Under the tapestries, slavery

The Hôtel de la Marine and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts recently displayed two versions of the same tapestries from the XVIIIe century, “The New Indies”. Yet the two exhibitions said very different things about slavery and colonialism.

Like many other European countries, France has for several years been experiencing a questioning of its colonial past, the source of strong tensions and numerous debates. Much of these debates concern the recognition, representation and commemoration of the legacy of slavery and colonization, in the field of art. Some museums confront this history through exhibitions; others, following government directives, return works of art looted from former colonies, for example Benin. Still others have been the site of demonstrations by artists and activists demanding the demolition of monuments to historical figures like Colbert, symbols in their eyes of anti-Black racism. The French government has refused to do so to date, but also favors the erection of memorials to the victims of slavery, particularly in the Tuileries garden. This project is currently blocked due to disagreements between the members of the jury responsible for selecting the artist who will design the monument.

The art historian Jerme Delaplanche recently denounced, in an article for the conservative review The Art Tribune, the fact that residents of the Acadmie de France Rome at the Villa Medici called for a series of royal tapestries representing black Africans to be taken down from the walls of the Grand Salon. (The series is known as Indian wall hangingor dAncient Indies in order to differentiate it from a later version called New Indies.) Delaplanche neglects to specify that the institution which employs him, the Center des monuments nationaux (CMN), recently hung two tapestries from the series of New Indies on the wall of his new museum, the Hôtel de la Marine, place de la Concorde, Paris.

I visited the Hôtel de la Marine last July, just after the exhibition dedicated to the contemporary Congolese artist (DRC) Sammy Baloji School of Fine Arts. A striking coincidence: both institutions exhibited versions of the same tapestries of the New Indies the first, in the sumptuous period rooms of the Hôtel de la Marine; the other, alongside the works of Baloji to say, however, very different things about European heritage in terms of racism, slavery and colonialism. These sets, which both come from the Mobilier national, were hung a short distance from each other, on either side of the Seine, without anyone seeming to be aware of this coincidence. However, this raises important questions about the role of artists and museums in the construction of a critical relationship with the past and our ability to give it meaning in the present.

The Hôtel de la Marine opened in June 2021 after several years of work, for a budget of 132 million euros, financed by means of a loan based on revenue from future visits as well as with the support of donors, including the ruling family of Qatar, the Al-Thani, which will present part of its collection on the ground floor. The museum will share the spaces of the former royal palace with a heterogeneous team of tenants: the Naval Academy, the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery and the Paris offices of Fifa (International Federation of Association Football). The project, spread over three presidential mandates (Sarkozy, Hollande, Macron), aroused lively controversies, the CMN and various organizations arguing over whether it would be appropriate to create a museum of slavery (the hypothesis of which aroused protests from the far right), of gastronomy, of history or of taste. THE CMN ultimately chose to focus on the history of the Hôtel de la Marine itself and make it a mini-Versailles in the heart of Paris.

Built in XVIIIe century facing a royal square destined to become the place of Louis' execution XVI and Marie-Antoinette during the French Revolution, the Hôtel de la Marine originally housed the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne. After 1789 (and until 2015), it hosted the headquarters of the Minister of the Navy, which is responsible for the maritime defense of France, its ports and colonies, as well as foreign trade. (From 1940 to 1944, it was the headquarters of the Kriegsmarine Paris.) A 90-minute tour takes the visitor through the minister's galleries, dating from the XIXe century, where he assists in the virtual reconstruction of balls from the Second Empire, projects on dancing mirrors; as well as in the apartments of the Garde-Meuble stewards, reconstructed in a somewhat fanciful way. Throughout their journey, visitors are guided by the Confidant, binaural audio headphones that are responsible for bringing these sumptuous spaces and their former inhabitants back to life. The interiors are staged as if their occupants had only just left the room (the floor of the dining room is littered with oyster shells and empty bottles) for this theatrical effect, so Night at the museumalso permeates the vast corner living room where the tapestries of the New Indies are exposed.

When visitors enter the room, actors announce to them that it is the most sumptuous room of these apartments, worthy of a royal residenceand that it is in this type of environment that the projects of the LightsasEncyclopedia. Represented by the playing cards and the chips scattered on the tables, the game, we learn, is a significant part activities socialites of its guests, if not to say: a key element of the emergence of global capitalism as are the expensive and fashionable tapestries hanging on the walls. Not a word, however, about the fact that these New Indies, The Two Bulls And The camelrepresent African slaves in an exotic colonial landscape, busy producing sugar and other luxury products which will then be shipped to the mainland to be consumed in interiors like this, reserved for the elite.

