Title: Imag[IN]ing Racial France

Published in: Public Culture Volume 23 Nr.1

Released: May 2011


Cliquez ici pour une version en français


Photo essays on SPARCK artists Kakudji, Mowoso, Hervé Youmbi and Malam appear in Volume 23, No. 1 (Winter 2011) of the cutting edge journal Public Culture, in a special issue titled "Racial France" edited by scholar Janet Roitman; the essays, commissioned by Public Culture, are by Dominique Malaquais.


Imag[IN]ing Racial France: Take 1 — KaKuDji

On Bastille Day 2010, a contingent of Dahomey amazons trotted down the Champs-Elysées. In their wake, soldiers from fourteen African nations made an appearance on the self-styled plus belle avenue du monde (most beautiful avenue in the world).Le Monde itself provided advance notice, with full-color front-page close-ups of what many suspect were two top models standing in for continental men in arms — one brown-skinned, the other beige, lest readers fail to remember that the French colonial presence extended to both sides of the Sahara. Numerous photographs of the parade appear on the Elysée’s official Web site, with a helpful caption:

14 pays africains qui célèbrent cette année le cinquentenaire de leurs indépendances [ont] participé au défilé militaire. A travers cette invitation, le Président de la République a voulu exprimer la reconnaissance de la Nation aux soldats venus des anciennes colonies, qui ont combattu pour notre liberté.

[Fourteen African countries, all celebrating half a century’s independence, participated in the military parade. This invitation by the president was meant to express the nation’s gratitude to soldiers hailing from France’s colonies of yore, who fought for our freedom.]


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Images © Kakudji



Imag[IN]ing Racial France: Take 2 — Mowoso

In transit between Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Paris, Mowoso probes the world of Mikilisme.

Mowoso [Mo-woah- soh; in Lingala (DRC), rustlings of various kinds, from wind in the leaves to the whine of a hard drive preparing to crash]: an experimental network of transdisciplinary creators who come together as space, time, need, and desire allow to explore shifting takes on collaboration as an aesthetics of political engagement.

Mikili [Mee-kee- lee; in Lingala, a spin on the term mokili, meaning “world”]: a hybrid, part-mythic “third space” located in Western Europe. Tens of thousands of Congolese youth take off yearly, in flights real and imagined, for its capital: Paris.

Mikilisme [Mee-kee- lee- sum]: a wide variety of practices (ways of dressing, moving, speaking, and, more generally, communicating, eating and drinking, and earning and handling money) elaborated in response to the dream (and nightmare) of engaging with Mikili.


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Images © Mowoso



Imag[IN]ing Racial France: Take 3 — Hervé Youmbi

Like most postcolonial stories, the story of racial France is a story of commodity fetishism. It is suffused with desire: desire for things (objects, ideas, currencies) and places — above all, places. In the media — in news and film reportage, magazine specials, Hollywood blockbusters, and ad campaigns of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — increasing (if largely superficial) attention is paid to places in Western Europe and North America that Africans risk life and limb to reach. Place and pathos are presented as coterminous entities. Little concern is shown for other types of quests: the desire to reach given places not because lives depend on it but because these places function as commodities in and of themselves. While immigrants hailing from other parts of the world — Asia most notably — are commonly depicted on the move, in search of abodes far from “home” as part of coherent, long-term plans for economic betterment, Africans are systematically typecast as refugees. Notions of choice and strategy rarely make their way into the picture, and, when they do, they are mostly ascribed to alimentary motives. Africans take to the road (and sea) to survive: so the story goes.


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Portraits © Hervé Youmbi; Images of installation © Kadiatou Diallo



Imag[IN]ing Racial France: Envoi

France is most cosmopolitan where it is least central. If the City of Lights is a cosmopolis, it is far less so in Saint-Germain- des- Près or the Marais, “les Champs,” or the sixteenth arrondissement than in its banlieues (disenfranchised suburbs). Here an extraordinary brassage (a mix and, at times, a linking of arms) is at work that speaks as few words can to the tangible reality of postcolonial France.

The mix is not a happy one; poverty, inadequate services (from housing to sanitation, transportation, policing, and schooling), and a staggering number of dreams shattered attend its spaces. And yet it is stunningly vibrant. Failure to say so would amount to an extraordinary failure of the imagination. A mind-boggling wealth of languages; cuisines; poetries and musical genres; fashions; scents and holy writs; names; coiffures; gestures; greetings; degrees granted by universities ranging from Bahia to Lahore, Tallinn and N’Djamena; and call centers linking the suburbs of Bobigny, Saint-Denis, and Mantes-la- Jolie to the farthest reaches of the planet: beyond the périphériques (the two beltways that separate Paris proper from itsbanlieues) is where it’s at. Not joyfully, but very much there all the same: b(l)ooming in spite of well-to- do France’s disdain. Nowhere is this as evident as in the explosion of artistic activity taking place in the banlieues. Individual artists and collectives, activist art spaces and teaching hubs, some wholly ephemeral and few of which make it to the limelight of the city center, are located there, many in closer touch with the heartbeat of twenty-first- century global life than the chic districts that attract international collectors and art aficionados.

This envoi celebrates a few projects among many that highlight creative energies at work beyond le périph (Parisian slang for the two beltways that loop around the capital). The focus is on two areas: the banlieue area just north of central Paris, best known to those who make their home there as le neuf trois (93 — the local postal code prefix), and, slightly farther and to the west, le sept huit (78).


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Image left © Paulo Woods; Image centre and right © Christopher Moore / Sol Productions & Nomadic Wax