Rewriting colonial heritage in Marseille:
Contemporary artworks as decolonial interventions
In recent years, the issue of decolonizing heritage has emerged particularly strongly in cities that were historically at the heart of colonial entanglements. In the Arab world and in Africa and Latin America, this paradigmatic shift has operated through the redefinition of precolonial and colonial heritage and its relationship to modernity and national identity. Heritage sites, cultural events, and archives in Marseille have become points of mobilization and protest for a range of actors, including artists, minority groups, descendants of enslaved persons, and social movements.
Marseille was historically marked by colonial history. It was the gateway to the East and to Africa, making it an important crossroads for European, Mediterranean, and African cultures, as attested to by the many street names and monuments that bear witness to this past. Prompted by the repressive discourses on colonial heritage and memory embedded in the public landscape, and by a city image based on nostalgia for French Algeria, artistic practices continually negotiate the demise of public politics. Using ephemeral and introspective approaches, Dalila Mahdjoub questions the weight of colonization today, addressing its effects on memory.
The article will suggest that the different projects are informed by a dynamic consisting in acknowledging how the colonial experiences have shaped the values of society and mapping art as a point of mobilization to engage in critical ways with this enduring heritage. While there are several conceptualizations of the intersections between art and decoloniality, the article will draw on decolonial aesthetics as analyzed by Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vásquez (Mignolo and Vásquez 2013). Under this label is encompassed the academic research as well as artistic projects that draw on the statement according to which “if knowledge is colonized, then one of the tasks ahead is to de-colonize knowledge” (Quijano 1997). Mignolo has addressed the task of exploring the coloniality of knowledge and challenging Modern epistemology with an enquiry on Kantian aesthetics. Besides this epistemic critique of aesthetic knowledge, decolonial aesthetics refers to the artistic and curatorial practices that seek to change the hegemonic ideas. It is more specifically within this frame that the article will address the case studies by bearing a special attention to their processes and motivations when attempting to undo colonialism’s effects on how the colonial past is narrated in Marseille.
Dalila Mahdjoub’s La Maison, le monde: Art as a means of finding a place
Amnesia around colonial heritage and memory in Europe deeply impacts cultural artistic practices, including collective and individual artistic struggles over them. Any analysis of the ways in which artists confront the colonial past in Marseille should be prefaced by an overview of colonial memory politics and of the city’s colonial background. The French colonial empire existed for more than four centuries, starting in the middle of the sixteenth century. It is, however, French settlement in Africa—and specifically in Algeria—in the 1830s that really changed Marseille’s economy and turned the city into a major colonial capital. No city was so connected to the colonies as Marseille in France was. The city hosted two of the three colonial exhibitions (in 1906 and in 1922) set up by France, and on these occasions the colonial capital was reshaped by monuments designed for grand displays of imperial prestige and power, claiming imperial significance for Marseille, and giving an indication of the particular fervor of imperialist celebrations at this historical moment (Aldrich 2005, p. 92). Embedded in the city’s landscape, monuments such as Saint-Charles Staircase, with its allegories of the colonies, form an obvious memento of France’s colonial past as well as a sustained colonial memory (Aldrich 2005, p. 97). The two monumental sculpted groups Les Colonies d’Asie and Les Colonies d’Afrique were ordered by the city to the sculptor Louis Botinelly and were completed in 1927 to celebrate Marseille as an imperial capital. Their location in the staircase leading to the Saint-Charles train station as well as the imperial products represented such as the grain and fruits evoke the central role that Marseille has played in the French empire as well as they suggest how the city gained its wealth on the back of the colonies. On the other hand, there exist very few public sites or plaques offering the former colonized and their descendants a true civic commemoration. This is in spite of the fact that, since the end of the French empire in the 1960s, France has witnessed a significant influx of immigrants from the Maghreb region. Their descendants today make up one fourth of the general population of Marseille. At the national level, recent debates around the “national public politics of colonial memory” (Dufoix 2012) have been marked by a deep cultural divide that has persisted for close to sixty years since decolonization and that reached its peak in the early twenty-first century. Colonial French memory politics are divided. For example, in 2005 emerged the public debate around a law proposing to recognize the “positive dimension of French colonization in Algeria” (Dufoix 2012), which was finally abandoned due to protests. While state ambivalence toward colonization explains the repressive stance on colonial memory, a second line of explanation may be located in the competition between heritage groups at the local level. For example, in 2014, near Marseille’s town hall in the 1st and 2nd districts of the city, officials affixed two plaques memorializing Sétif and Guelma, two Algerian villages that had known violent and deadly repression on 8 May 1945 after suppressed demonstrations, leading to riots. Under pressure from the French Algeria nostalgist group Le collectif national: Non au 19 mars 1962 [“The national collective: No to 19 March 1962”], the plaques were immediately removed.
