Spotlight on Africa - Black model art show challenges France's colour blindness
A recent Paris exhibition honouring forgotten black models of modern art has shone a spotlight on black identity in a society where race remains a controversial subject.
France has been multicultural "since the 19th and 20th century", says Denise Murrell, co-curator of Le Modèle Noir or Black Models.
The landmark exhibition on modern art’s forgotten black models ran from March to July at Paris’ Orsay museum. On Friday 13 September, it was due to premiere at Pointe à Pitre in Guadeloupe.
The lavish show, portraying people of colour in French art from the country’s final abolition of slavery in 1848 until the 1950s, “shows without question that there was a black presence in the heart of cultural activity in the 19th century,” mirroring “today’s diverse, contemporary society”, Murrell told RFI.
Yet these figures were left out of history. The four-month long exhibition sought to give them back their identity, by renaming leading paintings in the models’ names. Portrait of a Negress thus became Portrait of Madeleine and Edouard Manet’s Olympia, showing a reclining nude prostitute, has been renamed Laure, in honour of the black maid in the background.
“Madeleine, the black woman in the painting, has been subject to a silencing or obliteration of her identity by a generic title…so being able to rename her was important,” continues Murrell.
Similarly, Laure, who inspired one of Manet’s most important works, is barely noticed, and extensive scholarship on the work has focused more on the cat than the servant stooping down to offer flowers to the white woman.
“Laure was emblematic of the condition of the diaspora, being invisible even though one is in plain view. I wanted to do something about it,” comments Murrell.
Revealing the maid’s identity became the foundation of the curator’s doctoral dissertation, Seeing Laure, Race and Modernity from Manet’s Olympia to Matisse, Bearden and Beyond, and an earlier exhibition of Le Modèle Noir in New York that Murrell curated called, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today.
Over 400,000 visitors flocked to the Orsay museum to see Laure and many of the other Black figures in French art such as Haitian model Joseph, who was the central figure of Gericault’s famous painting the Raft of the Medusa.
Joseph was portrayed as the hero in the artwork – the one who called for rescue for the other stricken crewmembers. In an era where slavery was still rampant, such a favourable portrayal was a clear call for abolition.
For Murrell, the success of Le Modèle Noir is a clear sign of the "hunger" in France for information on the subject, which has "historically not been widely discussed”, she says.
While the representation of black people has become a topic in the history of art on both sides of the Atlantic, research in black studies is relatively new in France.
Breaking the mould of mental slavery
Le Modèle Noir exhibition was the first of its kind in Paris, while London and the Netherlands have already drawn crowds to shows such as Black Chronicles at the National Portrait Gallery and Black Is Beautiful at Amsterdam’s Newe Dirk museum.
The term "race" remains controversial in France.
Advocates of strict secularism are against defining society in racial terms, saying it undermines the French Republican value that “everyone is equal".
Last year in June, the government removed the word from the constitution, arguing it was a "made-up social construct". Former president François Hollande, in his 2012 election campaign, said the term “has no place in the Republic”.
Collecting statistics based on race remains illegal.
Critics say that such apparently lofty ideals conceal the extent of racial discrimination in France.
Murrell believes embracing black identity in France could, in fact, reinforce the foundations of the Republic.
“I think recognition of France’s multiple heritage and the contribution of people of colour to French society can only strengthen Republican ideals,” she says, “because it creates a sense of belonging for populations who may perhaps feel they have been ignored.
“I think that part of the ability to improve the condition of the diaspora is to hear the voices of people from the diaspora.”
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Spotlight on Africa - What's behind Macron's courting of the African diaspora?
France has recently made overtures to the African diaspora, inviting them to be the bridge between France and their countries of origin. Critics say it's a move to regain a foothold in the former colonies. But France's African community could leverage its influence to ask for recognition at home.
In France, there are no statistics on "race" or ethnicity. Racial categories that are commonplace in the US and UK such as white, black or Asian don’t exist.
The logic is simple: to avoid racism, avoid categorising people by race and instead treat everyone equally. This is the Republican egalitarian ethos. It is held up in France as a powerful rebuke of the racist ideology propagated by the Nazi regime.
In World War Two, the former collaborationist regime enabled the roundup of thousands of Jews, based on their race and ethnicity.
However, the experience of discrimination felt by some in France's African community has led to growing calls for more visibility of ethnic minorities.
Today, the French government is reaching out to Africans in the diaspora to help it foster greater connections with the African continent.