Commissioned by the monarchy in 1735 and rewoven several times XVIIIe century, the series of New Indies includes eight hangings designed by the artist Alexandre-Franois Desportes based on Ancient Indies of the previous century. This originated from studies based on nature by two Dutch artists, Albert Eeckhout and Frans Post, who, in 1637, accompanied Prince Jean-Maurice of Nassau-Siegen, appointed governor of the Dutch colony, to Brazil. Eeckhout and Post set out to sketch some of the fauna and flora, as well as the Native Americans of the region and of Chile, where a Dutch expedition went in 1643 to seek an alliance with the Mapuches. Eeckhout also carried out oil studies of ambassadors from the Kingdom of Kongo visiting Brazil, who were to inform the representations of African figures of the Ancient Indies and this, although this relationship with Kongo, as Cécile Fromont showed, was almost completely forgotten at the end of the XVIIe century. When he takes up this old series, Desportes erases part of its historical and cultural authenticity and chooses to invent landscapes of a more general (even incongruous) exoticism: in The camel, he replaced Eeckhout's portrait of a Mapuche rider with a camel, and added elements of flora and fauna from the royal menagerie. In the eyes of French spectators at the end of the 1730s, the relationship was obvious with the French colonies in the Americas, in this case, the sugar colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), in the West Indies, which are mentioned in The Two Bullsthe pile of sugar cane in the cart that the animals are pulling, as well as the sugar mill in the background.

The silence of the audio guide of the Hôtel de la Marine (and of the musography of the room) on this context is embarrassing, to say the least, in particular with regard to the history of the building and its current status as a place dedicated to public information, maritime studies and remembrance. No guide or article on the Hôtel de la Marine seems to mention it: we only read that the hangings (which were in fact not present in this room on the first floor) XVIIIe century) were hung there because their dimensions suited those of the place. This silence, Sammy Baloji's exhibition offered a powerful counterpoint on the other side of the Seine, in a Fine Arts room, where other versions of the same tapestries were presented, alongside other New Indies and the work of the artist himself, and where the themes of slavery, colonization and the history of the Congo are highlighted. Famous for his installations based on archives, which question questions of history and memory in the Congo under Belgian domination from 1885 to 1960, Baloji is not interested in colonization as a past phenomenon, but in the perpetuation of this system. This concern pervaded the entire exhibition, which mixed periods, cultures, mediums and materials in order to question the never-recognized debt of history and modernity towards its African origins and African bodies.

On one side of the room, the tapestries of New Indies were presented alongside works by Baloji inspired by historic Congolese textiles scattered in European collections. From these textiles, which he discovered in 2015 during an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Baloji took negatives which he cast in bronze, a copper alloy which in his eyes embodies the colonial history of the Congo as well as its neocolonial present, in particular in the mining town of Lubumbashi, where he grew up. The installation thus highlighted two cultural traditions where textile production expresses power and prestige.; but it also underlined the way in which the origin and identity of these works, their subjects and their authors, had been lost as they acquired new meanings, in new contexts. Baloji then exhibited wooden panels decorated with Congolese motifs that were appropriated, at the end of the XIXe century, Belgian Art Nouveau artists to decorate the colonial pavilion destined to become the infamous royal museum of Central Africa, Tervuren. The powerful colors of Baloji's panels paid homage to the diagrams infographics used by WEB Du Bois in his exhibition The Negroes of America from 1900, whose primary colors and geometric shapes anticipate European avant-garde movements such as Russian constructivism or De Stijl.

The goal of Baloji, writes art historian Anne Lafont in a short text published on the occasion of this exhibition, is to encourage us see and rethink our relationship to objects of art and history. To a certain extent, this intention echoes the mission assigned to the Hôtel de la Marine, except that the museum has opted for a specific and partial vision of history, which tends to monetize the outdated myth of the splendors of the Ancien Régime by obscuring the reality of the work force and violence to which they owe their existence. Can we dream of introducing a bit of the Baloji exhibition open for only five weeks, during a summer still marked by the Covid-19 pandemic in the permanent exhibition at the Hôtel de la Marine? In a final twist of fate, Baloji, in collaboration with the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, is among the finalists in the competition for the memorial to the victims of slavery in the Tuileries garden, halfway between the Hôtel de la Marine and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts . While waiting for the project to hopefully resume its course, the CMN would perhaps be wise to ask Baloji to rethink his remarks, and to help fill the gap between two exhibitions that are both so close to each other and so far apart.

Translated from English (United States) by Laurent Perez. Slightly different versions of this article were previously published in English on online journals Artforum And Journal18.