Sunday 4 December 2016


Rumba in Cuba, the beer culture in Belgium and merengue in the Dominican Republic are among 33 new elements inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, from a total of 37 nominations.

The selection was made during the 11th session of an Intergovernmental Committee that met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 (see previous SWAN article).

The inscription of rumba came shortly after the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Nov. 25, giving the timing added significance. The music and its related dance have been an important aspect of Cuban culture since the late 1800s, growing out of African traditions, and later supported by Castro's revolutionary government.

A group of "rumbers" in Cuba. (Photo: M. Hernandez)
According to UNESCO, Intangible cultural heritage includes oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and various practices concerning nature and the universe, and the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

Community involvement is an important aspect of all this, and Belgian political representatives expressed delight at the inclusion of the country’s beer-drinking tradition, alongside the other elements on the List.

Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, said: “The beer culture is something Belgians are proud of, something that has been a part of our society since time immemorial, and which has garnered international appreciation. I hope that this recognition will contribute to encouraging Belgians to share our beer culture throughout the world with even more pride.”

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity now numbers 366 elements and “shows the diversity of this heritage and raises awareness of its importance,” UNESCO stated after the meeting.

Wednesday 23 November 2016


Many people know of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, which include structures such as China’s Great Wall and Tanzania’s Stone Town of Zanzibar - “places on earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity”; but fewer perhaps know of the UN agency’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A snapshot of Belgium's beer-drinking culture.
(Photo: Stephane Radermacher)
This is an international register of cultural practices that are important for communities, in both traditional and modern ways, and 171 UNESCO member states have ratified a convention to safeguard such customs.

For ten years now, since the convention came into force in 2006, UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Committee has met annually to choose nominees for inscription on the List, and next week members are meeting in Ethiopia to focus on traditional songs, rituals, celebrations and, in one case, beer drinking.

According to UNESCO, Belgium has put forward its beer-drinking culture for inscription on the Representative List, stating that “making and appreciating beer is part of the living heritage of a range of communities throughout” the country.

“It plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions,” says the Belgian application. “Almost 1,500 types of beer are produced in the country including by some Trappist [monk] communities.”

A group of children "rumbeando".
(Photo: National Council for Cultural Heritage, Cuba)
The submission from Belgium is among 37 requests for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH), with others including rumba in Cuba, the Tahteeb stick game in Egypt, yoga in India, merengue music and dance in the Dominican Republic, a festival in Nigeria, and traditional wooden-boat making in Norway. 

“An essential criterion for the list is community,” said Tim Curtis, a cultural anthropologist and chief of UNESCO’s section on ICH. “The community voice takes precedence over the expert voice in this area.”

The Representative List so far numbers 336 inscribed elements and aims “to enhance the visibility of communities’ traditions and knowledge without recognizing standards of excellence or exclusivity”, says UNESCO.

Curtis told SWAN in an interview that another key aspect in the consideration for inclusion on the List is the “inter-generational transmission” of the custom.

Artists entertaining participants at Nigeria's Argungu
international fishing and cultural festival.
(Photo: A. Olagunju)
“As well as a historical or traditional function, it should have a future role as well,” he said. “I see it as an approach to heritage that is forward-looking, something that tends towards continuity.”

The Committee, meeting from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Addis Ababa, comprises the representatives of 24 of the countries that have ratified the convention, and its members will equally examine five nominations for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Among these are Portugal’s Bisalhães black pottery manufacturing process, whose future is “under threat” because of waning interest; and Uganda’s Ma’di “bowl lyre music and dance”, one of the oldest cultural practices of the country’s Ma’di people that is considered at risk - mainly because younger people think it “old-fashioned” and the materials used come from species that are currently endangered.

UNESCO said that the Committee will also examine issues concerning intangible heritage in emergency situations caused by conflict or natural disaster. It will “envisage safeguarding measures that can be applied in such cases and consider the role intangible heritage can play in restoring social cohesion and supporting reconciliation”, the agency said.

Merengue musicans in the Dominican Republic.
(Photo: Ministry of Culture)
Curtis explained that the Committee will furthermore look into the creation of “a monitoring instrument” to measure the convention’s impact and the progress achieved over the past 10 years.

