Colonial Imaginary: fantasies and nostalgia

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From the early days of the colonial conquests, in the mid 19th Century, an imaginary was created around the virgin lands of the black continent. This imaginary had to maintain the dream and fantasy of an Africa that corresponded with Western expectations and justified the policy of occupation. Colonial propaganda, supported by the press, literature, theatre and – of course – the great exhibitions, was born at the same time as the conquests and represented an extraordinary communication campaign founded on a fantasy world born at the back of our conscience.
These colonial images still inhabit our imaginary – firstly through posters, postcards, packages, drawings from the Petit Journal or L’Illustration at the turn of the 19th Century; then through cinema, right from the time of the Lumière brothers, with the very first films of bathing Negroes in the Parisian zoo in 1896, and an Ashanti village exhibited in 1897 in Lyon. All these images have fed the fantasy of a virgin Africa, devoid of History (or who’s History was still to be made). An Africa peopled with fantastic and inconsequential characters who could be frightening but whom it was better to laugh at. Between heaven and hell, cruelty and naivety, horror and ridicule, monstrosity and charnel attraction, the colonial representations of Africa and its people forged a new myth that served as a base for Europe’s unthinking and paternalistic good conscience.
The cannibal king with bones in his nose and feathers on his backside, busy with his cauldrons, with top hat, gaiters and an alarm clock hanging from his neck; or the licentious Negress with her breasts ripe for the picking; or the hoard of native savages brandishing sgaies and machettes – all these are images that have formed our conception of Africa beyond the confines of reality. However, the images which traversed our mental universe still surface today and they coexist very well with other representations that the media give us – the media feeds us images of an Africa that is sinking, an Africa of famines, of Aids, of leprosy, of malaria and (of course) of violent wars and fratricide. We are fed these images because the phantasmagorical nature of colonial images is sub-conscious.
Europe would seem to feel a certain tenderness towards these images, which in the end aren’t deemed to be as disturbing as all that. The best examples are to be found in advertising, which seeks to be effective rather than morally correct. In 2001 the Banania brand re-issued the nostalgic images of its « cocoa » range and, voilà, the little Negro is back with his chéchia headdress and culinary advice for the befuddled housewife who can’t remember what to do with good chocolate – the concoctions are old family recipes. Could it be that this cocoa is being used to call back the good old colonial times. These days, the packaging for « traditional cooking cocoa » narrates a little story about the brand, reminding us about the Senegalese tirailleurs (soldiers) who fought in the French army at the time of the French colonial empire – for old times’ sake!
Even the humoristic savagery of the cannibal does not put off some fast food chains, or certain brands of sports goods or kitchenware, who use the image of the cannibal in all lightness to better convince the consumer of the ruggedness of their products. As we all know, whoever can survive Africa, can survive anything!!
It is hard for us to step back from these representations. In the end, they are part of the childhood of an entire generation fed by adventure books, comic books (1), and picture books, as they were called back then. They were part of Tintin and Mickey’s Diary, O.K. and Spirou. They were an integral part of the colonial cinema of numerous filmmakers from the 1930s (2), such as Léon Poirier, Jacques de Baroncelli, Julien Duviver. They were also to be found in Hollywood films like Tarzan and Daktari and dozens of films in which handsome adventurers set out on jungle expeditions only to be caught by cruel pygmies, Amazonian savages or an evil sorcerer holding the entire village under his spell (3).These clichés, which are still manifest today, inhabit the dreams of the gentle bather described by Jean-Luc Courcoult in Petits contes nègres tire provisoire [« Little Negro tales, provisional title »], the Royal de Luxe show that toured France in 1999. In fact, the show’s title is worthy of comment since it implies self-accorded authority to provisionally return to colonial times. There are also the nostalgic images of the « Folies nègres » from the 1920s, which coloured a show by Vincent Colin presented at the Avignon theatre festival this summer. In the same way they added a touch of Bal nègre (see article from Africultures issue 40) to Jean Cocteau’s Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel. In 1997, Jacques Nichet used them in his production of La Tragédie du roi Christophe, to the point that Paris was riddled with advertising posters showing pictures of a bone dripping with blood sitting in the middle of a crown (4). However, it does not stop there. In what could be considered another genre altogether, French comic Michel Leeb uses them in his sidesplitting skits where he portrays an African tribesman.
Why do we so want to read malicious intentions into these images? Nichet, Courcoult, Colin and Leeb are no doubt the best of men. Their affection for Africans has been proven and, in fact, it is in the name of this affection that they permit themselves this humour and jokes based on clichés of a fantasy Africa. Unfortunately, we cannot escape from their perversity and their ironical detachment should be highlighted in red.
Leeb’s spectators, those of Mariés de la Tour Eiffel and Petits contes nègres are not laughing out of irony, and they are not going to read between the lines of such images as that of a Negress with over a dozen babies on her back sitting next to a Negro with a head full of feathers.
These amusing images are legitimised, we give ourselves permission to laugh and, in the end, what should have been denounced as stereotyping is reinforced in our collective imaginary and considered inoffensive.
And yet, let us not be mistaken, these images that we are so whole-heartedly assured of being harmless raise their ugly heads at the very first opportunity, as was tragically proven by the Western press’s portrayal of the Rwandan genocide. Western commentators were quick to cite the intrinsic savagery of the violent peoples of the Africa of the Great Lakes, of an Africa that had « returned to its old demons », as wrote Guy Sorman in an article for Figaro-Magazine in the summer of 1994 (5).
We cannot eradicate these colonial fantasies of Africa. They are part of our History. But we can make sure that they structure our current critical conscience instead of distorting it against our will. We need to face these images, to comment them, and dissect them in order to denounce both the lies they contain, and their power to seduce, so that we may no longer be fooled by them.

1 See Michel Pierre, « L’Afrique en bande dessinéé », in Images et colonies 1880-1962, collective publication, BDIC/ACHAC, pp. 241-245.
2 See Raymond Lefèvre, « Le cinéma colonial », ibid, pp. 170-173.
3 See Youssef El Ftouh and Manuel Pinto, « L’image de l’Afrique dans le cinéma », ibid, pp. 246-249.
4 See Sylvie Chalaye, « Faut-il confondre toutes les couleurs pour obtenir du noir? », in Théâtre/Public, N° 40, pp. 73-77.
5 See Nicolas Bancel, « Les médias français face au Rwanda », in Africultures, N° 30, pp. 41-50.
///Article N° : 5260

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