Traoré: Lettre au Président des Français à propos de la Côte d’Ivoire et de l’Afrique en général (2005)

Written in epistolary form in the first person and addressed to Jacques Chirac, this text by imminent anti-globalization activist, Aminata Traoré draws us into a one-on-one argument about the nature of France’s relationship to Africa. Not only does the author invoke a powerful man, the president of France, in the concluding passages of this book, she also calls on a ritual figure of a group of divine ancestors from the Dogon region in Mali to act in support of her requests. Using the trope of the active object or the object-subject, she creates a counternarrative to Western economic worldviews and exclusionary immigration politics.

commented by Felicity Bodenstein

Original text    Translation    Brief biography    Commentary    Bibliography

Original text

from: Aminata Traoré: Lettre au Président des Français à propos de la Côte d’Ivoire et de l’Afrique en général. Paris, Fayard, 2005. S. 163–170.

[163]

Quai Branly

Choc des cultures, domination et drainage des richesses de la planète vers des pôles de concentration continuent d’appauvrir les trois quarts de ses habitants. Je tenais à rappeler, Monsieur le Président, que le conflit ivoirien comme la crise togolaise et la plupart des maux du continent noir résultent de cette marche bancale et de plus en plus chaotique de l’histoire de l’humanité, dans laquelle la France ne cesse de prendre appui sur ses anciennes colonies d’Afrique, tout en prétendant le contraire.

[…] [164] […]

Pour aller plus loin dans ce travail de questionnement et de reformulation des énoncés ainsi que des réponses quant à l’Afrique, j’ai décidé de faire un détour par le Quai Branly, pour être sûre d’être entendue, mais aussi pour vérifier si cette œuvre remarquable au plan esthétique échappe à la polarisation des richesses qui appauvrit l’Afrique en y sécrétant des identités « meurtrières ». […] Peut-on aimer l’art d’un peuple, c’est-à-dire une partie de son âme, le conserver par-devers soi, et mépriser ce peuple et le rejeter? Tout comme pour la situation économique et politique, le devoir de cohérence entre le discours et les comportements vous interpelle également dans ce domaine des arts dits premiers.

[…] [165] […]

Les flux ininterrompus de migrants, parfois accompagnés d’enfants, dont des Ivoiriens qui veulent atteindre les rivages de l’Europe, ne sont-ils pas composés à la fois d’hommes et de femmes désemparés par les réformes du FMI et de la Banque mondiale qui les privent d’emploi et de revenu, et d’exilés de l’intérieur faute de repères?

La libération et la reconstruction du continent noir supposent qu’il nous reste une mémoire qui nous permet de revisiter notre rapport à nous-mêmes et aux autres et de réinventer le présent et l’avenir.

[…] [166] […]

Il est urgent pour l’Afrique d’opposer à l’utopie néolibérale qui est mortifère une autre vision du monde. En d’autres temps et dans d’autres circonstances, j’aurais pu trouver conseil et inspiration auprès du fétiche de mon village. Il m’aurait demandé de la cola, un coq ou, tout au plus, un cabri.

Mais la plupart de nos biens culturels, qui nous servaient de repères et de recours, sont partis, ont été « trouvés », acquis et emportés par les africanistes. La marchandisation des œuvres de l’esprit a désormais atteint un tel point que parfois nous participons nous-mêmes au pillage, du villageois au sommet du pouvoir, où ont lieu les transactions entre chefs d’État.

La destruction économique va de pair avec l’anéantissement culturel, moral et spirituel.

[167] […] En d’autres termes, Monsieur le Président, votre passion pour les « arts premiers » et l’enthousiasme avec lequel vous manifestez votre désir de les voir auprès de vos chefs-d’œuvre, à n’importe quel prix, contrastent avec la faiblesse des moyens quand il s’agit de l’aide publique au développement et de l’annulation de la dette. Tout se passe comme si, dans ce domaine aussi, vous aviez fait, comme en économie, le pari de relever le défi de la mondialisation en masquant le fait que la France prend à l’Afrique en donnant l’impression qu’il s’agit d’une coopération. […]

[168] […] Vous estimez à tort, Monsieur le Président, qu’avec le temps la France a construit avec nos pays de nouveaux rapports fondés sur le respect mutuel, le dialogue et l’échange. Le cauchemar demeure et tourne, malheureusement, à l’horreur avec le fardeau de la dette, le pillage à travers les accords de coopération économique et monétaire conclus dans les années 1960, mais aussi les récents accords de partenariat économique (APE), la pandémie du sida, les migrations, les guerres ainsi que le mépris et le racisme qui en sont les corollaires.

