Saturday, 14 July 2018

Race : le mot seul n'est pas un jugement de valeur

Les député.e.s ont considéré que la persistance du mot "race" au sein de la Constitution n’avait pas lieu d’être. Et vous, comment comprenez-vous cette notion de "race" ? Du moins pensez-vous qu’il est encore légitime d’utiliser ce terme, admettons, dans une discussion courante ?

Hourya Bentouhami, philosophe - En sciences humaines et sociales et dans les mouvements anti-racistes, le terme "race " n’est pas compris comme une réalité, au sens où son usage légitimerait des hiérarchisations entre les individus sur leur appartenance supposée à un groupe considéré comme infâme. C’est comme fiction ayant des effets réels que ce terme est employé puisque l’on peut constater tous les jours que le racisme existe, c’est-à-dire qu’il y a des discriminations à l’embauche, des violences policières qui concernent spécifiquement les personnes qui sont perçues comme Autres. C’est la réalité du racisme qui rend nécessaire l’usage du terme "race" dans des politiques anti-racistes : de fait les promoteurs de la suppression du mot "race" ont bien compris la nécessité de nommer les choses pour pouvoir les combattre, puisqu’ils – et notamment elles - ont introduit le terme "sans distinction de sexe" pour pouvoir garantir une protection constitutionnelle renforcée aux victimes de sexisme.

On a tort de manière générale de croire qu’en utilisant un terme et en nommant un phénomène on lui accorde une légitimité et une réalité génétique ou biologique : et de fait le sexe n’a pas plus une réalité biologique que la race. Sexe et race sont des constructions sociales qui consistent à hiérarchiser, classer les individus selon des dispositions, des compétences et aptitudes supposées appartenir à leur nature. Enfin, la "race" permet de décrire de manière plus exhaustive l’imaginaire qui alimente - en même temps qu’il s’en nourrit – les différentes fixations du racisme : en effet, la race renvoie à la production d’une différence irréductible et hiérarchisée entre les hommes à partir de la perception fantasmée de la couleur de peau, des origines, de la confession, de la culture. En ce sens, ni l’origine ni la couleur de peau en tant que telles ne décrivent adéquatement l’ensemble des configurations racistes, c’est ce que nous démontrons dans notre tribune publiée dans Mediapart : il suffit de penser au racisme qui touche les Roms ou encore à l’antisémitisme. Dans ces deux cas, ce n’est pas l’origine, ni la couleur de peau ni même la confession stricto-sensu qui opère dans ces racismes spécifiques.

Yaël Braun-Pivet, députée LREM des Yvelines et présidente de la commission des Lois annonce, pour FranceInfo : "Il est temps de mettre notre Constitution en conformité avec cette réalité.". Pourtant, dans le droit français, les différences raciales sont bien évoquées afin de démontrer que la République les réprouve. Le Premier ministre français, Edouard Philippe, a récemment tweeté : "Supprimer le terme de 'race' ne supprimera pas le racisme. Mais il ne doit y avoir aucune possibilité pour qui que ce soit de se prévaloir de la présence de ce terme dans la Constitution pour justifier l’injustifiable.". Comprenez-vous l’argument de ceux qui pensent que refuser explicitement les discriminations raciales, de façon constitutionnelle, revient à reconnaître l’existence de races ?

Il y a un paradoxe que la philosophe Colette Guillaumin avait bien compris, c’est que "la race n’existe pas…mais elle existe". Entendons-nous bien : "la race n’existe pas", cela veut dire que la prétention à la dignité et à l’égalité entre les humains relève d’une nature partagée, et non d’un privilège d’une culture spécifique par exemple. "Mais la race existe" signifie que dans les faits, c’est à dire si l’on regarde comment sont traitées les personnes appartenant à certains pays, à certaines cultures ou confessions, on remarque qu’il y une différence de traitement : une inégalité injuste. En ce sens, le racisme tel que nous l’entendons aujourd’hui et qui mérite d’être combattu en se fondant sur la protection constitutionnelle n’est pas tant à rechercher dans l’intention maligne d’agents haineux (même si ce racisme existe et est pénalement condamné), que dans le résultat de politiques, de décisions, de mesures indignes qui rompent l’égalité entre les citoyens et entre les humains.

