Wednesday 1 December 2021


Legendary singer, dancer and activist Josephine Baker entered the Panthéon - the resting place of France’s “national heroes” - on Nov. 30, with French president Emmanuel Macron recalling her life on stage, her wartime activities, her fight for civil rights, and her "love" of her adopted nation.

“You enter our Panthéon because, born American, there is none more French than you,” declared Macron in a speech at the induction ceremony.

“And while, at the end of your career, adapting the words of your greatest success, you proclaimed ‘My country is Paris’, each of us tonight is whispering this refrain, like a hymn to love: ‘My France is Josephine’," the president added.

Baker, who died in 1975 and is buried in Monaco, is only the sixth woman to enter the Panthéon and the first woman of African descent. She joins other luminaries such as Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, and Émile Zola as a recipient of this honour.

For the ceremony, a symbolic coffin draped in the French flag was borne by military pallbearers up the red-carpeted road to the Panthéon, as the Eiffel Tower (lit up in a special way for the occasion) shone in the background. Organisers said the coffin contained soil from the different places where Baker had lived, but that her actual remains will stay in Monaco, in accordance with her family’s wishes.

Images from Baker’s life were projected onto the façade of the building, giving spectators the story of her journey from St. Louis, Missouri - where she was born in 1906 - to becoming one of the biggest stars of her day in Europe. Her famous song about Paris, “J’ai Deux Amours”, to which Macron referred, served as a note throughout the evening.

Speaking in front of the casket (placed solemnly on a dais in the centre of the Panthéon), Macron pointed out that the induction was taking place exactly on the 84th anniversary of Baker’s becoming a French citizen - a status she gained Nov. 30, 1937.

She had arrived in Paris in 1925, fleeing U.S. segregation, and gone on to become a leading performer, renowned for her dance in a “banana skirt” as well as for her acting, singing and other ventures.

Regarding the skirt, Macron said that while Baker had had to do certain performances because of the times, she turned the tables by her sheer inventiveness, and by ridiculing prejudices.

“Josephine Baker forged her own legend, imposed her freedom … by her insouciance, her awareness, her cheerful courage,” Macron said. “The American, who took refuge in Paris, became the incarnation of the French spirit, and the symbol of an era.”

He also lauded her wartime activities, detailing all that Baker had done for France during World War II.

“Trading the limelight for the flame of the Resistance, she became … an ‘honorable correspondent’, and served her new country, risking her life,” said the president during the ceremony, which was attended by Baker’s family, First Lady Brigitte Macron, various dignitaries, schoolchildren, and representatives of the African American community in Paris, among others.

Macron also described how Baker protected Jewish people at her château in the Dordogne area of southern France, and how her home was used to transmit radio messages.

He outlined her civil rights activities as well, recalling that - dressed in her French Resistance uniform - Baker flew from France to address the 250,000 participants in the 1963 march on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

At the march, Baker told her audience about not being able to order a cup of coffee in the United States because of her race, despite her success in Europe, and she detailed how American authorities had tried to smear her as a Communist when she spoke out against inequality.

Macron said Baker didn’t focus on skin colour, but that she “militated” for the freedom of everyone.

“Her cause was universalism … the equality of all, before the identity of each,” he declared, adding that in Washington, she was “more French than ever”.

Her adoption of 12 children - her “rainbow tribe” - also demonstrated her belief in diversity and showed the world that people from different backgrounds and races could live in harmony, said Macron, terming this the “most beautiful humanist” example.

The induction was not without controversy, however. Some observers used the occasion to discuss France’s vile treatment of Black and brown people throughout the country’s colonial history, as well as its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade - topics many French people prefer not to discuss. 

Critics accused the government of “political opportunism”, among other things, and an opinion piece in The Washington Post by a French journalist said: “France should not use this moment to congratulate itself on its treatment of people of color”.

While acknowledging this history, other commentators felt that the “pantheonization” of Baker still sent a powerful message, and some stressed that this kind of representation is important for society.

“We. Are. Here,” declared a Paris-based African American businesswoman with a smile, as she stood outside the Panthéon last Tuesday.  - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): An image of Josephine Baker inside the Panthéon; President Emmanuel Macron speaking at the ceremony; a billboard in Paris with pictures of Josephine Baker; the Panthéon, with images of Josephine Baker. Photos by AM/SWAN.

Friday 26 November 2021


The member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have agreed on a text of recommended ethics for artificial intelligence (AI) that policy makers can apply on a “voluntary” basis.

The adopted text, which the agency calls “historic”, outlines the “common values and principles which will guide the construction of the necessary legal infrastructure to ensure the healthy development of AI,” UNESCO says.

The text specifies that AI systems “should not be used for social scoring and mass surveillance purposes,” among other recommendations.

The organization’s 193 member states include countries, however, that are known to use AI and other technologies to carry out such surveillance, often targeting minorities and dissidents - including writers and artists. Governments and multinational companies have also used personal data and AI technology to infringe on privacy.

While such states and entities were not named, UNESCO officials acknowledged that the discussions leading up to the adopted text had included “difficult conversations”.

Presenting the agreement Nov. 25 at the organization’s headquarters in Paris, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay said the initiative to have an AI ethics framework had been launched in 2018.

“I remember that many thought it would be extremely hard if not impossible to attain common ground among the 193 states … but after these years of work, we’ve been rewarded by this important victory for multilateralism,” Azoulay told journalists.