“The real impact of the convention is whether countries are setting up programs to protect intangible heritage,” he said.

The fact that 171 “state parties” have ratified the convention at such a fast rate does show some commitment, according to culture experts, but there has to be action at the national level as well, even when it is practitioners of the custom that submit it for inclusion on the List.

Belgium’s beer-drinking culture was submitted by its German-speaking community, on behalf of all three of the country’s language groups, because “beer-drinking is an integral part of Belgian culture”, said spokesman Dirk Vandriessche.

“It’s really about the culture, and not about beer, and it is important to make that distinction,” he said in a telephone interview. “Every festivity is with beer.”

While this culture has long had hosts of admirers and seems at no risk of being swallowed up by modernization, other customs and practices - such as rumba - may need greater support and recognition, especially because of their traditional importance.

“Rumba in Cuba, with its chants, movements, gestures and music, acts as an expression of resistance and self-esteem while evoking grace, sensuality and joy to connect people,” says the Cuban submission.

It adds that the music and dance are associated with African heritage but also feature elements of Antillean culture and Spanish flamenco, reflecting significant historical movements. – A.M.

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Saturday 12 November 2016


By Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia

Black people in the United States have long known that we live in a divided nation, and that the fault lines of these divisions lie along what previous generations called “the color line.” These fault lines are both material – the neighborhoods where we live, the segregated schools we attend, the employment we attain – and theoretical: how we interpret the world we live in and our place in it.

African Americans are profoundly aware of how race inflects every dimension of life in our country, and while many Americans of all backgrounds celebrated the election of the country’s first black president eight years ago, it has been clear that his election, rather than demonstrating how far the US has come on the racial front, the upsurge in anti-black behavior and sentiment that marked the years since Barack Obama’s election has shown how far we have yet to go. As CNN commentator Van Jones said as he viewed the electoral map on election night turning steadily red for Republican votes, “This is a whitelash.”

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is white Americans’ definitive response to President Obama: a rejection of any legacy he may have tried to leave, and a repudiation of the forces that brought a black man to the White House after more than 400 years of African American presence in America. An overwhelming majority of white Americans chose a man who spent a lot of time and money trying to prove that Barack Obama was fundamentally unqualified as president on the level of the most basic criteria: citizenship. White Americans wanted their country back, and now they have it.

Even before Trump’s victory, I was frightened and dismayed that his candidacy had brought to the public sphere the barely submerged racist and misogynistic discourses that have become even more virulent in the wake of successes of civil rights and feminist activism (characterized by Trump and his followers as burdensome “political correctness”). Of course there is talk of “healing divisions” in US society. But these divisions aren’t mere policy disagreements, but incompatible narratives about the value and rights of human beings.

Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies professors
Dwanna Robertson and Michael Sawyer
help college students understand and contextualize the
U.S. Presidential Election. (Photo: C. Oberon Garcia)
What to do in light of the resounding decision by millions of US voters to either ignore or malign the humanity, the citizenship rights, the sense of belonging, and the American Dreams of African Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ, women, and the disabled? The message that US voters sent loud and clear on 8 November (despite the fact that Hillary Clinton seems to have very, very narrowly won the popular vote) was that certain people do not belong, and the people who voted for Trump are willing to build literal walls and use language and stereotypes as figurative walls to keep these “Others” out of white, patriarchal spaces.

In the days following Election Day, social media was full of first-person accounts of people of color and LGBTQ citizens being taunted, and students, especially Latin and Muslim students, being bullied by white students. Spray painted on walls in various places were racist slogans and messages such as this one in Durham, North Carolina, on Nov. 9: “BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER AND NEITHER DOES YOUR VOTES”.

Very quickly, the feelings of shock and rage among those in the US who feel frightened by and vulnerable under a Trump presidency developed into resolve. Thousands took to the streets in several US cities, chanting “Love trumps hate,” “Not my president,” and the perennial, “The people united will never be defeated.” Meanwhile, political leaders on both sides of the aisle, following the leads of President Obama and vanquished Secretary Hillary Clinton, spoke of “healing divisions” and “coming together.”

