6-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​C​C​N​.​6​-​2​.10 | De Groof | Gys­sels PDF

Abstract | This essay links Léon-Gontran Damas’ poet­ry to Matthias De Groof’s exper­i­men­tal film, Ren­dez-les moi, which is based on Damas’ poem “Lim­bé.” By offer­ing an inter­pre­ta­tion of “Lim­bé” in rela­tion to the museifi­ca­tion of African arti­facts, the film frames the re-eval­u­a­tion of Damas as artis­tic inter­ven­tion. Kath­leen Gys­sels engages the way the visu­al exper­i­men­ta­tion tries to gal­va­nize Damas’ artis­tic vision and focus­es on the fig­ure of Damas’ black dolls as a metaphor for gen­dered dis­crim­i­na­tion, there­by mov­ing beyond clas­sic antag­o­nisms of Négri­tude.

Résumé | Dans cette con­tri­bu­tion, nous lions la poésie de Damas à un film expéri­men­tal, « Ren­dez-les moi,» réal­isé par Matthias De Groof et basé sur le poème « Lim­bé ». En offrant une inter­pré­ta­tion de « Lim­bé » con­cer­nant la muséi­fi­ca­tion d’artéfacts africains, notre réé­val­u­a­tion de Damas est cadré par le film comme inter­ven­tion artis­tique. Le tra­vail de Kath­leen Gys­sels ira au-delà de la manière dont l’expérimentation visuelle tente de gal­vanis­er la vision artis­tique de Damas, et abor­de la fig­ure des Poupées Noires comme métaphore de dis­crim­i­na­tion gen­rée qui par-là tran­scende les antag­o­nismes clas­siques pro­pres à la Négritude.



The work of the rel­a­tive­ly under­val­ued Négri­tude poet Léon-Gontran Damas allows for an inter-artis­tic dia­logue. This con­tri­bu­tion links Damas’ poet­ry to an exper­i­men­tal film, Ren­dez-les-moi (2013), direct­ed by Matthias De Groof, one of the authors of the present arti­cle, and based on Damas’ poem “Lim­bé” (in Pig­ments; 1937). Pre­ced­ing the artist state­ment on the film, Kath­leen Gys­sels pro­vides a use­ful con­text for the film. Rather than expe­di­ent­ly recy­cling Damas’ anti-colo­nial poet­ry, De Groof’s film tries to deploy aes­thet­ics to ren­der Damas’ poet­ry a per­for­ma­tive speech act, albeit fic­tion­al­ly. The trans-medi­al aspects of the film—poetry, music, sculpture—aspire towards a free­ing of col­o­nized arte­facts from the dis­cur­sive stric­tures of colo­nial frame­works and insti­tu­tions. By offer­ing an inter­pre­ta­tion of “Lim­bé” as an inter­ven­tion into the museifi­ca­tion of African arte­facts, the film par­tic­i­pates in a re-eval­u­a­tion of Damas and Négri­tude. This study does not aim at recast­ing our under­stand­ing of Négri­tude, nor do we attempt at re-canon­is­ing Damas’ work, as Négri­tude is itself at odds with canon­i­sa­tion. Instead, we focus on the medi­al­i­ty of the film to illu­mi­nate its rela­tion to the poet­ry. Although “Lim­bé” is Damas’ only poem using the fig­ure of the dolls as a per­va­sive metaphor, we will also analyse a selec­tion of Damas’ oth­er poems in rela­tion to museification.

In the first part of the essay, Gys­sels recov­ers dimen­sions of Damas’ sup­pressed his­to­ry and artis­tic vision. Gys­sels begins by scru­ti­niz­ing the poet’s biog­ra­phy in rela­tion to his “black dolls” and the way the issue of stolen her­itage re-emerges through­out his oeu­vre (Pig­ments & Black Label). Then, she arrives at a focus on the fig­ure of Damas and his mar­gin­al­i­ty. The metaphor of the “black dolls” final­ly appears in the sec­ond con­tri­bu­tion as a reflec­tion on, rather than an analy­sis of, De Groof’s film. Ren­dez-les-moi it hopes to open up unique per­spec­tives on the oeu­vre of Damas. This crit­i­cal piece and artist state­ment facil­i­tates a recon­sid­er­a­tion of Damas’ oth­er works.