Such practices of colonial heritage have become points of contestation among citizens and artists in Marseille. Of Algerian origin, and born in Montbéliard in the north of Lyon in 1967, Dalila Mahdjoub spent her youth in a large family of eight children in the suburbs of the city, inhabited mainly by the families of Algerian workers, who, like her father, migrated from Algeria in the 1950s to work in the Peugeot automobile factory. Mahdjoub then left Lyon for Marseille, where she lives today. Taking up the practice of artist–researcher, which has been one of the most remarkable aesthetic means in the past decade to contain the interrelationship between the humanities and new forms of engagement among contemporary artists, Mahdjoub programs acts of remembrance that expose the gulf between what happened in the past and how it gets remembered in the present. In 2014, the artist presented the installation La Maison, le monde [“The house, the world”] in Marseille’s artist-run space La Compagnie. The project was based on the juxtaposition of the archival traces of her father and those of today’s global workers. Viewers were invited to enter the exhibition space and inspect two workplace medals belonging to the artist’s father, Said, sewn together in a textile-based language that the artist had used in her previous series, Mise à l’honneur, consisting of sewing together t-shirt tags bearing the signs “Made in Bangladesh,” “Made in Cambodia,” and so on with red thread and painting them with soluchrom (an antiseptic that is applied to injured skin) to give a “variation of red according to the label materials” (Mahdjoub 2016).
Mediating the artist’s sadness about her father’s difficult integration, the work may be considered an informal and individual practice of heritage from below, centering on the history of the oppressed and aimed at countering the effects of colonization on the present’s relationship with the past. The artist’s concern in using aesthetics for the preservation of colonial and postcolonial microhistories and for the transmission of personal memory and history resonates with Edouard Glissant’s observation that “our history (or more precisely our histories) is shipwrecked, washed up in colonial history” (Glissant 1997, p. 14). Manifesting the need to dredge up repressed images from the past to somehow recuperate some fragments of that which was culturally lost during colonization, the artist also issues a critique of today’s French institutional memory politics, which result in what she calls a “fragmented memory.” This term emerged in her recent work Enchanteur (2019), which addresses the ways in which French history was taught to her when she was a child. Based on personal and familial memories of the Algerian war, this autobiographical text contained a record of how she felt as a result of the gap between her mother Khedidja’s traumatic souvenirs of death and violence and the “enchanting” version of Franco-Algerian colonial history recounted at school, where “nothing agreed could explain, relay, support, contextualize or invalidate snippets of a story by [her] mother” (Mahdjoub 2019).
Reinforcing the importance of Frantz Fanon’s theoretical legacy in discussing the psychological pain of living in between these two irreconcilable national visions of the colonial past, the artist borrows his concept of “scissiparity” (Mahdjoub 2019). In Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon, who himself appropriated the notion of “scissiparity” from the diciplinary discourse of biology, described the effects of French imperial and Republican ideals—which he defined as one and indivisible—on the colonized, who had the experience of alienation and of double consciousness. He posited this experience as the cause of a violent disintegration of the self. By transferring this term, originating in the political philosophy and psychiatry of the colonial era, to her own contemporary experience as a Franco-Algerian subject, the artist reveals that colonial memory is written on and in the body of the person who remembers and that it is possible to inherit such traumatic events between generations. As Mahdjoub (2019) says of the weight of the colonial past in the present, her response was physical: “It took me years to vomit all this dirt that had been put in my head.”
In this way, La Maison, le monde speaks to the special difficulty of memorial work when it pertains to colonial history. The vibrant textile surfaces Mahdjoub creates, enmeshed with threads and covered with red paint, are an artistic gesture that recalls the process of mental layering. As Amy Hubbell has emphasized, layering has entered into the vocabulary of Franco-Algerian artists, such as Zineb Sedira and Katia Kameli, precisely as a means to materialize their peculiar type of memory. Consequently, La Maison, le monde is less about probing a history that has been forgotten than it is about exposing the multiple layers of the past and how “one can reformulate what had been erased by colonization and what had been silenced by the subsequent ruptures of independence” (Hubbell 2018, p. 8). As suggested by Amy Hubbell’s quote, colonization would be largely responsible for the omission of the experiences of the Algerian people and that of their descendants. Such a situation could be interpreted as an evidence for the extent to which coloniality deeply affects narration and commemoration.
