Have you ever wondered what the culture of the arts sector is in the country you live in? This question is rarely asked, let alone answered.
Born in France to a Togolese father and a French mother, I naively assumed that the cultural sector in France was curious about, and open to, the global diversity of artistic expressions. After I started working as a cultural journalist in the 1990s, it did not take me long to understand that this sector—just like that of the media, which prides itself on its tolerance and universalism—was plagued by Eurocentrism and racism.
What of the artistic expressions of Africans and Afrodescendants? At best, they were unknown, except for those of African-Americans. More often than not, they were treated with contempt or made invisible by most French cultural institutions, except a handful of smaller venues on the outskirts of the major cities.
Despite the increase of antiracism movements, the word “race” was still taboo, especially in France. Few people considered themselves to be racists, yet racism was as present as it is today: in schools, in offices, in public spaces, in the procedures of daily life and in the private sphere. An invisible code seemed inscribed into many minds—that white was superior to Black.
In the arts sector, this manifested itself in a thousand ways that are still present today. Black actors and actresses in cinema and theatre are offered exotic, stereotypical or subordinate roles. Everywhere you turn, the imposed Western aesthetics are seen as the only universal artistic criteria.
I will not forget the profound ignorance and paternalism of certain European professionals in the arts sector who were so convinced they were helping African artists catch up to the pace of modernity.
I will not forget the symbolic violence of what was called African Contemporary Dance in the mid 1990s. Because, for Europeans, a choreographic form could only be considered modern if it had a clear affiliation to contemporary Western dances.
I will not forget this “well-meaning” cultural violence that plunged its roots into colonial ideology and representation—that which Europe still struggles to understand, to recognise and to deconstruct.
However, new dynamics are underway, driven by decolonial movements.
Who would have imagined a decade ago that the former European powers would have to account for the cultural looting carried out under colonisation and prepare themselves to return this heritage to African nations?
Who would have imagined that the symbols of colonial ideology and crimes would be promptly attacked, overthrown and replaced in European cities, institutions and museums?
The history of Black people fighting for equality, justice, in dependence and dignity is as old as the first forms of domination that they were subjected to. Black Lives Matter and other antiracism movements are direct successors to the anticolonial and antislavery struggles of the past.
Under pressure from historical research, militant movements and postcolonial theory, European countries are forced to rephrase the narratives of their colonial history and confront their troubled legacy.
Cultural institutions, particularly museums, should play an es sential role in this transition and this necessary social and cultural decolonisation. Not just in their public conversation, which they know how to do well, but also in concrete, courageous and sustainable reform.
Today’s African and Afropolitan artists will not beg for a place or wait for hypothetical recognition. They want institutions that reflect the multiculturality of European metropolises. They want to see themselves represented with dignity in what is known as the “Three Ps”: programs, public and personnel.
It’s time to wave goodbye to paternalism, empty promises and good intentions. We must dare to design and implement concrete diversity policies and question the mechanisms of cultural extraction, appropriation and domination that are still in place today.
Many projects in Europe and across the world are working towards decolonisation. It is impossible to cite them all. At the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles (BOZAR), where I have worked since 2016, the creation of the Afropolitan platform and the Europe an projects “Dis-Othering, Beyond Afropolitan and Other Labels” and “Smashing Wor(l)ds” are a testament to the institutional desire to transform, open up and contribute to a more inclusive culture. Just like another recent project by the German cultural institution, the Goethe-Institut, called “Everything Passes Except the Past.”
Granted, cultural institutions aren’t decolonising fast or thoroughly enough. But at least they can no longer ignore the decolonial movements.
Have you ever wondered what the culture of the arts sector is in the country you live in?
In the years to come, the answer to this question may well change.