Art Press - - DOSSIER LEIRIS - Trans­la­tion, C. Pen­war­den

To shed fresh light on the nu­me­rous do­cu­ments and mo­dern works writ­ten about Mi­chel Lei­ris (1901-1990), which fea­ture pro­mi­nent­ly in Lei­ris & Co at the Centre Pom­pi­dou-Metz, Ma­rie-Laure Ber­na­dac, who co-cu­ra­ted the show with Agnès de la Beau­melle and De­nis Hol­lier, in­vi­ted six con­tem­po­ra­ry ar­tists to re­spond. They al­so ans­we­red our ques­tions about the in­fluence of this wri­ter who can be seen as a pio­nee­ring fi­gure in art, post-co­lo­nial stu­dies and au­to­fic­tion. As Ber­na­dac puts it, “Lei­ris is a key re­fe­rence for a num­ber of ar­tists for the way he trans­for­med eth­no­gra­phy in­to li­te­ra­ture, as a kind of eth­no­gra­pher of his own self. In L’Afrique fan­tôme he ex­presses the dif­fi­cul­ty of his re­la­tion to the Other, his frus­tra­tion, his fee­ling of re­jec­tion.” That book is in fact a tra­ve­logue writ­ten du­ring his an­thro­po­lo­gi­cal fact-fin­ding jour­ney from Da­kar to Dji­bou­ti, du­ring which he was constant­ly ques­tio­ning the sta­tus of the ob­jects col­lec­ted on the way. “He always po­si­tio­ned him­self on the edge of things, on the mar­gins of Sur­rea­lism and the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. There was always this gulf crea­ted by his deep-sea­ted sense of doubt.” Lei­ris wrote about Pi­cas­so, Mar­cel Du­champ, Schön­berg and Stra­vins­ky, among others. “That gave him the pro­per sense of dis­tance. Whe­ther in re­la­tion to Ray­mond Rous­sel or at the Black foyer in Ivry, he de­fen­ded the Black cause, but al­so syn­cre­tic cultures—well be­fore Edouard Glis­sant, who came to see him in Pa­ris. He is a man of pa­ra­doxes.” And those pa­ra­doxes make Lei­ris’s work a rich source for ar­tists to­day. A P PAROXYSM OF SUB­JEC­TI­VI­TY MA­THIEU K. ABON­NENC

I read L’Afrique fan­tôme when I was a student, and I went back to it when I found the pho­to­graphs ta­ken by my grand­fa­ther in the 1930s, which he in­dexed using the me­thods de­ve­lo­ped by Lei­ris and Griaule. You can read this book on se­ve­ral dif­ferent le­vels: as a tra­vel jour­nal, for the psy­choa­na­ly­ti­cal ac­counts of dreams, as a co­lo­nial and an­ti-co­lo­nial ch­ro­nicle (be­cause du­ring the Da­kar-Dji­bou­ti mis­sion Lei­ris dis­co­ve­red that, in­evi­ta­bly, he was dee­ply an­ti-co­lo­nia­list, cau­sing him to fall out with Griaule when the book was pu­bli­shed).

In my film Sec­teur IX B de pro­phy­laxie de la ma­la­die du som­meil I tried to am­pli­fy what Lei­ris had done, this de­bacle of scien­ti­fic me­thod. I had al­rea­dy done a piece of work on the ques­tion of the bio­gra­phy of ob­jects, part of which is cur­rent­ly on show at the CAPC in Bor­deaux as Un film ita­lien (Afri­ca-Ad­dio). For that I bought cop­per crosses made in Con­go in the late ni­ne­teenth and ear­ly twen­tieth cen­tu­ry. That was one of the first re­sources the Bel­gians plun­de­red in the Con­go: they sent them to Bel­gium to be mel­ted down. I am great­ly in­ter­es­ted in the way ob­jects are ap­pro­pria­ted and made a part of ano­ther sym­bo­lic and eco­no­mic sys­tem. Sec­teur IX B de pro­phy­laxie de la ma­la­die du som­meil talks about the stran­ger as

