Ethnographical exhibitions and « native villages »

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« And the show goes on »: Philippe David insists on continuity in the representation of exoticism throughout history and on the intercultural encounters offered by « native villages ». He speaks out against current presentations of them, which are, in his opinion, reductive and without consideration for the cultural context of the period.

Shows of all kinds
Exhibiting the Other, whether a stranger from near or afar – but who is always strange – is evidently an ongoing or even eternal phenomenon, which can easily be explained by the natural and legitimate sense of curiosity that any group of human beings has for things they do not (or hardly) know anything about. Curiosity is passed from generation to generation and can never realistically be satiated. Europeans set out to explore the planet from very early and they took their curiosity with them. Curiosity was present in every phase of their quest and it has been growing ever since. Images – on television and film – have not quenched our thirst to see and be entertained, if not find knowledge.
This trend was encouraged and intensified by colonial expansion and scientific exploration throughout the world. However, we know that this goes much farther back than the colonial period, which it outlasted, touching the United States and all the European countries, whether colonial powers or not.
Globally, exhibitions of groups of humans came in very different forms. However by definition they all fell into the category of entertainment with a commercial, political, cultural or entertainment intent. They involved actors and decision-makers that were more or less honest and had the competence to manage their troupes. The whites were the masters of almost the entire planet and, as the Wolof proverb from Senegal says, Doole xamul ndanq, (« Force does not know the meaning of « gently »).
From 1850 to 2000, human exhibitions shown in France (and in Europe) were of three types (or even four, as will be shown later in this text).
The first type falls into the pure tradition of popular spectacle, as exemplified by music halls and circuses. These arts have gained respect over and have served their dues, and have their own schools – at the beginning of 2001, performers from eleven African countries participated in the Circafrica festival that toured France. The American Barnum’s circus style, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, as well as several other formulas that directly inspired shows later developed by the German Hagenbeck family, which exported and supplied exotic animals to all of Europe, for mixed « caravans » (animals and their trainers), or exotic animal-less troupes recruited all over the world and without any colonial connotation whatsoever. France hosted eleven shows of this type in 14 years, from 1877 to 1891, in particular at the zoo (Jardin d’Acclimatation) in Paris, and occasionally in other cities. These included Sudanese Nubians, Eskimos, Russians Lapons, more Nubians, Fuegans, Cinghalese, Araucans, Kalmouks, more Cinghalese, Somalis and lastly, Dahomeyans (although these last were more likely recruited in Togo). This type of show often held ethnographical pretensions, as their German title, Völkerschauen (literally, « people shows »), so perfectly conveys
Such assemblies were obviously much to the delight of doctors and anthropologists whose theories on the classification of human « races » were still, at that time, being developed. This phase of scientific research, probably imposed, and which actually covered a relatively short period, produced findings that were grotesque and above all humiliating for the individuals who had to submit to their investigations. It ended a century ago. However, we no doubt have a better recollection of texts published during the 1950s by Unesco and a group of prestigious signatories, that at long last confirmed single character of the human race.
All the other shows were, both in France and in a few foreign cities, the « native villages » – mostly « Senegalese » – that we know so well from studying them in each place through period press and imagery. This so-called « French » type, which was also of private initiative, consisted in setting up « Villages » of artists and craftsmen with their families in an enclosed, protected space accessible to the public for a fee. The « Villages » were generally part of a private exhibition and ran for four, five or even six months. They therefore provided widespread opportunities for daily contact between the « villagers » and the public, both on normal opening days and at special occasions including:
– feast days (or pseudo feast days) according to the Muslim calendar, corsos fleuris (flower parades), parades, official openings and ministerial visits with the Exhibition itself;
– competitions where whites and blacks mixed unconditionally. These included dances, fishing and swimming competitions, wrestling matches and draughts tournaments;
– several happy events concerning members of the troupe providing further reason for festivities. These included births and baptisms (Muslim), traditional weddings and circumcisions that all implicated well-to-do godfathers and godmothers chosen locally, with the obligatory visit to the registry, and wedding breakfasts in a top local restaurant. Between 1894 and 1931 over 30 births were registered, principally in France but also in Belgium (Liège) and Switzerland. The majority of registered babies were born to Senegalese parents.
A few towns were hesitant, or even concerned about the presence of blacks who were generally free to come and go during the day. This freedom was also the norm in Hagenbeck shows and groups participating in the official exhibitions discussed later in this text.