J’ai confié à l’une des sculptures du pavillon des Sessions le soin de vous rappeler l’atroce cauchemar qui est le nôtre.

[…]

C’était en avril 2000, à la veille de l’inauguration de ce pavillon au musée du Louvre, pavillon que vous avez appelé « l’avant-poste du Quai Branly » et que feu Jacques Kerchache m’a fait visiter alors que j’étais ministre de la Culture et du Tourisme de mon pays et membre du Conseil d’orientation du futur musée. […] [169] […] Au fur et à mesure qu’il parlait, je me réappropriais, à ma manière, ces ancêtres et ces dieux que je prenais à témoin, avant de m’adresser plus spécifiquement à la sculpture Tellem[1], qui venait de mon pays.

Le voyage a dû être long pour vous qui êtes venue il y a longtemps par bateau! Vous devez avoir froid ici, n’est-ce pas? Comment parvenez-vous à tenir sans nos offrandes? Vous nous manquez terriblement. Notre pays et l’Afrique tout entière ont subi bien des bouleversements. Aux dieux des chrétiens et des musulmans qui vous ont contesté votre place dans nos cœurs et vos fonctions dans nos sociétés s’est ajouté le dieu Argent. Vous devez en savoir quelque chose au regard des transactions dont certaines nouvelles acquisitions de ce musée ont fait l’objet. Il est le moteur du marché dit « libre » et [170] « concurrentiel », qui est supposé être le paradis sur Terre. Il est synonyme de gouffre pour la plupart de nos pays.

Appauvries et désemparées, les populations s’en prennent les unes aux autres, fuient, et butent contre le long mur de l’indifférence, dont Schengen. N’entendez-vous pas, de plus en plus, les lamentations de ceux et celles qui empruntent la voie terrestre, se perdent dans le Sahara ou se noient dans les eaux de la Méditerranée? N’entendez-vous pas les cris de ces centaines de naufragés, dont des femmes enceintes et des enfants en bas âge?

Si oui, témoignez pour vos peuples. Rappelez à ceux qui vous veulent tant dans leurs musées que l’annulation totale et immédiate de la dette extérieure de l’Afrique est primordiale. Dites-leur surtout que la mondialisation néolibérale est facteur de paupérisation et de guerre, et que la mondialisation véritable exige de la France un changement de dessein et de perspective.

[1] Elle a été collectée par Denise Paulme et Deborah Lifchitz, en 1935, chez les Dogons, sur un lieu de culte appelé binu ya. Le binu est dédié à une catégorie d’ancêtres mythiques n’ayant jamais connu la mort. Le sanctuaire nommé binu ya correspond à un lieu de culte dévolu à un binu femelle (ya étant la marque du féminin). Le culte du binu constitue avec celui du lébé (ou gin’na) le rituel le plus répandu chez les Dogons. Chacun nécessite l’emploi de statues anthropomorphes.

Translation

by Felicity Bodenstein.

Quai Branly

[163]

The clash of cultures, domination and the draining of resources continues to impoverish three quarters of the inhabitants of our planet. I would like to remind you, Mr President, that the Ivory Coast conflict, like the Togolese crisis and most of the ills of the black continent, are the result of a flawed and increasingly chaotic course in human history, in which France continues to be reliant on its former African colonies, all the while claiming the contrary.