pects of L’Afrique fan­tôme. I had the idea of loo­king at the drugs and me­di­cines ta­ken by these eth­no­lo­gists. Their men­tal state was constant­ly altered by lau­da­num or qui­nine, which pre­ven­ted them from pro­du­cing an ob­jec­tive scien­ti­fic dis­course. This is the ap­proach ta­ken by Lei­ris in L’Afrique fan­tôme: it is by ta­king sub­jec­ti­vi­ty to ex­tremes that ob­jec­ti­vi­ty be­comes pos­sible. The film is a fic­tion which says lit­tle di­rect­ly about Lei­ris, but which moves around the sub­ject. How do we re­late things that are opaque to our­selves? How can scien­ti­fic dis­course be used to make them le­gible? I don’t be­lieve that it can, any more than Lei­ris did. What in­te­rests me about him is that he uses bio­gra­phy as the smal­lest pos­sible point of ac­cess, and then goes on to broa­den the dis­cus­sion. The­main cha­rac­ter in the film is a re­sear­cher who tries to un­ders­tand the na­ture of Lei­ris’s stra­te­gy in L’Afrique fan­tôme (which is so­me­times really com­pel­ling, and so­me­times re­flects the te­dium of tra­vel), and the way this “agi­tates” scien­ti­fic dis­course.

Born 1977 in French Guia­na. Lives and works in Metz AN­THRO­PO­LO­GY IN QUES­TIONS CA­MILLE HEN­ROT I read L’Afrique fan­tôme in New York, when I de­ci­ded to move there in 2010. It was an old edi­tion, with great pho­tos. This was al­so when I star­ted ma­king my Iké­ba­nas. Af­ter that I read L’Homme sans hon­neur. Ma­ny times, du­ring my trip to In­dia in 2010, I felt the sense of unease des­cri­bed by Lei­ris, that loss of iden­ti­ty and so­me­times even gen­der be­cause one has be­come a re­pre­sen­ta­tive of one’s spe­cies. In Va­nua­tu I at­ten­ded a Mass where the priest, a wo­man, in­tro­du­ced me as “the Whi­te­man.” For

ma­ny of the In­dians I was an Ame­ri­can. What in­te­rests me about an­thro­po­lo­gy is the ques­tions it asks about it­self. In 2011 the Pom­pi­dou sent me to In­dia to make a film, a bit like brin­ging ob­jects back from a mis­sion. In L’Afrique fan­tôme there is a mo­ment when Lei­ris de­cides to take control of the ca­ra­van be­cause the ex­pe­di­tion lea­der is a ra­cist. He would like to be able to talk to the mule dri­ver be­cause he has good sto­ries to tell; he would like to go to Ethio­pia be­cause it hasn’t been co­lo­ni­zed yet. But he fails to see that by ele­ven o’clock it will be too hot to set up the camp, so he ends p alone in the sun and be­comes even worse than the per­son he consi­de­red so bru­tal. In the end he no lon­ger knows where he stands and when he gets back to Pa­ris, where war has been de­cla­red, he is com­ple­te­ly des­ta­bi­li­zed. The book I found most ins­pi­ring is L’Homme

sans hon­neur. Lei­ris ex­plains that art is a set of pri­vi­le­ged si­tua­tions. Now that is exact­ly the na­ture of any ins­tal­la­tion: the idea of fin­ding an or­der to fight against the in­ner tu­mult cau­sed by the out­side world. Lei­ris was sen­si­tive and he was dee­ply trou­bled by the things he had or hadn’t done. In L’Afrique

fan­tôme he talks about his re­la­tion to mas­tur­ba­tion. I found that ve­ry ins­pi­ring, as re­gards the re­la­tion to the ima­gi­na­ry, for the mas­tur­ba­tion scene in Grosse fa­tigue, and for my Tro­pics of Love dra­wings. He lives in a world of fan­ta­sies, which pre­vents his sexua­li­ty from en­ga­ging with the other, and at the same time he dreams of what is as “other” as can be. He is in love with the witch’s daugh­ter and rea­lizes that he can ne­ver have a re­la­tion­ship with her. He is at once ho­nest and dis­tur­bing.

