Porto-Novo (BJ)


The Object of Memory

Françoise Vergès

By Françoise Vergès

The theme of our meeting is “DIS / MISSING THE LINKS! Value Adjustments, Cultural Heritage & Absent Objects.”

I would like first to address the expression “dis/missing the links”.

With the notion of “links”, are we speaking of past or existing links, of the nature of links, of the absence of links, of the consequences of links, of their reinterpretations, or, of the possibility of subverting them?

Our conversation about links occurs in a moment defined by many scholars as a condition of “globalised post-coloniality” or of a decolonial condition, i.e., of a new process of decolonisation.

Let me at once develop this point, and here I will borrow from Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Walter Mignolo, Ramon Grosfoguel and Sabelo Ndlovu-Gastheni. Coloniality is a leitmotif of global imperial designs that has been in place for centuries. Decolonisation did not succeed in removing coloniality: it should not be confused with colonialism. Coloniality survived the end of direct colonialism. In “postcolonies”, it continues to affect the people long after direct colonialism and administrative apartheid have been dethroned. The condition of “coloniality” can perdure long after a territory’s sovereignty has been regained, a government established and a new State and its apparatuses created. In his analysis of the “pitfalls of national consciousness”, Frantz Fanon wrote “History teaches us that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism” and warned against establishing “a racial philosophy” in imitation of the Europeans. He advocated a form of “delinking”, concluding: “Let us decide not to imitate Europe.”1 In other words, the nature of links was important since colonialism had not functioned through force alone but also through ideology, images, representations, language… Hence the process of decolonisation does not culminate with independence.

Decoloniality is premised on three concepts. The first concept is that of coloniality of power: how the current “global political” was constructed and constituted into an asymmetrical and modern power structure. The second concept is that of coloniality of knowledge, which focuses on teasing out epistemological issues, politics of knowledge as well as questions about who generates which knowledge, and for what purpose. The third concept is that of coloniality of being.

These three concepts have a bearing on the issue of cultural heritage. The notion of “heritage” itself can be interrogated: how is it translated into the different African languages? What is “African” heritage? And, for that matter, what is “European” heritage? What is the training of those in charge of heritage in African countries? How does the asymmetry of knowledge and of resources impact on the field of cultural heritage? What are the roles of the State, or of the tourist industry (heritage has become a cottage industry with vested economic interests), of international experts, of the markets? How has the notion of “intangible,” “immaterial” culture affected the conversation on cultural heritage? We also have to take into account the interests of different actors, the Nation-State, private collectors, grassroots associations and initiatives; how they access resources, expertise and financial support. Though these questions have already been discussed, they remain contentious particularly in a context of global neo-liberalism and new forms of colonisation.

Ghosts in the Museum
In the following example, I will present a way of working on dis/missing links. In this case, it is the missing link that French society makes between its history and culture and the centuries during which France was engaged in slavery and colonialism and constructed part of its wealth on the spoliation, deportation, dispossession and exploitation of people the French state had subjected. For the Paris Triennale 2012, I organised a series of guided visits that I called “The Slaves in Le Louvre: An Invisible Humanity”.

First, some remarks: A 1791 decree transformed Le Louvre into a monument for the sciences and art. It opened 10 August 1793, twelve days before the insurrection by the slaves of Saint-Domingue (though the two events are not related, it is interesting to signal their contemporaneity). These collections ended in 1848; subsequent works are in the Musée d’Orsay. In other words, the collections were put together between two important dates in the history of humanity, the Haitian revolution and the Year of Revolution 1848. I did not want curators to search for representations of the enslaved body of which there are few and far between. I suggested a visit Le Louvre to search for the ghostly presence of the slave, looking at the ways in which the products of “his” work had entered social and cultural life, how they had become objects of representation, of ways of representing oneself (for instance, a painting by Jan Steen dating from 1670 showing a man in a brothel smoking a pipe; other examples were aristocratic women wearing cotton, cowries in a painting with sea shells, scenes with sugar bowl, coffee pots, tea pots). Looking at commodities, at familiar and beloved products — sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, chocolate –– and pulling threads to reveal the ways in which slavery and colonialism had entered French lives in very intimate and deep ways regardless of the direct or indirect involvement of their ancestors in slavery or colonialism. Their ancestors became addicted to such products, but had to ignore that they were the result of bonded labour; in fact, every thing possible was done so they would not have to know. I told those participating in my guided visits to the Louvre how these products had affected social behaviour (receiving guests with coffee, tea, sugar, sweets), the ways we think of love, of birth, of weddings, of femininity (sugar, cakes, candies…), of masculinity, bad manners and revolution (tobacco). I showed how much we were all tied through invisible but very concrete ties to the history of bondage. By pulling such threads, by reviving memories of slavery as a radical site of references for struggles for freedom and justice, by showing that slavery was an important chapter in environmental history, in the history of gender, race and class, memories of slavery would once again become a site for non-racial in XXXX overseas territories and in Metropolitan France. The guided visits were organised in the following manner: after identifying a modern painting, I invited a novelist (Maryse Condé), a poet (Carpanin Marimoutou), or an artist (Thierry Fontaine, Isaac Julien, Shuck One) and a curator, Laurella Rinçon to view it. In front of the chosen piece, I retraced the history of slavery in relation with the painting (sugar, tobacco, cotton, black servant…); Rinçon situated the work in the artist’s oeuvre, and the guests were free to comment as she/he wished. For instance, in front of Le Radeau de la Méduse (Gericault, 1818- 1819), Condé discussed the theory of cannibalism in literature while Julien spoke of the relation with current shipwrecks near the coast of Lampedusa and other islands in the Mediterranean.

