A report by Lauren Collins for The New Yorker. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
The first time the French filmmaker and scholar Mame-Fatou Niang encountered “L’histoire en Peinture de l’Assemblée Nationale,” a large painting hanging in the National Assembly in Paris, she was “prise aux tripes”—grabbed by the guts. It was March of last year, and she was in the midst of what was supposed to have been a big day for her at the Palais Bourbon, which houses the lower chamber of the French legislature. She had been invited there to screen “Mariannes Noires,” her documentary about Afro-French women—“women who are perceived as having come from elsewhere, but whose hearts beat first for France,” as one reviewer wrote.
The painting, by the French artist Hervé Di Rosa, comprises nine panels, each depicting a key moment in the annals of French lawmaking: the institution of paid holidays, the recuperation of Alsace-Lorraine. Since 1991, it has hung in a hallway outside of the Assembly’s auditorium. Each year, thousands of tourists and schoolchildren pass by the work, as do their elected representatives. One panel is meant to commemorate the abolition of slavery in France, in 1794, but it perpetuates grotesque racist stereotypes. It features “two huge black faces, with bulging eyes, oversized bright red lips, carnivorous teeth, in an imagery borrowing to [sic] Sambo, the Banania commercials and Tintin in the Congo,” Niang and Julien Suaudeau, a white French novelist, wrote last week, when they launched a petition to have the work removed. “I was just shocked,” Niang recalled. “I’m a French black person. The piece tells me that this is how my country sees me.”
The petition, which calls the painting “a humiliating and dehumanizing insult to the millions of victims of slavery and to all their descendants,” has so far garnered about twenty-five hundred signatures on Change.org. With the hashtag #unautrefresquepour1794 (#anotherfrescofor1794), Niang and Suaudeau are asking people to make suggestions for a more appropriate piece of art to replace it. One young woman wrote to Niang on Twitter about a school field trip she went on to the National Assembly, during which she’d encountered Di Rosa’s painting. “I was embarrassed to ask about it in front of my classmates,” she recalled. “My teacher said that she’d asked the guides about it, but that they didn’t know how to respond. It didn’t seem to bother anyone. Some people were even laughing.”
Di Rosa made the work nearly three decades ago, for a contest sponsored by the R.A.T.P., the public-transport authority of Paris. It was originally set to be housed in a metro station that serves the National Assembly. But the authorities feared that it would attract graffiti, so it went to the Palais Bourbon instead. Di Rosa, who is white, was a leading figure of Figuration Libre, a French art movement of the nineteen-eighties that aimed to shake up cultural hierarchies. The movement was a mixture “of history and of the street, of the noble and of the trivial,” the curator Suzanne Pagé wrote, in a catalogue for a 1984 exposition in which Di Rosa’s works were shown alongside those of American counterparts such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. When I exchanged e-mails with Di Rosa this week, he told me that he intended for his painting to convey a sense of exuberance. “I was thirty years old, it was the end of the eighties, I remember having wanted to change the direction of the iconography, to look toward the future rather than the past,” he wrote. “I was part of an antiracist generation that truly believed that we had gotten rid of the old French racists. It was a moment in the history of France where we were optimistic, where we thought . . . that the resentments were past and we could build a world together.”
Di Rosa seemed somewhat baffled by the criticisms of his work, even as he refuted them. He pointed out that the Museum of Modest Art, which he founded, in 2000, in his home town of Sète, is currently holding an exhibition of seventy artists from Kinshasa. “In my career I’ve also worked for years with artists and craftspeople from Ghana, Benin, South Africa, Ethiopia, Tunisia, and Cameroon, and also from Mexico, Vietnam, etc., but that doesn’t interest the defamers,” he wrote. When I asked him if he was familiar with the history of colonial iconography—and, if so, if he thought about it when he was choosing how to illustrate the abolition of slavery—he replied, “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.” Di Rosa says that his style is influenced by pop culture: comic books, science fiction, and punk. He often paints white people with similarly exaggerated features and considers “big red lips” a signature of his mythological world. “I have the impression that all of my characters are equally mistreated,” he said.