Born 1978 in Pa­ris. Lives and works in Pa­ris and New York


What most in­ter­es­ted me in L’Afrique fan­tôme is the re­la­tion bet­ween the mo­der­nist ob­ject and tra­di­tion. When An­dré Bre­ton sta­ted that masks are art ob­jects, he is speaking from a world when the re­la­tion bet­ween the West and non-Wes­tern cultures was uni­la­te­ral. To­day, those cultures, an­thro­po­lo­gy, and even tra­di­tio­nal Wes­tern cultures, are to­pi­cal ques­tions in art. But we still for­get the his­to­ry of these ob­jects. I try to show how co­lo­nia­lism ra­mi­fies, in the po­li­ti­cal and eco­no­mic fields as well as in the arts. Now, what I see in Lei­ris, as in his contem­po­ra­ries, is an idea of dis­pos­ses­sion of these ob­jects, which passes for in­si­gni­fi­cant whe­reas it is ac­tual­ly pro­ble­ma­tic. Hence the idea of a reap­pro­pria­tion, a re­pa­ra­tion. Most tra­di­tio­nal Afri­can ob­jects are in the West. They em­bo­dy an in­ter­me­dia­ry space bet­ween the West and non-Wes­tern world, a “dia­spo­ra,” as John Pfef­fer calls it, which echoes Edouard Glis­sant’s Créo­li­té. The Mir­ror Masks create a mise-en-abyme for the vie­wer by re­flec­ting them in frag­men­ta­ry form on an Afri­can mask, and of­fer ano­ther ge­nea­lo­gy of con­tem­po­ra­ry art. A pas­sage from L’Afrique fan­tôme des­cribes the mem­bers of the ex­pe­di­tion car­rying away sta­tues in their boots when they leave a vil­lage. I am trying to tigh­ten the link that se­pa­rates us from the cultures and modes of re­pre­sen­ta­tion of tra­di­tio­nal Afri­ca, to res­tore these ob­jects’ role in his­to­ry. Cu­bism is lin­ked to Ibe­rian sculp­ture, and to tri­bal arts, but I am struck by the in­crea­sing de­nial of the lat­ter’s in­fluence on mo­dern art. As ear­ly as 1936 MoMA sho­wed tri­bal masks, but in Pi­cas­so et les maîtres there wasn’t a

single Afri­can mask. I have of­ten dis­cus­sed this with Ma­rie-Laure Ber­na­dac, who cu­ra­ted that ma­gni­ficent, his­to­ric ex­hi­bi­tion.( 1) It’s vi­tal we be rea­dy to share His­to­ry fair­ly. Whole areas of our so­cie­ty are at stake here, and the pos­si­bi­li­ty of li­ving to­ge­ther with our dif­fe­rences and our wounds. This connects with what I said in Le Monde about the at­tack on

Char­lie Heb­do: at school, the po­pu­la­tions with roots in co­lo­ni­zed coun­tries ne­ver re­cei­ved ex­pla­na­tions about all the dis­pos­ses­sions and hu­mi­lia­tions, about the thou­sands of Se­ne­ga­lese and Al­ge­rian sol­diers who were killed. We in France se­ve­re­ly lack the be­lief in his­to­ry. That needs to be re­pai­red.

Born 1977 in Du­gny. Lives and works in Ber­lin


The first book by Lei­ris that I read was

L’Afrique fan­tôme, when I came back from my first trip to Ma­li in 1987, but now I pre­fer L’Âge d’homme. For twen­ty-five years I had a house in the Do­gon lands, at San­ga, just where that pho­to was ta­ken of Mi­chel Lei­ris and Mar­cel Griaule on the edge of a cliff. I used to sit there and read with my feet dan­gling down in­to the emp­ti­ness, face to the wind. Rea­ding L’Afrique

fan­tôme hel­ped me un­ders­tand the per­verse re­la­tion bet­ween an­thro­po­lo­gy and co­lo­nia­lism. In 1934 Lei­ris was the first