In June 2014, I organised another similar intervention. Invited by the artist Thomas Hirschhorn to contribute to his installation Eternal Flame at the Palais de Tokyo, I did a performance with a friend, Sylvie Robic, a specialist in 17th century literature. With “Bitter Sugar”, we looked at the ways in which slavery had through sugar, sweets and cakes penetrated cinema, literature and theatre. Exhibits in museums that seek to visualise slavery, colonialism, imperial or national narrative was also an issue discussed during the international colloquium I organised in 2011 at the Musée du quai Branly (the proceedings have been published by Africultures).2

The Notion of a Museum without Objects
While working on slavery, on “disposable” beings, on the erasure of lives, of traces of presence, I have had to confront the issue of missing objects. It became even more important to answer the question when I had to imagine how to visualise slavery and indentured work for a museum in The Reunion. Though all our work was erased and the museum was ultimately never built due to a change in local political power, our assessment, undertaken between 2004 and 2010 (the period I worked with a local team on this question), could not be erased. The island of Reunion, which became a French colony in the 17th century, had at that time no native population. To work in the coffee and subsequently in the sugar plantations, the French colonial state shipped in in enslaved women and men from Madagascar (the majority of the captives), from Africa (mostly form the eastern coast), and a few from Asia. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, the French state signed a convention with the British Empire to bring in indentured workers from India; they were also taken from China, Mozambique, Madagascar and other countries on the rim of the Indian Ocean. In the meantime migrants arrived from India, China, and other countries as well as settlers from France, and, in lesser number, from Europe. However, there has been an erasure of the lives of the women and men who had populated the island and largely contributed to the creation of its culture, language, rituals and practices. After the abolition of slavery, not a single testimony was collected from those formerly enslaved. Material objects were destroyed (slaves’ cabins, slaves’ objects, and even chains and other testimonies to their bondage). Neither did indentured workers or migrants (from Gujarat, China, Europe) leave any material heritage. Except for few objects dating from around the first decade of the 20th century, there was little to testify to the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and men who had been trafficked to serve the international division of labor and the interests of French colonialism. What were we to do? I argued that we should not seek to fill an absence, or, to make up for the dearth, but rather to work from this very dearth, from this absence.

One of the logics of colonialism and capitalism is to make people become disposable and invisible, or to construct ways in which they become visible, in colonialism through racial formations. Anti-slavery and anti-colonialism struggles have focused on reversing that invisibility and making their presence visible and heard. But there are many ways to make visible and heard a presence that has been muted and marginalised or erased. One is to subvert images and objects pertaining to colonialism and reveal what is masked (the work, the hybridity…). However, it looked like the colonial world of the island had not triggered a particular visual interest, and images thereof were few and far between in the 17th and 18th centuries. Furthermore, we wished to insist on the asymmetrical encounters and exchanges that had occurred, to look more at the itineraries of the enslaved and indentured workers, at the knowledge, languages, rituals and beliefs they had brought with them, at the “immaterial” legacies they had left behind. We had already decided that the time and space for the permanent exhibition (which was organised in such a way that it could be dynamically transformed) would be the time and space of the Indian Ocean rather than that of French colonialism. The Reunion was on an African/Asian axis; its society had emerged in a millenary cultural space of exchanges and encounters between Africa and Asia; its people had come from developed and complex societies with long histories. There was thus no reason for following the French narrative.

All this entailed working on a missing link, on the absence of an object that would give meaning to an event, a period, and a time/space. Starting with the absence of the object, whether because it had been stolen, is missing, or never even existed, leads me to a series of remarks.