I. The Damas of Give Me Back My Black Dolls

The Africa they ran­sacked, the Africa they robbed me of”

De Groof’s film offers an intrigu­ing per­spec­tive on “Lim­bé” by con­sid­er­ing the black dolls as objects stolen from muse­ums. The Musée de l’Homme, in Damas’ mind, becomes a kind of “mau­soleum” of the dead and the dis­eased. Hav­ing stud­ied in Paris with Mar­cel Mauss and Paul Riv­et, Damas left the insti­tu­tion because he felt uncom­fort­able with the fact that Euro­pean ethnographers—and, more pre­cise­ly, French ethnographers—stole entire col­lec­tions of art and trib­al masks. The incor­po­ra­tion of these arte­facts into the muse­um space void­ed them of their rit­u­al func­tion and high­light­ed African “dark­ness” in met­ro­pol­i­tan muse­ums. Those pub­lic places exhib­it West­ern suprema­cy and hunger for wealth more than gen­uine sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty, an obser­va­tion that lurks in Damas’ poems. The work of Paul Morand, the con­tro­ver­sial inter­war writer and trav­eller who has his pro­tag­o­nist vis­it­ing the Ter­vuren Muse­um in the short sto­ry “Syra­cuse ou l’homme-panthère” (from Magie noire, 1927), evokes Damas:

These African beliefs that make of the rit­u­al cloths of the deceased so many exten­sions of the liv­ing per­son awoke in the heart of the cit­i­zen from Syra­cuse; all the divin­ers, the necro­mants who had slipped on these accursed, cast-off gar­ments, all the souls that had been trapped in these cal­abash­es, all the life­less locks of hair that had been slipped into mag­ic pouces came back to live, sig­nalled their pres­ence. “Flee,” they said; “leave the land that you inhab­it; it is fer­tile only in appear­ance, but ruin is upon it. Its progress is noth­ing but pres­tige; it has made of you a vam­pire. Return to the land where the trees and the stones speak in the name of the Spir­it.” (Morand 1992: 566, qtd in Ezra 143)

In “The Dogon as lieu de mem­oire” (2012), Statchan explains how Mar­cel De Griaule’s Dji­bouti expe­di­tion irri­tat­ed Michel Leiris, one of Damas’ friends and fel­low ethno­g­ra­phers; we must under­stand Damas’ metaphor of the black doll in this context.

French author­i­ties seized Damas’ first and most sub­ver­sive col­lec­tion, the polem­i­cal Pig­ments (1937), for its out­right anti-fas­cist and anti-colo­nial dis­course. In one of his most famous poems, “Ils sont venus ce soir” (“They came that night,” 2), Damas por­trays the colo­nial inva­sion of the Euro­pean col­o­niz­er as a moment that for­ev­er stops the drum­beat of the many African wor­ship­pers and dancers. The arrival of white bar­bar­ians destroyed the African rit­u­al gath­er­ings of dances, songs, and drums:

They came that night when the
rolled from
the frenzy

of eyes
the fren­zy of hands
the frenzy
of stat­ues’ feet
how many of ME ME ME
have died
since they came that night when the
rolled from
the frenzy
(“They Came that Night”)

How­ev­er, by com­pli­ment­ing Damas on the African beat, Léopold Sen­g­hor, one of the ini­tia­tors of Négri­tude, glossed over the actu­al event por­trayed in “They came that night / Ils sont venus ce soir.” The poem shows men (white or black) slaugh­ter­ing and ran­sack­ing and dis­cuss­es geno­ci­dal vio­lence and how the poet is inca­pable of actu­al­ly count­ing the relent­less accu­mu­la­tion of colonialism’s vic­tims. Damas hints at the long-last­ing after­shocks of colo­nial rule, the col­li­sion between two cul­tures in which the oppressed turn to “stat­ues” (i.e. inan­i­mate dolls), to ash­es, deprived of now-musei­fied trib­al masks and weapons.

This open­ing poem also hints at the racial­ized élite, the évolués betray­ing their own “race,” enslav­ing their own “blood” (“Et Caetera” and “S O S” echo this lament). Not explic­it­ly nam­ing the cul­prits, Damas denounces both the French invad­er (the White per­pe­tra­tor) and theAfricans who sold their own broth­ers and sis­ters into slav­ery, com­plic­it in their razz­ias; this vil­i­fi­ca­tion is most explic­it in an inflam­ma­to­ry litany in the first move­ment of Black-Label. Addi­tion­al­ly, he uses the passé com­posé tense to push the read­er to recon­sid­er a sin­gu­lar event (a spe­cif­ic evening of bru­tal colo­nial inva­sion as a sex­u­al­ly sug­ges­tive Euro­pean “pen­e­tra­tion,”) as the incep­tion of what became a his­to­ry of bru­tal con­quests and vio­lent incur­sions by white col­o­niz­ers that con­tin­ues into the present.