Paris has lost ground to countries like China in a scramble for influence in this new Eldorado.
President Emmanuel Macron has said that if Africa fails then all of Europe will fail, and wants the diaspora to serve as a buffer. If they play their cards right, France's African community could leverage their influence to ask for more recognition at home.
So who are they? What are their aspirations? And what effect can the diaspora have on French society? In the coming weeks, RFI's Christina Okello will take you on a journey to explore the rich diversity in France, starting with its African diaspora.
Subscribe to the series on iTunes or Google podcasts.
And to listen to this first episode, just hit the Play button above
Spotlight on Africa - Teenage flight of fancy from Cape Town to Cairo
A group of 20 teenagers are set to make aviation history when they fly a light aircraft from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo in Egypt on 15 June.
Together they will fly the length of the continent, covering over 10,000 kilometres in a plane they assembled themselves.
Seventeen-year-old Megan Werner was behind the initiative, and founded U-Dream Global, an aviation outreach initiative that fosters “visionary thinking” to inspire young people to pursue their dreams.
Speaking from Johannesburg, Megan explains more about this project to RFI.
Spotlight on Africa - Rwanda's challenging road to reconciliation
In the 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, the country has emerged to become one of Africa’s success stories. Its remarkable recovery has stemmed from efforts towards nation-building. But some critics argue this bid for ethnic reconciliation is far from complete. In this week’s Spotlight on Africa, RFI's Christina Okello travels to Kigali to explore how Rwanda has dealt with the trauma of its past.
Tucked away in a courtyard away from the main commercial area in Kigali, is a small memorial site dominated by an imposing building of red bricks and white panels. The building is the Sainte Famille church, the largest Catholic Church in Rwanda. It is also where more than 2,000 people were massacred during the 1994 genocide.
“We still remember those people who was killed, who are called Abatutsi [or Tutsi] people,” recounts 19-year-old Nadine Ouwiduhaye, pointing to the names of the victims engraved on a black marble wall.
When violence broke out on 7 April following the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, many residents from troubled districts of Kigali fled to Sainte Famille church to seek refuge, only to be handed over to Hutu militias by the priest in charge there.
“I’m just looking at these people; they’re too many. This is something like inhumanity. How can people take something like a knife and put to the neck of others, how they can kill their people, kill their child, how people can kill his mother? Just too many questions,” Ouwiduhaye told RFI.
Is God listening?
Up to one million Tutsis and Hutus were killed in a brutal one-hundred-day massacre that has led some to question whether God exists. In his commemoration speech to mark the 25th anniversary since the killings, President Paul Kagame reiterated the poem of a young girl who once said: “Where was God on those dark nights of genocide?”
“People say he was absent, no he wasn’t,” responds Ouwiduhaye.
“Something bad happened, it doesn’t mean God forgot us. He is trying to teach us how we can treat each other, how we can be together. Before, they didn’t have a unit, they just had something like Tutsi, Hutu, Twa. But right now, we are just Rwandan, all of us we are just Rwandan,” she said.
Today, ethnic labels in Rwanda have been erased, and most children like Ouwiduhaye have grown up with the idea of “Rwandaness,” inculcated into them in education camps, known as ingando that try to minimize ethnic differences.
“Many people don’t understand how we have made this reconciliation,” comments Rwandan author Jean-Marie Vianney Rurangwa, who was invited to discuss his work in preserving the memory of the genocide.
Author of four books on the topic, including Au Sortir De l’Enfer (Out of Hell), Rurangwa explains how writing about the genocide can “teach the youth about all those atrocities so that they cannot be repeated.”
Roots of Genocide
Explaining the racist ideology that sowed the roots of hatred between Hutus and Tutsis is a start. Traditionally, Hutus were people who farmed crops, while a Tutsi minority made up Rwanda’s cattle-keeping aristocracy. Because cattle were more valuable than crops, the minority Tutsis became the local elite. Gradually, these class divisions became ethnic distinctions, which were later exploited by German and Belgian colonisers. When in 1959, a Hutu elite toppled the Tutsi royal family, the regime that followed took a staunch nationalist turn, forcing thousands of Tutsis to flee.
“The genocide didn’t just start in 1994,” says Rurangwa. “There were episodes of violence even in 1961,” after the Hutu majority won the country’s first elections; and “right up until 1990,” he said.
“Forgetting would be a mistake,” he adds, saying how writing about his experience and the identity battle he’s faced since, has been “cathartic” not just for him but for others. “Sharing pain can be a kind of healing.”