Contrary to most artists informed by artist–researcher practices, Mahdjoub uses the archive not as a way to take part in the historical reconstruction of colonization but rather as a way to build a location of memory for the oppressed and the forgotten, for those who have no place. Mahdjoub juxtaposes the memorializing work of colonization and its aftermath with that of other histories subjected to power relations. In that sense, as she refuses to limit her discourse to Franco-Algerian issues, she escapes the threat of essentialism. Her words highlight the problem of a lacking or absent sense of community as a grave concern, exemplified by her obsessive question “What do you do when you don’t have a place?” and bear a more universal scope (Mahdjoub 2018). In the press release for the exhibition, she established a link between today’s workers in factories around the world and Maghrebi colonial and postcolonial subjects; their fate, she suggests, intersect in their shared status as oppressed people. Implied in this statement is her role as an artist, which she describes as follows: “I have found them a place. It is a question of finding them a home” (Mahdjoub 2014). As she proposes here, her task does not only consist in metaphorically finding oppressed people a home through her work but also in forcefully engaging with the memory debate by inscribing forgotten histories in places—a process she conceptualizes as “finding them a home” (Mahdjoub 2014). Commenting on her memorial process, she explains that she has found “the right place” for her father’s memory: “the house, the world” (Mahdjoub 2014). The kind of shelter she produces—“delimited by curtains made from labels…barcodes, locks, mop curtains, curtain-drapes, curtain shroud, curtain-towel” (Mahdjoub 2014), and thus reproducing the permanent workshop that she has at home, in the family kitchen—reveals the great significance of the house in her work, as a structure that hosts the traces of leftovers. La Maison, le monde’s title, derived from a 1984 film by Satyajit Ray (inspired by a novel by Rabindranath Tagore), and the form of “installation-atelier” reinforce the centrality of the house/home in this project and the artist’s longstanding interest in this topic.
Indeed, before the house became a metaphor for building memory, it occurred as a concrete topic within Mahdjoub’s conceptual research. One of her first projects in Marseille, D’un seuil à l’autre [“From one threshold to another”], co-created with artist Martine Derain in 2007, involved documenting the issue of housing for colonial workers who arrived from Algeria in Marseille. This work was located at the physical entrance of a residence where elderly former colonial Algerian workers live today in the Belsunce district of Marseille, a district marked by the “historical testimony of the bond of dependence woven by the colonization between these people and France? (Péraldi 2006, p. 37). While memorializing one major site of Algerian immigration, this installation also triggered more conceptual concerns around what “home” means and how it relates to “domesticity.” With its title, which comes from a Kabyle proverb meaning “At the threshold or the door where people welcome the visitors, things are going upside down” (Mahdjoub 2007), the artist drew attention to the need to recover the modes of sensing and knowing that French colonization repressed. The title’s meaning is also critical: the dwelling, as portrayed in this proverb, is read as a site of unpredictability rather than enclosure, which deeply shifts the lines of home and belonging. This shift evokes Marsha Meskimmon’s analysis of domesticity, which is marked, as she suggests, by a tendency to equate “home and nation (‘domestic’ as opposed to ‘foreign’) with security” (Meskimmon 2006, p. 14).
Following the artist’s working notes on La Maison, le monde, the installation floor “was made from cardboard…collected from merchants in the Belsunce district,” bringing the world’s traces home, and also offering a workplace where “the inside and the outside communicate” (Mahdjoub 2014). It seems, then, that the proverb is physically reinterpreted by the display as the interaction between the local (evoked by her studio) and the global (materialized by the t-shirt tags coming from the whole world), disrupts the divide between the domestic and its “others”. In that way, the work seems to enact a sense of entanglements. Thus, Mahdjoub’s work does not limit to contesting the rise of coloniality. Open to a decolonial option that praises the sources of precolonial practices, her “monument to the father’s memory” (Mahdjoub 2014) brings into commemoration a colonial past that she recollects in channeling a sense of hospitality that she inherited as part of her ancestral knowledge.
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