In “Et Caetera,” Damas indi­rect­ly con­demns the enrol­ment of racial­ized troops, specif­i­cal­ly Sene­galese sol­diers, in the French army. Thou­sands of sol­diers for the French war machine came from Saint-Louis du Séné­gal, the colo­nial cap­i­tal on the West­ern coast of Séné­gal. Embrac­ing the loy­al­ty France expect­ed from its colonies was indeed one of the atti­tudes char­ac­ter­is­tic of the first gen­er­a­tion of black and oth­er racial­ized lead­ers in the inter­war and imme­di­ate inde­pen­dences. Damas con­demns the end­less trib­ute paid by Africa’s sons and daugh­ters as an image of a gigan­tic machine mak­ing more sol­diers for France's war. He blames the French occu­pi­er in Sene­gal for hav­ing “ran­sacked” the black con­ti­nent and its pop­u­la­tions. The innu­mer­able sac­ri­ficed sol­diers (from the Caribbean, Amer­i­ca, and Africa) haunt Damas: they become his “spec­tral ghosts”[1] who fol­low him every­where on his sails and cross­ings, as his ances­tors did dur­ing the Mid­dle Pas­sage. His poem, “The Wind,” describes anoth­er sleep­less night as he cross­es the Black Atlantic, hear­ing a poly­phon­ic choir of ghosts. (Damas, Pig­ments 17) Out of the dark­ness, in spite of the silence, the poet cap­tures mes­sages from the ele­ments and the unseen, the haunt­ing silence of the many unheard voic­es echoes in his ears. The poem “Buried trea­sures” already demon­strates the poet’s con­vic­tion that not only human but also non-human loss is buried on the bot­tom of the ocean. The silenced voic­es in this poem impress them­selves on the world under the cov­er of night, caus­ing an extreme ten­sion on the part of the enclosed, entrapped, and enlist­ed sub­jects. The ethno­g­ra­ph­er will have the same uncan­ny expe­ri­ence, in ref­er­ence to what Freud calls “Unheim­lich,” when she or he strolls through the many muse­ums of Paris, Lon­don, or Brus­sels. In “if tomor­row the ghosts,” Damas writes, “I’m haunt­ed by their mem­o­ry” (Black-Label, M II). Ghosts are everywhere.

[K]Not's and Lines

The third cofounder of the lit­er­ary-polit­i­cal move­ment Négri­tude, Léon-Gontran Damas embod­ies the Caribbean con­cept of cre­oliza­tion. His name apt­ly express­es this cre­olized her­itage. Explor­ing the sig­ni­fi­ca­tions of his last name, Damas, inher­it­ed by some French “bag­nard,” the mil­i­tant author inter­twines the noun damas, which refers to an iron to forge weapons, with the image of sea knots and tex­tile knots (“damassé, fibre”). Among all these pol­y­semic uses, Damas favours indeed one specif­i­cal­ly haunt­ing image. Kei­th Walk­er artic­u­lates the sym­bol­ism of Damas’ name and its use in his poet­ry in Coun­ter­mod­ernism (1999):

The slip­knot is also a recur­ring image in the writ­ing of the Césaire-Damas gen­er­a­tion. Like the life­lines metaphor, the slip­knot has much to do with the sea and sur­vival. It is poly­va­lent in its sig­ni­fy­ing pow­er and mul­ti­lay­ered in its rich­ness and apt­ness to the his­to­ry and expe­ri­ence of New World Blacks, evok­ing a string of ver­bal asso­ci­a­tions that plot the lega­cy of the Mid­dle Pas­sage, colo­nial dom­i­na­tion, plan­ta­tion expe­ri­ence and post-colo­nial­ism: cap­ture, bound hands, nau­ti­cal voy­age, bondage, sui­cide, lynch­ing, stran­gu­la­tion, tri­an­gu­la­tion, strug­gle, tics, knots pres­tidig­i­ta­tion, escape, free­dom and sur­vival. (14)

The noun “damas” by exten­sion also refers to a “cord,” a “line,” which res­onates with sin­is­ter images often recy­cled by the poet: indeed, Damas repeat­ed­ly inserts the intru­sion of a hang­ing Negro, lynched at dawn for “hav­ing want­ed to cross the line.” This fic­tion­al dou­ble of him­self shows the poet entan­gled in all kinds of exis­ten­tial knots. In Amerindi­an cul­tures, the knot often serves to mea­sure time, as in the Aztec and Mayan cal­en­dars. The knot comes close to the oth­er famous “metaphor” for mixed cul­tures in the New World, the “branche­ment” (see Amselle 2001) and Glissant's “rhi­zome,” which Amselle (1990) crit­i­cizes for risk­ing a slide into a new “essen­tial­ism.” Con­sid­er­ing these diverse con­no­ta­tions, the cord with its poten­tial to form a knot, may thus serve as metaphor that chron­i­cles and sum­ma­rizes the effects of col­o­niza­tion. Damas has always defined him­self as “fils de trios fleuves” (“son of three rivers”), there­by object­ing too strong polar­i­ties between Africa (the Niger) and Europe (the Seine). Thus, as part of his per­son­al famil­ial her­itage, Damas has the blood of three rivers run­ning through his veins: African blood, blood of the indige­nous peo­ples of the Amer­i­c­as, and Euro­pean blood.