But how is it possible to “come together” when these divisions are marked by very real differences in values? When one side thinks that unambiguous racism is unimportant and disconnected from issues such as Supreme Court appointments, and the other side distrusts a candidate who has hundreds of supporters who sport t-shirts emblazoned with racist slogans and who chortles about his adventures in sexual assault? President-elect Trump’s characterization of all black citizens as terrified inhabitants of urban jungles, decades of disrespect for women, racialized maligning of immigrants, and other campaign rhetoric that sent his supporters into an avid frenzy confirms a long record of his denying the basic humanity and rights of people who are different from himself: people who are not white, male, wealthy, and powerful. But Trump is just one man, albeit as of the third Monday in January, 2017, one of the most powerful in the world. More terrifying to many Americans are his supporters, from his picks for positions such as Attorney General to the children of his voters who tell their classmates to “Go back to where you came from!”

Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia
Freshly wounded and fearful for a future that seems an all-too-familiar throwback to a shameful past of overt expressions and policies crafted to protect white supremacy, it is tempting to succumb to a feeling of panic, or dream of an escape to a personal Zion. Trump’s election is clearly a reaction to the hard-fought struggles and yet unfulfilled dreams of civil rights and feminist activists. Succumbing to panic and despair will threaten the very real gains that the US recently has made in becoming a more equitable and just society.  It is clear that those who don’t see themselves in Trump’s vision of the United States must unite, collaborate, and resist on the political front.

But we also must remember that when the humanity of individual or groups is violently assaulted, that we have the power of art. Toni Morrison, in an essay written for The Nation magazine shortly after George W. Bush’s election, noted that in times of violence and chaos and despair that “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” 

We must not interpret calls for “unity” and working as “one team” as calls to make peace with people, attitudes, and policies that strip people of their humanity and fundamental rights. If we truly want to heal our nation and the world in which it plays such a major role, we must confront our differences and affirm our collective humanity. Art, particularly writing, as Morrison notes, has the power to do this in unique ways. Through the shared medium of language, we are reminded that we are all in a web of community together, whether we like it or not: Americans share one nation but belong to many, as we all live together for better or worse on one irreplaceable planet.

The United States was already experiencing a racial and cultural nadir: Trump’s election puts the official seal on it. It seems as if white people and people of color live in parallel realities, and that one narrative simply can’t encompass the multiple truth of lived experience. But moments of crisis force us to articulate who we are and what we value. Just as in the period after the Civil War, perhaps the battles between the two Americas – white and “Other” – and the attendant suffering and loss will help us at least talk about how we might forge a more perfect union for the 21st century.

Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia is a professor of English and Director of the Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies Program at Colorado College in the United States.

Thursday 20 October 2016


By Dimitri Keramitas

France’s fourth Viva Mexico film festival celebrated contemporary Mexican cinema with a series of screenings and panel discussions this month, highlighting topics such as climate change and the relationship between film and the visual arts.

A scene from Calle de la Amargura.
The festival presented a diverse programme, with a strong social interest, attracting French and Mexican academics as well as Mexican filmmakers and actors. The screenings at the Luminor theatre, in a central area of Paris, included both fiction features and documentaries.

One of the event’s most notable films was Calle de la Amargura, directed by Arturo Ripstein and written by his wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego (the couple also led the festival’s master class).

Ripstein has been one of the pillars of Mexican cinema for decades. It’s something of a family affair: his father was an important film producer, and now his son is also a filmmaker. Calle de la Amargura is set in a poverty-stricken neighborhood (the English title is “Bleak Street”), and depicts the struggles of a group of its more marginalized denizens.

Based on a true story, the film deals with the accidental – or negligent – homicide of two midget wrestlers, twin brothers Alejandro and Alberto. They got mixed up with a pair of prostitutes who tried to ply them with drugs, not realizing that the dose to knock out a normal adult would result in an overdose for a much smaller person.

Marginalized characters in Calle de la Amargura.
The film, shot entirely in black and white, spends much more time with the two prostitutes than with the wrestlers. Adela and Dora are both middle-aged and find it hard to make a living, especially when having to turn over a large part of their earnings to their exploitative madams.

As in French director Jean-Luc Godard's renowned movies about prostitution, the “oldest profession” here becomes a symbol of capitalist exploitation. Ripstein films the life of the street with unrelenting harshness, to the degree that we might think the movie is an exercise in miserabilisme—wallowing in poverty.

