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close this bookThe Courier N° 130 Nov - Dec 1991 - Dossier: Oil - Reports: Kenya - The Comoros (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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View the document‘Le Noir du Blanc’: an exhibition of clichés and racial stereotypes

‘Le Noir du Blanc’: an exhibition of clichés and racial stereotypes

by Jeanne REMACLE

‘Le Noir du Blanc’, an exhibition put on with the help of the European Community and the Belgian Ministry for Development Cooperation, was open to the public in Brussels in April to June earlier this year.

It was the work of Cosmic Illusion Productions, the Dutch cultural foundation run by Felix de Rooy and Norman de Palm in Amsterdam, where it was highly successful at the Tropenmusenm last year. In Brussels, it gave the Belgian public the opportunity to see more than 2000 illustrations and hundreds of pieces from a collection with the quite deliberately ironic title of ‘Negrophilia’.

Negrophilia was begun by Rufus Collins, the Afro-American man of the theatre, who went to Europe and was struck by all the sterotyped pictures of blacks everywhere when the civil rights movement had outlawed such things in the United States.

The people behind Cosmic Illusion, both from the Caribbean, took over from Collins and expanded the collection with very simple, very visual examples of popular culture and everyday objects picked up in antique shops, junk shops, book shops and the like. Books, magazines, engravings, dolls, posters, strip cartoons, product wrappings and packaging and all kinds of ordinary bits and pieces came to swell this unique American-European, and therefore generally western, collection.

The exhibition - at the De Markten socio-cultural centre in Brussels - was put on in Belgium at the initiative of a group of organisations, most of them NGOs, but including various sociocultural, solidarity, youth and education associations as well. The idea, as the exhibition brochure made clear, was to ‘create the conditions for collective thinking on a problem which is practically never tackled in public - i.e. the birth, life and death or survival of the images of other people produced in our, what we call ‘western societies’ (or ‘free world’ or ‘the North’ or ‘the developed countries’ or what you will)’.

That is also what the 15 writers who contributed to the ‘Racism - Black continent’ collection, produced under the aegis of the Cooperation for Education and Culture organisation, were aiming at. Their wide-ranging backgrounds (they include research workers, journalists, teachers, anti-racist activists, NGO organisers, anthropologists, sociologists and historians), add interest and bring a variety of points of view to the subject, as a rapid outline will show.

In the article on ‘Demons without wonder and peoples without history’, Godelieve van Geertruyen gives a short historical summary of the way the West has perceived the Africans over the centuries - not consistently, she says, but negatively in the main.

History crops up again with Antoon de Baets’ ‘Metamorphosis of an epic’, the results of a survey of the content of history books used in schools in northern Belgium, while the geography textbooks of the country’s French-speaking areas are covered in ‘The others seen by the Belgians’ by Edouard Vincke, a doctor and anthropologist. Both writers suggest that it is rare, if not totally unknown, to come across positive pictures of ‘people from elsewhere’ in these books - which have timidly started questioning ethnocentricity recently.

Patrick Wymeersch, an anthropologist, and Koen Bogers, a doctor of letters and African linguistics, have called their investigation ‘In the writers’ jungle’. This, of course, is an analysis of fiction and it leads the authors to conclude that the books tell you more about the mentality of the writers of colonial and post-colonial literature in Flanders than they do about the Africans.

Michel Elias, who is working with an NGO in Rwanda, and Danielle Helbig, a journalist, have written an article entitled: ‘Two thousand hills for big and small - An X-ray of Hutu and Tutsi stereotypes’. This is perhaps the most striking piece in the whole collection in that it gives details of how these pictures were stamped on the people of Rwanda and Burundi at the whim of the historical conventions of the former colonials. The authors see this as the main source of today’s problems.

In ‘From native to immigrant’, Luk Vandenhoeck, a member of the ‘School without racism’ movement, attempts to judge racism in the present context with reference to the idea of ‘images of yesterday - prejudices of today?’, demonstrating the analogy between the already longstanding anti-Black racism and today’s anti-Moslem racism.

Marc Poncelet’s ‘Otherness production on the banks of the Meuse’ recounts the special characteristics of immigration in the Liege area and sports columnist Jan Wauters’ ‘Slippery pitch and banana skin’ shows how football has been stained with racism as hooliganism in the game has mounted.

‘Shadows on the sun-children’ is the work of Chris Paulis, who is preparing a doctoral thesis on the anthropology of intercultural communication. The results of his enquiries in one or two families which have adopted African or Asian children lead him to speak about the emergence of ‘a new kind of parental colonialism’.

Many of the people drawn to the Le Noir du Blanc exhibition are from Belgian NGOs. Suzanne Moukasa-Bitumba and Annick Honorez, who work for one such organisation, have written, respectively, ‘What Belgian NGOs have to say about Africa and the Africans’ and ‘Mediators in the media’, analysing the language (text and pictures) which these organisations use. It is not, they maintain, entirely free of prejudice, although there have been improvements over the past decade, and one may well ask why the NGOs do not involve their partners more in the communication process.

The last piece in the book is by Frans Andrillon, a Frenchman living in Brussels, who is behind the Schaerbeek ‘Anti-raciste’ publication. The provokingly named ‘Portrait of Barbarians’, written three years ago, is an attempt to decode various posters which have appeared on Belgian hoardings and helped form the cultural clichwhich deform our perception. Is our perception deformed by pictures created by imaginations deformed by these very pictures?

Can we accept a world or a Europe where, as Jean-Pierre Jacquemin puts it, ‘injurious, pejorative, diminishing or just plain wrong pictures of other people are bandied about in all impudence and impunity?’ Good question...