Damas – the city dweller and bohemi­an, the jazz lover and anthro­pol­o­gist, the cen­sured poet and “député dépité” (deceived politi­cian)[2]—was ahead of his time, mov­ing beyond the antag­o­nisms of Négri­tude. Not only did he claim African her­itage along­side Amerindi­an and Euro­pean (Gys­sels 2009), but he also moved away from strong bina­ries regard­ing class and gen­der. Impor­tant­ly, he strug­gled to move beyond mas­culin­i­ty as a cul­tur­al con­struc­tion opposed to fem­i­nin­i­ty (cf. infra). Regard­ing his own mixed iden­ti­ty, the poet acknowl­edged the impor­tant yet invis­i­ble fig­ure of the “red-skinned Gal­i­bi,”[3] “la Tigresse des Hauts Plateaux,” liv­ing on the bor­ders of the Orénoque-riv­er in the Ama­zon­ian for­est. In Black-Label (1956: 63), Damas poem “Roucouyennes” (BL 21) reclaims the “bone flute” (“flûte en tib­ia” BL 31) as both fetish and rit­u­al instru­ment. Else­where in Black-Label, trib­al music is evoked through the rhythms played on a “flûte de bam­bou” (“bam­boo flute” BL 45). In these poems it seems as though the lyri­cal voice is try­ing to remem­ber a female ances­tor on the Amerindi­an side, “une Gal­i­bi mat­inée de sang Con­go.” This empha­sis on the Amerindi­an pop­u­la­tion already shows Damas work­ing between the Lines, in what Homi K. Bhab­ha calls the “third zone” (Bhab­ha 1993), between the inter­stices of dis­ci­plines and among vary­ing cul­tur­al heritage(s).

Fight­ing alien­ation and racism, the Guyanese Damas would take issue with some of the most divi­sive issues to come out of the next gen­er­a­tions from the French Caribbean. First of all the “antillanité”-movement by Glis­sant, as well as the sec­ond “créolité”-movement found­ed by Con­fi­ant and Chamoi­seau in the foot­steps of Mar­tini­can Aimé Césaire face the mate­r­i­al as well as cul­tur­al depen­dence from the colo­nial Metrop­o­lis. Sen­g­hor, Césaire, Glis­sant all claim to write in her­met­ic style. When Sen­g­hor states in the “Intro­duc­tion” to Antholo­gie de la nou­velle poésie nègre et mal­gache that “Damas’ poet­ry is not sophis­ti­cat­ed” (PUF, 1948: 5), he indi­rect­ly rein­forces schol­ar­ly neglect of Damas’ poet­ry and prose. Senghor’s com­ment is indica­tive of the some­what tur­bu­lent part­ner­ship among the founders of Négri­tude. Although mar­gin­al­ized with­in his own move­ment, Damas’ writ­ing has been tak­en up by some lat­er crit­ics (see Kesteloot 1963), and authors from the African Dias­po­ra, includ­ing Glis­sant who in his Dis­cours antil­lais (1981, tr. Caribbean Dis­course) places Damas along­side Hait­ian Jacques Roumain from the Indigénist-move­ment, and Cuban Nico­las Guil­lén (Glis­sant 1989: 154). Yet oth­er rea­sons have to be tak­en into account for the wan­ing of Damas’ canon­i­cal stature and the obfus­ca­tion of his mil­i­tant work. On the mar­gins of the French-Caribbean canon, omit­ted from man­i­festos by Glis­sant and Chamoi­seau, Damas deserves to be reread as his work also approach­es a trans­gres­sion of the lines between liv­ing and dead, object and sub­ject, male and female, homo- and het­ero­sex­u­al. Also, con­trary to more acces­si­ble poet­ry, his poet­ry has from its incep­tion appealed strong­ly to visu­al arts. His sec­ond col­lec­tion, apt­ly enti­tled Graf­fi­ti (1952) already tes­ti­fies to the writ­ings on the wall, so-to-speak, of mar­gin­al­ized cul­tures and the long-last­ing pic­tures engraved on the minds of sub­al­tern sub­jects. An ear­ly voice to pub­licly address issues of the col­o­niza­tion and oppres­sion, Damas’ inter­war peri­od work proves a fer­tile ground for refram­ing Black poet­ry from the (post-)Négritude peri­od. The fol­low­ing exper­i­men­tal short film, along with its director’s artis­tic state­ment, high­light these ele­ments in Damas’ poet­ry, in par­tic­u­lar in “Lim­bé.”

