“Black Portraiture (s)”: when the black body questions our societies

 Academic and artistic research on the image of the black body in the West question the representation that our societies themselves, at a time when heterophobia would erase their cultural diversity and appearance. Proceedings of the conference “Black Portraiture(s)”, which was held recently in Florence, organized by New York University and Harvard.

I was invited in February symposium Black Portraiture {s} II: Imaging the Body and Black Re-staging Histories . This symposium, organized by African-American professors from New York University and Harvard [1] and the African Diaspora confronting the sources of inspiration, ideas and techniques underlying the self-representations and exchanges looks, the 19th century to today. This cycle of international conferences attracted over 800 people and brought together academics and artists from different disciplines to provide a comparative view of the role of artistic forms dealing with the image of the black body West.

The edition of Black Portraiture , which took place for the first time in Paris in 2013, I believe opened a door that is not about to close and I’m glad I could modestly contribute. The edition of Florence, always under the infallible leadership of Deb Willis has been phenomenal. We know that Deb, a leading specialist in photography and author Carla Williams Book The Black Female Body: A Photographic History – is interested in a comparative perspective, the role played – in history and today – the arts in evoking the black body in the West. This interest in the body is easily explained: it must be remembered in the United States, the black body has been exploited for centuries of slavery and the colonial order was based on forced labor? The black female body, and slavery in colonial context, in particular, a subject of particular dramatic story since, as we know, for generations of black women, racism and sexism have formed a hellish combination. The reconquest by the black woman in his own image, his own body and his own desire has been the focus of several interventions.

The conference theme was “Imaging the Body and restaging Black Histories.” The notion of “Blackness” was therefore the focus of debate. The organizers of the major event that is this conference are NYU and Harvard University, participants came from all over North America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. Note the majority presence of women, both artistic and academic side: it is never too late to correct the persistent imbalance in favor of male domination!

These conferences provide an opportunity for artists and academics African-American and African Diaspora to confront their ideas, approaches and perspectives. There is undoubtedly something that looks like a black cosmopolitan culture based on a world view, a collective consciousness of both cultural and political.

The ideological exploitation by the three religions of the book from the curse of Ham and Jezebel myth to justify the enslavement of Blacks, first; trafficking and secondly deportation constitute historical trauma sufficient to not have to argue about the legitimacy of the concept of Blackness . A cosmopolitan black culture or a culture “Afro” was born; both political and cultural, it values certain music (from salsa to hip hop, James Brown and Fela Kuti and other African music), some modes of dress, certain consumer goods, but also some literary or cinematographic works.

The new political consciousness “black” is not at all a ghetto. Backed by the trauma of slavery and organized network, it condemns imperialism and breaststroke ideas of blackness , of negritude, pan-Africanism and sometimes of afrocentrism. It is characterized by vitality linked to many forms of cultural expression. Conference Florence showed convincingly how the subjectivities and family relationships are shaped by the persistence of intergenerational traumas and types of storage to which they give rise. In the search today, subjectivity no longer appears as an obstacle to a certain rigor, but as an instrument, for example, when the young woman uses family album as a transitional object to form a relationship with a mother Haitian previously unknown biological.

Africa remains a reference, but it is rarely explicit, except among the speakers came directly from Africa. Through communications I listened, I can make myself a clear idea of what Africa really means for African American intelligentsia, or even whether most speakers identify with Africa such that it is today . What is certain is that they have for the Africans a sense of solidarity and show a sustained interest in African art forms. To say simply their humanity, black artists, wherever they work in the world , must use cunning – it was true yesterday, it still is today – to make their way in a global artistic production, but saturated prejudice.

What struck me in this conference, it is the complexity of individual routes professors and artists that make up the staff of US universities. These universities are much more open to the study and practice of art that our European universities. In France, the boundaries between artistic research and scientific research are more marked, even almost waterproof.At most aesthetic research is being done as objects by the human and social science, but we can not imagine an artist (visual artist, playwright, musician, photographer or filmmaker) visiting professor at a French university.

As I frequent the Mali for 40 years now, a contrario , the American academic opening underlined for me the current destitution of Africa where countless talents are not to speak unless co-opted by an American university or a large western institution. The CV of all researchers and African-American artists also shows, regardless of the hardness of their journey, how the most egalitarian capitalism nevertheless redistributes through foundations, festivals, competitions and exhibitions, resources for recovery to designers from minoritized dominated minorities or majorities. The United States can appear in this area ahead of other industrialized countries, while at the same time, paradoxically, no “black” can not be assured to be protected by police – this is the least that the we can say in today! 

Of course, I have not attended all the conferences and it is anyway impossible to summarize in 10 minutes. So forgive me if I give only intuitive insight. I was absolutely delighted to learn about the great anthology Women Writing Africa or Black Chronicles II . Sodiq, the documentary film Nigerian Michael Adeyemi provides an excellent metaphor for the risk to young people of the African Diaspora lurking in the streets of London (or other major Western cities). The musical Never Catch Me, Flying Lotus, with this stunning choreography and strong phrase: “I can see the darkness in me and it’s quite amazing” can not leave anyone indifferent. It is not so common a renowned playwright reveals critical dimensions of some musical performances (which are rarely innocent entertainment).

