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 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
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 countrys 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 todays 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 todays anti-Moslem racism.
Marc Poncelets 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?