Web_3 screenshot 'rendez-les-moi'

Fig­ure 1: Still from Ren­dez-les-moi (Give me back my black dolls), 2013

II. Rendez-les-moi : “Give me back my black dolls” through moving pictures

The short exper­i­men­tal film Ren­dez-les-moi (Give me back my black dolls) was part of De Groof’s work in 2013 dur­ing an IFAA-res­i­den­cy at Nijmegen.[4] The Film inter­prets Damas’ poem “Lim­bé” as an expres­sion of long­ing for a sup­pressed African cul­tur­al her­itage now pre­dom­i­nant­ly found in muse­ums. The film might be called a “visu­al poem,” using the tech­nique of “caméra-sty­lo” or “cam­era pen” that Alexan­dre Astruc describes as a form through which an artist is able to express his thoughts, tear­ing loose from the image for the image of the imme­di­ate anec­dote (Astruc 324-5). The cam­era in Ren­dez-les-moi ren­ders a visu­al poem guid­ed by a lin­guis­tic one, Léon-Gontran Damas’ “Lim­bé” as if Damas too is hold­ing the pen. After the intro­duc­to­ry expo­si­tion of a mask spin­ning as a Miles Davis’ record plays, cam­era move­ments work to imply the sub­jec­tive view­point of an imag­i­nary per­son stand­ing in front of a show­case in an Africa-muse­um. In a voyeuris­tic spy-shot, the cam­era takes on the imag­ined per­spec­tive of a per­son. This per­son sur­rep­ti­tious­ly gazes at a sin­gle black doll dis­played behind glass. In a sub­se­quent shot, view­ers see a series of African cul­tur­al arte­facts. Just at that moment, the film’s audi­ence hears the poet’s voice. The voice, read­ing Damas’ poem, infers that the sub­jec­tive gaze of the cam­era is also the gaze of Damas, who recites:

Give me back my black dolls
so they dispel
the image of pale whores
mer­chants of love who stroll back and forth
on the boule­vard of my ennui

Give me back my black dolls
so they dispel
the eter­nal image
the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry image
of stacked large-assed puppets
whose mis­er­able mercy
the wind car­ries to the nose

In this recital, Damas gives an imper­a­tive order, addressed to the muse­um, to “give him back his black dolls.” The film uses cam­era move­ments to trans­late an under­stand­ing of Damas’ shame and the taboo of the sub­ject: the muse­um dom­i­nates and exploits “his black dolls.” Indeed, in the con­text of the poem, the arte­facts func­tion as “whores” in the pub­lic space of the muse­um: undressed from their rit­u­al cos­tumes and behind vit­rines, they are dom­i­nat­ed as his­tor­i­cal­ly and racial­ly infe­ri­or. Exhib­it­ed as idols, they sug­gest an African cul­tur­al her­itage at the dis­pos­al of colo­nial projects. Through their sta­t­ic pre­sen­ta­tion, they become neg­a­tive sym­bols of West­ern his­tor­i­cal pro­gres­sion. Imply­ing a remote past, they rein­force the West’s image as devel­oped and mod­ern. Loot­ed, trad­ed, and domes­ti­cat­ed, the dolls become the relics of West­ern colo­nial­ism. Referred to as a vari­a­tion of a West­ern past exist­ing in the present, these objects make Africa into Europe’s eter­nal muse­um. Eth­nol­o­gized, the black dolls are “oth­ered” as remote and musei­fied, his­tori­cized as past. Put at both tem­po­ral and spa­tial dis­tances, they are defined by a muse­um, which uses the “self as mea­sure” and makes from Pro­tago­ras’ Homo Men­su­ra doc­trine: Europa men­su­ra.