She pointed out that AI technology has been developing rapidly and that it entails a range of profound effects that comprise both advantages to humanity and wide-ranging risks. Because of such impact, a global accord with practical recommendations was necessary, based on input from experts around the world, Azoulay stressed.

The accord came during the 41st session of UNESCO’s General Conference, which took place Nov. 9 to 24 and included the adoption of “key agreements demonstrating renewed multilateral cooperation,” UNESCO said.

While the accord does not provide a single definition of AI, the “ambition” is to address the features of AI that are of “central ethical relevance,” according to the text.

These are the features, or systems, that have “the capacity to process data and information in a way that resembles intelligent behaviour, and typically includes aspects of reasoning, learning, perception, prediction, planning or control,” it said.

While the systems are “delivering remarkable results in highly specialized fields such as cancer screening and building inclusive environments for people with disabilities”, they are equally creating new challenges and raising “fundamental ethical concerns,” UNESCO said.

The agreement outlines the biases that AI technologies can “embed and exacerbate” and their potential impact on “human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, gender equality, democracy … and the environment and ecosystems.”

According to UNESCO, these types of technologies “are very invasive, they infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and they are used in a broad way.”

The agreement stresses that when member states develop regulatory frameworks, they should “take into account that ultimate responsibility and accountability must always lie with natural or legal persons” - that is, humans - “and that AI systems should not be given legal personality” themselves.

“New technologies need to provide new means to advocate, defend and exercise human rights and not to infringe them,” the agreement says.

Among the long list of goals, UNESCO said that the accord aims to ensure that digital transformations contribute as well to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals” (a UN blueprint to achieve a “better and more sustainable future” for the world).

“We see increased gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy, dignity and agency, dangers of mass surveillance, and increased use of unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now, there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues,” UNESCO declared.

Regarding climate change, the text says that member states should make sure that AI favours methods that are resource- and energy-efficient, given the impact on the environment of storing huge amounts of data, which requires energy. It additionally asks governments to assess the direct and indirect environmental impact throughout the AI system life cycle.

On the issue of gender, the text says that member states “should ensure that the potential for digital technologies and artificial intelligence to contribute to achieving gender equality is fully maximized.”

It adds that states “must ensure that the human rights and fundamental freedoms of girls and women, and their safety and integrity are not violated at any stage of the AI system life cycle.”

Alessandra Sala, director of Artificial Intelligence and Data Science at Shutterstock and president of the non-profit organization Women in AI, also spoke at the presentation of the agreement, saying that the text provides clear guidelines for the AI field, including on artistic, cultural and gender issues.

“It is a symbol of societal progress,” she told journalists, emphasizing that understanding the ethics of AI was a shared “leadership responsibility” which should include women’s often “excluded voices”.

In answer to concerns raised by reporters about the future of the recommendations, which are essentially non-binding, UNESCO officials said that member states realize that the world “needs” this agreement and that it was a step in the right direction. - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom): UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay; a robot seen at a UNESCO conference; Alessandra Sala, of Shutterstock and Women in AI. (Photos by AM/SWAN.)

Thursday 25 November 2021


 Art is back with a bang in the French capital.

After numerous cancellations throughout 2020 and in the spring of this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fall cultural calendar has been packed, with people flocking to see contemporary art (at FIAC), photography (at Paris Photo), and African art (at AKAA – Also Known as Africa), in addition to a host of new museum exhibitions.

The fairs and shows have featured artists from around the world, with naturally some overlap in the different genres.

Still, AKAA - which took place Nov. 12-14 - stood out for “centering” African art in Paris once again, bouncing back strongly with more than 130 artists and 35 galleries at the imposing Carreau du Temple venue.

This year, the 6-year-old fair showed an increased number of Caribbean and African American artists as well, expanding its focus with some bold, innovative works.

A few days after the well-attended 2021 edition closed its doors, SWAN spoke with AKAA’s founder Victoria Mann about the cultural calendar and about AKAA’s raison d’être. An edited version of the telephone interview follows.

SWAN: How has the fair turned out, in your view?

VICTORIA MANN: We’re extremely happy. We were coming back after a last-minute cancellation in 2020 because of the pandemic, and losing a year between two editions when there are so many fairs all around us is not an easy thing. So, it was important for us to be back with a fair that was high in quality for the public. And in terms of public, it was just as important for us to have our collectors and institutions here to allow for good business for our exhibitors, as well as a more general public who really want to discover and know more about these artistic scenes that we defend at the fair.

SWAN: Did you notice new attendees - people coming for the first time?

VM: I think we definitely had that kind of visiting and viewership. It’s important for us every year to work on that. We want those who know us to come back but we also wish to expand our visitorship, and that’s the kind of work we do all year-long - and in this case, all two-year-long – so that more and more people who don’t know the fair can come and discover it. That’s also part of why it’s important for us to be here during that week of November when Paris Photo is taking place because there is a significant back and forth between the two fairs, and every year we get visitors from Paris Photo who come and discover our event.

SWAN: Is there a danger of people getting “art fatigue”, or “arted out” with so many events crowded together? How do you situate yourself differently?

VM: I think this year is particular, right? Because the truth is that all the events that were planned even for the spring sort of got pushed back because of the pandemic. So, I agree - this fall was completely crazy in terms of cultural calendar, with fairs popping up in the middle of the regular calendar which is already quite full. I think that things will shape back up to be normal, hopefully, although I see some Covid cases rising in certain countries, which makes me quite anxious like everybody else. But, if we do come back to a semi-normal state, I think that the calendar will spread over more evenly around the year.