Se priver de cet outil de la protection constitutionnelle est préjudiciable pour la lutte contre les discriminations, car contrairement à ce qui est avancé le préambule de la constitution de 1946 est insuffisant pour offrir la protection nécessaire puisqu’il ne fait référence qu’à la dignité humaine et non pas à l’égalité. Or, toutes les formes de discriminations raciales – loin s’en faut – n’impliquent pas nécessairement des traitements inhumains puisqu’une partie non négligeable d’entre elles portent sur les discriminations au travail, au logement, à la santé qui ne comportent pas en soi des formes de tortures ou d’atteinte à l’intégrité de soi. Les discriminations raciales sont en grande partie des ruptures d’égalité. Les ramener toutes à un traitement inhumain c’est voir le risque que de nombreux contrôles de constitutionnalité pour les discriminations raciales soient déboutées au prétexte que la dignité humaine n’est pas objectivement atteinte.

Pour le même article de FranceInfo, vous avez avancé que, je cite : "pour pouvoir agir sur le racisme, il faut absolument cet outil critique qui permet de nommer". Pouvez-vous nous expliquer pourquoi ? Est-ce une réserve d’ordre juridique ?

Oui, c’est une réserve d’ordre juridique, entre autres. Une confusion symptomatique entre les mots et les choses s’est glissée lors de l’examen de cette suppression du mot "race". Les député.e.s ont succombé à cette croyance magique selon laquelle prononcer un mot équivaudrait à adhérer à la chose. Or les mots seuls ne sont pas des jugements de valeur : c’est le contexte de l’article qui fournit le sens conjuratoire et critique que l’on doit accorder au terme "race". La stipulation explicite de l’interdiction de la distinction de race a été introduite en Europe dans plusieurs constitutions de pays ayant subi les affres du nazisme, du fascisme, de la colonisation afin de conjurer toute légitimation juridique du racisme. Nommer le mal en droit, et plus spécifiquement, dans un article portant sur les discriminations interdites qui rompent l’égalité entre les citoyens, c’est donner la possibilité aux organismes et aux militants anti-racistes de s’appuyer sur un texte de droit fondamental pour qualifier les cas de discriminations comme étant une atteinte aux droits fondamentaux. De plus, il faut bien comprendre que maintenant que le terme "race" a été éliminé de la Constitution, on ne pourra plus juger de la constitutionnalité d’une loi à l’aune de cette interdiction de la discrimination raciale. Donc on peut bien arguer que des lois sont déjà là dans le Code de procédure pénale et sur la liberté de la presse, pour interdire et punir les discours de haine, ce dont on se prive désormais c’est de la possibilité de juger du caractère raciste d’une loi. La levée de cette protection des lois est donc très dangereuse à l’heure de la montée au pouvoir des populismes de droite dans plusieurs pays européens.

Avec ce même amendement, les député.e.s ont trouvé un large consensus sur le fait d’inscrire constitutionnellement l’interdiction de toute discrimination de genre. La délégation aux droits des femmes s’est battue pour inscrire un principe égalitaire dans le texte. Un accord semble donc avoir été trouvé en remplaçant  "sans distinction de race" par "sans distinction de sexe". On vous connaît aussi comme étant une militante féministe et queer… Qu’en pensez-vous ? Pouvons-nous remplacer aussi simplement un mot par un autre qui renvoie à une toute autre lutte ?

L’effacement du mot "race" et son remplacement par le mot "sexe" sont symptomatiques d’une conjoncture historique où le féminisme se retrouve instrumentalisé pour effacer les luttes antiracistes. Ce phénomène de substitution est dangereux car il conduit à légitimer l’idée que la lutte féministe pour l´égalité des sexes, ne peut gagner ses lettres de noblesse que si elle désavoue le lexique même de la lutte anti-raciste. C’est réduire au silence tout un ensemble d’expériences vécues de femmes qui sont au croisement entre ces deux formes de discriminations que sont l’inégalité des sexes et l’inégalité raciale. Les femmes qui subissent les discriminations raciales sont obligées de "choisir" la part d’elle même qu’elle souhaite défendre : sera-ce en tant que femme ou en tant que non-blanche ?