“We’re completely uninterested in his intentions,” Suaudeau told me. “The only thing that matters to us is, was this a sensible and sensitive thing to do, to use that piece, regardless of the artist’s motivations, to celebrate the abolition of slavery?” In raising the question, Niang and Suaudeau have knowingly trespassed upon France’s conception of itself as a bastion of color-blind universalism. There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity; last year, the word “race,” which is associated with Nazi Germany, was removed from the French constitution. The updated document promises equality regardless of “gender, origin or religion.” Niang said, “We have this amazing republican narrative, but it was made by chopping out huge chunks of our history.”
France’s race-blind policy excises a long tradition of colonial law, including the Code Noir, which governed slavery in France from 1685 until the Revolution, and the Police des Noirs regulations of the seventeen-seventies, which included a special identity card that black people in eighteenth-century Paris were required to carry. In 1794, the French Empire included Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana, in the Caribbean; the slave-trading ports of Gorée Island and Saint-Louis, in West Africa; and islands in the Indian Ocean. During the course of the eighteenth century, French slave traders imported more than a million people to Haiti. It was an uprising of enslaved people—the “true sans-culottes of the colonies,” according to one French Republican leader—in Saint-Domingue that forced the 1794 abolition of slavery. (In 1802, Napoleon reinstated it.) Laurent Dubois, a professor of history at Duke University who specializes in the Atlantic world, told me, “The French Revolution happened as much in the Caribbean as it did in Europe.” Colonies remained central to French history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the conquest and administration of vast territories in the Maghreb, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. “For much of France’s modern colonial history, more people lived under French rule in colonial territories than in metropolitan France,” Dubois said.
Niang and Suaudeau’s ultimate goal, they say, “is to raise French people’s awareness of the colonial wound.” Both of them live in the United States. She is an associate professor of French studies at Carnegie Mellon; he is an instructor in the French and Francophone studies program at Bryn Mawr. Their insistence that a black woman’s experience of a work of art is as important as a white man’s aims in making it—their insistence on acknowledging context, subjectivity, and identity—has been taken by some French commentators as an attempt to inflict American notions of political correctness upon French culture. On social media, the two have been inundated with vitriolic comments (more often targeting her than him, as is the custom). In the French press, they’ve been depicted as, at best, “fervent promoters of the black identity,” and, at worst, “fanatics in need of publicity.”
It is true that the history of slavery and racism in America is not the same as that of slavery and racism in France, and that the symbolic taboos that America enforces in place of substantive redress are not always meaningful. But it is disingenuous to treat the censure of a work like Di Rosa’s as bewildering, or to claim that its hurtfulness isn’t easily comprehensible. Last year, the French soccer player Antoine Griezmann posted a picture of himself wearing black makeup, dressed as a Harlem Globetrotter. “I recognize it is clumsy on my part,” he wrote, after first defending the costume as a tribute. “If I have hurt anyone, I apologize.”
A spokesperson said last week that the National Assembly has no current plans to take down the painting. When I asked Di Rosa if he accepted that the work had caused people pain, and, if so, what he thought would be the appropriate recourse, he replied by citing a law that was passed in 2016, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Its first article reads, in its entirety, “Artistic creation is free.”
In Di Rosa’s view, an art work is indivisible from the intentions of the person who created it. But a public piece such as “L’histoire en Peinture de l’Assemblée Nationale” eventually leaves the environment in which it was conceived and goes out into the world, for all kinds of people to encounter, voluntarily or not. It starts to speak for itself, saying things that its creator might not have imagined and perhaps does not countenance. It takes a strange kind of innocence to insist that the artist’s heart should count for more than the viewer’s gut.
Petition launched to remove ‘racist’ anti-slavery fresco in France’s National Assembly
Anna Sansom, The Art Newspaper, April 11, 2019
French National Assembly criticised for mural depicting racist stereotypes
Corentin Bainier, The Observers France 24, April 12, 2019
Academics launch petition against ‘racist’ mural in French parliament
Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, April 12, 2019