In terms of AKAA, I think we bring … that fresh outlook, and that’s really the identity that we seek to develop and to push forward - we’re a discovery fair. And I think that’s what our visitors and collectors really appreciate. They know that every time they come to AKAA, they might see several artists that haven’t already been presented in the fair in the years past, and artists that are starting to have important standards in the world of art. But they will also automatically discover these brand-new talents, and I think that’s what is exciting.

SWAN: There aren’t that many events in Paris that focus on Africa or the Caribbean, but when they take place, people do come out in support. For instance, the First African Book Fair of Paris earlier this year attracted a very high number of visitors. How do you see the space for more events like this?

VM: In order to properly answer that question, I think it’s important to resituate our positioning and our philosophy. When we created AKAA, the idea was to create a platform that was both a commercial one - we’re a fair, so the idea was for business to be able to happen - but it was also going to be a cultural platform to bring about dialogue, to bring about encounter, and therefore to bring about education regarding certain art scenes. As I said, we’re a fair that’s positioned on discovery, but with discovery you need to bring the right tools to understand what you’re discovering. And, what was really important to us, is to not create an artistic ghetto, but rather to be able to open up as much as possible over the years.

So, the way we defend our message is that we try to actually take the geography out of the equation… that’s not really what interests us but rather that link to the African continent that each artist sheds light on in their work. And all of a sudden, when you look at things through that angle, then the possibilities are infinite and the space can be shared. So, of course, we do have a lot of artists that live and work on the African continent. That goes without saying, and it’s the number-one link that is easiest to identify.

But we also have all these other artists that find their relationship to the African continent through a number of different things. With the African American artists, for example, there’s the link of heritage, the link of memory, the link of ancestry. This is extremely important for us. And they have their place alongside artists who are from the continent in the same capacity, as well as artists who have a link through different elements, through - for example - collaboration with artists from the continent, or residency or projects put together. And so, we’re talking about a very international art scene centred on the African continent.

SWAN: That’s an interesting perspective …

VM: Yes, what we try to do is to basically offer a new angle, a new point of view of that contemporary art map, and instead of looking at it with Europe and the States in the centre as we’re a little bit used to doing when we talk about contemporary art, we’re looking at it with Africa in the centre, and from that centre, all these dialogues, all these connections, and all these confrontations as well, that may happen. So, from that point, the more this artistic echo system grows, the richer it gets.

Photos (top to bottom): Le soleil est coeur by Amadou Opa Bathily, 2021, mixed media on canvas, at African Arty Gallery - photo AM:SWAN; Victoria Mann; Hanging Fruit by Jamaican-born artist Shoshana Weinberger, 2021, mixed media on paper, courtesy NOMAD Gallery; by Justin Ebanda, 2021, acrylic on canvas, courtesy / copyright Galerie Carole Kvasnevski.

Saturday 13 November 2021


Passionate speeches, fervent performances by renowned artists, and the presence of special envoys such as actor Forest Whitaker marked a significant milestone for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Founded in 1946, the body is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, with a range of events taking place during its current General Conference, which runs until Nov. 24 at the headquarters in Paris, France.

The agency’s director-general Audrey Azoulay was re-elected at the start of the Conference on Nov 9 for a second four-year term – a re-election that officials said had the “overwhelming backing” of UNESCO’s 193 Member States; Azoulay obtained “155 votes out of a total of 169 ballots cast”.

“I see this result as a sign of regained unity within our organization,” Azoulay stated after the vote. “Over the last four years, we have been able to restore confidence in UNESCO, and in some respects, this has also been about restoring UNESCO’s confidence in itself.”

With the re-election out of the way, the organization followed up on Nov. 12 with an anniversary ceremony attended by some 25 heads of state and government, as well as ministers from about 50 countries. The festivities were accompanied by the beaming of the UNESCO logo onto Paris’ iconic Eiffel Tower, and the organization even asked the public to share images of this lighting-up “as a symbol of hope for the creation of a more peaceful world”.

As officials recalled in speech after speech during the anniversary ceremony, UNESCO was born of a “clear vision” after two world wars: to build peace “in the minds of men” and women.

The founders believed that economic and political agreements among states were not enough “to achieve lasting peace”; therefore, people needed to be brought together with a strengthening of the “intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind, through mutual understanding and dialogue between cultures,” according to UNESCO.

In her speech for the anniversary, Azoulay referred to this history and highlighted UNESCO’s record in working for the advancement of science, culture and education. She said that for 75 years, the organization “has led the fight for education, focusing first on literacy campaigns with major campaigns starting in the late 1940s”.

When Azoulay began her first term in 2017 (after the United States and Israel had withdrawn from UNESCO following Palestine’s membership), she called for unity and humanism. She said then that the world’s inability to prevent “tragedies” such as the “massive degradation of the environment, obscurantism, terrorism, deliberate attacks on cultural diversity, the oppression of women, massive displacements of populations” could be explained by a common blindness: “the lack of knowledge, the denial of universal values, and the absence of a global and humanist response.”

This week, she reiterated her appeal for solidarity and for increased work by governments to respect the dignity and freedom of citizens - the freedom to think, to learn, to speak and to access education.

Photos - from top to bottom: UNESCO's director director (second from left) with actor Forest Whitaker and other dignitaries at the 75th anniversary ceremony; a group photo of officials attending the ceremony. Pictures courtesy of UNESCO / C. Alix.

Friday 29 October 2021


Claude McKay is having something of a rebirth in France, thanks to independent publishers and to translators such as Jean-Baptiste Naudy.