But like Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Ripstein’s model, the director adds something more to the depiction of poverty. Not the surrealism of Buñuel, but a sense of artifice – the street looks like a theatre set, though completely realistic, especially as the camera glides along it like an inquisitive drone. The actors also bring a theatrical touch to their roles. The result is a subtle unreality that suits the theme of destiny, the sense that we’re all players in a cosmic game.

A shot of the 'bleak' street in Calle de la Amargura.
Other motifs enrich what might be a rather dismal march to the doom of the two pairs. There’s a curious emphasis on clothing and masks. Dora is outraged when her husband prostitutes himself with young men, wearing her clothes. On the other hand, the husband doesn’t want her to touch his magician’s costume.

The midget wrestlers wear decorative masks, like many wrestlers in Mexico, but they never take them off. Adela’s mother, an elderly woman used as a begging prop, often puts a cloth over her face. When the prostitutes arrange a tryst with the wrestlers, they cake their faces with make-up. The surface artifice becomes an existential second skin, dissimulating a suffering soul, a desire for self-invention, or perhaps an inner nullity.

More uplifting, or at least more human, is another theme, that of relationships. Every major character, no matter how unprepossessing, is significantly linked to at least one other person. These relationships tend to be difficult, even parasitical, but they lend genuine spirit to the characters.

Director Arturo Ripstein.
Adela, who exploits her elderly mother, takes care of her needs and comforts her. Dora has a teenaged daughter she spoils even though her maternal love is unrequited. She also has a strange, desperate intimacy with her shiftless husband.

Likewise the two brother wrestlers are bound by blood and physical particularity, and both are inextricably tied to an overbearing mother who’s a religious fanatic. The most crucial relationship of all is between the prostitutes and the wrestlers, who seem to enjoy their rendezvous with each other, before it turns into an appointment with (to quote the 2016 Nobel literature laureate Bob Dylan) “a simple twist of fate.”

Beautifully filmed by Ripstein and wittily scripted by Garciadiego, Calle de la Amargura looks unflinchingly at harsh social reality, but also at a mystery somewhere beyond it.  (Distribution: Oscar Alonso Festivals)


A scene from Mr. Pig by Diego Luna.
The other films in the festival (which is now moving to French cities such as Avignon, Bordeaux and Lille) include: Los Bañistes by Max Zunino and Sofia Espinosa (Best Film award at the Guadelajara film festival); La Delgada Linea Amarea by Celso Garcia (winner of several prizes in Mexico, Latin America and Europe); Résurrection by Eugenio Pulgovsky (jury prize at the Internacional Ciné Medioambiental Festival); Tempestad by Tatiana Huezo, about two women struggling against oppression; Plaza de la Soledad by Maya Goded (official selection at the Sundance film festival); La Région Sauvage by Amat Escalante, a self-taught filmmaker who has won prizes at Cannes; Me Estas Matando Susana by Roberto Sneider; I Promise You Anarchy by Julio Hernandez Cordon; Mr. Pig by Diego Luna (Best Narrative Feature, Dallas International Film Festival); and Somos Lengua by Kyzza Terrazas (Winner of prizes at FICUNAM and the Festival de Cine Mexicano de Duarngo). There was even an animated film, Las Aventuras De Itzel Y Sonia by Mario Fernanda Rivero (winner of the Best Film prize at the Cinema Planeta Festival).

Dimitri Keramitas is a legal expert and prize-winning writer based in Paris.

Wednesday 5 October 2016


It’s being billed as the largest exhibition devoted to Mexican art in at least half a century, and the impressive show now on at Paris’ Grand Palais does feel like a landmark event.

A billboard announcing the exhibition.
Titled Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde, it features Mexico’s most famous artists as well as those less known, and gives a historical perspective of the Latin American country through its art.

The more than 200 works on display trace “a vast panorama across modern Mexico, from the first stirrings of the Revolution to the middle of the 20th century, complemented by a number of works from contemporary artists,” say the co-organizers (France’s Réunion des  musées nationaux-Grand Palais  and Mexico’s Secretaria de Cultura, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo Nacional de Arte.)

The scope of the exhibition and several other events featuring Mexico over the next months in France reflect the much-proclaimed strengthening of diplomatic ties between the two countries.  On a state visit to France, Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu Salinas attended the official launch of the exhibition on Oct. 4, a day ahead of the public opening.

