A coffee table book full of sexualised images of indigenous people exploited by their white masters has hit a nerve in post-colonial France. The authors argue they’re telling history “as it is” but critics accuse them of reviving colonial abuse.
The 544-page-long book, “Sex, Race & Colonies, the domination of bodies from the 15th century to the present day” contains more than 1,200 erotic photographs, paintings and prints of colonised men and women – many of them made public for the very first time. The book took more than four years to complete, with 97 historians trawling through some 450 private and public collections across the globe in a bid to illustrate the extent that colonial powers exploited the people of the nations they invaded. Not just in countries colonised by France, but also in countries occupied by the Japanese empire and in segregationist America.
“The West presumed to have an innate right over others. The domination of land was followed by a domination of bodies… The white man felt untouchable,” said historian and co-author Pascal Blanchard in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Since the 15th century, art has talked about a paradise lost. These new bodies fascinated Westerners, even as they hid their own. It was a combination of contempt and attraction. What was paradise for some, was hell for others,” he said.
Many museums have refused to be associated with the controversial book, however.
“The museums refused to give us the rights to use [Paul] Gauguin’s works, which is enormously problematic. And the Hergé estate used their veto to prevent us from using drawings from ‘Tintin in the Congo’. Not to mention all the brands that refused us the rights to put their interracial advertisements in the book,” Blanchard said, noting the subject remains highly sensitive and a taboo in the eyes of the general public.
Disturbing and overwhelming
One of the most fervent critics of the book is the “Panafrorevolutionary” activist group “Collectif Cases Rebelles” which accuses the authors of “reproducing the violence by massively disseminating images of non-white women being humiliated, assaulted, and of which some are still children… as if the reproduction of these images have ceased to be profoundly detrimental to dignity, as if they no longer affect the descendants and the heirs of the victims of this colonial violence.”
Christelle Taraud, one of the historians who contributed to the book, said that one of the problems in previous works on the history of colonialism has been related to the lack of images. “In order to talk about colonial domination, we’ve had to deal with the image material which has always posed a lot of problems for historians, or which have been used in an illustrative manner,” she said at the annual history festival “Rendez-vous de l’Histoire” in Blois in central France in mid-October. “We wanted to put these images at the heart of what we were problematising. Since the 19th century and the invention of photography, most symbolic domination has been done through visual domination. And we’re convinced that yesterday’s stereotypes have very much impacted our contemporary societies.”
Nicolas Bancel, one of the two lead authors of the book, said that the rise of sexual tourism by Westerners in former colonies – complete with the fantasy of a beurette (a pejorative term for a woman of Maghreb origin) – is just as much a heritage of their countries’ colonial pasts as the dominant imagery presented in the book. “The images are powerful, they’re disturbing and overwhelming,” he said during a round-table session at the history festival in Blois. “They resonate with dark areas of our conscience. We’ve worked hard so that this book will make people think, and so that it will give them the perspective to do so. We’ve particularly thought about intertextuality, the relation between text and images.”
‘Big beautiful book of porn’
But it’s not just the book’s contents that’s provoked the critics’ ire, but the format chosen to present the controversial images: Aside from the book’s provocative title – grouping sex, race and colonialism together – it has been slammed for its coffee table book design and its glossy pages.
Philippe Artières, an art critic at French daily Libération, wrote a damning review saying the format alone “contradicts the author’s claimed aim” of drawing attention to the sad colonial history behind the images. Another of the newspaper’s regular contributors, Daniel Schneiderman, wrote: “It makes you sick because you think you’re opening a history book and you find yourself flicking through a big beautiful book of porn… You know, these beautiful books depicting tractors, Quattrocento artists or Meerschaum pipes? Well, this time it’s a beautiful book on colonial rape.”
In his interview with FRANCE 24, however, Blanchard said there was a reason for why the authors chose “not to call them erotic photographs, but images of colonial domination”.
“We didn’t show everything, the images showing paedophilia weren’t published. If you want people to understand how, at the time and via these photographs, people legitimised their right to own someone else’s body, you need to show these images,” he argued.
Bancel added that people’s reception of the book could be compared with that of James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” in 2000. “The first reactions to that book were extremely violent among black Americans… until they accepted it was a part of their history.”
Blanchard was recently criticised for pulling out of a scheduled debate on French news channel Arrêt sur images. In a stinging comment on the channel’s website, Schneiderman, who was set to host the show, suggested that Blanchard’s last-minute cancellation was due to the fact that renowned Franco-Ivorian feminist Maboula Soumahoro had been invited to take him and his latest book on. “Blanchard has declined because ‘there’s not enough [time] for debate’. In contrast, we feel that this debate is indispensable.”
Blanchard told FRANCE 24 that: “We’re discovering the history of masculine domination. It’s a long history which wasn’t born with the #MeToo movement and which won’t end in a few months from now. Touching upon the history of masculine domination is a very complex issue. It scares us, because it wreaks havoc with all our bearings.”