[…] [164] […]

To further this effort to question and reformulate the statements and the responses concerning Africa, I decided to make a detour to the Quai Branly, to be sure that I would be heard, but also to check whether this aesthetically remarkable edifice escapes the polarization of wealth that impoverishes Africa by secreting »deadly« identities there. […] Can we love the art of a people, that is, a part of its soul, and keep it in our midst, all the while despising those people and rejecting them? As with the economic and political situation, the duty of coherence between discourse and action also applies in this domain of the so-called arts of first nations.

[…] [165] […]

Are the uninterrupted flows of migrants, sometimes accompanied by children, including Ivorians who want to reach the shores of Europe, not composed of both men and women who are disempowered by International Monetary Fund and World Bank reforms that deprive them of jobs and income, and interior exiles by lack of a frame of reference?

The liberation and reconstruction of the black continent presupposes that we have a memory that allows us to revisit our relationship with ourselves and others and to reinvent the present and the future.

[…] [166] […]

It is urgent for Africa to counter the deadly neoliberal utopia with another vision of the world. At other times and in other circumstances, I could have found advice and inspiration from the fetish of my village. He would have asked me for no more than a cola, a rooster or, at most, a goatee.

But most of our cultural property, which has served as references and symbolic support, has gone, been »found«, acquired and taken away by Africanists. The commodification of productions of the mind has now reached such a point that sometimes we ourselves participate in the looting, from transactions involving villagers to those carried out by high-ranked members of society, even between heads of state.

Economic destruction goes hand in hand with cultural, moral and spiritual annihilation.

[167]

[…] In other words, Mr. President, your passion for the »primary arts« and the enthusiasm with which you express your desire to see them alongside your masterpieces, no matter the price to pay, contrasts with the inadequacy of the means you employ when it comes to official development assistance and debt relief. It seems as if, in this area too, you have taken up, as in economics, the challenge of globalization by masking the fact that France is taking from Africa by giving the impression that it is a matter of cooperation. […]

[168] […]

You wrongly believe, Mr President, that over time France has built new relations with our countries based on mutual respect, dialogue and exchange. Unfortunately, the nightmare remains and turns to horror as a result of the debt burden, looting through economic and monetary cooperation agreements concluded in the 1960s, but also the recent Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), the AIDS pandemic, migration, wars and the contempt and racism that are their consequences.

I have entrusted one of the sculptures in the Sessions Pavilion with the task of reminding you of our atrocious nightmare.  […]

It was in April 2000, on the eve of the inauguration of this pavilion at the Louvre Museum, which you called »the outpost of the Quai Branly« and which the late Jacques Kerchache showed me when I was Minister of Culture and Tourism of my country and a member of the Orientation Committee of the future museum. […] [169] […] As he spoke, I re-appropriated, in my own way, these ancestors and gods that I took as witnesses, before addressing myself more specifically to the Tellem[1] sculpture, which originated in my country.

It must have been a long journey for you who came a long time ago by boat! You must be cold in here, aren’t you? How can you survive without our offerings? We miss you terribly. Our country and Africa as a whole have undergone many upheavals. To the gods of Christians and Muslims who have challenged your place in our hearts and your functions in our societies has been added the god of Money. You should know something about the transactions that some of the museum’s new acquisitions have undergone. It is the engine of the so-called »free« and [170] »competitive« market, which is supposed to be paradise on Earth. It is synonymous with a precipice for most of our countries.

Impoverished and helpless, populations attack each other, flee, and meet with the long wall of indifference, of which Schengen is one. Do you not increasingly hear the laments of those who take the land route, get lost in the Sahara or drown in the waters of the Mediterranean? Can you not hear the cries of the hundreds of shipwrecked people, including pregnant women and young children?

If so, testify for your people. Remind those who want you so badly in their museums that the total and immediate cancellation of Africa’s external debt is essential. Tell them above all that neoliberal globalization is a factor of impoverishment and war, and that true globalization requires a change of purpose and perspective on the part of France.

[1] It was collected by Denise Paulme and Deborah Lifchitz in 1935 from the Dogons, in a place of worship called binu ya. Binu is dedicated to a category of mythical ancestors who have never known death. The sanctuary named binu ya corresponds to a place of worship devoted to a female binu (ya being the mark of the female). The worship of the binu is, along with that of the lébé (or gin’na), the most common ritual among the Dogons. Each one requires the use of anthropomorphic statues.

