Picture by the Assemblée nationale de France,.
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Remembering the French Nation through Colonial Forgetting: An Analysis of the Exhibition of Hervé di Rosa’s ‘1794 – L’abolition de l’an II’ (Part of the series ‘L’Histoire en peinture de l’Assemblée nationale’, 1991)

by Darja Wolfmeier

Résumé: Depuis 1991, une série de 13 fresques d’Hervé di Rosa est accrochée aux murs de l’Assemblée nationale française, représentant des étapes majeures de l’histoire constitutionnelle française – l’une d’entre elles étant l’Abolition de l’esclavage dans les colonies en 1794. Cette représentation ne reproduit pas seulement des stéréotypes racistes, mais s’inscrit également dans un récit national français dans lequel les personnes Noires, l’esclavage et le colonialisme sont délibérément absents. Inspiré par une pétition de Mame-Fatou Niang et Julien Suaudeau, cet article explore à différents niveaux – imagerie, exposition au Parlement français, placement dans le cycle des fresques – comment la fresque consolide le récit d’une République des droits de l’homme ‘aveugle aux couleurs’ et libératrice. Ce faisant, les éléments postcoloniaux sont délibérément supprimés: l’histoire coloniale de la France après 1794 ainsi que la réintroduction de l’esclavage sous Napoléon, l’engagement des abolitionnistes Noirs et antillais, et la normalisation et l’universalisation de la République française en tant que blanche.

Zusammenfassung: Seit 1991 hängen in der französischen Assemblée Nationale 13 verschiedene Wandbilder von Hervé di Rosa, die große Meilensteine der französischen Verfassungsgeschichte darstellen – einer davon ist die Abschaffung der Sklaverei in den Kolonien in 1794. Die Darstellung reproduziert nicht nur rassistische Stereotype, sondern ist auch ein integraler Bestandteil einer unmittelbaren französischen Nationalerzählung, in der Schwarze Menschen, Sklaverei und Kolonialismus bewusst kaum vorkommen. Angeregt durch eine Petition von Mame-Fatou Niang und Julien Suaudeau stellt der Blogbeitrag dar, wie das Fresko auf unterschiedlichen Ebenen – Bildsprache, Ausstellung im französischen Parlament, Einordnung in den Zyklus der Fresken – das Narrativ einer ‚farbenblinden‘, befreienden Republik der Menschenrechte festschreibt. Dabei werden bewusst postkoloniale Elemente unterdrückt: Frankreichs koloniale Geschichte nach 1794 sowie die Wiedereinführung der Sklaverei unter Napoleon, das Engagement Schwarzer und karibischer Abolitionist*innen und die Normalisierung und Universalisierung der französischen Republik als weiß.

While attending to the National Assembly in 2018 in order to present her film Mariannes Noires to the members of the French parliament, Mame-Fatou Niang was struck by the presence in the Palais Bourbon of a fresco representing the Abolition of Slavery within the French Republic and its territories in 1794 (Niang 2020: 154). The mural (titled ‘1794 – L’abolition de l’An II’) shows a caricature of two human heads with black skin, big red lips, curly hair and blue eyes watching a chain breaking in front of a star in red, white and blue. The chains extend from their necks and the number ‘1794’ is shown above them. The tiled panel is part of Hervé di Rosa’s series of 13 murals representing key elements in French legislative history. Two of the few critics who highlight to these entanglements are Julien Suaudeau, novelist and lecturer in French and Francophone Studies at Bryn Mawr College and Mame-Fatou Niang, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Suaudeau and Niang started a petition to remove the fresco given its depiction of racist caricatures and its misleading historical commemoration of the abolition of slavery (Robert-Motta 2019). 

Screenshot of the demands in the petition by Mame-Fatou-Niang and Julien Suaudeau,
Screenshot of the demands in the petition by Mame-Fatou-Niang and Julien Suaudeau,

Di Rosa reacted by claiming that the accusations were ‘defamatory’ and served the purpose to censor his artwork. Moreover, he alludes the critics would prosper from racism, ignoring his work and art history in general (Sanson 2019). The following analysis may help to understand that the mural requires critique beyond its overt racism, and therefore attempts a contextualisation of the image’s exhibition within the National Assembly and the broader existential realities of its continued presence. In the year of the bicentenary of his death, 2021, Napoleon was celebrated as a national hero of the Civil Rights (Daut 2021), yet official commemorations seldom referred to the reestablishment of slavery during Napoleon’s governance. This occurred across various French colonies in 1802 despite slavery having been abolished in these same regions for the first time less than a decade earlier in 1794. This recent incident points to an issue typical in the official French récit national (national narrative): debates on slavery and colonialism are rare and their importance is cut from France’s present and placed in the past, therefore negating the Republic’s postcolonial entanglements with people from its former colonies within and beyond ‘the Hexagon’. Di Rosa’s fresco presents the French Republic as abolitionist of slavery and grantor of freedom to Black people, represented through the chains which break just in front of the red, white and blue star and the broader integration of the abolition in the series of legislative achievements. This is a very central part of France’s memorialisation of the two abolitions 1794 and 1848 as humanitarian achievements of the Nation, obliging former (Black) enslaved peoples to be grateful, reflected in the bright ‘smiles’ on the two faces. It is a reflection of the French national attempt to glorify its impact in the post-slavery period, placing the Fifth Republic in the heritage and memory of the Revolutionary Republic with its liberating ‘universal’ values to create a national community (Hannoum 2019: 382). 

