Re-encountering the ‘Ballets Africains’ in the Museum of Man

Years ago, when doing research for my postgraduate dissertation at ANOM in Aix-en-Provence, I found an odd police report amongst documents relating to the 1956 Loi Cadre. In it, French security services recounted a surveillance report of a music and poetry performance by Keïta Fodéba in Paris in 1949. That discordant image of spies in the backseat of a recital was enough to have me interested, so I read it through, photographed the document, and went on with the project I was working on (that MLitt dissertation on the Loi Cadre eventually turned into my first journal article, which I published in French History).

The front cover from a programme for 'Les Ballets Africains' performance in 1957, showing a picture of Keita Fodeba

A few years later (the trip to Aix was in 2007/8, and this must have been 2012/3), I went with friends to a weekend performance at the National Theatre in London, which was a show about histories of jazz, with a wide range of musical soloists alongside some critical commentary. During the show, they talked for a while about Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”, and particularly about its early musical fusion and recognition of America’s cultural and racial diversity (here’s a link to an NPR discussion of Dvorak).

On the way back home from that performance, I got talking about the show, the ideas they’d raised during it and… perhaps unsurprisingly… French history. That report from the archives sprang back into my mind, with all the discussions of the political power of poetry and music. I started looking again at the material, as well as doing much deeper research into the context of the initial report, the people involved, and the wider setting of the late colonial state, building on the institutional history of the Loi Cadre I’d written to track an individual. In the article, I traced the history of Keïta Fodéba, the poet and musician who founded the Ballets Africains, become the Interior Minister of the newly independent Guinea, then fallen victim to the repressive regime he’d served when accused of involvement in a coup-attempt. I published that article in 2017 in the journal Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques. This was the first article I published in my first permanent job at the University of Chichester, and the first that had that accreditation published on the page.

Happily, it seemed like at least some people read the article! In the last year or so I’ve spoken with an American dance scholar about a book she is planning, to be based on interviews in Guinea and exploring Mande music cultures, as well as doing a video interview with a Grad student in Political Communications at the American University who was exploring his part in anticolonial activism. I was a little confused about the sudden flurry of interest in the article, until I realised that it had just recently gone live on JSTOR, meaning that after 5 years behind the journal’s paywall, it was now on a freely available and easily searchable platform where most people could read it for free!

Then, this September, I started a new job at Queen Mary University of London after having worked at the University of Chichester for the last 5 years, and suddenly I had new cause to re-engage with the article. As part of QMUL’s longstanding partnership with the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), I was called to go over to Paris and teach a week on their international MA module ‘Encountering the City’. I proposed a week called ‘Paris and the Ends of Empire: From National Culture to National Independence’, exploring networks of anticolonial activists in the city (and looking especially at the First Congress of Black Artists and Writers in 1956). Where to take the students for a site visit, however?

Initially I thought about the Musée de l’immigration, though it is closed until February 2023 for a refit. Then, I remembered something I’d quoted in my article on Fodéba and looked out the book Les Hommes de la Danse (1954) which I had bought at the time (from a second-hand bookseller in Toulon, a postcard for which is tucked in the front cover). Fodéba’s foreword to the book recounts an imagined conversation with an African wooden mask in the “ethnographic collections of a Parisian museum.” I translated the preface into English for teaching, and thought I would take them to the Musée de l’homme (which has the advantage if being central, scenic, having an interesting history, as well as having been relatively recently refitted.

My copy of the book 'Les hommes de la danse'

We read Keïta Fodéba’s foreword on Trocadero, and I asked them to think about the themes of the week as they did. How the rhythms of life and the beats of the drums described in Fodéba’s piece might sound against the busy soundscape of central Paris, or how the village scene he depicted might contrast with the sculpted magnificence of the Trocadero looking toward the Eiffel tower.

Students reading my translation of Fodéba's foreword in front of the Eiffel Tower on Trocadero

Inside the museum, we explored the collections which themselves are organised around Gauguin’s questions: Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? I asked them to find some displays which might speak to them, or to look for moments in which the recontextualization of objects in a museum setting might significantly alter their meaning.

Then… we spotted the very mask to which it seems Fodéba had spoken! I read sections of the mask’s speech aloud, and we talked about the thoughts behind the museum, the decisions about display, and the relationship between the object on display. Upstairs, in another part of the display, we spotted a reference to the Thiaroye massacre, as discussed in Fodéba’s poem ‘African Dawn’ (and which I’d focussed a lot on during my article). Later, we went back to ULIP for a 2-hour discussion seminar about the week’s theme as well as the museum visit, and the students explored the topic really enthusiastically.

The end of Fodéba's foreword in 'Les hommes de la danse and the image of the mask
One of the students viewing the exhibit of masks as featured in the book with Fodéba's foreword (student's face blurred for privacy)

This was a welcome teaching moment, and an exciting opportunity to combine museum teaching with classroom discussion, as well as my own research. Over a decade had passed since I encountered that report in the archives at Aix-en-Provence. The way the article’s newfound discoverability ignited wider interest in the research was exciting for me, though it also led me to re-encounter the topic in a new way as I spoke to people looking to find out more. A new job then afforded me an opportunity to discuss it with enquiring minds, and the delightful surprise of meeting the mask on display (and addressing it in its own imagined words).

Then, as if the sense of serendipity was not already acute enough, I found something tucked into the pages of Les Hommes de la Danse as I flicked through it to take pictures for this blog. In the back cover, clearly left there by the book’s previous owner, is a square of newsprint. The book’s previous owner must have had a real interest in the masks provided, as beneath each is carefully written in blue pencil a name of the mask indicating its provenance (which suggests a fair degree of scholarship in researching and recognising them all). Yet, as I took it out this square of newsprint to examine it, full of curiosity and hoping for some clue as to the previous owner’s identity or interests, I was amazed to find one close to my own. Tucked in the back of a second-hand book about African dance, bought from a bookseller in Toulon, was a detail of a carving in Chichester Cathedral, where I’d spent the last 5 years working! Encounters and re-encounters with the material reshaped my approach, and I’m delighted that I’ve been afforded the opportunity to reinterpret the material with public audiences and students in these new contexts.

Clipping of carving at Chichester Cathedral found tucked in the back cover of 'les hommes de la danse'

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