While she held talks with her French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, the bilateral consultative body known as the Franco-Mexican Strategic Council (CSFM) also met to “formulate proposals for cooperation”.

A visitor reads up on Diego Rivera's La Molendera.
This massive exhibition can thus be seen as furthering diplomatic links, unlike in the recent past when relations froze over the row concerning a French citizen that Mexico imprisoned for her alleged involvement with a kidnapping gang (she was subsequently released).

That spat caused the Mexican government to pull out of the 2011 “Year of Mexico” cultural festival, resulting in the cancellation of some 300 events scheduled in France.

But all that now seems firmly in the past. The current show follows the blockbuster exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: Art in fusion, presented in Paris from October 2013 to January 2014, and it, too, is a visual feast that will entice viewers.

The exhibition’s curator Agustin Arteaga Dominguez says that Mexique 1900 - 1950 offers a “fresh new look” at the “limitless Mexican art scene” of the first half of the 20th century. This was a period known for the Mexican School of Painting and its “most prominent” movement – Muralism.

A view of Diego Rivera's Rio Jurchitan.
Viewers get to discover the celebrated works of “Los Tres Grandes” (The Three Greats), as the most influential muralists were called. Their names – José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera – are familiar to art buffs, as they defined the era following the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 with their extraordinary and controversial creations.

Through the works of these artists and others, the exhibition “aims to demonstrate how the Mexican Revolution, as an armed conflict, laid the groundwork for a new national identity,” the co-organizers state. “The artistic creativity in the years following the Revolution [which claimed thousands of lives] had an ideological aspect. It employed media other than easel painting, including muralism and graphic design.”

Before viewers get immersed in the art of Los Tres Grandes and their portrayals of workers’ struggles, societal violence and other subjects, the show starts with an exploration of how the artists drew inspiration from both international movements and  the “collective imaginings and traditions of the 19th century”. This comprises paintings created in the 1800s and early 1900s, depicting notable individuals, nudes, street scenes, and landscapes .

Kahlo's The Two Fridas attracts a viewer.
Organized over two floors of the vast Grand Palais, the exhibition also includes a section on “strong women” – female artists who seized their “place on the artistic stage”, as the revolution “opened the way to many new possibilities and encouraged women to contribute to the economic effort”.

Most visitors will be drawn immediately to the iconic work of Frieda Kahlo, even though the organizers caution that her “towering presence … should not conceal a wealth of extraordinary artists such as Nahui Olin, Rosa Rolanda or photographers like Tina Modotti and Lola Alvarez Bravo”.

Indeed, Olin’s striking painting of lovers (Nahui y Lizardo frente a la bahia de Acapulco) occupies a prominent position in the exhibition, but one still can’t help being entranced by Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, her first large-scale work, or by her Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, created shortly after she divorced the unfaithful Diego Rivera.

Another section looks at the production from artists who went against the ideological tide of the times and presents the abstract works of Gerardo Murillo and Rufino Temayo, among others, while the final part of the exhibition shows “A Meeting of Two Worlds: Hybridation”.

In the presence of The Greats: Jose Orozco's
La fiesta de los instrumentos
Here, visitors learn the role that Mexican artists in the United States played in avant-garde movements and how, on the other hand, foreign artists influenced and were influenced by the local scene when they moved their studios to Mexico.

One drawing that stands out in this meeting of worlds is that by cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias titled Harlem and used for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1939.

But the images that will probably stay with most visitors are the vivid, immense murals by Rivera – such as Río Juchitán,  the last one he completed – and by Orozco. The latter’s La fiesta de los instrumentos has a powerful, mesmerizing energy that sums up the whole exhibition. - Text and photos: A.M. / SWAN

"Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde" runs until Jan. 23, 2017.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale 


When does a historical presentation of events cross the line and become something akin to voyeurism?

Visitors to a new exhibition in Paris, France, may find themselves asking this question, especially when they stand in front of a charcoal drawing that shows a rabid-looking white man holding up the severed genitals of his black victim like a trophy.

The exhibition poster.
This drawing is just one of the images in The Color Line: Les artistes africains-américains et la segrégation (African American Artists and Segregation) that raise concerns about the selection process.

