Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On the Un/Representability of Immigration

Athena greets you!
Good writing days, long outings, and being "en bibliothèque" have meant less time to record impressions of the past few events, but they've been most provocative, and so let's go in together and try and understand. This past week-end were the Journées de Patrimoine (Days of Patrimony) in which multiple buildings are open either for free or for free and exceptionally just that day. The first day we went to the Hôtel de la Rochefoucauld (which is fun to say as well as visit), site of the Italian Embassy - only a few rooms were open really and they had been given over to restoration craftsmen (from furniture to wood working to stained glass). Iris received a lovely nail from a forger working the courtyard (!). Thinking to see the Palais de l'Esyée (sort of the equivalent of the White House), we walked over to find out that the two hour wait meant we were too late as it was closing in two hours. Tant pis - home to feast and then see Le Carré's A Most Wanted Man which provoked much discussion. The next day, bright and early, we headed out to the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration, way on the southeast side of the city (near Vincennes) which was the site of the 1931 Colonial Exposition - an event meant to reawaken French popular enthusiasm for the colonies (which was waning due to increasing conflicts) by putting their luxuries and benefits on display. Athena was there in 1931, and she is there now to greet you as you come up out of the Porte Dorée metro. She absolutely sets the tone. I'm not entirely sure why it's Athena who does so, but she is all Art Deco and strong and stern.

More than a museum...
As is what is now known as the Palais Dorée. An ode, an emblem, a song of 1930s Art Deco architecture: long, strong lines and the entire surface covered with carvings of the colonies. So a first gasp. And if you're seeing a very brightly red man swimming in the shrubbery in front of the museum, you're seeing the second gasp: the contemporary art that is present in the structure, and that makes it a smart, difficult place.

"Not all our ancestors were Gauls"
The contemporary art presents a vital commentary, sometimes (as here) an interruption in the otherwise rigid and absolute surfaces of the 1930s building, and others (as upstairs) in a powerfully disorienting parallel universe with the ideology of colonialism. That the whole uncomfortable (but this is a good thing) ensemble exists under the rubric of "immigration" is itself provocative. As The Specials said, "We're here because you were there."

The politics of the museum course, but also the race and difference in medieval art course, and maybe actually most any of art history course of late asks about presence: what is made present in a work of art, what and who is brought forth and how. At the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration the question of presence and bringing forth is especially pointed. Each colony is exhibited for its splendors, for the comforts or luxuries that it affords each Frenchman and Frenchwoman. But these are not the Tiepolos of old, in which the bounty of far-away lands spills forth effortlessly from enormous cornucopia. No, these are luxuries wrested and labored and otherwise pulled from the land by the people who live there. Maroc: phosphates, cereal, and wool.


Rubber from Cambodia; silk from cotton from Vietnam; nickel from New Calcedonia (a country which only last month received the remains of one of its last rulers, which had been kept here in France all this time after he was killed in a rebellion against colonial French rule). I'll be honest, I find these images hard to show: there's something about the certitude and confidence of the Art Deco style (the thick lines, the geometric forms, the insistent profile, the stilled expressions) that makes seeing the bodies of colonial subjects bent in labor for the greater glory of France remain an exploitative act today.

Do I then just show images that are less violent in their labor? Is the exploitation of artistic production any less violent in its consequences? It's more than fascinating that art is aligned with this enormous series of natural resources (tea, oil, coffee...). (And it makes the presence of a hippopotamus hunt on the banks of the Oubanghi river more than weird - but the spears and muscles of the hunters have quite an effect). I think of the hunger for works of art from Benin, from Cambodia, from Kolkata and more and more; of museum collections amplifying with each shipment, of artists each with his or her sculpture - mask - cloth. Art, rubber, fish, wood: all this stuff brought forth by labor memorialized in the carvings of this building. Time and history have not changed the building and its carvings - they still stand, as resolute as ever. But perception has changed (right?). Is there a way to look at these carvings not as a celebration of the riches of the colonies, but as a commemoration of the labor and resources exploited? Can a building stand in the exact same spot and shift from triumphalism to tribute?

