Conversations on 'Aesthetics of the Political'

Door Maxime Jean-Baptiste, Samah Hijawi, op Fri Aug 07 2020 12:44:00 GMT+0000

This conversation piece is a part of Aesthetics of the Political, an upcoming public program curated by Samah Hijawi for SoundImageCulture, which will be held on 6 and 7 December 2020 in BOZAR. In the form of a series of letter exchanges, Hijawi and Jean-Baptiste discuss forms of resistance in art and language to reveal the aesthetics of the political in artworks that engage coloniality.

May 4th 2020

Dear Maxime,

I propose to have this conversation in the form of a letter, as a way to maintain a certain intimacy. And feel free to ask me questions about my work if you want to. A few months ago we had a really intense conversation, that stayed with me for a long time. I want to return to two points that we discussed then.

The first subject was violence; about how artistic works that are considered ‘non-European’ are often presented and viewed as a representative for a geographical context (in terms of history, and social and political contexts). The audience often wants to see such works because they want to ‘understand’ or ‘learn’ something about this place in the world. This positioning of both the artwork and the artist as, lets say, ambassadors, who can show the ‘problems of their country’ to a white audience, is violent - or should we just call it violence?

This way of presenting works reinforces the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

This way of presenting works actually reproduces the hierarchy embedded in coloniality and reinforces the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It also causes a situation in which the aesthetics of the political used in such artistic works (medium, choices in imagery, editing, references to theoretical thinkers and other works of art) are not acknowledged. This means that the works are categorized outside of the artistic ‘canon’. Therefore, a whole body of knowledge and the critical language related to it, is not given the space to contribute to the larger story of art.

The second thing I recall from our conversation is that you referred to Frantz Fanon, a landmark in the decolonial library. I was wondering: is there a word, a sentence, or idea from his writing that influences your artistic practice? Can you guide me to a fragment in your upcoming film, or another image in your work through Fanon?

Last night I watched the film of Jean-Luc Godard, Ici et Ailleurs (1976). Did you watch it? It's a very dense and layered film, I will watch it again.

Take care,


May 5th 2020

Dear Samah,

Thank you so much for the invitation to have a dialogue in letters. I like it, it gives us some time to think. Well, we’re in confinement due to the Covid-19 virus, so I have time to think now. Many questions arise, many hopes and fears, many frustrations on the possible aftermath of all this…

Thanks for the reference to Ici et Ailleurs by Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville. I saw it some time ago, and yes, this film connects closely to what I'm trying to convey in my own film project, Kouté Vwa. My project also has to do with silence, repetition, and rewind. There’s is that one line in Ici et Ailleurs that strikes me: ‘that's how each of us become too many inside ourselves.’ The phrase resonates with me in many ways. We contain many beings, many others. It's burning inside, an implosion is going on. I will quote Fanon to explain what I mean.

Ô mon corps, fait de moi un homme qui toujours interroge!

Oh my body, make of me a man who always questions!

It's a quote from the ending of his book Peau noire, masques blancs (1952). You were speaking about Fanon as a landmark in the decolonial library, it's true. I discovered his work about five years ago I think. And it made a fire spread through me. Not just because of his interesting ideas. No, suddenly I could see more clearly, I woke up. In my life, I have learned a lot about French history. I grew up in France, I was educated in France. I heard it all: the Enlightenment, the Revolution, Louis XVI, Louis XIV... I was disgusted. When eventually I discovered Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontran-Damas, I was in shock. How could it take two generations for these writers to reach me? They are now very dear to me.

When we shout, we shout with many, because there were many bodies already shouting loudly before you.

I hold that quote of Fanon close to my heart, as a prayer for something that brings you to the here and now, and then sends you elsewhere, like Godard and Miéville’s film: ici et ailleurs. Fanon speaks about his own body, but not as a return to the Self. His body is isolated from the world. The body of the black being and the form of life inside it, is a multiple life. It carries within itself the wounds, the violence, the filth, the scraping of ancient times, of ancestors, from the uprooting that slavery produced. Your body becomes a tool to perpetuate a system of self-destruction, something that my generation is still living through.

When we shout, we shout with many, because there were many bodies already shouting loudly before you. You shout for and with others. This is where I come from, as a child of the Guyanese diaspora born in Île-de-France, in Seine-et-Marne. Guiana, which President Macron thought was an island, is located in South America at the north of Brazil. I call it Guiana and not ‘French Guiana’ anymore, as an act of resistance. I also want to share with you some words of the Guyanese thinker Léon-Gontran Damas, extracted from his poem ‘Limbé’ (1937):

Ils ont cambriolé l'espace qui était le mien.

They robbed the space that used to be mine.

I think of this sentence when I think of my friend Véronique Kanor, a Martinican filmmaker and poet, who made me understand that everything is collected in this sentence. I thank her very much for that insight. This sentence entails the violence of colonialism in the Caribbean, in Guiana, and the Guyanese diaspora in France in a few words. You are born in a place that is not yours, and all is supposedly built for you. But you feel robbed from the inside, because you are not free and are being controlled.

Anyhow, I want to show you an image. It’s a fragment I will use in the beginning of my film Kouté Vwa. I’m not going to reveal everything about it yet, as I am still in the process of writing, but I think this image shows what I'm trying to tell you.

Premiere of the film 'Jean Galmot, Aventurier' (1990), Rue des Champs Elysées (film still) (c) France Télévisions, Paris

This still appears in a television report on the premiere of the film Jean Galmot, Aventurier (1990) by Alain Maline. Maline’s film is an adaptation of the true story of Jean Galmot, who went to the French colony of Guiana to prospect for gold at the start of the 20th century. He became one of the most popular and powerful men there. This film is problematic for me because it's mainly made by French white people who exotify this land. Well, for the occasion of the first run in 1990, the producers invited the Guyanese diaspora to organize a kind of parade in the streets of Paris. My father is in the crowd as an extra during the television report.