The artwork in question, by Charles Alston (1907-1977), depicts a lynching and castration that was perpetrated in Florida in the early 1930s, but its “rare violence” does not necessarily underscore the severity of the topic, especially in an exhibition that children will attend.

To add to the confusion, on the day of its official opening on Oct. 4, The Color Line immediately sparked controversy (for a different reason) when observers noted that a pedagogical booklet meant for children discussed slavery in Eurocentric terms.

The booklet stated that while slaves generally experienced horrific conditions, some had lives that were “plus agréables” (more pleasant). It also informed readers that most slaves were “sold by Africans to Europeans”.

Following an outcry at this simplistic description, the Quai Branly withdrew the booklet, noting that it had been produced by an outside publisher. Officials said the document would be revised and republished.

The Color Line's curator Daniel Soutif.
While all this shouldn’t detract from an exhibition that evidently has noble intentions, it does highlight the difficulties of telling African Americans’ story from a European perspective.

Asked about this concern ahead of the exhibition, the show’s curator Daniel Soutif told SWAN: “I don’t think that it has to be forbidden to work on the art of a community to which you don’t belong. Art history is about dialogue and verification.”

He added that, for example, the “biggest experts on 19th-century France are Americans” and that they’ve done “excellent work”.

Yet, this question of “who’s telling whose story” is a pertinent one, particularly regarding the Quai Branly, a museum often criticized for having disturbing colonial undertones.

Soutif, an independent curator and author, said he worked with African American professors such as Columbia University’s Robert O’Meally – who has organized acclaimed shows on the artist Romare Bearden – and that their input was invaluable. But as a French professional, Soutif’s curatorial work is aimed at a European audience.

A panel explaining "blackface".
“It’s important not only to know the subject, but also the public for whom you’re working,” he said in the interview. “An American audience probably wouldn’t need all the explanation about what ‘Jim Crow’ means.”

Explanations for a “public that does not necessarily know” this history therefore form a significant part of the exhibition, along with the 180 pieces of artwork and some 400 documents that cover the visual arts, literature, film and photography.

The show’s title is meant to make viewers think not only about racism and the line drawn between people during segregation, but also about the subject choices that African American artists have made. The exposition is essentially intended as a tribute to these artists.

As such, their artwork is intertwined with the historical facts and events described, and one can appreciate the major work that must have gone into collecting and labeling all the items.

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Portrait of Booker T.
, State of Iowa Historical Museum.
The “narration” begins with the background to segregation after the U.S. Civil War of 1861 to 1865, and it examines the Reconstruction period and the phenomenon of “blackface” – where white actors blacked up their faces to mock black Americans.

It traces the “first battles against segregation”, African Americans’ participation in the Paris World Fair of 1900, the role of sportsmen such as boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, and the experiences of World War II – where nearly a million African Americans served “under the Star-Spangled Banner” only to return home to continuing discrimination.

Also depicted are the Harlem Renaissance, migration from the southern United States to the north, the civil rights movement and contemporary issues – much of this seen through the eyes of the artists who bear witness in their work.

Some of the names – Bearden, Faith Ringgold – are well known to an international audience, but the exhibition includes a wide range of artists: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Aaron Douglas, Beauford Delaney.

Lois Mailou Jones' Mob Victim
Their creations were for a long time excluded from the American mainstream, but now many of their works have become collector items, shedding light on the painful aspects of a people’s existence and reminding visitors of on-going inequities.

“I hope this exhibition will be a door that opens,” Soutif told SWAN. “That people will discover artists they didn’t know about and that they will be struck by the works. I hope it will be the start of something new, that there will be more monographic exhibitions on some of these artists.”

Whatever The Color Line’s failings, many visitors will find themselves echoing this hope.

The Color Line runs until Jan. 15, 2017, and the Quai Branly museum has organized several complementary events such as concerts and seminars.

For more information:

Tuesday 4 October 2016


“Lost in translation” is not just a cute phrase; it sums up the very real challenges and pitfalls of rendering words and thoughts into another language from the original. This is of even greater concern when the subject deals with war and witnesses’ testimony, not to mention literature.