You get two different answers inside the museum. The large auditorium that greets you when you walk in is decorated with a mural cycle also from 1931 which relentlessly displays Western exports to the colonies (as opposed to the colonial imports displayed in the carvings outside). So here there is religion, medicine, roads, and more and more - all of the "civilizing" structures of colonialism. If you choose to click on the Medicine image, you'll see both nuns' habits and pith helmets bent over denuded colonial bodies receiving treatment and vaccines. The emotionally terse style of Art Deco creates/allow for this ambivalence: you can read these bodies and gestures non-dramatically, either as the facts of history (and you can go from there to see these moments as triumphs in Western history); OR you can read them as the facts of history (and you can go from there to see these moments as the hubris and harm of Western history) - and a whole range of responses in between. Is that why these images of nude women being vaccinated, of black men gesturing pleadingly up towards a monk, of more nude women welcoming the viewer have not been erased? If you erase, you can forget this ever happened more easily. If you allow it to remain, you risk perpetuating its original intent. And you are on your own, dear visitor, when you're here. There's no didactic wall text providing a moral compass through this complex geopolitical landscape. The art is confident and legible, the history reprehensible and complicated, the legacies multiple and present - the façade and auditorium of the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration position you to move through that tension without comment.

But then you go upstairs. As you do, you are presented with a timeline of immigration: key dates in the history of immigration - Franz Liszt coming, the first time there was a "foreigners" designation on the French census (1851), when Pablo Picasso was turned down for naturalization, Algerian independence (1954-1962)... the commentary has begun. Now there are words, and lots of them. The first room you enter asks you a question: "How to represent two hundred years of immigration in France?" I am naïve/snarky enough to ask, "Only two hundred years?" There's an unspoken gap here between colonialism and immigration. The right is most vicious when it attacks immigrants, wishing to deny entry to any and all immigrants from ex-colonies - as though immigrants had no right at all to enjoy the prosperity to which they (and their families, ancestors, and countries) gave their labor and well-being. Does France "owe" its ex-colonies anything? Some say the debt has been paid (cf. medicine, religion); others say that dual entry book-keeping is the wrong metaphor, that we need to think uprooting and transplanting and grafting, that now we are in this together, and that to deny entry to France denies where the country's prosperity, wealth and opportunity came from. This is where the outside carvings (and all those resources that France used for its prosperity) start to make a different argument.

La Galerie des Dons
The voices multiply inside the "Galerie des Dons" - the gallery of gifts. A permanent, and permanently interactive, space, the gallery invites you, an immigrant to France or descendant of an immigrant to France, to donate an object that speaks to your or your family's immigration experience. There are samovars and strike cards, violins and boots, costumes and sewing machines - hundreds and hundreds of objects. There's contact information at the end of the video on the web page linked above in this paragraph if you want to donate something. Curator's moment: what are the criteria for admission? Who controls the display? The immigration trajectory of every person who donates something is traced and the object explained, often through direct quotes. It is an utterly fragmented "picture" of immigration, and this is where I started to think about the unrepresentability of immigration. The Museum of the History of Immigration has several modes of representation: the contemporary framework for the museum, the 1931 materials, the timeline up the stairs, this gallery of gifts, the contemporary art throughout - but none give a complete picture (none can), not separately, not together. It is a history that, in fragmenting countries and families and people (Fanon), must remain fragmentary. And so looking at each fragment is trying to understand another little piece, acknowledging that witnessing (a word that gets used a lot in the wall text and in that video) is part of living with.

La Machine à Rêve. Kader Attia
And so to end with one of the contemporary works of art, the one that really sealed for me this idea that no representation of the history of colonialism and immigration (and the French do not fear long museum titles, so why not?) is possible, and that far from a retreat this becomes an invitation if not a rallying cry to fragmentation as witness. A lot of fragmentation, a lot of witness - never-ending. Seamlessly intertwined with the Galerie des Dons, contemporary works of art by immigrants to France and/or their descendants emerge to form another layer of commentary: the most recent, critical, pointed commentary of the entire museum. This work by Kader Attia is called La Machine à Rêve - the machine of dreams. It's a vending machine filled with, as the web page for this work puts it nicely, "the dream of integration of some young women."You see these all over Metro and RER stations in Paris, offering drinks and snacks. Here, it's a wedding kit, a book entitled "How to Lose Your Accent in Three Days," a credit card, hallal certified alcohol. I soon took my place next to the mannequin to see what was on offer in the vending machine, standing next to her as the visitor before me had, thinking about the objects (all of them, every last one) and where they came from and where they were going.

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