Through the explanations of several speakers and the magnificent collection of New York University at Villa La Pietra, the 800 visitors learned a lot about the “black Moors” (Blackamoors ), a highly racialized iconography, the course of history has been constantly reinterpreted. Black Moors are black slaves from North Africa who worked for wealthy Europeans and especially the royal courts. Their status varied over time but they gave rise to a rich iconography, mostly sculptures, which evoked both bondage and exoticism well before the colonial era.

Several conferences have stressed the hybridity of creation, not only now, but even going back in history. The hybrid is an interesting concept insofar as it helps to show how artists from operating environments, and portrayed exotisés can seize these pejoratively connoted images and return them to their advantage. It is, for example, interesting to know how the spiritual heritage of the “maroons” of Haiti, continues to inform contemporary artists emancipation of aesthetic or how few marginal choices of culture Hip hop became such miracle symbols of culture “mainstream”. The nature she creates monuments to the story (stories) of the Atlantic slave? What are the meanings of the strange fashion of sagging pants, part of a mockery implementation of prison humiliations? Private belt, black prisoner white American prisons inspired suburban youth that we returned the stigma by launching trendy pants that fall well below the waist.

Today, many artists juxtapose photographs, installations, design, video, dance, ethnography, scenography, oral history to illuminate the scene and the people who lead the hip-hop and street dance. Some films show how gender identity and performance queer possible to subvert power relations. Male roles / traditional women are rushed there and criticism does not spare the patriarchal and homophobic stances that prevail in many of the dominant hip hop performance ( mainstream ). Why black rockers images as Betty Davis, Joyce Kennedy and Joi-confidential? The racial factor is for something, but according to De Angela Duff, there are also political reasons: these rockers frankly approached the relationship between gender and sexuality. They laid a claim in favor of the emancipation of black women, refused stereotypes and, ultimately, rewrote the history of music and culture.

The “global village” created by the new technologies of information did not prevent discrimination and the barriers of color, but it’s more complex. There are now African literature from Italy, France, England or Germany, all haunted by the horrors and ambiguity of immigration. A climax of horror, that the symposium in Florence could not silence brought on the tragedy of Lampedusa, with its “black body and white sheets.” But beyond this tragic dimension, humor and derision mark many contemporary visual arts. The  Senegalese photographer Victor Omar Diop, some have seen the works works in Paris, has carved out a success. The portraits staged his Studio of the Vanities show new aspects of urban culture by playing with the traditions of Fine Arts. From the archives, artists of all stripes create new, emancipating the archive first speech service which it was produced. I thought several times to contemporary Esfir Shub of Dziga Vertov, who in 1927 had turned the archives of the Romanov dynasty to put at the service of a struggle for emancipation.

It was moving between two conferences, meet the senior stakeholders Amaize Ojekhere, a Nigerian photographer of 83 years, including the famous series “Hair Style” was often imitated. Formerly excluded because of the weight of Marxism in the critical theory, fashion is emerging as central to the debate on portraits “black” because it provides a bridge between imagination (fantasy?) And reality. Today, the personalities of famous people is better known, so that the public image is modified. You will learn for example that the very serious first president of the National Association of Colored Women loved to dance. Through this example, we are invited to revisit the genealogy of the fun of the black woman and consider the lives of the great figures of black feminism without ignoring what lies behind the official imagery.

To understand what remains of a report of the most brutal force, it seems beneficial to recall the tragedy emblematic of an era, that of Ota Benga, a pygmy Congo who was brought to the International Fair in St. Louis Forest Park in 1904 and exhibited at the Bronx Zoo with baboons and other animals. Eventually released and sent to a boarding school, he ended his days when he knew he would never return to Congo, extreme exploitation of the body of the Other! With the conference and informal conversations (often spreads and culture), many participants discovered the magnificent Internet Betty’s Daughter Arts. Many times during the round tables, the problem of recovery by “The System” was again asked: If portraiture refers to both the art of making portraits and detailed and thorough description, how the desire to be seen can it succeed without participating in the deadly reign of anti-ideology blacks?

Sign of the times, the colonial brutality gave way to the condescension. What color is the hand of development? Indeed, development agencies resort to promotional materials that can be seen as a “pornography of poverty” reinforcing stereotypes of Africans as the helpless and totally dependent on the help of the white world.

The issue of race obviously could stay out of the debate. Identity claims have become so important in recent years that the concept of race, which had for a short historical moment, roughly from 1965 to 1980, almost lost citizenship, vigorously surfaced. Dominated groups were the agents of this resurgence due to a kind of return of the stigma. “Negro I am and I will remain negro” proudly declared Aimé Césaire. Since decidedly discrimination did not stop, discriminated groups began to assume as such and claim the case against them, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. In the English-speaking world, the term race has never ceased to be used, particularly in the administrative censuses, but also to refer to cultural communities. We know the role between the wars by the Harlem Renaissance movement and popularization of jazz, ragtime and spirituals. We remember that in 1926, militant intellectuals (Carter G. Woodson) founded the months of negro history (now “black history”).