Drawing upon these remarks and on the vast critical scholarship on museum and objects, I argued
for a “museum without objects”. This did not mean that there would be no objects or exhibits in the museum but rather that objects would not be the focal point of the installation; there would be no fetishism of the object, no searches for authentic objects. The object of memory, the memory of an enslaved and colonised people, of women and men who have had no place in the national narrative, would be at the centre of attention. What was this “object”? Sounds, languages, traces and fragments of dreams, revolts, negotiations, hopes… The human voice, with its evocative force, would be present; languages which had been spoken on the island––Malagasy, Tamil, Urdu, Cantonese, Bengali, French regional languages of the 17th century and so on—would be heard but systemically translated to challenge the Western injunction for transparency and translation into master languages. Neither a virtual museum nor a museum of images and sounds, rather it was a museum that would not be founded on a collection of objects, where the objects would be but a single element amongst many others, where the absence of material objects to visualise the lives of the oppressed, the migrants, the marginal, would be confronted.

I would like to return to some of these points:

1: I suggest not to seek to fill a void, to compensate for an absence, but instead to work from this very absence, to fully embrace it. Paradoxically, this absence is affirming a presence. We first acknowledge an absence, an unknown past. For Walter Benjamin, the recovery of the unknown past—“the awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been”3—is the battlefield where the future is decided. What would produce a shifting of the gaze, what small displacement would open up new vistas?

The accumulation of objects whose objective is to celebrate the wealth of a nation belongs to national politics, the idea of a Nation, or to an economy of predation, looting defeated peoples or exploiting the riches of others. It belongs at first to a national economy but soon also to an economy of consumption that invests objects with narcissistic meaning, so as to make one’s identity and social status visible.

It was important for non-Western countries to impose a new reading on objects (African masks, Inuit sculptures, Aborigines’ paintings…) so that they could be considered just as legitimate as a sculpture or a painting by a European artist. The importance of that movement is still being tested. In 2015, we will celebrate the anniversary of the Bandung Conference: this will offer an occasion to rediscover the ways in which the so-called Third World presented itself to the world, how clothing was as important as words. It is worthwhile to reflect on an absence and to accept it. Starting from an absence and a vestige leads to revisiting the notion of the object, to its memory and its itinerary (reinvented, reconstructed).

2: The politics of visibility and invisibility: The ideological fabrication of the noticeable and unnoticeable, of the visible and the invisible, of what matters and does not matter, obeys rules and laws that are constantly been elaborated, reconfigured, deconstructed and reconstructed. Narratives become significant when they enter a field of recognition, constructed through a series of legitimated gestures (grants, works by “recognised” authors, conferences, construction of a vocabulary that might end up acquiring prestige and wide currency—such as hybridity, in-between, creolisation). Marginalised groups have always understood the importance of making their vision of the world, rituals, traditions and practices noticeable.

Scholars have explored the processes whereby continents, regions, practices, groups are “discovered,” questioning the very notion of discovery in the humanities and social sciences. What is discovered? What makes the gesture of unmasking, of unveiling so attractive? Can we read in the continuous use of the notion of “unmasking” the desire to unveil a “true core”? What can we learn from the representation of the explorer? The gesture of “discovery” remains a potent trope, and, in what Barbara Christian has called the “race for theory”, has gained new value.4

Neither visibility nor invisibility should be essentialised; the play between visibility and invisibility contributes to shifts in meaning and in function at multiple points. It means working on how to signify distance and difference. Experiencing foreignness as alterity, in the fleeting moment of listening to a song, contributes to the process of revealing oneself to oneself. It is not abstract love for the Other that is sought, as the “dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing”.5

How to make visible the history of the unexpected, of the intangible, of sorrows and struggles? Few objects relate these stories.

3: The object is treated as a vestige whose meaning emerges from a scape, social, literary, imaginary, musical, techno, and landscape. It is important to avoid sacralising the object as the authentic marker for human action. Violence and resistance, passions and interest, creations and realisations can also to be shown through sounds, images, plays and narratives. The object is one tool amongst many.

4: The object of the vanquished: The history and culture of the vanquished and the oppressed is rarely embodied in material objects. Those oppressed bequeath words rather than palaces, hope rather than private property, words, texts and music rather than monuments. They leave heritages embodied in people rather than stones. Songs, words, poems, declarations and texts often constitute the archives on which to evoke their past. Their itineraries retrace the history of struggles, of migrations, of the organisation of a workforce on a global level rather than the accumulation of wealth. It is a world of the intangible, of the unexpected, of what has been untimely, sorrowful, and hopeful.