Et ce dilemme est problématique, car la manière dont elles sont perçues ou traitées par les institutions est insécable. Les obliger à choisir quelle part d’elle-même elles doivent défendre juridiquement risque de renforcer l’invisibilité juridique des personnes qui sont discriminées en tant que "femme appartenant à une minorité" ou en tant qu’ "homme appartenant à une minorité". Dans mes travaux, je plaide pour une pratique de l’intersectionnalité dans la lutte féministe et la lutte antiraciste, car de nombreuses données historiques et sociologiques nous montrent que les discriminations raciales fonctionnent par renforcement des discriminations de genre, et réciproquement. Comme l’a montré l’affaire Naomi Musenga. Donc n’évoquer que l’une des facettes du processus discriminatoire c’est s’amputer d’une vue plus large et complète du ce processus.

Ne trouvez-vous pas cette initiative paradoxale tandis que les amendements de féminisation des titres de fonctions dans la Constitution ont tous été refusés ?

Ceci est symptomatique d’un opportunisme de la part de député.e.s qui s’enorgueillissent d’un féminisme dont il découvre qu’il est le meilleur moyen (dans la limite du "raisonnable" !) pour délégitimer les outils de défense des mouvements antiracistes actuels. Cette autocongratulation de l’Assemblée qui se félicite de l’interdiction des distinctions de sexe est la même en effet qui rappelle sans cesse la noblesse du neutre et du masculin et qui refuse la féminisation des noms de fonctions prestigieuses. Et c’est la même qui reste si masculine et si attachée à ses prérogatives de pouvoir. Il ne s’agit pas simplement d’un acte hypocrite : l’Assemblée, dont le nombre de député.e.s issues de minorités est insignifiant, rappelle inconsciemment à l’ordre les minorités dites ethniques en leur signifiant que la défense de l’égalité des sexes est un avantage culturel dont elles sont dépourvues.

Enfin, quel est, selon vous, le meilleur compromis à faire concernant cet article premier de la Constitution ?

Si "race" fait bondir on peut ajouter, comme c’est le cas dans le cadre européen, l’adjectif "prétendue" pour bien signifier que l’usage du terme ne vaut pas adhésion à son contenu. Ou alors, il faut multiplier les noms qui décrivent les processus de racialisation sans pour autant les épuiser : ce qui veut dire "sans distinction de religion, de culture, de langue, de prétendues origine, couleur de peau, etc.". Mais cette pluralité des marqueurs racistes était déjà contenu dans l’économie du terme "race". Par ailleurs, en soi, l’interdiction de la discrimination entre les sexes est une bonne chose mais elle ne peut se faire au détriment de l’interdiction de la discrimination raciale. Le meilleur compromis serait donc le suivant : "sans distinction de sexe, de prétendues origine, couleur de peau, de langue, de religion ou de culture".

Friday, 13 July 2018

When potentially influential minds do not express themselves in their native language...



The Nation
…they are starving the imagination of a majority of people.
  Rohit Inani, an independent journalist based in New Delhi: In 1977, you published Petals of Blood about a peasant uprising in a neocolonial Kenyan society. Immediately after, you published a controversial play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) in Kikuyu, your native language. Did you write the play in Kikuyu because Petals of Blood failed to connect with the people you were writing about?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, writer: It’s true. There is a reality in Africa that 90 percent of the population speaks different languages. And if you think, as I do, that people are an engine of change, then the question of their access to information and skills is very important. When you write a novel in English—no matter how radical, no matter how progressive—it can only reach people in a trickle-down fashion.
RI: Were you hoping of an uprising after the publication? 
NT: No, never. Art does not incite. To me, art has to do with imagination. Imagination makes possible everything we do as human beings. We can picture all the possibilities and try to realize it in practice.
 What nourishes the imagination? It is actually the arts, the songs, the culture. The problem with repressive regimes is that they like to starve the imagination. They don’t want you to think or imagine the possibilities of a different future. They want you to think this is the best of all possible worlds, like that character in Voltaire’s Candide, “Oh! This is the best of all possible worlds!” Slave-owning institutions used to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds.
 So writing in English, or making sure that literature is only available in English, you are starving the imagination of a majority of people.

