The Body’s Legacies Pt. 2: The Postcolonial Body

    19/05  | 19:00
    20/05  | 21:30
    21/05  | 19:00

€ 8 / € 6
50 min

Kader Attia’s film essay explores the concept of the racialized body, and its perception within public space. Four different perspectives presented by intellectuals and activists develop a narrative around the subject of the racialized body. How is the body shaped by history, present politics, economy and architecture? By zooming in and out between personal account, individual experience and sociological analysis, the narration brings a particular story to light: the assault on the young Théo Luhaka by police officers in a Parisian suburb, February 2017. Bringing together the different experiences of his interviewees, Kader Attia dissects – in a lucid and almost surgical way – how the legacy of colonial violence and the stratification of racism affect the self-perception of the body and have a physical impact on the way of moving and inhabiting the public space. The Body’s Legacies explicitly opposes the regular discourse on racism as it is generally presented in the media, where voices speak about the body of others, as the mute objects of their discourse.

See also: Talk: The body: conquests and resistance
21/05 – 20:00
Free entrance
With: Olivier Marboeuf, Mireille-Tsheusi Robert and Yassine Boubout
In collaboration with: Black Speaks Back

See also: Free School: The Politics of Sexuality

A film by: Kader Attia
With: Norman Ajari, Amine Khaled, Olivier Marboeuf and Louisa Yousfi
Surtitling: Babel Subtitling

Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Cinema Palace
With the support of the French Institute and the French Embassy in Belgium, in the frame of Extra

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Emasculinity. The uninhabitable gender of black men

“To choose to write on black males is to accept that you and they are in conversation with death.”
Curry Tommy J., The Man-Not, 2017, p. 141.

On 2 February 2016, in the Parisian suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, Théo Luhaka was raped with a police officer’s telescopic baton following a race-based identity check, resulting in serious injuries that were to leave him with permanent disabilities. On 19 July 2016, in the Parisian suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise, Adama Traoré was chased and caught by three police officers after a race-based identity check. They used all their weight to press down on his body and he died, handcuffed, a few hours later at the police station. The list goes on. According to a report issued in January 2018 by France’s Defender of Rights, young black and Arab men are twenty times more likely to be subject to identity checks by law enforcement agencies. Men make up more than 95% of France’s prison population. Anthropologist Didier Fassin reports that in a short-stay prison where he carried out in-depth investigations, “Black men and Arabs made up two thirds of detainees and more than three quarters of those under thirty, who constituted half of the total number” (1). The proportion of non-white male detainees is the same as that found in the United States (2).

This state violence clearly has a strong racial element to it. A belief that is further strength-ened by colonial genealogy, linked to the pro-dromes of the Algerian war, of police brigades generally tasked with maintaining order in segregated areas of France where black and Arab workers and the urban underclass are concentrated (3). The main victims of state racism undeniably appear to be boys and young men of colour. However strange mental blocks seem to prohibit commentators and intellectuals from questioning this violence in terms of gender, yet everything very much points towards gendered violence where the victims are black and Arab men. They are the ones being specifically targeted by law enforcement agencies as the urban space is saturated with mobile checkpoints for identity checks determined by racial profiling. In the US, the black philosopher Tommy Curry has stressed that ignoring the gendered dimension of racism to which black men are subjected makes it impossible to understand why they are criminalised, incarcerated, victims of murder and victims of crimes by police officers at much higher rates than non-white women (4).

For the queer theorist Jack Halberstam: “Masculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege; it often symbolically refers to the power of the state and to uneven distributions of wealth.” (5) Yet if we think for a moment about black masculinity, it is of course notions of violence, illegitimacy and precariousness that come to mind. Black men are neither the beneficiaries nor the agents of state power, but its main targets instead; across Europe, notably through the figure of the African exile, they are the faces of the most incurable, inescapable kind of misery, the one that transpires from the poorest continent of all: the sub-Saharan cul-de-sac. While at the start of Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon writes: “At risk of arousing the resentment of my colored brothers, I will say that the black is not a man” (6), let us take this convocation of fraternity seriously and interpret the word “man” beyond all abstract humanism. In other words: the black man is not of a male gender. He is something else; something that cannot serve as a synecdoche to designate mankind in its entirety, as the signifier “Man” (7) has been able to do for centuries.

Contemporary queer feminist philosophy has established that gender was neither a simple emanation of biological sex nor a cultural repetition of the anatomy. In contrast, for Judith Butler the notion of gender designates “the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts.” (8) Gender constitutes a bundle of histo-rical norms that settle on sexual difference and control its appearance in the public space. From this idea of a historicity of gender, North American black feminist thought, noting the exceptional nature of societies that have arisen out of modern slavery, has contested the femi-nist presupposition of a political universality of the feminine gender: “What “woman” designates in the context of captivity is not to be explicated in terms of domesticity or protection but in terms of disavowed violence of slave law, the sanctity of property and the necessity of absolute submission, the pathologizing of the black body, the restriction of black sentience, the multifarious use of property, and the precarious stats of the slave within the public sphere.” (9)