Because they were generally relatively long-standing, widespread and popular, the « native villages » were somewhat more important and had a greater impact than the 30 or so shorter extremely diverse shows held in Paris between 1877 and 1931 as part of the rather unusual and highly ambiguous exhibitions run by the Parisian zoo (Jardin d’Acclimation). They were very successful and rather frequent between 1898 and 1914, but had disappeared by the beginning of the 1930s after a last run in Switzerland. Half a dozen impresario-directors – show producers in partnership, or competitors – recruited and developed Villages that were often very similar in their composition and recruitment choices. Almost everywhere the local press speaks freely about the kind of atmosphere to be found in the Villages, their programmes and activities. They also provide information on the authorities’ reactions, as well as those of journalists, important visitors and the public. This information gives us some idea from which we can make a hypothesis on what went on in the Villages and what the various parties (exhibitees and visitors) thought of them. This point will be discussed in more detail later. The wealth of images available also provide some kind of proof that the Villages’ existed and delimit the framework – if temporary and paternalistic but nevertheless very real – of the inhabitants’ lives. It should be noted that the contact between these two parties was far less skewed than one would think.
The craftsmen and artists performing in the Villages were judged for each exhibition according to the same criteria as the other exhibitors and received prizes accordingly. Prize lists from numerous Expositions provide valuable information on the names and professions of the various prize winners.
But for a few exceptions, the native villages never participated in official exhibitions that disposed of other administrative and financial resources to recruit the ethnic groups they needed. The « villagers » were all recruited in French-speaking Africa (particularly West Africa, the Maghreb and Madagascar). Aside from a few North African, Sudanese, Malagassy and Dahomeyans (very popular between 1892 and 1900),the villages produced by the French director, Vigé, were typically made up of with Senegalese craftsmen and artists for the most-part recruited in Dakar, Gorée, Rusque and Saint-Louis. They were usually taken from cast families of craftsmen and were therefore deemed to « originate from » the Quatre Communes* likened to those in France, which meant their were just as much French citizens as the provincial visitors – or at least in principle. The participants were well aware of this factor and were quick to preserve or impose their rights. As early as 1889, at the World Exposition in Paris, Samba Laobé Thiam, head of the Senegalese troupe brought over by the government, protested that the cabins built for them on the square in front of the Invalides palace were uncomfortable. At the same time, the Senegalese participants decided they had had enough of being poked and prodded by the anthropologists hanging around them. In June 1894, in Lyon, other Senegalese participants were allowed to send a five-person envoy with a huge five-metre wreath to Sidi-Carnot’s – « their » president – funeral in Paris who was assassinated in Lyon on the morning of his expected visit to their « village ». Each summer for several years, they would receive their depute (member of the Senate), François Carpot (of mixed race) and several officials from Dakar and Gorée who wanted to maintain contact with their electors.
During this same period (1889 – 1931), a third type of exotic military or civilian exhibition was organised as part of the « world expos » held from 1889 to 1900 and « colonial expos » in 1894, 1906, 1907, 1922 and 1931. This time they were official state-run exhibitions of groups of indigenous peoples gathered together as a testimony to the vastness and diversity of the Empire and held at the World Exposition in Paris in 1899, in Nogent in 1907, and Marseille in 1906 and 1922. In 1894 in Lyon, and in 1906 at the Grand Palais in Paris, this was less obvious. In 1900 and 1937 (other « world » expos) and in 1931 (the most obviously colonial expo), the « exotics » were principally expected to look after the colonial pavilions or animate the various craft and cultural attractions. The local authorities were careful to pay their (very paternalistic) respects to their official guests – including « kings », chiefs or notables from the overseas territories, or intellectuals (in 1937, for the Congrès des Peuples coloniaux [congress of colonial peoples]) or students from the William-Ponty school who came to perform their plays. In 1889, the Nalou king from Lower Guinea and his young wife were received at the Opera in Paris. On a number of occasions between 1901 and 1913, Madagascar’s exiled Queen Ranavalona, came from Algeria to stay in France and she occasionally participated in high society and political events.
These three types of exhibition, which occurred simultaneously, were followed by a fourth that appeared later, after independence. This last type was a combination of the previous three but this time they were run by the overseas territories themselves, whenever they felt it necessary or advantageous that the West learn more about their cultures. From around 1961 to 1962, a number of African countries were quick to create their own national ballets, which performed in Paris at the Théâtre des Nations. They also performed at expos and festivals all over the world, under the guise of crafts villages and artistic or musical troupes, thereby perpetuating this practice.
Of course, these new shows were presented or approved by the sovereign states within a less skewed international context than previously. However, this does not mean that certain aspects of the shows were still sometimes designed solely to draw the crowds, resulting in them becoming misleading to varying degrees. They were still sometimes of dubious taste and extremely demanding on the staff. The fact remains that the three older types of exhibition and encounters continued under different national colours. In other words, the show continued.
