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statues also die

Coming back to the idea of ethnographic museums embodying (neo)colonialism, here's an eloquent statement on the subject, made in a unique collaboration between two masters of French cinema, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. Their anti-colonial and anti-racist essay film 'Statues Also Die' ('Les statues meurent aussi', 1953) was deemed controversial enough to be banned in France until 1963 and condemned to obscurity long after.

Statues also die - Les statues meurent aussi - 1

'Statues Also Die' forms an early highpoint in both their careers. Resnais would next make the horrific documentary 'Night and Fog' ('Nuit et Bruillard', 1955) about the Nazi extermination camps, while Marker went on to make such unclassifiable films as 'Letter from Siberia' ('Lettre de Sibérie', 1957). This film lives somewhere in between, and offers a great example of the documentary essay. To illustrate the power of this almost forgotten genre, note how difficult it is to separate the voice-over from the images and music. The text on its own wouldn't work, the force of the argument really comes from the interplay between words and images.

Only a half hour long, 'Statues Also Die' is both a beautiful meditation on the nature of African art - with great black and white, almost abstract sequences of statues and sculptures - and a passionate condemnation of the way this has been reappropriated and domesticated by European colonialism. The voice-over narration opens by stating:

When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.

A dead statue is one whose function and meaning in its culture of origin is lost, and which can only be exhibited as an object of beauty (art) or education (ethnography). As a matter of fact, one of the starting points for Marker and Resnais was the realisation that while Greek or Roman art is displayed in the Louvre, African art is displayed in ethnographic museums.

Black art, we look at it as if it had its reason for being in the pleasure it gives us. The intentions of the black who created it, the emotions of the black who looks at it, all of that escapes us.

(Quoting from the translated subtitles makes the 1950s, pre-politically correct language apparent, which may sound awkward today despite the film's intentions.)

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From here the film explores first the holistic and sacred nature of 'primitive' art, where a religious statue "is not a god, it is a prayer." In other words, rather than serving as a representation, its value lies in the act of creation itself, in the work that goes into it. In Western terms, it is not art but sacred craftsmanship. The film celebrates this kind of work, which reflects an outlook on the world that was lost long ago in Europe.

This overflow of creation, which deposits its signs like shells upon the smooth wall of the statue, is an overflow of imagination, it is freedom, turning of the sun, flower knot, water curve, fork of the trees, one after the other, the techniques are mixed, the wood subtly imitates the fabric, the fabric takes its motives from earth. One realizes that this creation has no limits, that everything communicates, and that from its planets to its atoms this world of rigor comprises by its turning the world of beauty.

The accompanying image sequence of fabrics, surfaces and patterns, organic and created, ends in a stunning cut to a swimmer surfacing - more convincing in its suggestion of the interrelatedness of the universe than the whole previous wordy description of it.

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The film then shifts to lament the way this art, and this way of living, has since colonial times been commercialized and degraded into trinkets for tourists, into "an art of the flower-pot, the paperweight and the souvenir pen-rack." But it gets more accusatory in tone when the film turns to the way these exotic African 'qualities' are imported and exploited in Western societies - accompanied by images of basketball players and jazz musicians.

We buy the blacks' work and we degrade it. We buy their art and we degrade it. The religious dance becomes spectacle. We pay the blacks to give us the comedy of their joy and their fervor. In this way, by the side of the black-as-slave, appears a second figure, the black-as-puppet. His strength serves us, his prowess amuses us, on the side, he serves us as well.

Almost 60 years old, 'Statues Also Die' is more than a historical political document - it still holds up an uneasy mirror for the West. And in doing so, as this essay on the film concludes, it subtly makes us viewers complicit.

Watch the whole film online (with English subtitles).

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