The portrait of Cosimo’ de Medici’s mother, Maria Salviati de’ Medici, “with a child”, a late work by the Florentine painter Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, (1494–1557), has a history. The child in question, Giulia de’ Medici, was the daughter of Cosimo’s cousin, Duke Alessandro. When this presumed son of Giulio de’ Medici (future Pope Clement VI) and an African servant was murdered in 1526, the orphan was entrusted to Maria Salviati. Completed in 1539, the portrait of Maria Salviati with this child has been the object of a series of misinterpretations and alterations: Giulia was seen as a little boy and the entire image was covered in paint. It was only in 1937, when it was cleaned, that this portrait, which might contain the first representation of a child of African ancestry in Western art (Spicer),1 was returned to the light.
Returning: showing again
We choose who we want to feature in our genealogies and yet they proliferate however rigid the postures. Perhaps all we have to do is to scratch shame and the paint/ing a little? But in times of distress, we seek markers in space and time, hitching our frantic thoughts to the cult-figure, the fetish-object, to the past country that more closely resembles us, to this supposed us before the Fall. Knowing this, poets and artists would no doubt prefer to break with the linear and the teleological, to hunt with more heart for the invisible that is sometimes the visible displaced or recomposed.
Take the wind, for example. As Birago Diop tells us, it is like the other things from nature in movement, filled with the hum of voices from the past. We will be instructed if we open ourselves up to their oracles, and struck with madness if we ignore them:
Écoute plus souvent/Les choses que les êtres,/La voix du feu s’entend,/Entends la voix de l’eau./
Écoute dans le vent/Le buisson en sanglot:/C’est le souffle des ancêtres.2
Laden with ancient whispered secrets, the winds also carry the noisy vestiges of a story of hubris that conquered space and causes the tree that is the century to bend. Saint-John Perse described these long gusts in the poem-incipit of his 1946 collection Vents (Winds):
Flairant le pourpre, le cilice, flairant l’ivoire et le tesson, flairant le monde entier des choses,/ Et qui couraient à leur office sur nos plus grands versets d’athlètes, de poètes,/C’étaient de très grands vents en quête de toutes les pistes de ce monde,/Sur toutes choses périssables, sur toutes choses saisissables, parmi le monde entier des choses…(179)3
The painter, on the other hand – and Leonardo da Vinci, by dint of observations, was convinced of this – is able to render only the effects. Following on from the polymath, Éric Vuillard, while celebrating the singular work of the photographer Wilson Bentley (1865–1931), condemned the mad desire that haunted this specialist of the snowflake to successfully photograph the wind before he died. A vain venture, as the writer-film-maker commented in Tristesse de la Terre, an account of the picture’s power to order our imagination of the world and our place in it, for “photography kills all that it catches, movement dies in its basket. And even cinema cannot do anything about this.”4 However, Annette Haudiquet, art historian and director of the Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux in Le Havre, mounted an exhibition in 2022 whose title played on Leonardo’s judgement: “The wind, that which cannot be painted”. For her, the wind did indeed become an artistic subject, in the second half of the 19th century, even if it did so first by shifting its power to objects that resist it or are subjected to it.
It was probably during the same period that the Dogon sign known as the “Captive of Amma” was created on the Bandiagara escarpment, since it is “refreshed” every sixty years on the occasion of the Sigui, the festivities that were filmed by Germaine Dieterlen and Jean Rouche between 1967 and 1974.5 During the Sigui, the Dogon painter was not tasked with reproducing fixed ancient forms on the rock, but tracing anew conventional signs in the light of fresh perspectives. This “Captive of Amma”, which was one of them, represents the top of a mask that was worn, called a Kanaga. In the slight asymmetry of the forms, it evokes the wind of creation, the whirling of the Creator who, once he has completed his primordial task of creation, stops and trembles: Amma-the-God is captive of his creation, Man, whom he resembles; both are engaged in a relationship of inter-sublimation. We know the story of this object-sign, photographed by Marcel Griaule during the Dakar-Djibouti mission, then adopted as a logo by the Présence Africaine publishing house founded by Alioune Diop in Paris in 1947. This choice is said to have been guided by Leiris, a member of the support committee of the periodical of the same name, who had seen the “emergence” of the Kanaga on 2 October 1931 in Bandiagara. But as philosopher Marc-Vincent Howlett pointed out, this