RI: In 1978, while being imprisoned in the Kamiti maximum-security prison, you wrote one of your most famous books, Devil on the Cross, in Kikuyu, on toilet paper. How difficult was it to write an entire book on toilet paper?
NT: I was put in prison because of my play I Will Marry When I Want, which was published in Kikuyu and acted by peasants. I remember the play being stopped in November 1977, and on December 31, 1977, I found myself in a maximum-security prison. Now, in prison I was thinking very seriously about the language question. I realized that when I looked at the history of colonialism, the colonizer not only imposes his language, but he denigrates and represses the languages of the colonized. So the condition of learning English was the unlearning of our language, which continued into the postcolonial era.

I decided that since I’d been put in prison for writing in a national language and put there by an African government, I would, as part of my resistance, write in the very language which had been the basis of my incarceration.



RI: And this was the moment of truth for you?
NT: Yeah. It sustained me—feeling as if I was resisting. It was fun writing when I did not have paper. All I had was toilet paper. But occasionally I got a pen from the prison authorities if I said I was writing some kind of confession—I don’t know what there was to confess.
RI: How did you manage to keep it away from the eyes of the prison authorities?NT: I used to hide them in the open. We were allowed thousands of squares of toilet paper. Together they pack nicely. Towards the end the pile of toilet paper reached very high. At one point, I almost lost it, which I write about it in my memoir that’s coming out in March under the title Wrestling with the Devil. 
RI: You have called language a “war zone,” and you describe yourself as a “language warrior.” Can you briefly talk about that?
NT: Look at the Irish situation with the British. The humiliation of Native Americans, how their language was denigrated. In Africa, of course, we were forbidden to speak our mother tongues. Japan imposed its language on the Koreans. So wherever you look at modern colonialism, the acquisition of the language of the colonizer was based on the death of the languages of the colonized. So it is a war zone. In case of India, [British historian and statesman Thomas Babington] Macaulay was brutally honest about wanting to create a class of Indians with English on their minds. The English wanted them to play a role in governing the rest of the population. It is true of Africa, and anywhere where there was a colonial situation. African languages were weaponized against Africans. Language was a weapon of war whether we are talking about the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America or French in Africa and Vietnam. Language was a very important element in both the conquest and maintenance of colonial rule, because it was likely to bind the minds of the middle class.
RI: Do you think that once you have mastered a language, it becomes your own and you can reclaim it to free yourself even if you have been oppressed by it? In one of his letters to his father, V.S. Naipaul, as a young man in Oxford, wrote: “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”


NT: Naipaul?
RI: Yes.
NT: But this is the dream of the colonizer. They sit down and say, “Woohoo! They have embraced our language so much that are now competing with us.” Naipaul is indeed the master of the language, and personally I have no problem with that. I like Naipaul’s novels. What I have a problem with is in thinking that somehow we are advancing the languages of the cultures, which have been oppressed.

No. When you do that, as he did and as I did in Petals of Blood, what we are doing is expanding the capacity of the English language.

It is OK to make English our own or French our own. Any individual writer can make a language his own, but you can’t tell me that by writing in English [Joseph] Conrad was somehow helping the Polish language [Conrad’s native language].
RI: You mentioned using language as a weapon by the colonizer. In the same way, do you think English can be used as a weapon by the colonized, as Chinua Achebe said, “as a counterargument to colonization”?
NT: In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, we see an immense contribution to our consciousness of oppression of cultures. One should not take away from the actual contribution of writers and intellectuals from the Third World who write in English or French or so on. But the leap that I don’t agree with is that somehow you are advancing the other languages or that English is becoming an African language. Africa has got its own languages. It’s on the African intellectuals to make this case, because it is the intellectuals who are responsible for advancing their language. When an intellectual abandons it to write in another language, it leaves his language with one less mind.
RI: J.M. Coetzee has said that English liberated him from the narrow worldview of the Afrikaans, but last month, speaking at the Hay Festival in Colombia, he said, with disappointment, that “the hegemony of English language, of London and New York in the realm of global literature has to end.” He also went onto say that “English is not my language in a way that English was to Shakespeare.”
NT: Oh, he said that?
RI: Yes.
NT: Oh. It is a very important shift. If it was a normal thing for African intellectuals to develop works in their own languages, then it doesn’t matter that some also happen to write in another language. Conrad writing in English did not affect the mass of Polish intellectuals writing in Polish. But we are talking about a situation where it’s not just one or two but the whole intellectual community, whether in agriculture or medicine, writing in English or French. The legal system is usually conducted in English or French, when a majority of people operate in different linguistic spheres. That’s really the problem.
RI: In your memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, you write, “We often crowded around whoever was telling a tale, and those who were really good at it became heroes of the moment.” Can you talk about the influence of the tradition of storytelling on you while you were growing up?
NT: Every community has a storytelling tradition. Be it the stories in Mahabharata [a Sanskrit epic from ancient India], or even some philosophic discussions of Plato or Socrates. I always think that the best storyteller is the one who has an anxiety of expectation and fulfills it because if you don’t then there is disappointment.