Brief biography

Born 1947 in Bamako, Mali, Aminata Dramane Traoré is an activist, politician and author who has vocally contributed to the critique of the economic asymmetries of globalization. She studied social psychology in Caen (France) and conducted research at the Ethnosociological Institute in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. In 1997, she became Mali’s Minister of Culture but resigned in 2000 out of frustration with the duties of reserve the position entailed. Traoré has published a number of political works: after this letter to Chirac, in 2008 she published a reaction to the then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 Dakar address, in which he infamously claimed that: »The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history«. She also owns several local businesses in Bamako dedicated to the development of tourism.

Commentary – Invocations for change and cultural justice

In this letter addressed to President Jacques Chirac, Aminata Traoré uses the effect of intimacy that is created by this epistolary style for force of conviction and effect, producing a text that in many ways has the tone of a political manifest.

In 2002, after Chirac’s speech at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, Traoré had already directly called on him to establish a new relationship between France and Africa (Diallo 2014, S. 18). She pursues her request in a detailed manner in the book from which this text is extracted. Traoré speaks from a Pan-African perspective that goes beyond the particular issues faced by her home country Mali and explicitly focuses on external factors influencing different forms of crisis on the continent. However, not only does she invoke a powerful man, the president of France, in her call for change in the concluding passages of the book translated above, she also calls on a ritual figure of a group of divine ancestors from the Dogon region in Mali to act in support of her requests. It is important to understand the context in which this double invocation is made and how the trope of the active object or the object-subject is used to create a counter narrative to Western economic worldviews and exclusionary immigration politics.

The extracts published here are all taken from the last chapter of a book which, though addressed to the French President, is written for a French and indeed for a European audience. It argues for the recognition of the long-term continuity of the exploitative structures of colonialism, in particular in economic relations. Traoré points to the hypocrisy of the standard narrative in France that presents international relationships with Africa as constructive and supportive while underplaying the historical and contemporary advantages still being gained from agreements made since independence. Whilst the book essentially deals with economic and political issues, this last chapter is dedicated to forms of cultural loss and their impact on African societies, a subject Traoré dealt with directly during her three year stay in office as Minister of Culture (1997–2000). The perspective of a new museum in Paris and the rehousing there of collections taken during the colonial era provide a strong concluding example for the continuity that she is trying to demonstrate.

The book was published shortly before the opening in 2006 of the Musée du quai Branly dedicated to extra-European objects, and the planning phase had already provoked considerable debate (Price, 2007). The museum has since been renamed, musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, as a way of recognizing the former president’s strong support of the project. Indeed, it was largely driven by his own very personal implication, influenced and advised by Jacques Kerchache, a »tribal art« dealer and a personal friend. The reference to the museum is a way for Traoré to personalize her argument. To do so she calls on a memory of her time spent in the Orientation Committee of the future museum and, in that context, on a visit that she made in 2000 with Jacques Kerchache to the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre. She quotes the speech that Chirac had given for the opening of that space, considered a prefiguration of the quai Branly. He presents the new display of the extra-European arts of Africa and Oceania at the Louvre as a form of progress against the backdrop of a colonial period described, by quoting Sartre, as a terrible nightmare; one however that was to be thought of firmly in the past tense. It is this idea of the colonial period as definitely past that Traoré questions by revisiting that same space and by establishing the presence of important cultural objects there as a continued form of loss but also as a still very potent context for »re-appropriation« and potential change.

Much of Traoré’s book argues for the reestablishment of viable economies based on more equitable relations. In this context it is interesting that she ends her book with a reference to the cultural system of symbolic exchange and assistance, separate from commercial circuits. She regrets the loss of traditions involving certain objects in the collections of the quai Branly and the Pavillon des Sessions. They had functioned in ritual contexts of problem-solving in exchange for modest sacrifices made to the »fétiche«. By invoking one particular object, the Tellem sculpture and by asking him how he could survive without »offerings«, Traoré’s aim is to underline the loss of values that are not subordinate to the »god of Money«. In doing so, she indicates the memory of a symbolic gift economy that has all but disappeared and the possibility of its revival.

