On France’s Contempt for Black Bodies

Mame-Fatou Niang

May 2019

Source: http://www2.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/evenements/2016/abolition-de-l-esclavage-1794-et-1848/1794-la-premiere-abolition#prettyPhoto

The mural above commemorates the first time France abolished slavery in 1794. It adorns a wall of the French National Assembly. It has been up for 28 years.

This article summarizes four weeks of fierce debates, in April 2019, over the fate of this work of art. It is an analysis of multiple interrogations revealed by the controversy, from questions of citizenship and inclusion, to the place of memory in the French national narrative. I came across this mural during a screening of my documentary on Afro-Frenchness, Mariannes Noires (2016). My initial shock was compounded upon discovery that the work belonged to The Painted History of the National Assembly, a series of frescoes commissioned by the government in 1991 from French painter Hervé di Rosa. I was looking at two huge black heads with protruding bright red lips, bulging white round eyes, and carnivorous teeth. Only this time, this imagery was not in Tintin in the Congo, on a pack of Papou cookies or a can of Banania cocoa powder. These characters stood for Black emancipation on the walls of one of the French Republic’s highest institutions: its National Assembly, the house of the People.

On April 4th 2019, French novelist/lecturer Julien Suaudeau and I started a campaign demanding the removal of the mural. In a petition addressed to Richard Ferrand, the President of the National Assembly, and to the House’s 577 deputies, we called out Di Rosa’s vignette as “a humiliating and dehumanizing insult to the millions of victims of slavery and to all their descendants”. For us, the work was a moral fault whose “presence for nearly three decades on the walls of the People’s House must question the flaws of our education system and our collective memory”. 23 hours after the beginning of the campaign, the image was taken down from the National Assembly’s website, and replaced with that of a chained man[1]. This would be the last time we would hear from the Palais Bourbon, as the institution hid behind the controversy, leaving it to the artist, the press and citizens to answer.

Our petition was met with a quasi-unanimous chorus in the French press and on social media; voices that converged to fiercely defend di Rosa, his past engagements and body of work. I have compiled a list of arguments brought against our petition:

  • The artwork commemorates the abolition of slavery: by essence it cannot be racist.
  • Black people commonly have big lips.
  • The fresco is at the French National Assembly, a Republican rampart against racism.
  • Race does not exist in France. Actions such as this petition import Anglo-Saxon perspectives on racism and race relations in the Hexagon.
  • Di Rosa cannot be racist. He has worked with Caribbeans in Miami and with Africans in Africa.
  • The petitioners and their supporters are too “sensitive”, and should recognize the work for what it is: a fun attempt at caricature, a piece of satire and irony in the purest French tradition.
Source: Coon Chicken Inn restaurants’ menu frontpiece, by Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project

Di Rosa lashed out at our criticism stating his incomprehension and consternation. In multiple interviews, he called us censors, false prophets, and mentally confused scholars, whose visions and subjective interpretation betrayed an ignorance of [his] work of 40 years, and [of] art history in general. The artist denounced an onslaught of Anglo-Saxon political correctness on French creativity,  a dictatorship of “feelings over reason”, and hammered that these exaggerated lips were found in all his characters, irrespective of their skin color. However,  a quick Google search of di Rosa’s page on Artsper debunks his strongest line of defense, the fact that all his characters sports these bright red lips. His works display dozens of different features. In the NewYorker, Di Rosa was asked about his knowledge of racist colonial iconography, and denied any connection between that tradition and his work: “I know of course all the colonial iconography but I don’t find that my paintings resemble it. I therefore didn’t take it into consideration”.

[1] Faced with criticism over the photo change, the communication services of the National Assembly released a short statement on the “coincidence “of the dates, and arguing that the image replacement was part of a scheduled maintenance planned well before the debate.

The point has never been to accuse the artist of racism or to analyze his intent while creating the piece. The petition was raised to denounce the blind angles of French culture that allowed a work anchored in racist imaginary to be created and hanged on the walls of the National Assembly for almost three decades. The furor that engulfed our initiative ironically highlighted many of the very issues that we raised in our petition:

The contempt for Black bodies in the French public sphere: Di Rosa argued that “censorship of an artistic and poetic creation is unacceptable, no matter what the context”. Citing Republicanism, satire, irony, Voltaire and Charlie Hebdo, his supporters raised the sacredness of artistic freedom of expression. The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme unquestionably backed Di Rosa, arguing that “artworks are free, free to shock”. France Culture’s Guillaume Erner denounced our obtuseness in refusing to see the line between object, satire and irony. In the petition, we drew that line out of respect for the millions who lost their lives to the Atlantic slave trade and to their descendants. The artist is free to create and shock, but not in a publicly-commissioned work designed to commemorate the abolition of slavery, on the walls of the National Assembly.

#FrescoGate lays bare deep issues in France’s handling of its colonial history and the weaving/teaching of the country’s national narrative.Many commentators saw the Blackface trope as an American importation, forgetting or ignoring that France has its own long, history of racist representations of Black bodies.

The row revealed a lack of humility and empathy with the issues at stake for Afro-French people. The only justification for why di Rosa’s vignette is allowed to remain on the walls of the Assembly is that his feelings and privilege erase the historical and contemporary effects of his portrayal of Black bodies. The artist’s subjectivity and freedom of creation supersede the feelings of those who feel hurt and insulted by the work.

Finally, the row unveils the problematic space offered to Black French women in public debates. A professor with more than 15 years of research under my belt, my profession was very rarely mentioned. In the French press and on comments boards, I was called a militant, an indigenist, an ultra-leftist, ignorant, paranoid, and (ironically) an antiracist seeking to quickly cash on the business of minority whining. An AntConc study of the 1327[1] oppositional tweets sent to my account between April 4rd and April 13th, revealed that 28% were misogynistic, 20% racist, 17% questioned my intelligence, and only 22% addressed the work itself.

These facts are sobering, but they are the reality of 2019 France. This fresco is a symbol of a country that is still grappling with its colonial history and its contemporary heritage. It must come down and pave the way for a national conversation on inclusion and memory.

Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang is Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, U.S.

[1] In the same period of time, my white co-petitioner received about a dozen tweets.