Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title


Steven Cohen, Chandelier, 2001. C-Print, 100 x 81 cm. Edition of 5 + 2AP. Photo: John Hogg. Steven Cohen, courtesy of Stevenson Cape Town, JohannesburgSteven Cohen, Chandelier, 2001. C-Print, 100 x 81 cm. Edition of 5 + 2AP. Photo: John Hogg. Steven Cohen, courtesy of Stevenson Cape Town, Johannesburg.


I have decided to write it directly in English.

Just to speak the language of the Masters.

The language of these universities which have built up again any “French theories” a theory of good conscience towards the African continent.

The language of these who have make a career of representing artistically or theoretically Africa against old European concepts.

Against colonialists such as Michel Foucault Georges Bataille or even why not after all, Frantz Fanon; bloody writers (you must accept that none of them could be called seriously “philosopher” as they were not logicists) who used the language of the Enlightenment that is to say of the terms of the so obviously racists Rousseau prepared before by Montaigne or even better La Boétie.

Fortunately we have to use now the language of the good new masters of the world the language of Monsanto.

In fact, more seriously, I deeply regret my inability to write it in Afrikaans or in Lingala that is to say in any other language of the African people. But at last, I could manifest by this language issue something which built our present: the almighty domination of USA and the reformer capitalist values which spread their view of thinking and living all over the world, from Washington to Beijing.

One day in the Poland of the post communism period I heard a former activist who has become a minister of something, saying: “we cannot organise a trial for the all former Stalinists it would become a mess in the country. It would be as if we put some shit in a ventilator.”

Solidarnösc, and soon after ANC, made this same itinerary from revolution to government from “terrorists” to “Excellences”. They both preferred to reconciliate than to put shit in ventilator. (I apologise for the rudeness of the term “shit” – especially for the purists who share the same language and maybe logos with the so delicate Donald Trump – but this polish minister really said it that way)

So: I had an institute in Africa.

I was not a farmer and certainly not a talented writer such as Karen Blixen but it is true.

To be more specific I have created one: the IFAS, French Institute of South Africa. It does not exist anymore. As it was. Times they are chang’in sings our contemporary Nobel price of literature.

At this time I just exchanged with John Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and some others as Wole Soyinka or Breyten Breytenbach… o tempora o mores.

One day or two after my arrival from Krakau as I had to introduce myself according to the protocol to the French Embassy in Pretoria (searching also to buy some summer clothes as I had only pull overs and chapka in my suitcase from the icy Poland). I arrived in front of a majestic high school building.

It was the end, the definite summer school break of January (I get used to this inversion after years of winter-summer confusion…) and I looked at all these pupils in uniforms, only boys, running happily to the main exit.

All of a sudden they just split in two groups, some of them take off their shoes and socks and went home bare foot (never see it in Paris or Warsaw!) and some of them keep their shoes on. An English colleague told me later with a little pride in his tone: “yes the one who went bare foot were the Afrikaners, the other were English.”

It sounds like an expression of civilization for him.

“Bizarre”, I was reminding deep in me on the contrary a cultural reference: la prière aux masques de Senghor, the last verses especially, “pieds nus sur le sol dur”(…)

It was as if from the cold eastern Europa I came to experiment this poem physically. Later on when I have joined the Ministry of Culture in France for a while, my last son, born in South Africa, get problems in a Versailles primary school. He doesn’t want to put shoes on his feet.

One day I was convoked by some school psychologists and one angry teacher: “look what he has done!” She said to me holding my son’s masterpiece.

She had imposed a subject for a drawing “draw your favourite animal” and my too South African Cyrille had drawn a crocodile. Then I tempted to explain we lived nearby a crocodile farm where he used to go (with or without permission by the way). In spite of my biographical explanation, they all find it “abnormal and violent”.

The interview ended badly. I just told them that the problem was, above all, that they, in Versailles, only know crocodiles when they are screwed on a polo shirt.

At this time we had in France two ministers looking after “African affairs”.