The shock waves of the second world war did not banished the term race, which continued to appear for granted. We remember the long struggle for civil rights reflecting the reluctance of white society to integrate within itself always considered citizens as descendants of slaves. In the 1980s, the dominated groups, including African-Americans began to argue loudly that to the extent that racism existed, we had to take the concept of race seriously, count the victims, organize and demand better visibility in society, including through literature, film, music, performing arts. But this subculture which sought to assert themselves and to be recognized was very political. This was especially challenged is the idea that colorblindness(ignorance of skin color) meant equality, while persisted black underclass and the wealth gap between whites and blacks remained appalling. From the moment that a racial reign or the order that prevails is racial, once a racial hierarchy weighs, the ones at the bottom of the ladder of power have a right to claim their color. The whole society is racialized, there is no reason for the dominated not assume a racial identity. As racial discrimination exists in practice, the assertion of non-existence of races – despite the efforts of biological sciences and social and cultural anthropology – has no chance of being received. I do not go into the great debate on the Critical Race Theory. 

In France, since the Nazi genocide, both in the world of research in the public sphere, the word race has practically become taboo. Almost everyone has more or less internalized the popularized version of the great geneticists – Theodosius Dobzhansky, François Jacob, Jacques Monod, Jacques Ruffié Albert Jacquard – that the concept of race reflects a desire to classify humans but basic arbitrarily on some phenotypic traits. This taboo on the word race is certainly explained by the tear experienced by the old continent because of the mad enterprise of “racial cleansing” implemented by the Nazis. But was that a reason not to make the finding of the chromatic diversity of Western European countries and especially in France?

Despite the love professed by the Dadaists and the Surrealists for black music (with all the ambiguities of desire of savagery) and despite the blackness (supported by Jean-Paul Sartre), French culture remained almost tight black cultures. Whether in America, Europe or even Africa, much of the efforts symbolically by people “of color” is to struggle to produce, as a group, their own images without waiting white elites deign to give them the place they deserve. And in this long “struggle for representation,” Africa is obviously called to contribute to the development of new “social imaginary”, to borrow the term from Charles Taylor.

In France, these themes do qu’affleurer recent years, thanks to the Africultures that in June 1999 saw a record at the African Corps, asking in particular the question: What if the African body, the object of all projections, actually played indiscipline to reverse the reports and demand dignity and reappropriation? Today there is a certain urgency for France to finally recognize its plural identity. Some complicity exists between all ideologies “democratic” Western which only lead to the reproduction of racial hierarchies yet officially banned. The hegemonic discourse no longer holds, nor the US or Europe.

In France, the social elevator is in long-term failure, faced with social situations of our time, the myth of integration proves illusory and fictional. If the construction of the blackness is discussed intensely since the early 1980s, the idea of whiteness ( whiteness ) as historic built home has not yet been the subject of considerable research. Unemployment, poverty, idleness and frustration are the suburbs of French cities time bombs. In a way, it is the shadow economy and drug trafficking that provide a semblance of social peace, even if it is a mafia peace. The authorities have no serious alternative to compensate for the underground economy in areas of economic depression. The idleness of youth and potential disorders that causes feed racism towards immigrants and towards national born in France, but still called “immigrants” under the pretext that their parents or grandparents came from former French territories overseas. As this set includes not only “black”, another form of racism sometimes sets against “suburban youth”, “scum”, etc. Demagogy, the media echo of petty crime threatening the “good” citizens, but do not use the same vocabulary to describe the great financial crime that harms society on a much larger scale.

Heterophobia also addresses cultural differences: the dominant ideology continues to propagate the idea that the contribution that “minorities” contribute to the global society is of lower quality than the cultural heritage “strain”. The media echo chamber given to terrorist acts has contributed greatly to generate Islamophobia increasingly displayed. The peaceful Muslim families in France – the vast majority – does not interest the media: “no blood for one, no info! “. A bomber claiming Allah presents newsworthy, but a family who practice a Muslim way of being French, does not present any.

At a time when a far-right xenophobic party became the largest party in France’s regional elections and promised to “clean France”, it is important to remember that France was a colonial empire that put millions of guardianship “colored”. So it is a little late to think to preserve its white purity and it is presumptuous to invite millions of people to “erase” the name of a republic that claims insensitive to human phenotypes. To integrate the child born and educated in France of Senegalese parents, Mali, Guinea, Congo, Gabon, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, West Indies, Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion, etc. have a duty to mention any specific cultural heritage to blend into a common model defined unilaterally.

For a tour of sleight surprising, despite the efforts of some historians, France has managed to erase from its collective memory of slavery and colonialism. It is time to close this gap and we must categorically reject the idea that the French classical culture can be free of any determination by its imperialist nature, colonial and postcolonial.

Jean Paul Colleyn,  Director of Studies at the EHESS,  Institute of African Worlds

[1] Awam Ampka, Ulrich Baer, Manthia Diawara, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thelma Golden, Robert Holmes, Ellyn Toscano, Cheryl Finley, and Deborah Willis, who was the project manager.