Traoré makes it clear that the loss of cultural values and their related cultural objects has deprived African nations of an important source of salvation, one that she claims could also help in coming to terms with contemporary problems. Thus, against the continuity of colonial structures she sets up the agency of the Tellem to affect the future by pointing to a world outside of the »neo-liberal« utopia that she sees as »mortifère«, or deadly for African culture and society.

To establish this agency, she has to »re-appropriate« its meaning as she lets the voice of the »white priest«, as she calls her guide, Kerchache, fade out behind her own thoughts. In this instance, her discourse becomes more culturally specific, as she chooses an object from her native Mali. The object in question was, as we are told in a footnote, collected in the Dogon area in 1935. It was brought to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris during the heyday of French ethnographic work in West Africa by two Africanists, Denise Paulme (1909–98) and Deborah Lifchitz (1907–42) after a nine-month research stay in the Dogon village of Sanga.

Her choice is particularly eloquent in the context of her argument about the damage of broken cultural transmission and the invocation of higher powers in the name of economic improvement. Indeed, the Tellem were a people who had inhabited the famous Bandiagara cliff area before the arrival of the Dogon in the fourteenth century – it was thus a sacred object that had been transmitted for many hundreds of years and was taken from a site dedicated to mythical female ancestors responsible for the maintenance of good harvests and prosperity.

At the end of the text she calls on the sculpture to »Remind those who want you so badly in their museums that the total and immediate cancellation of Africa’s external debt is essential.« By giving the object a voice, Traoré references traditional animistic thought, yet not without some irony, her invocation also concedes that the powers that be have definitely changed. The Tellem sculpture no longer embodies the power to provide the rains for good harvest, as such objects might have done in the past, but rather it is called on here to influence international economic policy and thus depicted as a highly relevant ambassador.

The trope of the active object or the object-subject has taken on new meaning in contemporary discourses on the presence of African objects in European museums. In the relationship between both continents, their symbolic value has gained considerable currency in discussions of immigration policy. Traoré uses this to great effect at several points in her argument which hinges on the question: »Can we love the art of a people, that is, a part of its soul, and keep it in one’s midst, all the while despising those people and rejecting them?« She later also addresses the Tellem in human terms, as a being that has suffered from exile, who has been perhaps cold and hungry, and has had to go in the museum without its regular offerings to sustain it.

She draws on an analogy between museum objects and the question of the African diaspora that can be found in other contexts. In an article also published 2005, the American art historian, John Peffer asked: »What would it mean to consider African art objects as diasporas, as ›sown through‹ other cultures, and what would it mean to view these objects, in their very materiality, as performing diaspora?« (Peffer, 2005, 340). Melville Herskovits was the first to use the notion of the diaspora in the 1930s to talk about Afro-American identity and its cultural specificity. Since then, the notion of diaspora has been firmly established in the study or artistic production by persons of African origins but also more recently to objects (Thompson, 2011). The diasporic state of the object has also been heralded as a way of examining the hybrid nature of these cultural objects and their role in affecting and informing those members of the African diaspora or African citizens who encounter them in Western museums. Arjun Appadurai (2017) has spoken of the status of such objects as »accidental refugees« and in the recent debates on restitution, Achille Mbembe (2018) has questioned what the return or »rejection« of these objects back to Africa might mean symbolically in relation to current European immigration policy. In describing this specific encounter Traoré perfectly captures the power of this analogy and more largely the power of objects to act as agents for the subjects that they represent.
Felicity Bodenstein is a PostDoc fellow at Technische Universität Berlin. Her research focus is on the history of archaeological and ethnographic collections, and her current project for translocations is entitled »A Twentieth Century History of Absence and Presence in Benin City: Presentations and Representations of Objects Looted in 1897«.

Bibliography

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Cite this article as:
Traoré: Lettre au Président des Français à propos de la Côte d’Ivoire et de l’Afrique en général (2005), commented by Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/traore, published 25.07.2019.

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