THIS PAGE: Tracey Rose, Lucie’s Fur, Version 1:1:1 - L’Annuniciazione - Mme OEUF!, 2003. Lambda photograph, 100 x 220 cm. Edition of 8. Image courtesy of Goodman Gallery.Tracey Rose, Lucie’s Fur, Version 1:1:1 – L’Annuniciazione – Mme OEUF!, 2003. Lambda photograph, 100 x 220 cm. Edition of 8. Image courtesy of Goodman Gallery.


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs as for every countries in the world and a neocolonial survivor, the Ministry of Cooperation which was mainly in charge of foreign French speaking possessions especially in the black continent.

They were rich as we the Foreign Affairs were quite poor, their institutes were huge buildings with theatre, exhibition rooms, all inside enormous premises.

I have chosen to set my one flat “agency” IFAS in second or third stage of the former FUBA Building in the “grey area” of the Market Theater in Johannesburg.

The French community was upset against me and my gang (a bunch of very young talented people) who were all born after the independences.

I have simple orders from the Quai d’Orsay: be different from them (the cooperation minister members) but stay in good relations with them.

The first part of the mission were quite simple to fulfil.

The second were trickier and the tensions upraised when I invited my colleagues to visit the institute nearly after its official opening.

They were immediately all scandalised: but there is nothing to open, to officially inaugurate! Where is your theater, your concert scene, your gallery? I shown them the immediate surroundings: the Kippi’es, the Market precinct galleries, the new African Museum, the famous Market Theatre, why do I have in such a place to have “my” proper theatre or gallery?

My job was more to convince my friends who own these places or run it, to welcome French or francophone artists as their personal choice.

I remember their total disappointment and their definitive and bitter conclusions “OK yes, we understand in fact South Africa is not Africa and they came back to “home”: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, or Rwanda. All the members of my young dream team of cultural officers and searchers were amazed.

So we were not in Africa indeed?

Of course we forget them as we all do for some of our oddest dreams and we went back to work with all our partners. And of course I should assume that we never regret we have not “our” cultural places.

We were so happy, on the very contrary, to see French and francophone artists shown and produced everywhere in the country. (Ok it sounds maybe not very modest but don’t underestimate the magic of this post-election period in South Africa…)

Nevertheless, now I am still reminding vividly this anecdote: we were not in Africa.

What did it means?

Probably that Africa has to be poor and desperate. With crowd going to “The” cultural place we are supposed to run, the French institute, alone in an artistic desert or something like that. Of course it does not have any sense and many places are still fortunately opening everywhere in West Africa. Some inspired by the occidental model some not, some places created by artists themselves, using some squat places abandoned by the ancient colonial masters and yet not taken by the new ones.

And this is a deep matter of hope as these artist running places are making a huge worldwide network with other similar places from Russia to France and USA to Greece.

A real constellation of nearly ruined factories or tiny semi private flats with exhibition rooms, all trying to explore new forms and concepts far from all the neocolonial capitalist market, biennales and all the creations of this monstrous machine which seems to be invented to desperate young creators.

Of course, cultural diplomats according to such a fact, have to become more go between and facilitators than producers. Cultural diplomacy has to help to underline such a network to help multiple exchanges to navigate in a Glissant oriented “Archipelago” and in definitive to deal more with creation than with culture.

Undoubtedly I learned it in and from Africa, this cautiousness towards cultural institutions and the preference to deal directly with the artists from writers to visual artists or performers.

To always try to appeal for procedures only after the sense were produced. The inverse gives birth to nothing except cultural non sense or sycophant art.

But of course one must come back to this barefoot experience.

Africa has a body. This could sound as an old colonial song except if one accepts the consequences of this statement as a major philosophical one: and we have lost ours.

From Nietzsche to Freud, from Bastille to Jodorowsky, from Antonin Artaud to Castaneda… Occident has tempted to re-give a strong place to body, flesh, cruelty and desire wiped out by centuries of Christianity and over-rational philosophy. Bataille was a librarian in the Musée de l’Homme. The institution which exhibited the poor rests of Saartjie Baartman.