Cat­e­go­rized, the black dolls are con­struct­ed as prim­i­tive; assim­i­lat­ed, they are con­ceived of as bar­barous and imag­ined as exot­ic. As V.Y. Mudimbe elu­ci­dates, African arte­facts “seem to be rem­nants […] of absolute begin­nings” (64). Moreover:

[t]he ethno­graph­ic muse­um enter­prise espoused a his­tor­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, deep­en­ing the need for the mem­o­ry of an archa­ic Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion and, con­se­quent­ly, expound­ing rea­sons for decod­ing exot­ic and prim­i­tive objects as sym­bol­ic and con­tem­po­rary signs of a West­ern antiq­ui­ty. (61)

Ethno­graph­ic muse­ums appro­pri­at­ed African arte­facts in order to assim­i­late them in a play of oth­er­ness and same­ness so that they speak to us as our con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry. Art muse­ums assign these arte­facts aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties so that they speak as art. Négri­tude attrib­ut­es them with an alter­i­ty that refus­es to be reduced to a West­ern gaze. This view of art is dis­tinct from the under­stand­ing formed by insti­tu­tion­al­ized West­ern Art His­to­ry, in which art has its place out­side dai­ly life, a detach­ment reflect­ed by the spa­tial dis­tinc­tion of the muse­um (see König 2007).

L’art nègre, by con­trast, is not only fun­da­men­tal­ly entan­gled with life, but its ulti­mate func­tion is to man­i­fest l’âme noire. In oth­er words, Damas iden­ti­fies with the arte­facts he sees in the muse­um and sees the impris­on­ment of African cul­tur­al her­itage as an act of alien­ation in which muse­ums took part. He writes:

my courage recovered
my audacity
I become myself once again
myself once more
out of what I was Yesterday
with­out complexity
when the hour of uproot­ing came

Will they ever know this ran­cor in my heart
Opened to the eye of my mis­trust too late
they stole the space that was mine

Uproot­ing the masks from their cul­tur­al con­text and “steal­ing the space that was mine” func­tioned with­in the log­ics of cul­tur­al coloni­sa­tion and alien­ation: this theft was French pol­i­cy every­where in the French empire, from the Afrique-Équa­to­ri­ale française (AEF) and Afrique-Occi­den­tale française (AOF) and in the Caribbean espe­cial­ly. Colo­nial­ism required this pol­i­tics of assimilation.

Con­se­quent­ly, the poet of the post-colony first and fore­most tries to recov­er and recu­per­ate the loss. The idea of a “restora­tion”—(rede­venu moi-même […] de ce que […] j’étais hier[…]quand est venue l’heure du déracin­e­ment)—with­out hin­der­ing trans­for­ma­tion into some­thing “new” (nou­veau) is typ­i­cal to Négri­tude. Yet the work of many of its mem­bers have nev­er­the­less at times been con­sid­ered tra­di­tion­al­ist. How­ev­er, in a con­text of alien­ation, nos­tal­gia on the part of the vic­tim is nev­er far-off, as demon­strat­ed by the suc­ces­sion of words in the poem:

the cus­tom, the days, the life
the song, the rhythm, the effort
the path, the water, the huts
the smoke gray earth
the wis­dom, the words, the discussion
the elders
the cadence, the hands, the tem­po, the hands
the stamp­ings of feet
the ground

The “col­o­nized her­itage” has been altered into “colo­nial her­itage”: the masks end up being decap­i­tat­ed from their cos­tumes and their rit­u­al mean­ing. Exhib­it­ed behind glass, they func­tion with­in the knowledge/power struc­ture of the mod­ernistic Weltan­schau­ung of the muse­um. The sig­nif­i­cance of museifi­ca­tion is most dras­ti­cal­ly expressed in ref­er­ence to Wal­ter Benjamin’s ter­mi­nol­o­gy from his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion” (1936): arte­facts change from the modal­i­ty of rit­u­al-val­ue to the modal­i­ty of expo­si­tion-val­ue in the con­text of repro­ducibil­i­ty (248). Nev­er­the­less, the decap­i­tat­ed masks are not dead. To para­phrase the canon­i­cal 1953 French film-essay on African art Stat­ues Also Die by Chris Mark­er, Alain Resnais, and Ghis­lain Clo­quet, the masks still main­tain the pow­er to enchant, which is why they fea­ture in De Groof’s film.

Web_1 screenshot 'rendez-les-moi'

Fig­ure 2: Still from Ren­dez-les-moi (Give me back my black dolls), 2013, 3’ depict­ing Pier­rot Barra’s instal­la­tion art­work “Agwé.”