Encounters of all kinds
However briefly detailed in these few pages, what is of most interest to us today is not how the exhibitions operated or how long they continued. Instead, it would be more useful to know what went on in them back then, and the kind of opportunities they presented for the visitors and visited to exchange points of view and talk with each other, in so many places and for so many years.
We should not forget that all the « exotics », whether colonial or not, that came with the Hagenbeck caravans, the official expos and the French-style « native villages », were also our visitors. Conversely, they were just as curious about the « white man’s land ». After 15 years of well-documented research on their presence in these different contexts, we can affirm that contact between Europeans and non-Europeans veritably took place and was generally positive for both communities. We therefore consider it unjustified that these exhibitions be reduced, as they sometimes were over the 75 years that they ran, to the ridiculous stereotype of an exhibition where there are « savages behind bars that you throw peanuts or cigarette butts to ». On the contrary, there were already Dahomeyans on the bar in Bordeaux, the first Malagassy doctors, vets and dentists were graduating from French universities, and a Senegalese député was a member of the Senate. The « duty of memory » cited everywhere will have been very poorly accomplished if we assume that it gives us license to make erroneous generalisations, make hasty assumptions and take outdated quotations from scientists that died over a century ago. We should avoid an anachronistic or one-sided viewpoints on these ethnographic exhibitions that took place such a long time ago. Instead we need to assess that which we know and do not know. In his memoirs for the year 1912 (entitled Au service de la France), former French president, Raymond Poincarré, had already criticised the historical approach that consisted in « conceiving a hypothesis and subsequently making it work without any consideration for the exactitude of the various elements ». This issue is a bothersome source of argument and it wastes considerable energy that could better be used on other research topics.
However we are not advocating unreserved approval of the entirety of the exhibitions. On the contrary, many have undoubtedly provided a source of expression for the profound idiocy of a few people, if not a means of reinforcing it. However, taking note of the long list of mistruths enumerated in the August 2002 edition of the authoritative French monthly newspaper, Le Monde Diplômatique, it would be wiser to focus on what we know of the exchanges that took place during the 75 years of the exhibitions’ existence.
No! The citizens of the third republic, divided as they were – whether rightwing or leftwing, « commie » or bigot, radical or socialist, Clemenceau or Jules Ferry – were not miraculously united in their approval, or worse, organisation, over the space of three generations, of expos and colonial exhibitions with the purpose of inciting in their fellow citizens racism and hatred. Our grandparents reacted against certain shows and as for the exhibitees themselves, we have seen that they were not all content to be poked and prodded by the scientists, mocked by fools or put on show as savages.
Almost everywhere, the Villages à la française, as well the 1889 and 1900 world expos provided intelligent or genuinely curious visitors with an opportunity for contact with the exhibitees. There, they could try their cuisine, and learn about their lives, customs and languages. Savorgnan from Brazza was with the Gabonese and Congolese in 1889, Maurice Delafosse, worked hard with the Dahomeyans in 1894 and published his 435-page Manuel dahoméen at the end of that year. In 1909, a journalist from Nancy, assisted by the « village » artist, published a small French-Wolof glossary of 110 words.
Our guests were both black and Muslim and were sometimes recruited by right-wing Catholics. At other times they were eagerly welcomed, fussed over and attended on. When they left, they were accompanied by an enthusiastic crowd, and sometimes even a tearful lover and one-night girlfriend or two.
In general, they were genuinely free to come and go as they pleased, a fact which even resulted in a few excesses in the furnished apartments or little bistrots of Passy and Auteil [suburbs to the west of Paris]in 1889 and 1900. In 1907, the guests were all accommodated on-site in the Vincennes forest. As a whole, the « native villages » enabled all kinds of contact, whether brief or longer standing, superficial or more intimate. Thus, the French visitors were able to try a Senegalese couscous or lakh, during a baptism. They had the opportunity to learn a few words in Soussou or Wolof, attend « black and white » dances, and compete in draughts, wrestling, swimming or fishing competitions. Some even became godparents to a « village » baby. Romances between visitors and « villagers » were frequently reported with a voyeuristic irony or decried with racist vehemence. We have not been able to establish whether any of these relationships were extended. Furthermore, even before 1914 there were several mixed marriages in France, arousing varying degrees of interest. Between 1914 and 1918 their numbers increased considerably.
The « villagers » left with an impressive amount of luggage – their bags were filled with personal purchases and gifts they had received. Advertisements in certain local papers show that local merchants were open to this practice and used the opportunity to transform their « natives » into further consumers. In 1889, the Gabonese were put in touch with the Bolbec and Rouen weavers, apparently with the purpose of studying their preferences in cotton fabrics.