I was a very good listener and very poor at telling the story. I always wanted to listen.
RI: The book also tells about your relentless pursuit of an education and the role of your mother in instilling it in you.
NT: My mother could not read. She had never been to school and worked in the fields all her life. But she was the one who sent me to school. My sister bought me my first pair of shoes so that I could go to school, and she used to write my homework. I don’t know how she did it. And one thing I remember is that always when I’d come and tell her that I got 100 percent in my exams and she would ask, “Was that the best?” The idea of “the best” was integral to her questions about how I had done. That was her measure of success.
RI: How did you decide of taking up memoir as a form? Was self-depiction a challenge?
NT: For a long time, I could not bring myself to write about myself. And the reason is that I wrote novels drawing from my own experiences. I mean Weep Not, Child is not a written from a strict biographical perspective, but I’m drawing from things which have happened around me. But of course I have become the father of 10 kids. My wife said, “Look, you really need to tell them something about yourself, because you will not always be there to tell them of what happened.” So in the first volume I decided to write only about my childhood. Going to high school. I did that in Dreams in a Time of War, because I went to school literally during war and growing up to avoid it. It’s also about how my mother and I sustained dreams in the condition of war.
RI: In a review of your memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver, the British journalist Michela Wrong wrote in The New York Times: “It will be interesting to see whether Ngugi’s next memoir will be set in post-independence Kenya and be equally feisty. While colonization presents African writers with the softest of targets, criticizing still living African politicians and modern-day regimes is fraught with risk.” Do you believe colonization is a soft target for African writers?
NT: Quite frankly, I don’t know what she meant by that. If you look at not just my work but works by other African writers, they have been very critical not only of the colonial regime but also of postcolonial rulers and dictatorships in Africa. Colonialism is the consequences of colonial ventures, and it is not soft.

My novels are always critical of the colonial and the postcolonial situation. And nothing will change in that direction. You have to look at what impacts human lives, which is impacted by questions of wealth, power, and values in a society—how, even in the dark, people come to meet and love each other.
RI: Do you think that in post-colonial societies a writer has an obligation toward writing about political oppression and historical injustice as opposed to writers in free and developed societies, who can pursue writing just for the sake of art? Is this a bondage for writers from the Global South?
NT: I don’t really believe it when a writer says, “Oh! I’m not writing about politics.” Really, they are, because they are espousing a view of the world, consciously or unconsciously. Writers need to be aware that they are not neutral agents, that they are a product of certain history, a certain class position. You come from a history of oppression, and you can’t write as if there has been no oppression, and you can’t write as if there has been no resistance. The scars of history are on every writer.

