I was fortunate enough in college to take an African Popular Culture class and African film class where there was much discussion on the beginning of African film. This is one of the films that we watched and was pleased that the film in its entirety was available on YouTube. Not only is it a rare look at African art in the early 1950’s but it is visually striking. This film essay was banned in France until the 1960’s because of its criticism of colonialism and the Western obsession with black art.
Director: Alain Resnais & Chris Marker
Narrator – Jean Négroni
Music – Guy Bernard
When men have died they enter history. When statues have died they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”
The film exhibits a series of sculptures, masks and other traditional art from Sub-Saharan Africa. The images are frequently set to music and cut to the music’s pace. The narrator focuses on the emotional qualities of the objects, and discusses the perception of African sculptures from a historical and contemporary European perspective. Only occasionally does the film provide the geographical origin, time period or other contextual information about the objects. The idea of a dead statue is explained as a statue which has lost its original significance and become reduced to a museum object, similarly to a dead person who can be found in history books. Interweaved with the objects are a few scenes of Africans performing traditional music and dances, as well as the death of a disemboweled gorilla.
During the last third of the film, the modern commercialisation of African culture is problematised. The film argues that colonial presence has compelled African art to lose much of its idiosyncratic expression, in order to appeal to Western consumers. A mention is made of how African currencies previously had been replaced by European. In the final segment, the film comments on the position of black Africans themselves in contemporary Europe and North America. Footage is seen from a Harlem Globetrotters basketball show, of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and a jazz drummer intercut with scenes from a confrontation between police and labour demonstrators. Lastly the narrator argues that we should regard African and European art history as one inseparable human culture.