tou­ba­baou (white) voice to speak of his unease at ex­hi­bi­ting re­li­gious ob­jects, for example the Mo­ther of the mask that Griaule sei­zed in the vil­lage of Go­go­li, a ho­ly ob­ject that is ta­ken out­side or made to dance. We ima­gine eth­no­lo­gists hol­ding a pen­cil, but in fact they car­ried guns. I am more on Lei­ris’s side than Griaule’s, be­cause Lei­ris is on the side of art, of culture and of the spi­rit. I was lu­cky enough to meet people who had known Griaule. There was an ele­ment of pillage in his work but—and I don’t want this to be mi­sin­ter­pre­ted—the Wes­ter­ners al­so did some re­mar­kable things. Dams, for example. To­day, the pilla­ging goes on but no one builds dams any more. Un­like An­dré Gide, who ex­pres­sed his com­pas­sion in his jour­nal, Lei­ris takes a lu­cid view of the si­tua­tion. Al­so, in La Langue se­crète des Do­gon de

San­ga (1948) he trans­cribes the co­ro­na­tion ce­re­mo­ny of the Ho­gon (Do­gon chief). He un­ders­tood that this “se­cret lan­guage” was spo­ken on­ly in im­por­tant ce­re­mo­nies. This fine text consists en­ti­re­ly of sen­tences wi­thout verbs. A suc­ces­sion of sub­stan­tives. The pain­ting I am sho­wing in Metz, San­gha

1921, is the size of a large book. I pain­ted it in Ma­li in the 1990s. It’s a lit­tle bit de­vious: the first en­coun­ter bet­ween a white man, with his ex­plo­rer’s hat and pis­tol, and a Do­gon, who is wea­ring a mask and my san­dals, as if I had been there be­fore. I li­ked the idea of ligh­te­ning up the sub­ject a bit.

Born 1957 in Ma­jor­ca. Lives and works in Pa­ris


L’Âge d’Homme and L’Homme sans hon­neur, notes pour le Sa­cré dans la vie quo­ti­dienne are ve­ry close to what we are. Lei­ris does not go beyond what he sees, what he thinks, what he is ex­pe­rien­cing. He knows that the su­per­na­tu­ral exists, that there are phe­no­me­na beyond his un­ders­tan­ding, be­cause he fre­quen­ted the Sur­rea­lists. But he stops be­fore he gets there be­cause he al­so knows that our sense of these phe­no­me­na exists in the real. He has a kind of ul­tra-lo­cal­ness. And then, too, there’s the con­nec­tion with Ar­taud, a li­te­ra­li­ty from the out­side of the per­son, where any­thing is pos­sible (which touches us di­rect­ly). Lei­ris em­braces what is in­side his felt ter­ri­to­ry. This is not pru­dence, but a “clear cons­cious­ness” of things. Wi­thin our li­mits, there are no li­mits, and it’s much more com­pli­ca­ted than if we leave them be­hind. My ac­ti­vi­ty as a pain­ter does not go beyond the li­te­ra­li­ty of the pain­ting. When I deal with that par­ti­cu­lar ques­tion, the more li­te­ral I am, the big­ger the space. What saves us is the cla­ri­ty of events, of fee­lings, of si­tua­tions. Rim­baud, Kaf­ka, Ray­mond Rous­sel des­cribe this li­te­ra­li­ty. Away from in­ter­pre­ta­tion, from the sym­bo­lic. Lei­ris set out with Griaule for an unk­nown ter­ri­to­ry to des­cribe what was going on there: the true work of the eth­no­lo­gist. For me, in the 1980s Afri­ca was a way of being el­sew­here. I have spo­ken of the ora­li­ty of Afri­ca, com­pa­red to our ve­ry writ­ten so­cie­ties. Lei­ris talks about that, too. It was in 1994 that I did my por­traits of Lei­ris, which were shown in the ex­hi­bi­tion, when the events were hap­pe­ning in Rwan­da. I took two angles: the first Resistance net­works at the Mu­sée de l’Homme and the Mas­sacre of the In­no­cents by Pous­sin. In these por­traits, Lei­ris’s head is like that of a ghost. I ri­tua­li­zed them with Pa­ri­sian connec­tions and me­tro ti­ckets, which for me are the most real ob­jects in Pa­ris, and the­re­fore sa­cred. It’s a way of tal­king about mo­ve­ment wi­thin the lo­cal. That came to me from rea­ding L’Âge

d’homme. Lei­ris is a po­li­ti­cal cons­cious­ness, the “clear cons­cious­ness” that Marx talks about. For him, “art is the ille­gi­ti­mate off­spring of play and re­li­gion.” There is the po­li­ti­cal and re­li­gious space where we live, but there is al­so play, and there we are sa­ved.