sign “could not be reproduced identically; it had to be made visible differently, in order to open up to a register other than that of the sacred.”6 The committee’s preference for the model in which the mask’s four members are directed towards the earth reflected, he adds, the secular concern and humanist anxiety that were central to the Présence Africaine project. Perhaps we should nevertheless emphasise the continuities and ruptures in this sign’s nomadic history. On the one hand, its reproduction on paper by the publishing company was equivalent to the periodical “refreshment” on the rocks to which it had previously been subjected and informed us about the existence of “idea-scripts” in precolonial Africa. On the other hand, its commercialisation transformed a local icon that illustrated a precipitate of myth into a symbol that now only had an arbitrary relationship with both its situated referent and with the name of the publishing house appended to it. The Captive of Amma had thus become Man, ancestral figure and future project for the entire Négritude movement and beyond. Easily readable by everyone, without need for particular cultural expertise, it could also be reconnotated by virtue, for example, of its visual proximity to the Cross of Lorraine, another symbol of particular import immediately after the Second World War.7
Returning: genealogies and Tout-Monde
Invited by the architect of Négritude and president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, to deliver a speech at the opening symposium of the Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres in 1966, André Malraux, then Minister of Culture in France, put forward at least two resounding propositions. Not only has African art been inscribed in the canon, he declared, but it has entirely transformed it, leading to the artistic recognition of other non-Western regions of the world, and subverting the genealogical links which, in the history of ideas, ran from Greco-Latin Antiquity to Modernity, via the Renaissance: “African art destroyed the system of references that denied it and helped powerfully to replace Greco-Latin Antiquity with the realm of the early eras,” he asserted. “So the cultural heritage of humanity has become the great sculpture of India, the great sculpture of Persia, the sculpture of Buddhism, Sumer and the Pre-Colombians.” By asserting that the rediscovery of African art by artists of the calibre of Picasso had a redemptive value for humanity, Malraux suggested that it was Africa that put an end to the period of chains and the sweat and blood of slavery and initiated the repairing of the humanism broken by this Hobbesian order: “From the day when Picasso began his negro period, the spirit that had covered the world for millennia and had disappeared for a very short time (from the 17th to the 19th century in Europe) recovered its lost rights.”8 We can hear in his remarks an echo of Senghor’s poetic proposals for the advent of a “Civilisation de l’Universel”, as he formulated them in one of the poems from the collection Chants d’Ombre (Shadow Songs, 1945), “Prière aux masques” (“Prayer to the Masks”)9:
Que nous répondions présents à la renaissance du Monde/Ainsi le levain qui est nécessaire à la farine blanche/Car qui apprendrait le rythme au monde défunt des machines et des canons ?/ Qui pousserait le cri de joie pour réveiller morts et orphelins à l’aurore ? Dites, qui rendrait la mémoire de vie à l’homme aux espoirs éventrés ?10
For Senghor, the Festival des Arts Nègres was also the opportunity to build the Musée Dynamique de Dakar and to invite painters from all over whose aesthetic was, according to him, derived from Négritude: thus homage was paid to Chagall in 1971, Picasso in 1972, Malcolm de Chazal in 1973, Soulages in 1974 and Iba Ndiaye in 1977 through exhibitions that are like “essai[s] d’humanisme et spectacle[s]” (Gabus).11
But on the edge of a vortex that tended to engulf tangencies and proximities, Édouard Glissant developed what would become the cornerstone of his ontology: “change by exchanging with the other, without losing or misrepresenting oneself”. Ah, those exchanges between peoples – we would like them to be egalitarian, with no concern for immediate efficacity and in a mutual respect for the opacity of the Other. Such a spirit is supposed to have governed the exchanging of gold and salt at the frontier of medieval Mali: the nomads from the North would come to leave an offering of salt in small piles and then withdraw; in return, the people from the surrounding region would leave gold powder near the salt.
Les gens du Nord reviennent alors évaluer l’affaire : satisfaits, ils emportent l’or ; déçus, ils reprennent leur poids de sel, sans toucher à l’offrande. On appelle troc silencieux cette façon de commerce.12
This silent trade is a metaphor for the trade between poets and readers, artists and viewers; an allegory of a gift/counter-gift that should be exempt from the realm of financial transactions.