But it was also the place where the young Leiris and Levi Strauss tried to change the occidental state of mind. They demonstrate with no support around that a civilization always made choice and there is no choice without an abandon. If you choose to transform nature, to domestic it, you have to assume you re enable to respect it, to fit in, to adapt you “withinside”…

That is why at the end of his life, the very old Race and History author who was approaching 100 years old, hated our white occidental world. Its ability to think it is unique and that the rest of the universe must at least imitate it.

The massacres, the killings, the cupidity are intimately bound with this mistake to systematically prefer to have than to be.

Fortunately Spinoza is always following Descartes: “we are not an empire in an empire.” Nature is not something external, we are part of it. It is a childish dangerous dream to pretend to dominate it as if we were outside of it. What we do to nature we do it to us. We will learned soon it in sufferings.

Africa has a body as Africa has a memory, Africa has always refused to forget our spinozist reflexion. The missionaries have done “their best” but fortunately animism still looks after us…

Inspired by their experience in Peruvian tribes of the deep forest or by some Siberian initiation “performeurs” (living artist) seem to pay tribute to Africa very often.

They constantly try to consider their proper bodies as a source of paroles, a place to search and experiment, to find sense and meanings, all their attitudes force us to look another way than the colonial one to Africa.

Our world is dying by forgetting we have a body that we are a body. His “soulish-foolish” obsessional aspiration to impose a pan rationalism drives us to some kind of suicidal behaviours.

No more “Wille zur Macht” no more “Libido” or “Part maudite”… No more “vision” only “ looks”, Nietzsche, Freud, Bataille, or Castaneda, the author names don’t make really sense here in front of this single reality: we have built our power over Africa by insisting on our proper “refoulement”.

The African colonization was a temptation for the occidental continent to become totally amnesic. No more examples of other ways of thinking no more spinozist-kabbalistic temptations: “there is two ways to build knowledge the thought or the body (“l’étendue”)” used to proclaim the “Ethic”.

We have imposed our strength to the called savages by forgetting we were all coming from the Lomo Valley (Telemaque dreamer’s painting was the very first show I ever curated in Jo’bourg). How many time we have to fight to refind our original “savagery”? The author of the theatre of the cruelty was also the author of the Tarahumaras.

We expressed our satisfaction to control Africa as we were only expressed our dead end issue. We assassinated daily to forget we are committing suicide. It is the worst tragedy never been written even by an ancient Greek.

It offers a new way to understand the term tomb in the title Tomb of 500 000 soldiers this so powerful masterpiece inspired by the Algerian war by Pierre Guyotat.

Some rare artists (joined now by more and more creators) try to endorse this curious chamane role. Trying to help all of us to remind we not only have but are a body, trying also to bring us from this “reality” to another world.

These creators are “Passeurs” (smugglers). They are some magicians able not to abuse us by making tours, but able to help us to exercise some forgotten parts of our “carnal intelligence”. By trying for example, to understand deeply the sense of our so small scale life in the whole cosmos.

According to these reflexions Africa has actualised among sounds and furies the old Greeks dreams, trying to escape the cave where the Control Society described by Deleuze wants to keep us so blind inside.

We have to escape from all this reality-show to be as these puppies who – in the scene which is so incredibly vivid written in my memory still take off their shoes.

Gaia thanks them.





NB 1:

The illustrations chose here are a mix of African and European artists interested in their creations by something I propose to recognise as an African de-construction of the reality

NB 2:

The clumsy turns of phrase and mistakes are assumed by the author to express he used a language which had become the universal language with the terrific risk to become the universal “logos”.


Laurent Devèze is a philosopher who began his career as an academic in Ecole Normale Supérieure and then in the Political Institute of Paris, where he was a cultural diplomat for nearly twenty five years. He has since lived in Romania, Poland, USA, Sweden, and in South Africa, where he was the founder of the French Institute after the long official boycott of the apartheid period.

He has written several essays and catalogues of artists. As a curator he has put together several monographic and group shows around the world. Currently he is running the Institute of Art of Besançon, an art school which provides Masters in Art and Communication and specializes in the thematics of art and politics.


FEATURED IMAGE: Adam Broomberg, Kodak Ektachrome, 34, 1978, frame 4, 2012. C-41 print, 120 x 120 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Related Posts

Scroll to Top