Last year, the word ‘race’ was removed from France’s current constitution, that of the Fifth Republic, the idea being that all citizens are ‘equal’ and should not be differentiated by race or ethnicity. It is also why in France, unlike in the US, people do not identify their racial background in a hyphenated way. Whereas you can be African-American stateside, in France you may be French or Algerian, but not French-Algerian or African-French.
Racism, however, does not go away just because you omit the word or refuse to confront it. On 2 April, Mame-Fatou Niang – an associate professor of French Studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh – tweeted an image of a racist mural she had seen about a year earlier in Paris’s Palais Bourbon, which houses the French National Assembly. A young, French schoolgirl of African descent responded to Niang’s post, saying that she had recently been to the Palais Bourbon on a field trip where she, too, had come across the mural and was devastated when she saw it. Created by the artist Hervé di Rosa in 1991, as part of the series ‘The Painted History of the National Assembly’, the mural, which is meant to commemorate France’s first abolition of slavery in 1794, depicts two oversized black faces with enormous red lips and swollen eyes, evoking racist, colonialist stereotypes. Some of the girl’s classmates laughed at the depiction. One teacher was at a loss for what to say; another asked a guard what it represented, but no explanation was forthcoming.
Inspired, in part, by this girl’s distress, Niang and Julien Suaudeau – a French novelist and lecturer in French at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia – began a petition to have the mural removed, declaring: ‘This “work of art” constitutes a humiliating and dehumanizing insult to the millions of victims of slavery and to all their descendants.’ Posted on Change.org and addressed to Richard Ferrand, President of the National Assembly, the petition continues: ‘We are not interested in the artist’s intentions. The artefact is the only thing that matters: shameful lapse of judgment or umpteenth manifestation of a blind spot in France’s colonial memory, it has no place in the house of the people.’ Thus far, almost 3,000 people have signed it.
Di Rosa, who is French-born and white, is known for his part in Figuration Libre, a provocative French art movement of the 1980s. He told me that, along with this group, he had been involved in ‘all the anti-racism fights of the 1980s’ and that Figuration Libre itself was, in part, about zapping the power from race: ‘We were very optimistic and thought all resentments were over and that we could build a new future together, despite the differences, without regarding race.’ In previous interviews on the subject – including an astute one by Lauren Collins in The New Yorker – Di Rosa has come across as relatively calm and level-headed. But, when I reached out to him, he was on the offensive. ‘I’m being attacked and defamed by two people who dare to treat me as an inconscient racist,’ he told me, referring to Niang and Suaudeau, ‘because of their vision of my paintings [at] the National Assembly. They apparently don’t know anything about my work of 40 years, and nothing about art history in general.’
Niang and Suaudeau have been clear, however, that they’re not calling him a racist but, rather, that the mural is steeped in racist imagery. It is the artwork that needs to go; Di Rosa himself need not be ‘cancelled’. ‘This piece is intended to commemorate the abolition of slavery,’ Niang told me. ‘It’s supposed to bring you to reflection, to think about this past that is oftentimes hidden. It should not cause people to feel ashamed or overwritten by the country’s history. It should not provoke anger.’
Surprisingly, Di Rosa maintains that the work is neither racist nor colonialist. A simple, face-saving solution would be to admit that, while there was a time when these kinds of images were socially accepted, this is no longer the case and that he now regrets the mural, especially given its privileged place in a house of national law-making. Instead, the artist has doubled down, perceiving the controversy as emblematic of grander fights, both of censorship and of US identity politics infiltrating French life.
‘It is, of course, totally characteristic of the time we live in and of the state of mental confusion of some supposed scholars,’ Di Rosa told me. ‘These ideas are coming from the US; in France, people are educated and don’t believe in false prophets. I think [Niang and Suaudeau] have discredited themselves with such a wrong fight.’ As to his claim of censorship, he observed: ‘The same people recently impeached a production [The Suppliants by the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus] at La Sorbonne University in Paris. Defamation and censure are their methods. It is part of a broader attack on creativity in France.’ (The production last month was protested because its actors wore dark-brown makeup, which many viewed as a form of blackface. Niang and Suaudeau were not involved.)
France doubtlessly sits behind other countries on the timeline of racial awareness: a number of French commentators have agreed with Di Rosa, claiming that the petitioners are being wilfully obtuse and taking the mural’s attempt at ‘satire and irony’ in poor faith, as a recent programme on the France Culture television channel sustained.
Ultimately, the National Assembly should be held more accountable than Di Rosa: as an artist, he has a right to depict whatever colonial fantasies he pleases. The issue is that it should not be shown in such a politically important place – or in public at all. Niang agrees. ‘I’m a scholar but I’m also an artist and I do not want to put up barriers around art,’ she told me. ‘I would not be one to tell Di Rosa that he isn’t supposed to draw this: he has a right to do it. The problem I have is with the object and the purpose that it was supposed to serve.’
Hervé Di Rosa in front of his murals at the French National Assembly, 1991. Courtesy: Paris Match via Getty Images; photograph: Benjamin Auger