Accusations of genocide denial
Yet officials accuse critics of trying to create an alternative truth. In their crosshairs are people like Hutu opposition leader Victoire Ingabire. The government has long accused her of inciting “divisionist” (i.e. Hutu v Tutsi) rebellion, an allegation she has always denied.
Last September, Ingabire was freed from prison after eight years in detention, following a decision by Kagame to pardon over 2,000 inmates. She continues to campaign for what she believes is the truth.
“I ask for justice for all Rwandans, it does not mean that I minimize the importance of the Tutsi genocide,” she told RFI.
By everyone, Ingabire means the thousands of Hutu civilians who were killed by Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces as they hunted down those who had committed the genocide in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, which later expanded into calamitous regional wars.
“The crimes committed by certain members of the RPF are never mentioned. We are not allowed to discuss it. So how can we talk about reconciliation?”
Yet everywhere reconciliation and unity are espoused by the state. When speaking at the 25th commemoration of the genocide, Paul Kagame vowed to never allow such large-scale violence to ever happen again.
And indeed, there has been none. Dissent too has been carefully stifled throughout the RPF’s time in power, much to the dismay of rights groups.
Moreover, government indicators such as the Rwanda Reconciliation Barometer, an opinion survey conducted every five years, routinely reports that more than 90 percent of Rwandans believe their communities have fully reconciled.
This reconciliation has been based on a collective memory of the past to construct a post-ethnic national identity.
The aim is to get people to “come out of their traumatic memories and divisive identities and go for nationhood,” explains Eric Ndushabandi, director of the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace.
The political choice is to say “You have been taught this, you have been reading this, but the truth is this,” he told RFI.
Dealing with trauma
Common experiences often allow individuals to cope when memories are particularly traumatic. But some Rwandans want to simply forget.
“There are traumatic wounds, which come back,” comments Ndushabandi, who runs community dialogue sessions between survivors and perpetrators in villages. “People are looking at their scars and traumatic memories and they say, oh, this proximity and inter-relationship; it’s still very problematic.”
The other concern is that promoting one Rwandan identity could provide “an escape route for people who have to take responsibility for their deeds,” reckons Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a research chair on historical trauma and transformation at the Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, who participated in activities during the 25th commemoration of the genocide.
While nation building is “a tremendous idea, that we as South Africans can learn from, the problem is when people immediately replace the idea of being ‘I am one Rwanda’, without taking accountability and acknowledging what they did. I think that’s where the slippage lies,” she told RFI.
The trauma of the genocide remains endemic throughout the population and affects the youth in particular, despite many of them being born after the mass killing.
“I cannot say that I was not affected by it [the genocide], because my parents, my grandparents are affected by it,” says Rwanda University student Deborah Chisozo.
“This is a painful time for everyone because they’re telling us stories, about that history, that was a very dark time here in our country,” she told RFI, as the country observes a 100-day mourning period for the 800,000 Tutsis and 30,000 moderate Hutus who were killed.
“I feel bad, some of my friends are having trauma because of that time. But we’re going to pass it and we have hope that we’re going to have a beautiful country.”
There are “encouraging signs,” coming from the youth, says Vincent Sezibera, a professor of psychology at the University of Rwanda.
“Wherever you go, you have clubs of young people,” made up of “children born from survivors and children born from perpetrators, collaborating together,” he told RFI.
The youth were the centerpiece of this year’s tribute. “They send a clear message that a child born from a perpetrator is not necessarily a perpetrator, and they even go on to say that the perpetrator of yesterday is not necessarily a perpetrator of tomorrow,” adds Sezibera.
Such youth clubs have taken on names such as Ikisere, which means hope in Kinyarwanda, the official language. “I’m surprised by their resilience but also the creativity of the young generation. And yes, it gives me hope,” he said.
Spotlight on Africa - One month on, Chadian diaspora still angry over French air strikes
Chadians living in France and Germany have been demonstrating against French air strikes supporting Chad’s longtime autocratic ruler, Idriss Deby. The strikes on 3 February were intended to prevent an armed group from Libya from toppling the president. Instead, they have sparked familiar accusations of French interference in African politics.
French authorities have defended the strikes against Chadian rebels, insisting that it was Deby himself who invited them in.
But is Paris overstepping the mark? And, is President Emmanuel Macron's hopes of resetting France's fraught relationship with Africa now in tatters?
Click 'Play' above to listen to this week's Spotlight on Africa.