France is slowly facing up to its colonial past – a time when its global influence stretched far and wide for centuries. While some emphasise its “benefits”, others say the empire laid the foundations for the identity issues entrenched in French society today. Now, an exhibition in an ethnic neighbourhood north of Paris has set out to bridge the divide between the colonisers and the colonised, digging deep into history to produce a rich narrative that tells both sides of the story.
Un.e Aire.e de Famille brings together an eclectic mix of records from 1839 through to the 1950s, all pointing to a budding and little known anti-colonialist movement in France.
This is contrasted with a diverse range of contemporary painting, photography, sculpture, sound installation and video. It’s the “new way” of looking at colonialism, seen through the eyes of 13 women artists from Africa and its diaspora.
On the historical front, one focal point is the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 – a kind of “Disneyland”, complete with life-size pavilions and costumed people for La Grande France, as the empire was known, to show off the wealth it had established thanks to the domination of its colonies.
The Surrealist movement, led by the poet Paul Eluard, handed out pamphlets handed calling on people to boycott what they described as a “publicity stunt”, and open their eyes to the atrocities being committed in foreign lands.
They even went on to hold their own counter-exhibition called the Truth of the Colonies, which included kitsch decorative items and posters of the time, denouncing cruelty and greed.
Dialogue across historical divide
So what does all this have in common with women artists from the African diaspora?
The name of the exhibition offers a clue. Un.e Air.e de Famille roughly translates as “family resemblances”. The extra “e”s are added to be linguistically “inclusive” which means for the French, both a masculine or feminine interpretation of the word.
Museum director Anne Yanover explains that the idea of a “shared appearance” comes from a phrase used by critics in the 1930s who wrote about Surrealist art, comparing it to the art of the colonies – at the time known as “primitive” or “savage” art.
In both worlds, we see art being used to draw attention to the ugly and dehumanising side of colonial life, while also bringing to it a sense of dignity and power.
By giving voices and faces back to the people who were considered in slavery terms as “merchandise”, the artists divided by decades and continents bring forth a dialogue that helps to decipher the shared experience of colonisation.
Wall maps reveal the extent of the movement of people, either by force or by choice, while the resulting mixed heritage is a thread that runs through the exhibition.
Malala Andrialavidrazana’s Figures 1861, Natural History of Mankind is a case in point. She takes a map of Africa and relabels it as it was before the colonisers arrived. Around it are the faces of women who were leaders and important figures in their respective countries.
Their portraits originally appeared on bank notes from the Congo, Madagascar, Egypt and Algeria, but their names and stories have since been lost to time, like much of the indigenous culture and history that never appeared in school books.
What is remarkable in this exhibition is that although we are aware that France was a major player in the race to collect colonies, it was not the only one. In fact, the whole world was colonised by someone at one point or another, even on internal levels between peoples.
There are references to massacres in Indochina, uprisings in North Africa, as there are artworks which refer to the Kanaks of New Caledonia, and the children of Asian migrants in South Africa.
There is also a strong current denouncing the domination of women and abuse nature across the ages. The common point is that much of their story has been erased and their voices silenced.
The exhibition rectifies this, with small steps, showing that every effort counts in telling the bigger story, from both sides, a rich narrative with many subtle facets.
Saint-Denis, a crossroads of culture
It is no accident the Paul Eluard art and history museum, a beautifully restored 17th century convent housing artworks and historical records from across the ages, is playing host to the only exhibition in the Saison Africa 2020 year-long event tackling colonialism.
Yanover is extremely proud of this aspect. “This is not an exhibition that takes sides,” she stresses. “It is not designed to be simplistic, or to address the public in a militant way, but rather to act as a guide for people to open their eyes.”
The museum is in Saint Denis, the city of the medieval Basilica, a necropolis for French kings, and now home to a new generation of residents made up of immigrants and young families; a patchwork of cultural and social contrasts with all their complexities.
Its name stems from an important collection of art and documents on display belonging to Eluard, who was friends with modern and Surrealist artists such as Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Yves Tanguy and Pablo Picasso – all staunch anti-imperialists who condemned France’s colonial policies through their art.
Many of their actions were supported by the Communist Party of France, which to this day maintains a strong political influence in Saint Denis. The royal city is also home to a memorial for the victims of colonial slavery, inaugurated in 2013.
“This is not about agreeing on the topic one way or another … It is about opening the debate, which we felt was our duty to do,” Yanover says, adding that she was expecting an avalanche of negative reactions.
One only has to think of the ongoing debate as to whether European museums and galleries should return artworks, statuettes and other cultural artefacts stolen from colonies around the world.
But instead, Yanover says the reactions have been extremely positive, with people expressing their surprise and appreciation to see these two worlds brought together.
The exhibition Un.e Air.e de Famille runs through to 8 November 2021 at the Musee d’art et d’histoire Paul Eluard, Saint-Denis.
The museum will be hosting an international summit from 7-9 October 2021 on Colonial Slavery in European Museums, one of many events open to the public as part of the Saison Africa 2020 event.