5: How can practices and processes that belong for the most part to what has been called “immaterial” or “intangible” culture be expressed visually without falling into a reductive ethnology? How could the maps of exchanges, contacts and conflicts of the Indo-Oceanic world, where over the course of centuries six worlds converged (African, Chinese, European, Indian, Muslim, Malagasy and Comorian), be expressed visually so as to render the contact zones, the cultural interactions, the modes of interpenetration, diffusion, dissemination and dispersion? How could the processes and practices of creolisation at work be expressed visually? How could yesterday’s routes of slavery and indentured labor, today’s migrations, power relationships, inequalities, discriminations be expressed visually, concurrently with the resistances, struggles and imaginaries? How could we make the museum a space for discussions open to reinterpretations, local and global transformations?

The purpose of memory is not to set off searching for lost origins, trying to restore an imaginary authenticity, to defend a nostalgia that “things used to be better”. There is nothing in our heritages, no matter how painful they were, which gives us the right to claim a moral superiority. What shall be preserved? How? Why?

Confronted with heritage, one often has an impulse to preserve, to reassert and to safeguard. Protected from forgetfulness, from denial, from policies of silence and amnesia set up by authorities who seek to impose one story, one tradition. To reassert what has happened. To defend heritages because they give rise to new narratives, stories and myths, because they constitute landmarks that we need. But we also need to select our heritages because everything is not worth being preserved, because we have to preserve and reassert but without melancholy, without nostalgia. We have to reinterpret our heritages, subject them to a critical appraisal, so that something new can happen, namely, history. We do not need to be victims of our heritage, but reclaim it from a critical position so as to be able to pass it on. We have to give meaning to our heritages, to be active heirs, because to quote René Char, “No testament precedes our heritage”.

The archive is neither a talisman nor a fetish but a document. The archive is meaningful in its context; it is not “truth,” it belongs to a social environment. Thus the notarised deed of the sale of a slave is meaningful when it is replaced in a social and historical framework; the deed itself is merely a notarised deed. Thus the Code Noir (Black Code) has to be presented in a context where what underpins the law in France and Europe is explained, and put in perspective with other codes regulating slavery. It must not become a “sacred” text that cannot be discussed but a testimonial text on special laws, on the justification of exclusion.

The path as the metaphor of exile outlines another cartography, another archive. The path draws the ancestors’ course: the one leading from them to us and the one guiding us back to them. The display of the itineraries of persons, objects, rites, culinary practices, recipe ingredients, of sounds and so on show the routes of multiple levels of culture. Reality is polymorphic, formed by multiple identities and constant metamorphoses. From the place of origin, whence the ancestor came, to the world she or he contributed to build and bequeathed to us, the itinerary brings back a life. The richness of a world is restored, and a neutral category (“African”, “enslaved”, “Muslim”), one that negates singularity (how old? what gender? what place of origin: city, country, coast?), fades away before the combined individual and collective experience that shaped the world.

We are a narrative species with an endless faculty to fantasise; we grow up with stories and they contribute to making us who we are. We live in an intangible world of images, sounds and words. In 1878, in New Caledonia, the Kanak chief Ataï led an insurrection to protest colonial spoliation of lands. To crush the insurrection, French troops burned villages, looted and raped. The words Ataï uttered in Teramba at the beginning of the insurrection embody two ways of thinking about land, property and intangible knowledge. Taking a handful of his land’s earth, Ataï said to the French colonial governor: “This is what we had, what welcomed you.” Then taking a stone, he added: “This is what you brought.”6 Earth against stone. It might surprise us that the Kanak anti-colonial leader chose to contrast dust with stone, a solid, embodying foundation as in “laying the first stone”, yet with this gesture he underlined that building a society is not just about tangible monuments (I do not deny their importance, far from it, but I want to argue that it is not enough to build a society) but also about something as intangible as dust.

The museum without objects was about creating spaces for frictions and solidarity, where we learn to live with people whom we do not love and do not want to love, but with whom we know that we want to live because we share the same space.

1Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Penguin Books, 1990, p. 119.
2Françoise Vergès ed, Exposer l’esclavage. Méthodologies et pratiques. Paris: Africultures, 2012.
3Walter Benjamin, The Arcades’ Project, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 389.
4Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory”, in Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No 1 (Spring 1988), pp. 67-79.
5Paolo Freire and Donaldo P. Macedo, “A Dialogue: Culture, Language, and Race” in Harvard Educational Review, 65 (1995), 375-389, p. 379.
6Cf. Alban Bensa, Histoire d’une chefferie kanak (1740-1878). Paris: Karthala, 2005.