It’s the black body market, where we sell a dance, a smile, our skin.

I slow down this particular still from the report as much as possible in Kouté Vwa. You see two children watching the parade in Paris. One kid is ecstatic, the other is somewhere else - here but elsewhere, ici et ailleurs. An adult’s arms hold the latter from behind to move him like a puppet, because he should be happy; he may not question what is happening, he may not question the violence of this event.

It is violent because a population is put at the service of entertainment. Black bodies are marching on the Champs Elysées, surrounded by happy white bodies. It’s the black body market, where we sell a dance, a smile, our skin. I focus on the moment when this boy is no longer in tune with what is happening. His body suddenly questions what he sees, stops, and he is absent, silent.

Voilà, some words to transmit my feelings to you. Olivier Marboeuf and I are actually collaborating together on the writing and I thank him a lot for his listening and thinking with me.

Take care,


May 11th 2020

Dear Maxime,

Sorry I am late! The computer in my atelier crashed yesterday, I am working from home now. Thank you for the lovely response. I am sorry you had to eat so much French history, from what I understand it has a very colonial flavour ;)

I have not had the experience of being born inside the system of the occupier. I grew up on the tail end of the political resistance of the sixties and seventies, right before the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War. I am part of the second generation of displaced Palestinians, who came to Europe as a result of the European and Zionist colonisation of our lands. I have experienced ‘life scattered, discontinuous, marked by the artificial and imposed arrangements of interrupted or confined space, by the dislocations and unsynchronized rhythms of disturbed time,’ to use the words of Edward Said.

They are fault lines, like the ones between the tectonic plates of the earth.

While I was growing up, I witnessed a similar experience in people from other Arab countries around me. Edward Said aptly described how you could not ‘trace straight lines from birthplace to school to maturity.’ These ruptured lines are the ones that have guided my work for a very long time. They are fault lines, like the ones between the tectonic plates of the earth: when they move, they cause a rupture in the landscape, but also in the continuity of a social fabric, tradition, language and culture.

Anyhow, I want to draw on your quote from Godard/Miéville about the multiplicity in the self and on your notes on repetition to choose another still from your film. Indeed, the strong edits in your film produces a kind of disruption in time as every gesture is framed, stopped for a split second.

Trial scene ‘Affaire des Insurgés de Cayenne’, film still from ‘Jean Galmot aventurier’ (1990), directed by Alain Maline

This image is a still from Kouté Vwa. Two people are having a conversation. They say that ‘ history was already written’ and that ‘the collective memory has already been formatted’. Can you explain more what this means?

Why the choice for slow motion and repetitive movements back and forth in your edits of the image? What does this editing do with the image, the document, the historical archive of events produced by the French to celebrate their version of history?

With love,


May 14th 2020

Dear Samah,

Thank you for your reply. Yes, the repetition in my film is linked to ici et ailleurs. For instance, when you speak of the ruptures caused by fault lines, you connect the body to the landscape. Your experience of life consists of never-ending separations, discontinuity, stops, resets,...

Those who have the privilege of a steady and comfortable life (professionally, economically, physically and mentally) - as many people in Belgium, France or other countries made and ruled by heterosexual white men - don't really understand the movements you talk about. I experienced these fault lines in my childhood too, and still feel them today. These ruptures are not conceptual or abstract, they are real and they break the body and the mind, they make you tremble.

These ruptures break the body and the mind, they make you tremble.

It is not by chance that such ruptures influence the way we work. I know that your work is related to editing images with collage, cuts, stops. These processes are related to your life experience. You use the movements that have touched and struck us in our lives. And I think it takes time to accept this language of rupture, because sometimes we are tempted to cover ourselves. Sometimes we want to assimilate ourselves to the ‘master’ and to disappear behind a mask. It’s a way of transforming one's life to make it as clean and acceptable as possible. A way of slowly dying, I would say.

The fragment you chose is from the beginning of Kouté Vwa and what you hear is a conversation between my father and me. My father does not remember much of appearing as an extra in the film Jean Galmot, Aventurier. For him it was a pleasant moment, let's say. This event in his life was always more than a detail for me. He was playing the story of Guiana, he was acting it, and on top of that, he was playing an insurgent who had taken part in a riot in Cayenne in 1928.

I spent a lot of time asking questions to my father about his participation in the film and I still do today, also to shed light on the ‘exotic’ context of the making of it, in the representation of the black body. After a moment in our conversation, after the laughter, I asked him why he was chosen as an extra and what role he played in the original story. > I want to transform the ‘original’ violence - the one that freezes you, silences you, and makes you think that your past is ‘past’. He had no answers.

I want to transform the ‘original’ violence - the one that freezes you, silences you, and makes you think that your past is ‘past’.

Our recorded exchange ends with the sentence you mentioned: ‘history has already been written.’ The script of the film, and therefore the script of ‘real facts’ has already been written. These are strong words, but they can illustrate how for some people history freezes, halts in certain places, and no longer lives on. But for others, like some people of my generation, there is a strong need to know more.

The editing choices I made are related to a desire to break up this memory. In the television report, I saw frozen expressions, black bodies following the orders of a film crew, dancing and jumping when asked to do so. Many things bothered me, and I felt a visceral need to change the rhythm of the image, to invent a new temporality for that moment in history.

However, I’m not trying to remove the violence with my sharp edits. I want to transform the ‘original’ violence - the one that freezes you, silences you, and makes you think that your past is ‘past’ - into a strange, bugged, broken, brutal movement. Just as I did by focusing on the boy who doesn’t join the joyous crowd. These are movements that are made of ruptures and are proper to our life experiences.

Take care, with love,