Other exchanges, negotiated in the middle of the huge imperial upheaval that afflicted “all things that could be taken”, most often proceeded from cupidity and cruel ignorance: Leiris, the instigator and accomplice of the “Kono thefts”, describes how he packed both the mask that his assistant detached with a knife from the robe of feathers that concealed it and “a sort of brown nougat (that is to say, coagulated blood) which weighs at least 15 kilos”.13 Malraux himself had been accused of the theft of the bas-reliefs at the Banteay Srei temple near Angkor in 1923. Indifference, anger: Glissant was about the only person to maintain that “from the first shock of the conquest, this movement, even though its realisation seems to have been deferred, contained the nascent hope of going beyond its founding duality.”14 The redemption, even of those exchanges, he suggested, lay in their deferred and unpredictable developments, for the temptation that the Other represents and the passion for hoarding its objects will, despite their outrageous cost, have helped to create the conditions for the possibility of Relationship – what the authors of the Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of the African heritage understood perhaps as “a new relational ethics”.15 Glissant’s Tout-Monde is made up of these vast human flows that clash and intermix, of these swathes of culture that spread to places that were not expecting them. Thus Malraux’s crime gradually led to the restoration of the Banteay Srei temple by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient. As for the “brown nougat”, a note by Jamin indicates that it travelled from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris to the Center for African Arts in New York, to the surprise and amusement of Leiris, who saw in it a “non-form, totally devoid of interest”.16 A replica of this bamana object conserved at the Quai Branly featured in the opera-performance put on at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2020 by Damon Albarn and Abderrahmane Sissako. “The Boli can travel, for me it would be the best way to give meaning,” said the filmmaker (Lesprit).17 This “invitation to travel” echoes the thesis of Arjun Appadurai, according to which only things in movement illuminate their human and social context; he calls for objects to be freed of cultural assignations built on the model of genetic reproduction or private property. Do we ever inherit the experience of pillage? Incidentally, was it not Iba Ndiaye who, introduced to African art during his visits to European museums, dreamt of museums in Africa where people could admire the art of the Cyclades, and Greek Archaic and Roman art?18
Returning: on his return, the ancestor takes a photo
For his part, Harold Bloom makes the Greek concept of Apophrades Henerai travel, interpreting it as those days when the dead return to live in their former homes.19 It is not so much that contemporary poets invent their precursors for themselves, explains the literary critic, but rather, running counter to any teleology, ancestors and heirs position themselves in such a way that contemporaries seem to be imitated by their precursors. It is this vision of Apophrades that is fascinating in “An Ancestor Takes a Photograph” (2014), a documentary made by the photographer and film-maker Wura-Natasha Ogunji, well known for her street performances. A silent female narrator follows step by step a person who is slowly walking; this person is wearing a white Hazmat suit that completely conceals her, including the gaze. Making her way through the crowds in Lagos, the masked person advances inexorably, sometimes wielding her camera, sometimes hanging it from her neck. Speaking only to yell, she astonishes, disturbs, troubles. This is the Egungen, a member of a secret precolonial society in charge of mimicking the ancestors who have come from the beyond to resolve a crisis in the society of the living by spinning around and pronouncing judgements, holding a baton. The Egungen is back and he is imitating his contemporary avatar. Against the ambient toxicity, he turns this protective suit into a cocoon and a kind of shroud; the selfie stick suits him as a baton, and the camera, as a mirror for capturing the light. He knows he is both recognised in his role and desacralized in his image: while women and children attempt to hide from him (as they are supposed to), sellers and customers photograph and film the ancestor, capturing him in the act of taking a photo.
Ogunji’s documentation about these intersecting reflexivities in a contemporary urban context leaves behind the image of an African (?) photographer weighed down with a commentary on the post-colonial sorcerer who continued to capture images (28:49) in the film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, Les statues meurent aussi (1953).20 Rich and rightly noteworthy, this film is nevertheless constructed in a binary mode that has not withstood the test of time. Similarly, while the file on post-colonial restitution is enriched daily, the question of taking back items remains largely untouched. Now, the nostos, as we know, is unpredictable and the lineage, if we scratch the varnish of legitimacy, is unclear and dissipated. Do we possess ancestors, or do they possess us? How can we appropriate their objects when their sacred charge has been eliminated in anticipation of exile? When the sacred is no longer accessible and evokes prohibitions, confides Iba Ndiaye, or reveals a truly rudimentary initiation?21 Or else when this sacredness remains hitherto reviled by monotheistic obstinacies and furies?