Ren­dez-les-moi attempts to ful­fil a transat­lantic cin­e­mat­ic resti­tu­tion of the black dolls by incor­po­rat­ing Pier­rot Barra’s instal­la­tion art­work “Agwé.” This con­tem­po­rary piece by the Hait­ian artist Bar­ra (1942-1999) has the form of a boat that car­ries dolls. On the boat, the film’s view­ers see Iwa Agwe, a voodoo sea-spir­it, rep­re­sent­ed as cap­tain of the ship Imamou, which brings the deceased back to their ances­tral home of Africa. Barra’s works were pri­mar­i­ly intend­ed to serve as “lit­tle altars” for the ini­tiés, the mem­bers of the houn­for admir­ing and pray­ing the loas or voodoo pan­theon. Syn­cretis­ing West-African ani­mist and Spir­it reli­gions with Catholi­cism and freema­son­ry, voodoo was devel­oped by slaves in Saint-Domingue and was a sup­port­ive fac­tor behind the Hait­ian rev­o­lu­tion (1804) that secured the world’s first Black Repub­lic.[6]

Give me the illu­sion I will no longer have to satisfy
the sprawl­ing need
of mer­cies snoring
beneath the world’s uncon­scious disdain

One of the dolls shown in the film turns a closed eye on the word dis­dain, accen­tu­at­ing its con­tempt. Damas, for his part, artic­u­lates the dis­dain that often accom­pa­nies mer­cy, as a sen­ti­ment pro­ject­ed by the col­o­niz­er onto the col­o­nized. In “Lim­bé” he describes/illustrates the dis­dain­ful mer­cy expressed for the dolls by a seem­ing­ly com­pas­sion­ate muse­um vis­i­tor. Damas demands to give him the illu­sion that he could get rid of emp­ty mer­cy and rean­i­mate the dolls (and we acknowl­edge the fact that the dolls stand in as a metaphor for objec­ti­fied women, who do not appear in the poem).

Give me back my black dolls
so that I can play with them
the naïve games of my instinct
which has remained in the shad­ow of its laws

In the poem, the word illu­sion stress­es the fatal­ist impos­si­bil­i­ty of what he asks: to get rid of a mer­ci­ful and par­a­lyz­ing atti­tude and to lib­er­ate his her­itage from the muse­um in order to meta­mor­phose it with new mean­ing—his mean­ing. The sad irony of Damas’ work is that he can­not see past these dolls as objects: the chance of recu­per­a­tion is tied to his own dom­i­na­tion of them.

In the visu­al poem how­ev­er, spo­ken words con­nect with the medi­um of mov­ing images. De Groof takes up Damas’ wish to get the illu­sion, as explained above, across two phas­es in the film. First, a series of ver­ti­cal shots (tilts) in par­al­lel mon­tage con­nects iron objects used to chain slaves (shown with down­ward tilts) and the black dolls (shown with upward tilts).[7] Sec­ond, the illu­sion of lib­er­a­tion through cin­e­ma devel­ops in the final sequence where a suc­ces­sion of shots depicts arte­facts in move­ment. Ver­ti­cal and cir­cu­lar move­ments as well as abstract shots, detach the objects from their dis­play, attempt­ing to break these object free from their place in the muse­um and its con­nec­tion with colo­nial history.

Web_2 screenshot 'rendez-les-moi'

Fig­ure 3: Still from Ren­dez-les-moi (Give me back my black dolls), 2013, 3’, depict­ing Gérard Quenum’s black dolls, Cour­tesy of the Artist.

III Concluding Thoughts

By read­ing “Lim­bé” and oth­er poems by Damas, we have tried to shed light on a par­tic­u­lar metaphor used by the poet to denounce the process of dehu­man­iza­tion as defined in Aimé Césaire’s Dis­course on Colo­nial­ism (1950). The image of the black doll might also refer to the many artis­tic objects stolen by French ethno­g­ra­phers and explor­ers, vis­i­tors and art col­lec­tors, in the colonies. More­over, the metaphor­ic black doll cross­es dif­fer­ent lines the poet want­ed to abol­ish: between ages, sex­es, races, and class­es. The read­ing of this poem illus­trates how much Damas’ poet­ry can be ampli­fied through close read­ing and artis­tic prac­tice. De Groof’s film presents an audio-visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion of Damas’ work. It may serve as an exam­ple of the ways in which Caribbean lit­er­a­ture can inspire con­tem­po­rary film art as a recu­per­a­tive and rec­on­cil­ia­to­ry strat­e­gy. Result­ing films then offer new inter­pre­ta­tions and thus encour­age re-read­ing of Caribbean writ­ers such as Damas.


Acknowl­edg­ments: This work was sup­port­ed by the Foun­da­tion for Sci­en­tif­ic Research-Flan­ders (FWO)


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Image Notes.

Fig­ure 1: Still from Ren­dez-les moi (Give me back my black dolls), 2013, 3’

Fig­ure 2: Still from Ren­dez-les moi (Give me back my black dolls), 2013, 3’ depict­ing Pier­rot Barra’s instal­la­tion art­work “Agwé”.