Naudy is the French translator of McKay’s novel Amiable with Big Teeth (Les Brebis noires de Dieu), one of two translations that have hit bookstores in 2021, generating renewed interest in the work of the Jamaican-born writer (1890-1948). McKay was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a "cultural nomad" who spent time in Europe during the 1920s and 30s, and the author of the famous poem “If We Must Die”.


The first of the two recent translations - Romance in Marseille (Héliotropismes) - was published under its English title last spring, while Naudy’s Les Brebis Noires de Dieu came out at the end of summer during the so called rentrée, the return to routine after the holidays. A third McKay novel, Home to Harlem (Retour à Harlem, Nada Éditions), has meanwhile been newly translated and is scheduled for publication in early 2022.

This feast of McKay’s work has resulted in profiles of the writer in French newspapers such as Libération, with Naudy’s expert translation receiving particular attention because of the intriguing story behind Amiable with Big Teeth. The celebrated “forgotten” work - a “colourful, dramatic novel” that “centres on the efforts by Harlem intelligentsia to organize support for the liberation of fascist-controlled Ethiopia,” as Penguin Books describes it - was discovered only in 2009 by then graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier while doing research. His discovery came 40 years after McKay had completed the manuscript.

Cloutier and his advisor Brent Hayes Edwards went on to confirm the authenticity of the work, and it was published by Penguin in 2017. Fully aware of this history, Naudy said it was “mind-blowing” to translate the novel, and he drew upon his own background for the rendering into French.

Born in Paris, Naudy studied Francophone literature at the Sorbonne University and design at the Jan van Eyck Academy in the Netherlands. He describes himself as a publisher, translator and “text experimentalist”, and he coordinates "Déborder", a book series published by independent publishing house Nouvelles Éditions Place. Within this series, he has translated African Journey by Eslanda Goode Robeson (2020) and now the McKay novel.

As a writer, Naudy, under the name of Société Réaliste, has himself published two books, in addition to essays and experimental texts in journals and reviews; and as an artist he has exhibited work in both solo and group shows internationally. One can find examples of his public art pieces around Paris.

The following edited interview with Naudy, conducted by email and in person, is part of SWAN’s series about translators of Caribbean literature, done in collaboration with the Caribbean Translation Project.


SWAN: How did the translating of Aimable with Big Teeth come about?


Jean-Baptiste Naudy: In 2019, Sarah Frioux-Salgas and I were invited by Cyrille Zola-Place, director of Nouvelles Éditions Place in Paris, to curate a book series dealing with unclassifiable texts, overreaching genres, intertwining topics. Our common interest for the internationalisation of political and poetical scopes in the 20th century, via the publication of books largely ignored by the classical Western frame of reference, gave birth to this book series, entitled Déborder (To overflow). The first book to be included was a reprint of Negro Anthology, edited by Nancy Cunard in 1934, a massive collection of poetry, fiction and essays about the Black Atlantic, for which she collaborated with paramount artists and scholars of those years, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, George Padmore and dozens of others. 

Since then, we have published five more books in this frame, like the first French translation of Eslanda Robeson’s African Journey, or Sismographie des luttes (Seismography of Struggles), a kind of world history of anticolonial journals, amazingly edited by art historian and writer Zahia Rahmani.

At the beginning of 2020, Sarah told me the story of a newfound book by Claude McKay, Amiable with Big Teeth, edited by Brent Hayes Edwards and Jean-Christophe Cloutier for Penguin Books in 2017. Searching the archives of a rather obscure New York publisher, Cloutier had found the complete and ready-to-be-published manuscript of a completely unknown novel by McKay. The very fact that such a story was possible - to find out of the blue a full book by a major writer of the 20th century - was unfathomable to me. Nouvelles Éditions Place immediately agreed to the idea of publishing the book in French.

SWAN: Including your translation, there will be three novels by McKay published in French this year and next. Can you explain this surge of international interest in his work?


JBN: The renewed interest in Claude McKay’s oeuvre is global for sure, but also at times pretty local. The critical deconstruction of the Western ideological frame of thought has called for the exposure of another cultural grounding, a counter-narrative of modernity, other stories and histories encompassing the plurality and complexity of dominated voices, visions, sensibilities, positions on their path to liberation. To that extent, McKay is an immense writer, whose very life was bound to this intertwining. Like most of the key figures of the Black Atlantic, he has been largely ignored or under-appreciated by the 20th century literary canon. More than ever, he is a lighthouse for those interested in the interwoven problematics of race, gender, sexuality, and class. But he is as well a singular figure of displacement, a critically productive internationalist, being at first a Jamaican in New York, then a Caribbean from Harlem in Europe, then a Black writer from France in Morocco, and finally back to the United States, a Black Atlantic wanderer.


Which is also the point of his renewed presence in the French contemporary cultural landscape. The very fact that one of the most preeminent actors of the Harlem Renaissance was, first, a Jamaican, and second, writing from France about the Americas and the global Black diaspora is irresistibly intriguing. Another important factor is the crucial influence that McKay’s writings had on a number of Francophone literary figures of the 1930s, including the founders of the Négritude movement, the Nardal sisters, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas, René Ménil, and many others.