For Valentin Mudimbe, taking back is indeed the question that defines African art today and forces artists to take a self-critical pause. To him, it seems unavoidable to wonder about the reason for and manner of readopting an interrupted tradition in a context transformed by colonialisation and artistic currents from elsewhere.22 The work of artist and poet Marie-Claire Messouma-Manlanbien explores this fundamental question: a photo of the triangulated installation that she titled “Invitation au voyage” illustrates it marvellously. It presents, on the one hand, two weights-proverbs taken from the Akan matriarchal society, enlarged and put to the test by an impermanent superimposition on a red laterite ground (Mater #1); and on the other, an agglomeration of forms related to the first ones resting against a grey wall from which they are distinguished by small copper bands bearing inscriptions: the reading matter continues on the floor (Mater #3). The bareness of the exhibition space, the geometric arrangement of the ceiling lights, the striped heaters and the edges of the windows are part of the composition, in deliberate contrast to the sculptures Mater #1 and Mater #3, as well as the activation video paused on an image of the artist’s face. Placed on a diagonal that goes from a wall to a relative infinite out of shot, the artist perhaps questions an absence-presence, or the capacity of the recomposed visible to serve as a vehicle for the invisible. Perhaps she weighs the value of those things to which we bind our destinies.
Translated by Bernard Wooding
1 Joaneath Spicer, “Curator Talk: A Child of African Ancestry at the Medici Court”, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, 2020
2 “Listen more often/To things than beings,/Fire’s voice can be heard,/Listen to the voice of water./Listen in the wind/The sobbing bush:/It is the breath of the ancestors.” Birago Diop, Leurres et lueurs, Paris, Présence Africaine, 1960, p. 64.
3 “Scenting out the purple, the haircloth, scenting out the ivory and the potsherd, scenting out the entire world of things,/And hurrying to their duties upon our greatest verses, verses of athletes and poets,/These were very great winds questing over all the trails of this world,/Over all things perishable, over all things graspable, throughout the entire world of things…” Winds, transl. Hugh Chisholm, in Saint-John Perse, Collected Poems, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971.
4 Éric Vuillard, Tristesse de la terre. Une histoire de Buffalo Bill Cody, p. 156. Arles: Actes Sud, 2014
5 Germaine Dieterlen et Jean Rouch, Sigui synthèse, l’invention de la parole et de la mort, 1981
6 Marc Howlett, “Alioune Diop : Du Bon Usage Du Masque Kanaga.” Présence Africaine, 184, 2011: 95–99
7 Sylvie Kandé, (trad. Michelle Erickson) “From Bandiagara to Paris: Reflections on the Travels of a Dogon Sign.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 31 no. 4, 2000
8 André Malraux, “Discours prononcé à Dakar à la séance d’ouverture du colloque organisé à l’occasion du Festival mondial des arts nègres le 30 Mars 1966” [https://malraux.org/discours-de-dakar-30-mars-1966/]
9 Léopold Sédar Senghor, Œuvre poétique, p.23-24. Paris: Seuil, 1990
10 “So that hereafter we may cry ‘here’ at the rebirth of the world like the yeast that the white flour needs./For who else would teach rhythm to a dead world of machines and guns?/For who else should give the cry of joy to wake the dead and the bereaved at dawn?/Say, who would give back the memory of life to the man whose hopes are smashed?”
11 “Attempts at humanism and spectacle(s)”. Jean Gabus, “Principes esthétiques et préparation des expositions didactiques”, Museum 18, 1 (1965), pp. 1–59.
12 “The people of the North then returned to evaluate the trade: satisfied, the took the gold; disappointed, they took back their salt, without touching the offering. This type of commerce was called a silent trade.” Sylvie Kandé, Lagon, lagunes, Paris, Gallimard, 2000, p. 53.
13 Jean Jamin, Leiris. Miroir de l’Afrique, Paris, Gallimard, 1996, p. 195.
14 Édouard Glissant, Intention poétique, Paris, Gallimard, 1997, p. 69.
15 Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle, 29 November 2018, vie-publique.fr/rapport/38563-la-restitution-du-patrimoine-culturel-africain
16 Jean Jamin, Leiris. Miroir de l’Afrique, Paris, Gallimard, 1996, p. 198.
17 Bruno Lesprit, “Damon Albarn et Abderrahmane Sissako imaginent un spectacle protéiforme avec “Le vol du boli”, Le Monde, 30 September 2020, https://damonalbarnunofficial.wordpress.com/2020/10/02/le-vol-du-boli-le-monde-october-2020/
18 Francine Ndiaye, De l’art d’Afrique à l’art moderne. Aux sources de la création, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, Sépia, 1995.
19 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence. A Theory of Poetry, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.
20 Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Ghislain Cloquet, Les statues meurent aussi, Présence Africaine/Tadié, 1953.
21 Francine Ndiaye, De l’art d’Afrique à l’art moderne. Aux sources de la création, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, Sépia, 1995, p. 56.
22 Valentin Mudimbe, The Idea of Africa, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 154.