated his intentions for Africa Remix to be an overtly political as well as an aesthetic critique of the many different and complex aspects of contemporary African art, across and beyond the heterogeneous African continent, when he selected and foregrounded a significant number of challenging, politically conscious contemporary works by (amongst others) the South African ‘resistance’ installationist Willie Bester, the photographer and performance artist Samuel Fosso from Cameroon, and the British-Nigerian conceptual artist Yinka Shonibare within the overall pool of 88 artists and collectives who contributed to the touring exhibition (Njami and Bernadac, 2005).
The film Statues Also Die can be viewed online via You Tube.
 Présence Africaine was first established as a literary journal by the essayist and publisher Alioune Diop, and later expanded into a publishing house and political movement supported by (amongst others) the celebrated writer-politicians Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor. The organisations founding principles from the late-1940s are summarised by V. Y. Mudimbe as a ‘manifesto and a program’ through which the ‘dignity of otherness’ and the voices of a ‘silenced Africa’ could be brought to the very centre of French power and culture. See pp. xvii-xviii in the introduction to MUDIMBE, V. Y. 1992. The surreptitious speech : Présence africaine and the politics of otherness, 1947-1987, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
 The text of the curatorial statement for ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ written by art historian Jean-Hubert Martin in 1986 as a prelude to the exhibition that was displayed three years later stated that ‘the imposition of Western codes of behaviour upon the Third World has destroyed or at least contaminated everything: and in our eagerness to chastise ourselves we failed to go and see what was really happening.’ See pp. 217-218 in MARTIN, J.-H. 2013. The death of art – long live art (Jean-Hubert Martin, 1986). Making art global (part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989. London: Afterall.
DEVRIENDT, T. 2014. From the archives: Alain Resnais’s film on “African Art” (Statues Also Die, 1953). Africa is a Country [Online]. Available from: http://africasacountry.com/from-the-archives-alain-resnaiss-film-on-african-art-statues-also-die-1953/
Les statues meurent aussi [Statues also die], 1953. Directed by RESNAIS, A. & MARKER, C. Paris: Présence Africaine.
MARTIN, J.-H. 2013. The death of art – long live art (Jean-Hubert Martin, 1986). Making art global (part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989. London: Afterall.
MUDIMBE, V. Y. 1992. The surreptitious speech : Présence africaine and the politics of otherness, 1947-1987, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
NJAMI, S. & BERNADAC, M.-L. 2005. Africa Remix: l’art contemporain d’un continent. [Africa Remix: contemporary art of a continent]. Exposition, Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris, 28 mai-8 août 2005. Exhibition Catalogue. Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou.
STEVENS, M. 2007. Museums, minorities and recognition: memories of North Africa in contemporary France. Museum and Society, 5 (1), 29-43.
2 responses to “Reflections on the legacies of ‘Statues Also Die’ (Présence Africaine, 1953) re. the museums sector in France today”
The Tate Modern was supposed to be having a retrospective on Magiciens de la Terre, but it was postponed, not heard anything since ….such a shame
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Yes, Tate Modern and Afterall Books planned to host a series of talks and film screenings in April 2014 – titled ‘Magiciens de la Terre Reconsidered’ (http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/film/magiciens-reconsidered-1-exhibition-screen) – but the programme was postponed, and I’m not sure when it will be re-scheduled. The Tate Film events were to be based around some of the research featured in essays by Lucy Steeds et al. from the book ‘Making Art Global (Part 2): Magiciens de la Terre 1989’ (part of Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series)…so, in the meantime, it might be worth checking the publication out (see http://www.afterall.org/books/exhibition.histories/making-art-global-part2-magiciens-de-la-terre-1989)