In a nutshell, I would argue that McKay captivates nowadays for all those reasons at the same time. He epitomizes the Black international radical current that rose in the 1920s and 1930s, his critical scope is extremely contemporary, and he is representative of a certain blend of political and cultural cosmopolitanism that happened to exist in the French imperial metropole during the interwar years. It is interesting to notice that the three books being published now in France deal with different periods of his life: Home to Harlem, his 1928 bestseller (translated Retour à Harlem in the new French translation to be published by Nada Éditions) is a luxurious portrait of Harlem in the 1920s, written while he was in France. Romance in Marseille, released last April by Héliotropismes, another previously unpublished novel from the early 1930s, revolves around the central themes of his most famous novel also set in Marseilles, Banjo. And thus, Amiable with Big Teeth, dating from 1941, being his last fiction and only novel ever written in the United States.

SWAN: In addition to your native French, you speak English and Spanish. Where and how did you begin learning other languages?

JBN: Where I grew up, English and Spanish were mandatory at school. So, I grasped some elements there, quite poorly. Then I had to travel. So, I learned most of my English with Ukrainian artists in Lisbon and bits of Spanish with Brazilian anarchists in Athens. How romantic…


SWAN: How did your interest in translation start?

JBN: My first encounter with the need to translate something happened I guess when I went to London for the first time, in 1997. Following a totally random move - because I liked his name - I bought a washed-out copy of Kamau Brathwaite’s Middle Passages. I had never read anything like that. For sure it sounded like street music to me, half a drunkard rant, half an esoteric psalmody, but the polyphony at work in this single text, the sound and visual poetics of patwa mesmerized me. 

So, for the last 25 years, I have been trying to translate exactly that, the very sensation I had in front of this palimpsest of languages. A rant that would be a psalmody, at times unintelligible, at times neat as a scalpel slice. How language can be haunted by the spectre of the past while echoing potentially emancipated futures. What Rimbaud called “the long, immense, rational derangement of the senses”, inscribed on a page where words are sounds are signs are ciphers are colours are noises are tastes are notes and nevertheless, never more than words.

SWAN: Can you tell us more about other works that you’ve translated and how you selected these?


JBN: Last year, I translated African Journey by Eslanda Goode Robeson, and it was a delight. I have an intense admiration for Eslanda Robeson, an amazing transnational feminist networker and anticolonial advocate. This book was a great success in the USA when it was published in 1945, the first popular book about Africa written by an African American writer. It is a travel diary, at the same time complex and honest, but I particularly liked how Robeson used this genre to create commonality between Africans and Americans. For the anecdote, Eslanda Robeson and Claude McKay really disliked each other, their writing styles are almost opposite, as well as their social backgrounds and cultural framings; however, I think they were aiming at the same liberation and I love them both!


SWAN: How important is translation for today’s world, especially for publishing underrepresented communities? In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if countries are divided by language. How can people in the literary and education spheres help to bridge these linguistic "borders"?


JBN: When I was a student, I had the opportunity to study what we call in my country “Francophone literature”, so literature written by former and present subjects of the French colonial project. Or raised in the postcolonial remains of the French empire. What was interesting for me was to try to understand or feel what the colonial condition was doing to the language itself. How writing or expressing oneself in a foreign language, an imperial language imposed upon a great variety of cultures, was transforming the language in return.

At its core, Francophone literature has a poetical abundance and a political tumult that always seemed to me in synchronization with the modern condition. Whatever be the scale and the observation point. What people from my neighbourhood in Paris, coming from all corners of the world, were doing via the vernacular popular French slang we were talking every day, the “Francophone” writers were doing the same to literature itself. Upgrading it to a world-scale. As any other imperial language, French does not belong to French people, fortunately, and that is the main source of its current literary potency as well as the only sound reason to continue to use it.

The political side effects of this linguistic colonial and then postcolonial condition astonished me as well: how this shared imperial language allowed Caribbean peoples, Arabs, Africans, Indochinese, Indians, Guyanese, to relate and elaborate a common ground. This tremendous poetic force and its radical cosmopolitan perspective bound me to translation, especially when I experimentally realized that the situation was exactly the same with all the other imperial languages, English, Spanish, etc. Suzanne Césaire was maybe one of the first poets to see the Caribbean not so much as separated islands (divided by bodies of water, empires, languages, political status) but as an archipelago, an extremely complex panorama whose unity is undersea and underseen. I consider that my task as a literary translator working on the Atlantic world is to help languages undersee each other. I aim to be a pidginizer.

SWAN: What are your next projects?

JBN: I am working on several translation projects. First of all, an amazingly powerful collection of short stories by South African wonder writer Stacy Hardy. Then, a beautiful and crucial book by Annette Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation, dealing with the key role played by Black women in the decolonization of the French empire. Finally, I will work on the first French translation of The Practice of Diaspora, an essential book by Brent Hayes Edwards, focusing on Paris as a node of the Black Atlantic culture in the interwar years. Its subtitle says it all: Literature, translation and the rise of Black internationalism. This masterwork constructs an analytical frame to relate together René Maran, Alain Locke, Paulette Nardal, Claude McKay, Lamine Senghor, George Padmore, Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, C.L.R. James, Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté, and so many more. As you can easily imagine, it is a mind-blowing book, and I am extremely proud to work on it. - AM /SWAN


Photos: top to bottom: the cover of Les Brebis noires de DieuJean-Baptiste Naudy in Paris (photo by AM); Voyage Africain by Eslanda Robeson; the Libération article on the translation of Claude McKay’s work; Middle Passages by Kamau Brathwaite (New Directions); Aimable with Big Teeth (Penguin).

Thursday 21 October 2021


How does injustice make you feel? Do you see yourself as a perpetrator, or as a victim? Is there any such thing as neutrality? These are some of the questions that Dorian Sari asks through their artwork, which includes blurry photographs with violently shattered glass frames.