It is imagination that allows you to explore all worlds and possibilities, but often you can transcend the conditions under which you are writing. Writers are part of the prophetic tradition. Just like how numerous prophets went to the deserts to commune and came up with voices about the oppressive present and possibilities of the future. And in a way, writers come from that tradition. Prophets did not always come from a socially oppressed past; some were privileged and saw the contradictions of their privileges and the reality of life in general. And writers are a part of this in how their imagination makes them transcend the limits of their class experiences.
RI: Joseph Conrad was an early influence in your life. You recently wrote in The New York Times that you turned your back on reading Conrad in 1967 after you published A Grain of Wheat, which you wrote after reading Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. But you also write that, even though you accepted Achebe’s critique of Conrad, you could not “wholly embrace Achebe’s overwhelming negative view of Heart of Darkness or Conrad in general.”
NT: Conrad is an incredible writer. He is an example of where art can mirror more than even what a writer consciously intended it to mirror. It’s like putting a camera on the street to record a particular object, but the camera has captured other things in the background. Achebe, for me, articulated what had made me uneasy about Conrad. If you read Heart of Darkness, for instance, what he says about imperialism couldn’t be said better—that it’s robbery and murder on a grand scale. He was an embodiment of European enlightenment, a figure of light, which obviously echoed the enlightenment theory. What does this man end up? He eventually ends up surrounding himself with the scars of this light. Within the novel itself, the critique of imperialism is very clear. I’m drawn by his critique.
Conrad was very important for me. If I had writer’s block, all I’d do was read the opening lines of Nostromo. The structure of the sentences, the beauty of it—and I’d find myself back to what I was writing. It always reminded me of opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
RI: What has the role of the university been in the making of world literature? We have seen a trend where Southern writers in exile are given a home in Western universities.
NT: The university has become equivalent to those patrons in the middle ages who made it possible for some musicians to have sanctuaries. Now we have universities, which provide jobs, which give us income, which in turn gives us the stability to write.
RI: Are there any writers outside of the West or Africa who have influenced you?
NT: Weep Not, Child was very much impacted by my reading of George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin. What he did with that novel and exploring the morals of a child was very amusing to me. I was not able to do as good a job, but I did try. I also read some Indian writers at the time: Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, and Raja Rao. Not many Latin American writers, but I like Gabriel García Márquez. [Leo] Tolstoy and [Anton] Chekov. I discovered [Maxim] Gorky later, and I found his novel The Mother very interesting.
RI: You have been a favorite to win the Nobel Prize for some years now. What do you think about it?
NT: I have been asked that question for years. I really appreciate that so many people think that my work is worthy of it, and I’d be happy if I got it, but I don’t write for prizes. I appreciate what they call a “Nobel of the Heart,” which is when people tell me again and again, “Your work has impacted me.”

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Theaster Gates*: 'The male, Caucasian world as we've known it is over'


Steve Rose
"Maybe Basel will believe in black women, ’cos they’re going to see a lot of ’em,” says Theaster Gates with a laugh. He is standing in the middle of a room in the Kunstmuseum Basel, where he is preparing an exhibition on the theme of the Black Madonna. Amid the packing materials and exhibits waiting to be hung stands a roughly life-sized sculpture of a seated Virgin Mary. She holds an orb in one hand. On her lap sits baby Jesus, also holding an orb. Her features are eroded as if she has been cast from a weathered medieval statue. And she is very black – made of a shiny, plasticky-looking material that turns out to be tar. Gates uses tar a lot in his work; his father was a roofer and bequeathed his son his tar kettle. “I feel like this is the Mary of my youth, ’cos it’s in tar,” says Gates. He leans in and sniffs her head. “Oh yeah, I know her.”

He explains that this tar Mary was not based on a medieval statue but a plastic keyring, just a couple of inches high, that a friend gave him as a good luck charm. “The keychain was already old, so the limbs had been busted off. She was probably carried in someone’s purse or their pocket with their keys, and then the cares of this world tore her apart.”
It is often hard to get a sense of scale with Gates’s work. At college, he studied urban planning and ceramics, and his work covers all points in between. He made his name a decade ago with an exhibition of pottery supposedly crafted by a Japanese master, “Shoji Yamaguchi”, who came to Mississippi and married a black civil rights activist. It was an elaborate fiction, complete with a mixed-race actor impersonating the potter’s son, but it got the art world’s attention. “White people love Japanese people,” he later explained.

At the other end of the scale, there’s his Rebuild Foundation, which has spent the last six years buying up condemned buildings (including a neoclassical 1920s bank building) in the infamously deprived, predominantly African American South Side district of his native Chicago. With the blessing of the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, Gates has refurbished these buildings and repurposed them as community facilities: workshops for artists, apartments, a library, a black cinema.