Archive Manager Claver Irakoze speaks at the workshop.
Addressing such issues, Ireland’s University College Cork (UCC) hosted a two-day workshop titled "Translation and Activism" in late September, which had the stated aim of “building a network around activist translation”.

The invited participants included educators, writers and leading figures in translation studies, while the main discussion focused on “translating memory” in the archiving of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Survivors as well as perpetrators of the massacres have been telling their stories to archivists since the Kigali Genocide Memorial was established by the Aegis Trust in 2004. Most speak in Kinyarwanda – Rwanda’s official language – and their words are subsequently translated into English and French. But do aspects of their stories get lost in translation?

“This conference, and my interest in activist translation more generally, arose from my research on Rwandan genocide testimonies which brought to the fore a paradox at the heart of the translation process,” says Dr. Caroline Williamson, a member of UCC’s Department of French who organized the meeting.

Dr. Caroline Williamson and Paul Rukesha
“On the one hand, this crucial activity can provide visibility and engagement to the otherwise obscured and disenfranchised. On the other hand, it is a process rife with potential pitfalls and dissatisfactions,” she added.

She told SWAN that in applying for the Irish Research Council funding that covered the workshop, she posed the following question: “When translating texts that could be perceived as (culturally or politically) controversial or unpalatable to a Western readership, how do translators balance the need to remain faithful to their source material while maintaining international interest or indeed commercial viability?”

The overall aim of the workshop, she continued, “was to bring together translation specialists as well as archivists, ethnographers, and journalists to discuss this question and establish the terms and parameters of a critical and overdue debate about the role of translation in political and social activism.”

Archivists Claver Irakoze and Paul Rukesha – representing the Aegis Trust, a UK-based organization that works to prevent genocide – travelled to Ireland from Rwanda to participate in the workshop and to discuss their experiences.

Claver Irakoze and Paul Rukesha present information
about the Genocide Archive of Rwanda.
As the Kigali Genocide Memorial housing the Archive receives more than 70,000 international visitors a year, it’s essential that these visitors are able to read and view testimony in languages other than the local Kinyarwanda, the archivists said.

“Translation is important because we bring to the audience everything that is related to the roots of the genocide, its consequences, and the resilience of the Rwandan people,” said Rukesha, who supervises translating, transcribing and subtitling at the Archive.

“The genocide is not a particularity of any people. It’s a human tragedy that concerns everyone,” he told SWAN.  “Most of the survivors speak in Kinyarwanda, and when you speak in your own language, you can express things that you can’t in an adopted language. That’s why accurate translation is so important.”

This view was supported when Rukesha and Irakoze screened a short film at the workshop, showing survivors speaking about family members who had been murdered and about the horrors they had witnessed in the 100 days of killings in 1994 that took the lives of more than 800,000 people.

The cover of Hatzfeld's book,
in English translation.
The film, with subtitles in English, brought the tragedy of the genocide to the seminar participants, many of whom were visibly moved. It also underscored Rwanda’s work to achieve healing in a place where “perpetrators and survivors share the same country”, as Archive manager Irakoze said.

In other discussions of Rwanda, doctoral candidate Maja Haals Londorf examined the work of translators in ethnographic fieldwork with children after the genocide, and lecturer Anneleen Spiessens of Ghent University (Belgium) discussed the “fiction of an ‘innocent’ translation” in the work of French writer Jean Hatzfeld.

Author of Une Saison de machetes (Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak), Hatzfeld interviewed ten men who participated in the killings, and he presented their “extraordinary” testimony in this book and other reports. But scholars say he gave too little attention to the role of the interpreter during the interviews, raising questions about what might have been said or not said in the original language.

Further exploring the role of translation (or a lack of it in this case), Professor Hilary Footitt of Reading University, England, focused on non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, who may not be doing enough to rectify the dearth of documents in local languages.

In Footitt’s paper “Translating Development”, she outlined the history of translation at the anti-poverty charitable organization, concluding that there is an “overwhelming Euro-centricity of language” in the international development field.

“NGOs always say that they listen to people … that they’re empowering people by listening to them,” Footitt told SWAN. “But it’s very difficult to hear people when you’re talking to them in your own language. There’s an Anglophone blindness in the development world.”

For more information on the Genocide Archive of Rwanda (in English), see:

(Note: SWAN's editor attended the workshop, discussing literature in translation.)