Dear Stéphane Martin, Dear Lilian Thuram, Ladies and Gentlemen, President of the Musée du Quai Branly, “Time is of the essence, it is not a matter of repainting walls, but of putting light back into people.” This invitation is that of Abd al Malik, in his HLM Tango.
In this complex matter of collective memory, the treatment of scars takes time. There are false medicines: impossible exorcism exercises and repentant cures for original sins.
And then there are the real medicines: those of understanding, those of education. «The light in beings». Those who make us understand, to use Lilian Thuram’s very correct expression, that «we are not born racist, we become».
The remarkable exhibition designed by Pascal Blanchard, co-author of the documentary series «Noirs de France», Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, head of museum history at the Musée du Quai Branly, and Lilian Thuram, with the help of Gilles Boëtsch, invites us to look back on this close past, that of our parents or grandparents, where we exhibited each other in exhibitions, long before the age of our videospheres.
The intelligence of your exhibition is also to remind us that in the obscene quest of the typical, all the «others», so to speak, have gone there: African blacks, Kanaks, Aztecs, Basques and Bretons too.
To also remember that in this exhibition company, we were not alone. I am thinking of the photographic heritage of the British Raj; Imperial Germany and its colonies, and especially Nazi Germany; Leopold Belgium, Portugal, the United States, all lands where otherness had become the object of the spectacular.
Finally, to remember that since the sixteenth century, when our new «savages» were exhibited in the ports of Antwerp or Rouen, we have not ceased, for so long, to artificially reproduce the shock of the first contact, to feed it to the people, to make him admit the merits of all our Valladolid controversies.
To remind us of the ambiguities constituting our near past. The time of the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 was also the time of the birth of what would become Radio France Internationale; the time of the «Négresses de caf' conc' » and «Boubou soldat», and the time of «J'ai deux amours», the song of Joséphine Baker.
By reopening our boxes of Ya'Bon Banania, we rediscover a reading of the world that wanted to rely more than anything on science. For a few decades, racist theories and the madness of phrenology wreaked havoc. In British India, nasal angles and cranial perimeters were measured to uncover the physical foundations of the caste hierarchy; in Belgium, France, criteria were also sought for locating, classifying, ranking, simplify the ethnic entanglement of colonized Africa. In the name of reason, the social complexity was given priority to the identifiable, the clearly identifiable, the emblematic.
Social anthropology has long since left the dubious terrain of these scientistic impulses that gave the Enlightenment their shadow, to give way to the terrain of interpretation. In front of the Lights of the display, of humanity reduced to the cabinet of curiosities, the other Lights have imposed themselves, those that take into account the complexity of social constructions, and the weight of their representations.
Today, in Paris, the Musée du Quai Branly, the Cité internationale de l'immigration, and soon in Marseille, the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, are advocating complex approaches, where univoque and simplification have no place. Their vocation to enlighten us is all the more essential because, as Lilian Thuram rightly says,
this story “is not over”. It should be recalled that the apartheid regime ended less than 20 years ago, and its senior leaders were trained at the Volkekunde at Stellenbosch University.
– an ethnology based, in a tragic anachronism, on racism that was scientifically based.
Today, it is the turn of the exoticism of «exhibitions» to look very exotic. This exhibition echoes the words of Montaigne, when he described the visit of Charles IX and his course in Rouen in the presence of Brazilian «savages», and the view of the latter on our morals and injustices. It is, I believe, the whole meaning of your magnificent initiative: to educate against racism is also, precisely, to know how to return to this stage of the mirror.