In between, Gates has made art out of everyday materials, often salvaged from his buildings. He has become a collector and custodian of archives, including the image libraries of the influential African American magazines Ebony and Jet, and the record collection of Chicago house DJ Frankie Knuckles, who died in 2014. He lectures to town planners and is a professor at the University of Chicago. He also makes wild spiritual music with his band, the Black Monks of Mississippi. You never know what he’s going to do next – and you never have to wait very long to find out.
“My hope is that people would start to see some through-lines between my works of art,” he says. The Rebuild projects, for example, were not only about community and regeneration. “They were more about one’s ability to understand space and power and politics, and then really be a player, an instigator, in one’s own environment. So even though I was a black man in a black neighbourhood, talking about black power, what I was trying to demonstrate is that an artist who reads the dynamics of a situation can change the situation.”
One obvious through-line in Gates’s work is his consciousness of African American identity and experience. Another, which emerges in his work in Basel, is spirituality. “Over the last several years, the work has not shied away from subjects of faith, of what I call the immaterial world,” he says.
Basel is an apt location. The city is a centre of the art world (or, at least, the art market) thanks to its annual Art Basel fair, and it is virtually the geographical heart of Europe. And it is not, it has to be said, a place where you see many people of colour – either on the streets or on the walls of its galleries. Kunstmuseum Basel’s permanent collection features a wealth of European representations of the Virgin Mary (who was, let’s not forget, Middle Eastern). One of these, by 16th-century Dutch painter Maerten van Heemskerck, Gates is incorporating into his own exhibition. In the painting, Mary has smooth, rosy-white skin and blond hair. She looks quizzically at the viewer, as if to ask, “Are you sure I look like the Virgin Mary?” Van Heemskerck’s Madonna will be juxtaposed with 13,000 images of 20th-century black women from Gates’s Ebony and Jet archives, including politicians, celebrities, unknown models and everyday people.
“When I close my eyes and think of God, I see my mom,” he says. “I don’t see a white Jesus, I don’t see an oblique figure. Maybe there’s something really powerful about these unsung heroes that deserves attention today, or at least deserves my attention.” As well as cultural history, this is Gates reflecting on, perhaps even atoning for, his gender. “The work I make is really heavy, quite a substantial kind of male art – boy sculpture.” He flexes his muscles. But this is more a reflection on “the quiet and graceful power of women and of the mother”, he says. “Maybe, in this moment of the complexities of #MeToo, the retaking of power that women are asserting and articulating, that this male world, as we’ve known it, is over, that this Caucasian world we’ve known is over.”
 This is another of those through-lines that connects Gates’s work. Much of it concerns history; things that might be lost or forgotten – saving them, preserving them, repurposing, reinserting them into cultural narratives, changing the situation. “One way I think about power is the ability to resurrect things that have been sleeping for a long time,” he agrees. It could be a condemned building or shop of discarded books or a 1960s image of an African American model, her hair straightened into a dynamic bob. Or it might be Knuckles’ record collection, which came to Gates simply because of his reputation for collecting things and liking house music. Rather than buying the records, Gates suggested Knuckles license them to him for 10 years. He invites DJs to come to his bank building and spin them and make mixtapes out of them. “It’s not about acquisition. The goal is to have these things keep circulating.”
Spreading the word, resurrecting the dead, writing prayers, chanting with his Black Monks, positing his mother as the Virgin Mary (and therefore himself as Jesus) – the connections between art and religion are not lost on Gates, and there is the implication he’s positing himself as a spiritual leader, but he would rather frame it as an ongoing process of enquiry.
Gates doesn’t go to church any more, but the church is always in him, he says. As a teenager, he was director of his local church youth choir. He once questioned whether to become an artist or a priest, a preacher or a scholar, a student of religion or of art. To some extent, they’ve all merged, Gates says. “Using the term ‘art’ gives me more latitude.”
He develops the thought. “I’m really trying to find my place in a world of forms material and immaterial,” he says. “Even though I may have some questions about the form of God or the form that the immaterial world takes, I have no doubt about the truth of its presence. Eighty per cent of my practice is about reaching those things out of an immaterial world and trying to manifest them.”
* A professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Le wwoofing répond à une quête de sens

Julie Eigenmann
«Tous les matins, on se levait à cinq heures pour ouvrir l’enclos des poulets. Ensuite, on faisait du jardinage, on enlevait les mauvaises herbes…» Ce quotidien a été celui d’Alice Barbey, Genevoise de 20 ans, pendant un mois passé en Afrique du Sud en début d’année. Du travail? Non, du wwoofing. Wwoof, de l’anglais World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, est un réseau mondial de fermes biologiques: des agriculteurs accueillent dans leur ferme des voyageurs qui viennent travailler bénévolement en échange du gîte et du couvert.