Born 1953 in Saï­da. Lives and works in Pa­ris.


I dis­co­ve­red Lei­ris maybe about twen­ty years ago, th­rough Ba­ga­telles vé­gé­tales, which I read at a se­cond­hand book­sel­ler’s in Lau­sanne. A book of apho­risms with a co­ver by Miró. It was Ray­mond Rous­sel who got me in­to Lei­ris. I rea­li­zed that they had known each other. Af­ter that I read La Règle du jeu and Fis­sures. To write my text in the ex­hi­bi­tion catalogue I re­fer­red to “Vois dé­jà l’ange,” first pu­bli­shed in Les Temps mo­dernes, then re­prin­ted in

Four­bis (1955). Lei­ris is in Al­ge­ria, he’s tal­king about an en­coun­ter with a pros­ti­tute with a tat­tooed face, Kha­did­ja, and he makes his fa­mous com­men­ta­ry on the La­tin cum. I share Lei­ris’s fas­ci­na­tion with the ma­gic of Afri­ca. I was born in Ma­da­gas­car, then I was a geo­lo­gist in the Magh­reb. I know Li­bya and Al­ge­ria pret­ty well. When he wrote this text Lei­ris was a sol­dier in Al­ge­ria. At the height of the co­lo­nial era, and as on­ly a young man, his ca­pa­ci­ty for dis­tance is tre­men­dous. It so hap­pens that he did his the­sis on pos­ses­sion, and I my­self was ini­tia­ted in­to a me­thod of di­vi­sion, cal­led si­ki­dy, in Ma­da­gas­car, and la­ter, in the Magh­reb de­sert, I met the “Ghoules,” ma­gic crea­tures that trans­por­ted me. Truth to tell, I don’t know his eth­no­lo­gi­cal work ve­ry well, it’s his poe­try that in­te­rests me (I see my­self as es­sen­tial­ly a poet). Take the “Chest­nut sculp­ted for Miró, no. 10”: “Which says the most: the chalk, that fleck of foam on the sur­face of the black­board, or the mouths open in the white of the dice?” My ca­reer as a ju­nior school tea­cher is be­hind me. I spent twen­ty years wri­ting on the black­board. In these four lines you have geo­lo­gy, the black­board, and the in­no­cence of play. I feel ve­ry close to that kind of poe­try. For the dra­wings shown in Metz I star­ted with the first th­ree poems in Fis­sures, which ex­press the sim­pli­ci­ty of Miró’s pain­ting: “No­thing, and yet not emp­ti­ness. Ra­ther than no­thing, a no-thing”; “No doubt it hangs by a th­read but a no-thing is not no­thing”; “Twis­ted th­read, mel­ted grain suf­fice for the emp­ti­ness in less than no­thing to emp­ty it­self of all its emp­ti­ness.” I tried to do some gra­phic work on this no­thing with which one can ma­gni­fy the world. These works are lit­tle fi­gures made out of the de­bris on a big yel­low ground, as if stret­ched across the void, with Lei­ris’s text all around them. Born 1957 in Ma­da­gas­car. Lives and works in France and Swit­zer­land.

(1) Pi­cas­so et les maîtres, Grand Pa­lais, 2009, Pa­ris. But note William Ru­bin’s MoMA show, Pri­mi­ti­vism in the 20th Cen­tu­ry, Af­fi­ni­ty of the Tri­bal and the Mo­dern (ed.).

Jean-Mi­chel Al­be­ro­la. « Por­trait de Mi­chel Lei­ris ». 1994. (Col­lec­tion An­dré Ma­gnin. Pa­ris)

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