Fig­ure 3: Still from Ren­dez-les moi (Give me back my black dolls), 2013, 3’, depict­ing Gérard Quenum’s black dolls, Cour­tesy of the Artist.


[1] A strong theme recur­rent­ly reap­pear­ing in Harlem Renais­sance poet­ry. See Gys­sels Kath­leen, “Damas et McK­ay : les démons blancs”, Riveneuve Con­ti­nents (automne-hiv­er 2008-2009), Hors-Série, Harlem Her­itage: 219-227. Gys­sels, Kath­leen, “Cor­re­spon­dances et con­so­nances: Bois-d’Ebène et Black-Label”, in Révolte, sub­ver­sion et développe­ment chez Jacques Roumain, Aca­cia, Michel, ed., Port-au-Prince, Edi­tions de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti, 2009 : 231-244.

[2] Trained as ethno­g­ra­ph­er and a pupil of Mar­cel Mauss and Paul Riv­et, Léon-Gontran Damas moves beyond a third Line, the endur­ing dif­férend around the issue of inde­pen­dence of the French Antilles and French Guiana. A strong oppo­nent to the vote of “départe­men­tal­i­sa­tion” launched by Césaire in 1946, Damas would for­ev­er remain the rebel, the “maroon” who does not fit in the tri­an­gle of the more Fran­cophile first Black mem­ber of the Académie française (Sen­g­hor) and life-long may­or of Fort-de-France, Césaire. In his acces­si­ble poet­ry, as well as in Retour de Guyane (1938), his sub­ver­sive por­tray­al of his moth­er coun­try in his cen­sored trav­el report on the results of French infil­tra­tion in French Guyana, Damas protest­ed fierce­ly against the départe­men­tal­i­sa­tion sup­port­ed by Aimé Césaire and fel­low Cayenese intel­lec­tu­als such as Gas­ton Mon­nerville and Félix Eboué. Reject­ing the sta­tus of “départe­ment d'outre-mer” for his own coun­try and the neigh­bour­ing French islands, Damas was con­vinced this sta­tus between auton­o­my and depen­dence would enhance a neo-colo­nial regime hold­ing the pop­u­la­tions in a dread­ful dou­ble bind. In line with Frantz Fanon, Damas believed that as cit­i­zens of France, they would always remain out­laws because of their ori­gin and skin colour. Final­ly, his with­draw­al from pol­i­tics and his dis­tanc­ing from the Négri­tude move­ment con­tributed to his isolation.

[3] The “Gal­i­bi” are one of the many Amerindi­an tribes liv­ing in French Guiana.

[4] ifaa​-plat​form​.org

https://​vimeo​.com/​7​0​7​4​1​130 (pas­word: bergendal)

https://​vimeo​.com/​7​0​7​3​1​876 (pas­word: bergendal)

[5] “Stole” is not strong enough a trans­la­tion for “cam­bri­ol­er.” In The Négri­tude Poets, An Anthol­o­gy of Trans­la­tions from the French (1989 [1975]), Con­roy-Kennedy, the verb “cam­bri­ol­er” gives the strin­gent equiv­a­lent “ran­sack­ing” (Con­roy-Kennedy 1989: 39-61). For Kesteloot, the first essay­ist to illus­trate the entire move­ment (Kesteloot 1963), the first poems by Damas indeed had a par­tic­u­lar­ly inso­lent and inci­sive char­ac­ter. Again the verb has not the strin­gent cor­po­re­al mean­ing of “fouiller” (nor of “cam­bri­ol­er” it is: “cam­ber” being close to “cham­ber,” the inti­mate space where atroc­i­ties are going on between white mas­ter and black slave). Lille­hei weak­ens Damas’ irri­ta­tion by trans­lat­ing “stole” instead of “ran­sacked.”

[6] octo​ber​gallery​.co​.uk/​e​x​h​i​b​i​t​i​o​n​s​/​2​0​0​7​v​o​y​/​i​n​d​e​x​.​s​h​tml

[7] The dolls are made by Gérard Quenum, an artist from the Repub­lic of Benin. Like the work of Bar­ra, Quenum makes pow­er­ful use of dis­card­ed children’s dolls and draws on voodoo tra­di­tions which have res­onat­ed across the Atlantic in var­ied guis­es (octo​ber​gallery​.co​.uk/​e​x​h​i​b​i​t​i​o​n​s​/​2​0​0​7​v​o​y​/​i​n​d​e​x​.​s​h​tml).

Copy­right Matthias de Groof and Kath­leen Gys­sels. This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.