The « villagers » were far from forbidden from showing – through their clothing, behaviour and language – the extent of their integration. In most places, locals were amazed by the standard of the « village » chiefs’ French, especially where the above-mentioned celebrities were concerned. Nevertheless, the French would have been surprised if this had not been the case since their sense of national pride made them particularly interested in seeing their language become more widespread. It also made them particularly sensitive to the outward signs of what appeared to be successful integration […]
Newspapers and several eyewitness accounts from the time show just how diverse the attitudes, reactions and behaviour of the French were. These depended far more on how open-minded they were than on their political or philosophical stance. However, we have managed to unearth very few diaries or intimate accounts recorded either at the time or at a later date – no doubt since they are still guarded family secrets. Nevertheless, we have discovered that even then intelligence was combined with stupidity, open-mindedness with stereotyped preconceptions, comradeship with racism, intellectual curiosity with small-mindedness – unsurprisingly! From 1914 to 1918, the arrival en masse of African soldiers who subsequently stayed, caused a major upheaval in existing preconceptions. This gave rise to new ideas which were never quite strong enough to incite the French to be more magnanimous in their gratitude to their tirailleurs (rifle soldiers who fought in the French army, generally from Senegal), goumiers and harkis (soldiers from the North African territories in the employ of the French). However, when French intellectuals and politicians of good judgement started wondering about the real identity of the Unknown Soldier laid to rest under the Arc de Triomphe, and raised the question that he might be black, France, the champion of human rights, truly lived up to its principles. At the same time, the French and the Africans gained greater knowledge and respect for each other. In any case, any ground-breaking study of the different types of ethnographical exhibitions held in France over the past 150 years, especially French-style « native villages », should be extended to other types of African and colonial presence in general. These were initially limited and then became increasingly frequent from the end of the 19th Century. In our opinion, it is essential that we perform an overview of this kind in order to account for the enormous – and at times incoherent – complexity of our relationship with the Others, within the colonial context of the period, and even over the past forty years. While, in particular, a comprehensive history of the black (and Malagassy) diaspora in France (and throughout Europe) has still to be written, we already know enough to state that it took many forms, was often surprising, unexpected and, that the Africans that the French met were not all assigned to expos with temporary shows and attractions. The colonials, both subjects and citizens, that the Africans came across were sometimes their peers, other students, fellow artists, lawyers, or doctors, clients, readers, football or wrestling heroes, franc-mason brothers, classmates, cellmates, roommates or fought alongside them in the war. Even better, they were at times also their brothers- or sons-in-law.
We obviously regret how little information of African origin is available (we expected more) about the experience of individuals or groups of « exotics » who visited our country during the Third Republic. Today none are alive to tell us whether they returned home from the « white man’s land » with good memories, or whether they were shocked, enriched or disappointed by their experience. We do not know what memories they left with their children or grandchildren, other than their medals, a few photos, the odd love letter or two, maybe a silk purse from a beautiful blonde admirer, or even the birth certificate for their last child born in Dijon or Toulouse. Maybe they left the feeling that it had been a great adventure. Sometimes they may have been well paid. We have more information about the experiences of those who served in the army.
If we are really honest, in the light of Jean de la Guérivière’s book entitled Les Fous d’Afrique (Paris 2001), given all that we have learnt, and that « given two explanations, the one that puts trust in man is not always the worst », we can safely say that the exchanges (although at times superficial, excessively short, or skewed) between whites and blacks within the context of these various events have contributed to a slow and chaotic but positive process of learning between the French and their overseas subjects. Furthermore, their encounters did not always breed racism, hatred and disrespect, as certain academics like to think. They may even provide an explanation for self-governance in 1956 and the various independences in 1960, which occurred only 30 years after the exhibitions reached their peak in 1931. Among other things, such occasions (German historian H.J. Lüsebrink commented on this as early as 1995) even gave rise to (or simply accelerated) the development of certain national identities, such as the Dahomeyans of Senegalese for example, long before independence. What about Madagascar? Even before their were conquered in 1895, the Malagassy people had a long diplomatic relationship with us and several officers of their army had been trained in our military schools.
Therefore, it is necessary that we be meticulous in our analysis of the colonial period. We should situate it within its historical context – a context which covers several centuries. We should sound out as best we can the feelings and ideas of all parties concerned. We must refrain from misguidedly endowing millions of our forerunners with today’s gaze, which is also our own. The implication of this would be that we simply wanted at all costs, to hastily deduce that they were only ever driven by idiocy, racism and hatred.

*The Quatre Communes included Dakar, Gorée, Rusque and Saint-Louis. Their citizens had the same rights as metropolitan French citizens, unlike citizens from other areas.This text was taken from Philippe David’s French text, Villages Noirs et visiteurs africains et malgaches en France et en Europe (1870 – 1940), Khartala, 2001.///Article N° : 5266

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