The award-winning Turco-Swiss artist - who uses the pronoun they - has a solo booth at the current International Contemporary Art Fair in Paris (FIAC), and their work invites viewers to  question reactions and stances when it comes to societal norms. Who, for instance, has thrown the stone that is glued to the cracked glass?

“When people look at this, they rarely see themselves as the perpetrator, but we all do things that exclude others,” says Sari, who is represented by Turkish gallery Öktem Aykut, one of 170 galleries taking part in FIAC this year.

On from Oct. 21 to 24, the annual fair did not happen in 2020 because of Covid-19, and its return sees a range of artwork addressing global political and pandemic issues. Sari, who studied political science and literature before art, wonders however if the world has learned anything from the events of the past two years.

The works on display - a tiny chewed-up whistle, a retractable “wall” with spaces for communication if one wishes, two large photographs and a book titled Texts on Post-Truth, Violence, Anger - are meant to spark even deeper reflections about identity and affiliation. (The book was published by the Kunstmuseum Basel when Sari had an exhibition earlier this year, after winning the Manor Art Prize - an award that promotes young visual artists working in Switzerland.)

The intended discomfort is even evident in Sari’s choice of title: “Ding-dong, the itch is back!”, and countries aren’t exempt. Can a nation claim neutrality when they sell arms, the artist also asks, through an illustration showing a gun emitting a red flag that has a white “x” in the middle.

Sari took time out from their busy schedule at FIAC to discuss these concerns. Following is the edited interview.

SWAN: What inspires your work?

SARI: My latest research was on the topic of post-truth, a political adjective for what’s happening in the 21st century. It means that we’re bombarded with information every day, but at the same time nobody knows if this information is true or not. We also live in a technological period where algorithms … just want people to consume more. To keep you on the platform, they show you something that you like, then a more radical version, and then something even more radical. There is so much polarisation and separation in the world, and this is one of my biggest interests. At the FIAC, I’m showing some of the works I showed at the Kunstmuseum in Basel and also at Öktem Aykut in Istanbul. With this series of photographs, I was interested in seeing the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator because we always think that what we do is the right thing, and it is always others’ fault. I wanted to change this position. Whoever is looking at the photograph is the stone-thrower but even though I give this position, people still prefer to identify as the victim. But even if you’re neither, and you’re just watching and being silent, that third option is also problematic.

SWAN: What is behind the “itch” in the title of the photograph series?

SARI: It’s a series of 10 photos, and the “itch is back” means there’s an uncomfortable feeling inside, so you scratch your body. Maybe this discomfort comes because there’s something that the stone-thrower doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to see. It can be anything.

SWAN: So, the aim is to make us question our own itch?

SARI: Exactly. And to question what we reject, what we throw stones at in daily life, because we do it so much. We exclude so many things. I always believe we’re separated through the adjectives: the moment we’re born, they tell us our gender, they tell us our nationality, they tell us our religion, they tell us our social class, language, everything. Everything is automatically put on us, and it’s already part of our separation because one group doesn’t want the other group, and di-di-di-di-di-di. But after all, I believe in love, and I believe love doesn’t have a gender, race, social class. Love is love.

SWAN: And the whistle?

SARI: There are so many people who wear a whistle as a necklace, or carry it on a keychain or in their bag, so that in case of something violent in the streets, they can raise an alarm, make their voices heard. Or, in case there’s an earthquake… I was thinking that someone could have so much fear and anxiety, waiting for something to happen. And the whistle could be like a pencil - when you don’t use it, you chew on the end. And I thought that someone waiting for something bad to happen would chew on the whistle. So, it’s like auto-destruction: you eat your own voice in order to be heard because of fear.

Photos (top to bottom): Dorian Sari with artwork at FIAC; the exterior of the art fair venue in Paris. Photos by AM/SWAN.

Wednesday 6 October 2021


By Dimitri Keramitas

Clara believes that everyone has a secret name. But hers is hiding in plain sight and is linked to her excruciating solitude, as depicted in the debut film of Costa Rican-Swedish director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén.

The eponymous protagonist of Mesén's Clara Sola suffers from a twisted back for which her mother refuses an operation, and this disability both aggravates and illustrates her existential condition on a literal level. The irony, however, is that she lives in what seems to be some kind of paradise - an Eden populated almost entirely by a convivial family of women. 

The director and her skilful cinematographer (Sophie Winqvist Loggins) portray the thick forest and grassland of the film's setting with both assured exactitude and lushness, and Mesén also vividly depicts the Marianist cult that the family has created - a cult that’s at the centre of the movie.

Clara (Wendy Chinchila Arraya) claimed at some point to see a vision of the Virgin Mary, which may well have been a hoax perpetrated on her religious mother. Nevertheless, the maniacally pious mother (an imposing Flor María Vargas Chavez) has built a shrine and invites the public to come and seek Clara’s healing benedictions.

One might think that the cult of the Virgin would lead to female empowerment, but here it is portrayed as life-denying and anti-sexual. This is naturally contradictory, as the mother had to have had a husband to bear not only Clara but another daughter, now deceased. And that daughter herself had a daughter, María (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza).

It is María’s fifteenth birthday fiesta - the quinceañera, an important rite of passage in Latin America - that supplies much of the surface plot of the movie. We follow the meticulous planning for a large-scale reception, with music, dancing, sumptuous food. Special dresses are made for María, and also for Clara, who we somehow understand never had a quinceañera of her own.