If we are being rigorous, the same analysis should be applied to the “men” gender and any unambiguous interpretation of masculinity rejected. Limiting questions about the inter-weaving or intersection of race and gender to the question of non-white women, which is the norm in current feminist theory, is often blind to race and readily standardises the masculine. Sociologist Jules Falquet exemplifies this common belief: “Fast developing today, work on masculinity constantly risks slipping – unwittingly or deliberately – into masculinist interpretations that individualise men and deprive them of responsibility, that is, positions them as victims, by asserting hasty symmetries between women, men, homosexuals and trans people (rendering lesbians completely invisible). Yet these groups are positioned in a very clear hierarchy in society and defined in relation to one another in relationships of oppression” (10). While recourse to a totalising conception of masculinity is envisaged as the only shield against masculinism (which in other respects is often the other side of a white supremacist ideology), the specific position of black men towards a state violence that systematically dehumanises them will merely remain inconceivable. Isn’t it revealing that following in the footsteps of the police and prosecutors, Falquet’s critical sociology lays aside its traditional determinism to re-establish (moral? penal?) responsibility as a category that is not only legitimate, but essential?

Finally, what is most astonishing in this warning remains its assertion of hasty symmetries. It is all too easily forgotten that from the 18th century on, European feminism constructed its political thought by drawing a parallel between white women and shipped negro slaves, around two thirds of whom were male and who white women were legally entitled to own as personal property. As Françoise Vergès writes, the ignorance of violence and dehumanisation associated with slavery makes this analogy “a usurpation” (11). And yet French feminist theory is teeming with faulty analogies of this kind that make the black body a breeding ground for useful metaphors. It is a challenge today to consider black men, and more generally non-white men and boys, as thinking beings, not as commodities or brutes to subdue for example.

Black men are not men who are slightly less privileged than their white counterparts; they belong to a gender of a completely different order, defined by a specific degree of exposure to police brutality, incarceration, premature death and by a very specific group of libidinal obsessions and investment that saturate the state. Fantasised over as being physically ultra powerful, robust and muscular, sexually insatiable and morally licentious, they are rivals that white hegemonic masculinity dreams of subduing and dominating. This is why they have to be humiliated, harassed, raped and assassinated – in short: emasculated.

The gender of black boys and men is produced by state racism as emasculinity.

Norman Ajari

(1) Fassin Didier, L’Ombre du monde. Une anthropologie de la condition carcérale, Paris, Seuil, 2017, p. 190. See also: Traoré Assa et De Lagasnerie Geoffroy, Le Combat Adama, Paris, Stock, 2019.
(2) The prison population in the United States is 93.2% male, of whom 34.8% are Hispanic, 34.5% black, 27.1% white and 3.6% of other ethnic backgrounds. Figures from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 25 February 2017.
(3) Rigouste Matthieu, La Domination policière. Une violence industrielle, Paris, La Fabrique, 2012, pp. 22-23.
(4) Curry Tommy J., The Man-Not. Race, class, genre, and the dilemmas of Black manhood, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2017, p. 132.
(5) Halberstam Jack, Female masculinity, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, p. 2.
(6) Fanon Frantz, Œuvres, Paris, La Découverte, 2011, p. 63.
(7) Wynter Sylvia, “Beyond the word of Man: Glissant and the new discourse of the Antilles”, World Literature Today, vol. 63, n° 4, pp. 637-648.
(8) Butler Judith, Gender Trouble, New York, Routledge 1990
(9) Hartman Saidiya, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America, Oxford – New-York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 100.
(10) Falquet Jules, « Au-delà des larmes des hommes », preface to: Selek Pinar, Devenir homme en rampant. Service militaire en Turquie: Construction de la classe de sexe dominante, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2014, p. 21.
(11) Vergès Françoise, Un Féminisme décolonial, Paris, La Fabrique, 2019, p. 46.

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Kader Attia (b. 1970, France), grew up in Paris and in Algeria. Preceding his studies at the École Supérieure des Arts Appliqués Duperré and the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and at Escola Massana, Centre d’Art i Disseny in Barcelona, he spent several years in Congo and in South America. The experience with these different cultures, the histories of which over centuries have been characterised by rich trading traditions, colonialism and multi-ethnic societies, has fostered Kader Attia’s intercultural and interdisciplinary approach of research. For many years, he has been exploring the perspective that societies have on their history, especially as regards experiences of deprivation and suppression, violence and loss, and how this affects the evolving of nations and individuals — each of them being connected to collective memory. His socio-cultural research has led Kader Attia to the notion of Repair, a concept he has been developing philosophically in his writings and symbolically in his oeuvre as a visual artist. With the principle of Repair being a constant in nature — thus also in humanity —, any system, social institution or cultural tradition can be considered as an infinite process of Repair, which is closely linked to loss and wounds, to recuperation and re-appropriation. Repair reaches far beyond the subject and connects the individual to gender, philosophy, science, and architecture, and also involves it in evolutionary processes in nature, culture, myth and history. In 2016, Kader Attia founded La Colonie, a space in Paris to share ideas and to provide an agora for vivid discussion. Focusing on decolonialisation not only of peoples but also of knowledge, attitudes and practices, it aspires to de-compartmentalise knowledge by a trans-cultural, trans-disciplinary and trans-generational approach. Driven by the urgency of social and cultural reparations, it aims to reunite which has been shattered, or drift apart. In 2016, Kader Attia was awarded with the Marcel Duchamp Prize, followed by the Prize of the Miró Foundation, Barcelona, and the Yanghyun Art Prize, Seoul, in 2017.

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