Le wwoofing, créé en Angleterre en 1971, s’est depuis étendu dans le monde entier: aujourd’hui, le réseau officiel compte près de 150 pays. Chaque pays membre a sa propre association qui met en relation touristes et agriculteurs, mais les voyageurs peuvent passer par d’autres réseaux, comme le wwoofing indépendant, pour les Etats qui ne comptent pas d’association officielle, ou le Workaway, réseau similaire pour aider des locaux dans divers travaux, notamment à la ferme.
La Suisse accueille aussi des «wwoofers»
La Suisse accueille elle aussi des wwoofers depuis vingt ans. Reinhard Lüder, informaticien zurichois de 66 ans, est coordinateur wwoofing pour la Suisse. Il a créé l’association à son retour d’Australie: «J’ai découvert le wwoofing là-bas. J’avais aussi logé dans des auberges, mais on rencontre uniquement des voyageurs et les conversations tournent autour de ce qu’on a visité et pour quel prix. En wwoofing, on découvre la vie de quelqu’un, et souvent on reste amis pour longtemps. J’ai eu envie de rendre cette expérience possible ici.» Entre mars 2017 et mars 2018, 170 personnes sont venues wwoofer en Suisse chez 135 agriculteurs inscrits. 80% d’entre eux possèdent des fermes bios, comme la plupart des structures qui accueillent les wwoofers.
Le concept suscite un enthousiasme certain à travers le monde. Pour Franck Michel, anthropologue français auteur de plusieurs ouvrages sur le voyage, ce succès s’explique par la «crise de notre société individualiste: le wwoofing répond à une quête de sens, dans le voyage et dans la vie, à un besoin de retisser du lien social autrement, et il représente une opportunité de découvrir du pays sans dépenser trop d’argent et en vivant comme les autochtones».
Une frontière floue entre travail et loisir
N’est-ce pas paradoxal de reprendre un travail quand on a voulu se couper un peu du sien? «C’est le résultat de notre société entièrement tournée autour de la question du travail. La frontière entre labeur et loisir est de plus en plus floue», estime Franck Michel. «D’ailleurs, la façon de faire du tourisme rejoint celle de travailler, avec un programme, un budget, des horaires à respecter, une surconnexion, etc.»
Travailler pendant son voyage de cinq mois et demi n’a pas posé de problème à Alice Barbey. «J’ai beaucoup appris et ça m’a ouvert à un monde inconnu. La dynamique est différente parce que l’argent n’entre pas en jeu: on est libre. Si on ne se sent pas bien, on part. Et on a les mains écorchées, mais on reste motivé parce que c’est gratifiant.» C’est aussi le sentiment d’Adeline Jurasz, 24 ans, étudiante en sciences cognitives à Neuchâtel. Elle revient d’un tour du monde de huit mois, pendant lequel elle a fait six semaines de wwoofing au Cambodge. Etre active lui paraissait important: «J’ai beaucoup utilisé ma tête ces dernières années, ça fait du bien de mettre les mains dans la boue, de transpirer.»
Avoir un projet, même en vacances. Pour Franck Michel, notre rapport au voyage a évolué: «Voyager sans but n’est plus vraiment à l’ordre du jour, les wwoofers sont aussi une preuve de ce changement de mœurs. Le loisir s’inscrit tous les jours un peu plus dans les pas du travail.» Adeline Jurasz a ressenti cette nécessité de «faire quelque chose d’utile» pendant son tour du monde: «Comme voyager est devenu beaucoup plus accessible, on a envie que ça ait un sens. Je me serais sentie coupable de ne faire que du tourisme.»