The Decadence and Resurgence of African Art

On Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Ghislain Cloquet’s Statues Also Die, museums, and the anti-colonial gaze.

12 mins read

The timeliness of a poem, painting, novel or film draws not only on its origin and response but also its capability to speak to the present long after the fact. This is the case regarding the creation and afterlife of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet’s 1953 French essay film Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) as an experiment for understanding decolonization. The film assesses the perplexity, deprivation and decontextualization of African culture as sacred material objects of their societies that are displaced from their origins and displayed in Europe’s museums where they are gawked at but not appreciated or understood by Western audiences. The film was a cinematic inquiring into why artworks from China and Greece were displayed at the Louvre while those from sub-Saharan Africa were displayed at France’s anthropological museum, Le Musée de I’Homme.

Les statues meurent aussi is an interpretation of an artistic decline radiated as allegorical movement toward death. The very first words of the voice-over commentary express this in terms of a parallel: “When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.” This death is instantly recognized as that of Black art when displayed in Western museums that displace it from the living culture in which it was created. The museum gives us a false consciousness. We seldom sense that these works were not envisioned to end up between these bare walls for the pleasure of Sunday museumgoers, afternoon school breaks for children or Monday intellectuals. The film opposes the unity of art and life that these objects were made to ensure within African communities. As Steven Ungar puts it in his book Critical Mass: Social Documentary in France from the Silent Era to the New Wave, the principal argument of the film is “how museum display reduces the value of these objects to the aesthetic pleasure that they provide to Western spectators in what amounts to a classic shift from use to exchange value.”

The film also contributes in diverse ways to the sphere of influence exercised by anti-colonial writers, artists and intellectuals during the ‘50s and early ‘60s in Europe. It asserts the inequalities and injustices that reinforced the existing relationship between the urban European life and colonies without avoiding the flawed consciousness. Les statues meurent aussi indeed wanted to raise awareness that the restoration of an African voice in representations of their own cultures could lead to more humanist affinities among the different communities. The use of montage in order to visualize the dialectical conflict between the colonizers and the colonized serves as one of the most powerful devices in the film to elevate consciousness among viewers.

Marker and Resnais skit the museum gaze in the beginning of the film by creating a deceptive exhibition in which the mundane objects on display are reduced to labels and slayed by inserting the human gazes as objects for display: “And then they die in turn. Classified, labelled, conserved in the display case windows and collections, they enter the history of art.” The gazes of the non-native women are expressed as registering loss of unity that contrasts the earlier shot where others were looking at the objects as alleged artifacts with curiosity, disdain and appreciation. The first thirteen minutes of the film includes several tracking shots at slow speed focusing on the exhibition of individual pieces of African art. Guy Bernard’s music is used to create enigma within viewers’ minds by accompanying continual motion with the sounds of flutes and strings.

There are three extended sequences in the film where the filmmakers do not use voice-over narration to let the object speak for themselves. The surrealist classification is highlighted by little cards depicting objects behind the showcases, as for instance “utilitarian art” and “unknown origin.” This satirical composition manoeuvres as a mirror deconstructing our subjective way of attaching meaning to otherness when applied to self. The satirical composition and the caricatures of museum gaze points at the filmmakers’ cinematographic strategy, which is an implication rather than communication. The film revives African art using a fluid range of zooms and sharp cuts to show objects freed from their exhibit and filled with life and movement. The editing links alienated statues to give the static objects a vigorous narrative force. Archival footage of desert landscapes and travel are constant reminders of how and where the objects were confronted and obtained at the time of colonial rule.

Only after thirteen minutes into the film do the viewers finally see living Africans. Images of a dead orangutan are shown as an allegory––a fact of life within the environment parallel to the appropriation of Black art by Westerners and other collectors who fill the void they have with products of a degraded native. Peter J. Bloom recalls the image of the orangutan touching human hand “provides an ironic interpretation of Michelangelo’s 1511-12 fresco, The Creation of Adam, in which God gives life to Adam by touching his hand.” The death of the orangutan symbolizes a sacrificial gift that is mystically altered into a demonstration of appearances capable of fixing the tissue of the world. Moving away from the traditional linear narrative structure, Resnais, Marker and Cloquet use various avant-garde techniques of documentary cinema with passages of archival footage often set in opposition to the voice-over commentary. Their film is about the colonized, more than a film on colonial Africa.

Les statues meurent aussi raises issues of cultural heritage. The film shows that noteworthy works of art speak to following generations including us today, more than seventy years after its creation. In the end, the filmmakers inform the viewers that the pressure of consumerism has transformed these sacred and culturally meaningful objects into “indigenous handicrafts” now. Resnais and Marker turn their camera against the mixing of cultures as it leads to the death of African culture and also deforms European culture. James E. Genova wrote in his book Cinema and Development in West Africa that the film “helped to set the stage for West African cinematic production by offering powerful models of anti-colonial filmmaking in the representational realm.” It further echoes the anti-colonial position taken my Marker and Resnais when they grieved how so-called exotic films have subjugated pigeonholes of Africans as background in stories made for Westerners.

The use of texts in the film has astonishing pathos that seems to stem directly from the images they complement. There is an interaction between the emotions conveyed by the delicacy of word and image, accompanied by the poetic mode of lyrical and refined texts. The camera treats all subjects including humans, statues, animals, landscapes, architecture or signs in front of its lens without any form of differentiation. The cinematic style shifts to montage in the end with shots of a jazz drummer juxtaposed with Africans being attacked in the streets by white vigilante forces. Each strike of the baton on the drum vigorously clashes with the blasts of the shotgun. Finally, the viewers are elevated above the hostilities between Europeans and Africans to the possibility of equality of two cultures.

The film features the metamorphosis of African art as a possibility of resurgence. The filmmakers encourage us to imagine reviving what was destroyed. Marker evokes colonial destruction in his voice-over narration:

It is the whites who pretend to take on the role of the ancestors. The true statue for protection, exorcism, and fertility henceforth is his silhouette.

It is the black artist who says it. Then a new form of art shows up: the art of fighting. Art of transition for a period of transition. Art of the present time, [caught] between a lost grandeur and another grandeur still to be conquered. Art of the provisional, whose ambition is not to last but to witness. Here the problem of the subject is not an issue. The subject is this naturally ungrateful earth, this naturally troublesome climate, and inside work at an unfathomable scale, the rhythm of the factory confronting the rhythm of nature. Ford meets Tarzan.

The real confrontation of Africa is made through these forms. Resnais, Marker and Cloquet show the movements of Black athletes and rhythms of a jazz drummer along with contrasting images of severe colonial exploitation of African bodies, powerfully depicting art against destiny: the resistance against mutilation of culture. The ending sequence of the film focuses on confrontation between Europe and Africa as yet another projection of appropriation of otherness to the self. The film reflects on the ethnological questions that artifacts are classified as other in order to define a concept of self. The promise of African art is engraved in the framework of Western conceptions. Resnais and Marker criticize the death of the African crushed under colonial classification. The intention of the film called for recovery and renaissance of African culture where the Africans themselves can reclaim control over its production and presentation.

Thanks to Matthias De Groof and his article Statues Also Die – But Their Death is not the Final Word, which helped in a part of my piece.

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