The Campaign to Remove a Shocking Painting from the French Assembly

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tags: France, racism, paintings, French Assembly

The first time the French filmmaker and scholar Mame-Fatou Niang encountered “L’histoire en Peinture de l’Assemblée Nationale,” a large painting hanging in the National Assembly in Paris, she was “prise aux tripes”—grabbed by the guts. It was March of last year, and she was in the midst of what was supposed to have been a big day for her at the Palais Bourbon, which houses the lower chamber of the French legislature. She had been invited there to screen “Mariannes Noires,” her documentary about Afro-French women—“women who are perceived as having come from elsewhere, but whose hearts beat first for France,” as one reviewer wrote.

The painting, by the French artist Hervé Di Rosa, comprises nine panels, each depicting a key moment in the annals of French lawmaking: the institution of paid holidays, the recuperation of Alsace-Lorraine. Since 1991, it has hung in a hallway outside of the Assembly’s auditorium. Each year, thousands of tourists and schoolchildren pass by the work, as do their elected representatives. One panel is meant to commemorate the abolition of slavery in France, in 1794, but it perpetuates grotesque racist stereotypes. It features “two huge black faces, with bulging eyes, oversized bright red lips, carnivorous teeth, in an imagery borrowing to [sic] Sambo, the Banania commercials and Tintin in the Congo,” Niang and Julien Suaudeau, a white French novelist, wrote last week, when they launched a petition to have the work removed. “I was just shocked,” Niang recalled. “I’m a French black person. The piece tells me that this is how my country sees me.”

The petition, which calls the painting “a humiliating and dehumanizing insult to the millions of victims of slavery and to all their descendants,” has so far garnered about twenty-five hundred signatures on Change.org. With the hashtag #unautrefresquepour1794 (#anotherfrescofor1794), Niang and Suaudeau are asking people to make suggestions for a more appropriate piece of art to replace it. One young woman wrote to Niang on Twitter about a school field trip she went on to the National Assembly, during which she’d encountered Di Rosa’s painting. “I was embarrassed to ask about it in front of my classmates,” she recalled. “My teacher said that she’d asked the guides about it, but that they didn’t know how to respond. It didn’t seem to bother anyone. Some people were even laughing.”

Read entire article at New Yorker

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