I promise, it’s over for Françafrique! Emmanuel Macron, visiting this continent this week, was anxious to show his desire to “speak as equals” with his interlocutors. The President of the French Republic, who has made cultural soft power the keystone of his African diplomacy, has therefore logically recalled his commitments to the substantial restitution of works of art to the countries of origin, a sign of full recognition and whole of the cultures of the continent.
This resonates strangely with the fascinating exhibition offered in Paris by the Musée du Quai-Branly-Jacques-Chirac on Léopold Sédar Senghor. Like an inverted mirror, the first president of Senegal, philosopher and poet at the same time, embodied in the 1960s another attempt to assert the place of African culture, “négritude”, in a world ruled by Western powers.
Today, Senghor would undoubtedly be criticized by African artists who would see in this a form of cultural appropriation reflecting a relationship of domination by the West over other civilizations. The era is no longer the same. The attempt by Senghor, who was also a brilliant associate professor of French grammar, to reconcile Negritude with Western culture, which he mastered perfectly, probably came too soon in a region which had just emerged from decolonization.
Significantly, the Senegalese president did not fight for the restitution of African works, which the French authorities at the time did not want to hear about anyway. What interested him more was to bring paintings by Marc Chagall or Pablo Picasso to Dakar, despite the reluctance of the French Minister of Culture André Malraux: “I really want to help you with African art, but not for French works…” However, the Dynamic Museum of Dakar hosted, in 1971 and 1972, exhibitions devoted to the two artists. Senghor indeed saw the future of the human condition in what he called “cultural transactions”, namely exchanges between different cultures, transactions which promote “interbreeding”. But his position, which played down the stakes of power, especially economic ones, in North-South relations, seems somewhat outdated today, where studies on postcolonialism and the oppression of African peoples have largely changed the situation.
A more inculturated Church
Idealist, Senghor? However, it would be a shame to reject everything in the poet-president. There was this tenacious belief in a universalism that was not “à la française”, namely that of the philosophy of the Enlightenment with Western culture at the center. On the contrary, his own universalism stemmed from a recognition of the diversity of cultures. Unfortunately, the exhibition at the Musée du Quai-Branly goes too quickly over the role of faith in the work and thought of Senghor, which was nevertheless essential. Catholic, he was also one because of his attachment to the universal. He also wanted to be a priest, but gave it up in 1927, after noticing how insensitive the Dakar seminary at the time was to the richness of African spirituality. Very marked by the reading of the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, he campaigned from the post-war period with other Africans to decouple the message of the Church from Western roots.
This “not only European” Catholicism found a tentative response with the Second Vatican Council and the emphasis placed on inculturation. It manifests itself today with the election of Pope Francis, the first non-European pope, whose distance and hostility he sometimes encounters in a Roman Church still very marked by the history of the Old Continent. It, too, experiences some difficulty in assuming its properly universal dimension.
Leave a Reply