Arraya does a tremendous job of portraying Clara, fully inhabiting the character. Physically, Clara is very severe-looking (and saddled with that twisted spine), but we feel the vital woman straining to get out. Glimmers of life shine through the apparent emotional and intellectual stuntedness, and we see her chafing at the iron-fisted rule of her mother, while enjoying warm relations with her niece María. Perhaps it’s the sight of María transitioning from pubescence to adolescence and sexuality that sets Clara off. For the fifteenth birthday party, she insists on a blue dress, like that of her niece, rather than the red dress her mother has chosen.

The other factor that catalyses Clara’s attempted metamorphosis (and catalyses the movie as well) is the arrival of a male hand, Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón in a charismatic, warmly empathetic performance). Handsome, with a rich baritone voice, he attracts both Clara and María. We might normally expect Santiago to be drawn to María, but he and Clara gravitate towards each other on a deeper level. Both of them have a strong indigenous look, as opposed to the conventionally feminine (and European-looking) María.

The director uses a few motifs to drive home her theme of life pushing against constraints. There is the family’s beautiful white horse, Yuca (which the mother is trying to sell). Clara behaves ambivalently towards the horse, trying to get him to do her bidding, but also wanting him to be free. There’s also a large beetle that Clara finds and keeps (or imprisons) in a box. These motifs might seem to spell things out a bit too obviously, but they resonate with viewers.

As Clara gradually comes out of her hard, ungainly shell, the story resembles a Central American take on Cinderella. Pushing these archetypal buttons still works on our emotions (as it does in the recent updated Cinderella movie). But this isn’t the most effective aspect of the film, just as the climactic scene at the birthday party, which the director films like a more realistic version of the prom scene in Carrie, and Clara’s ultimate disposing of the home shrine to the Virgin (reminiscent of the house-burning scene in Terence Malick’s Badlands), are powerful, but over the top.

It is the quieter but often surprising scenes that strike the deepest chords, such as an encounter between Clara and Santiago, where Clara, supposedly the needy one, turns the emotional tables. Just as she has her secret name, she tells him his (whispering it out of earshot of the audience). We never find out Santiago’s hidden name, though we might guess. But we already know Clara’s secret name from the start - “Sola”. The film may well make you wonder about your own.

Clara Sola was presented at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section of the 2021 Cannes film festival, held earlier this year. It is a joint production of Costa Rica, Belgium and Sweden (where the director has lived and studied) and will be in French cinemas in spring 2022.

Production and distribution: Needs Productions, Pacifica Grey, Luxbox Films, Epicentre Films


Sunday 26 September 2021


So, what’s the difference between illustration and “art”?

When asked this question, Maru Aguzzi replies with a wry smile: “Perhaps the price?”

Aguzzi is the curator of Gran Salón México-Paris - Contemporary Mexican Illustration, an exhibition taking place at the Mexican Cultural Institute in the French capital until Oct. 26. The show brings together some 40 illustrators, whose work includes painting, drawing, print-making, video and other genres.

The pieces are strikingly artistic, even if they’re being presented as illustrations. All are “original” works created especially for this exhibition, which is the first in France from Gran Salón México, an annual art fair that Aguzzi created in 2014.

The fair’s mission, she says, is to offer a glimpse into the country’s growing illustration “wave”, and to bring to the public some of the best contemporary works in this category - a field that actually “plays” with the limits of art.

“Saying that price makes the difference is perhaps the funny answer, but you can go deeper and see how illustrators choose to explore content or not,” Aguzzi told SWAN. “The way the work is presented, viewers don’t have to dig for content or meaning as with contemporary art, where the work requires some kind of engagement from the viewer for completion. Illustration has an immediate impact, and viewers can like what they see or not. It’s that simple.”

Gran Salón’s participating illustrators use a variety of media just like their “artist” peers, she said. Works in the show range from oil and acrylic paintings on canvas to charcoal drawings on paper. In between, viewers can enjoy watercolours, collage, animation and digital art.

In fact, some of the illustrators do exhibit in art fairs as well, further blurring distinctions, Aguzzi said. They draw on a long tradition of Mexican artists working in various genres, as did renowned painters Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo - whose influence can be felt in the current show, alongside that of multi-genre Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, for instance.

Picasso and his paintings of women are evoked with a twist in the illustrations of Rocca Luis Cesar (born in Guadalajara in 1986), while the more “veteran” Carlos Rodríguez (born in La Soledad, San Luis Potosí, 1980) draws upon images - such as the watermelon - that appear in the paintings of Tamayo.

Both illustrators convey a strong artistic sensibility, with Rodríguez in particular being inspired by “classical painting, mythology, naïve art and porn” - as his bio states. His two vibrant, erotic paintings in the show were created specifically to conjure a Latin American ambience in Paris, Aguzzi said.

Another notable aspect of the exhibition is its sense of humour or satire, in addition to the addressing of serious topics, such as climate change and language rights. One of the youngest illustrators, María Ponce, born in Oaxaca in 1994, exemplifies this with her colour drawings about daily life and with her “Creciendo juntos” piece, which transmits the message that we have to take care of the environment and trees if we too wish to keep thriving.

Meanwhile, illustrator and filmmaker Gabriela Badillo (born in 1979) uses her work to highlight Mexico’s indigenous languages through her 68 Voces project, a video series with stories told in these languages. Badillo co-founded audiovisual production company Hola Combo with a belief in the social responsibility of media, according to the exhibition, and she and her colleagues have worked with indigenous groups, including children, on creative initiatives. 

Her videos, and other film clips and works of animation, add to the unexpected scope of the Gran Salón show.

“The work that illustrators are producing in Mexico includes numerous genres, and I really wanted to show this range,” Aguzzi told SWAN.

Photos (top to bottom): Maru Aguzzi at the exhibition in Paris, in front of works by Alejandro Magallanes (photo by SWAN); 'Autorretrato' by Rocca Luis Cesar, photo courtesy of Gran Salón México; 'Creciendo juntos' by María Ponce, photo courtesy of Gran Salón México

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Friday 10 September 2021


By Dimitri Keramitas

PARIS – Indian author Amitav Ghosh bemoans the fact that the novel isn’t dealing with current reality.

Speaking with readers in the French capital on the publication of La Déesse et le Marchand (the translation by Myriam Bellehigue of his novel Gun Island, Actes Sud), Ghosh debated whether this literary form is relevant or not, as he addressed pressing world issues such as climate change and migration.

“The novel doesn’t deal with the issues that are so important for the survival of civilization, but instead focuses on individuals’ subjectivity,” he told readers during a lively discussion earlier this month at bookstore l’Arbre à Lettres in the Bastille area of Paris.

Ghosh has devoted himself to these mega-concerns since the publication of his nonfiction book The Great Derangement, and he has also won acclaim for Sea of Poppies, a novel that deals with the tumultuous encounter of European and Asian civilizations in the 19th century. He is also celebrated for The Glass Palace, which has been translated into more than 25 languages.

Ghosh said that he considered the novel to be inherently conservative in form, and difficult to change. Without giving examples, he said that film was much more adaptable, but, at the same time, he acknowledged that the novel’s vivid elements - scene-making and dialogue - had continuing vitality.

For Ghosh, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the great novel of climate change. (Steinbeck’s classic deals with the migration of “Okies” as a result of “dust bowl” conditions in the 1930s that rendered much of the United States an agricultural wasteland.)

However, Ghosh said that if the novel had been written today, it would necessarily include many Hispanic characters, which would also affect the work’s language. He added that the novel form suffers from monolingualism, and that it needs to address today’s cross-pollination of languages and cultures.

“The novel is usually limited to one language, for example English. But if The Grapes of Wrath were written today, it would have to include Spanish. Migration nowadays concerns people from Africa to South Asia, and fiction dealing with the subject must incorporate other languages.”

He noted that in the past, the Western literary tradition was actually less monolingual.

“A writer in medieval France would have spoken two languages, French and Latin,” he noted, although he might also have mentioned regional languages such as Provençal, Occitan and Breton.

When Ghosh spoke more directly about migration, he emphasized that the underlying issues for people's movement were more complex than just climate change. He described doing first-hand research among Bangladeshi and other migrants in Italy. He said that none of the migrants he spoke to accepted the term “ecological migrant”.

“Migration is complex and there are many reasons people leave their countries. Political, religious, economic, familial,” he stated. He found that most of the migrants weren’t happy with their lot in Europe and felt trapped there.

“They felt they’d made a mistake, leaving behind their family bonds, communities, language and traditions, and would return if it were possible,” he added.

In response to a question, he said he chose Italy, as opposed to France or Greece, for his research because he was more familiar with the country and its language, and had friends there. He was able to communicate with those from his home region (he’s from Calcutta in West Bengal, while Bangladeshis are from what used to be called East Bengal, with Bengali the common language).

“One of the key aspects of the migrant experience is that those who would explain it do not speak the migrants’ language. Journalists and others don’t speak Bengali, so they interpret migrant reality in English.”

A member of the audience, also from Calcutta but residing in France and working with refugees, pointed out another aspect of the communication gap: Many refugees, when questioned or interviewed, tend to say what they imagine others, who might help them or have power over them, want to hear. The author agreed with her observation.

He added that mounting migration was perhaps the single most important factor in recent political developments. He said that migration accounted for the rise of the extreme right in Europe, for Brexit, and for the election of Donald Trump. Asked about his own country, Ghosh said that the same issues had led to the rise of Hindu nationalism.

“While there aren’t many people crossing India’s borders, there have been problems with the situation of forest people and other minorities,” he said.

Ghosh also highlighted the role that technology, particularly smartphones and social media, play in migration.

“Much migration couldn’t take place without it, (for) persons who fly into Libya or go through the Balkans. One migrant travelled from Bangladesh to Europe on foot, over a year and a half. This just wouldn’t be possible without today’s communication technology,” he told the audience.

Surprisingly, while focusing on the large-scale problems of the day and the need for the novel to deal with them, Ghosh also made a case for phenomena that surpass conventional notions of what’s real. He said people encounter uncanny, inexplicable events all the time, and called this preternatural, as opposed to supernatural. He gave an example from his novel, the temple that appears in it.  When asked about this, he answered that he’d invented it, but sometime after the book was published, an American geologist contacted him with information about a temple that had been unearthed in the novel’s setting, which bore a striking resemblance to the fictional one.

La Déesse et le Marchand / Gun Island – Ghosh’s most recent novel - is phantasmagorical and originates in a Bengali folktale about a merchant who crosses (and then must flee) the goddess of snakes Manasa Devi. This might seem like indulging in magic realism, but it is actually a way to look at our current predicament, he indicated.

Photos (top to bottom): Amitav Ghosh (by D. Keramitas) and the cover of La Déesse et le Marchand (Actes Sud).

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