Example of another Hervé di Rosa frieze.
Example of a di Rosa’s work. <a href="http://Cap d’Agde convention center France Hervé di Rosa frieze, Artehjbj, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Thinking post-colonially, di Rosa’s mural of this ‘collective’ memory represents a silencing of the continuity of slavery in the Caribbean after 1794. It is acknowledged within the literature that this French abolition in the Caribbean was not solely rooted in humanitarianism, but was part of the transformation of former slave economies into colonial labour economies (Garraway 2008: 372; Frith 2014: 23f). Its 1802 re-installation under Napoleon only resulted in another abolition in 1848 and the fresco series elides an almost fifty-year history of post-abolitionist colonialism (Drescher 2009: 148; Ferrer 2012: 41). Moreover, the 1848 abolition also coincided with the French colonial expansion into Algeria, Western Africa and Madagascar, which is no coincidence. Abolition, again, did not mean liberation, but the extension of French rule to other parts of the world, the famous mission civilisatrice (Vergès 2013: 202-204). The repression of these memories is explained by some as the Nation’s attempt to promote a national cohesion within ‘the very foundations of its republican discourse’ as a Republic of human rights. It is considered crucial that the abuse of these rights by the Republic is therefore not memorialised (Frith 2015: 69f). 

Moreover, this image depicting the invisible yet ‘omnipresent’ and ‘benevolent’ French Republic as ‘liberator’, thus removes the autonomy of Black and Caribbean advocacy for abolition in 1794 and 1848 (Vergès 2013: 199). Black presence and agency is completely erased from the national narrative, which is reflected in the fresco, and its exposition within the National Assembly building heavily implies the sole agency of White French (Cottias 2003: 33; Frith 2014: 24). The Republic and its institutions were founded, normalised and universalised as White, and yet this Whiteness is not acknowledged as constitutive (Cottias 2003: 28f; Niang 2020: 158, 165). While this normalised Whiteness is evident in other pictures of the series, which represent visibly White people enacting legislative achievements (di Rosa 1991), the implication is that the Republic imagines itself as colour-blind. Somehow a unified and indivisible Nation was created that assimilated its former colonial subjects as equal citizens into the national community – through a covert refusal to recognise these same identities (Constitution de la République Française 1958; Frith 2014: 26). In a post-colonial framework, the mural thus represents the difficulty of Black French especially to remember and be remembered as constitutive part of the Republic (Coquery-Vidrovitch 2011: 28; Frith 2015: 74f; Niang 2020: 160). 

Through the lens of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, the picture could be read as a cultural artefact of the imagined French community (Anderson 2006: 6f). The National Assembly is the centre and manifest representation of the Nation, and the state is pivotal in the patrimonialisation of history and commemoration (Blanchard 2010: 484). According to Anderson, the state needs to remember events crucial to the récit national, for example the Revolution of 1789, to reassure the national coherence while at the same time covertly eliding the ‘trickier’ parts of history. In this way, the state can allude to an event in which the complication is then ‘forgotten’ by the collective. Achille Mbembe renders the phenomenon of French hegemonic amnesia as ‘a mixture of both forgetfulness and repression in the psychoanalytic sense of the term, of calculated ignorance and bad faith’ (‘L’amnésie à la française est un mélange à la fois d’oubli et de répression au sens psychanalytique du terme, d’ignorance calculée et de mauvaise foi.’ Mbembe in: Vergès 2010: 303, translation by the author).

Image of the French National Assembly building, in which the di Rosa mural is displayed (Façade colonnade de l’Assemblée – drapeaux – statue de Sully).

Though not a public commission – (the series had been requested by the company for public transport in Paris, RATP) –, through its exhibition at the National Assembly since 1991 the fresco represents an expression of a politicised collective memory of the abolition of slavery (Gueye 2011: 81; Collins 2021). When analysed in a post-colonial framework, the mural can be read as a manifestation of France’s resistance in facing its (post)coloniality and national history. The French Republic is depicted as an unambiguous and positive actor in the 1794 abolition, even though the history of slavery remains highly debated in the French public. As Françoise Vergès explains, tension persists between an orthodox Republican narrative highlighting France’s role in the abolition, and the counter-narrative of a far more complex and often regressive past (Vergès 2013: 198). 

This analysis of the fresco ‘1794 – L’abolition de l’An II’ has attempted to outline how the politicised collective memory of the first abolition of slavery in the French Caribbean is remembered through the French state. The mural is integrated into the French Republican national narrative of liberation, while deliberately ‘forgetting’, and even actively repressing, crucial parts of the entangled history of France with its former colonies and descendants of enslaved persons and colonialism. It is a complicated, non-linear history from the abolition of 1794 to the Fifth Republic and the erasure of Black agency in processes of legislation. The petition by Mame-Fatou Niang and Julien Suaudeau is the expression of an important sentiment: today, the French state needs to redefine its Nation in order to integrate the various memories of colonialism and slavery as well as contemporary racism into its récit national.

Editors’ Note

Given the positionality of the Blog Team at the time of publication, and of the author, we have not included an image of the frieze discussed in this article. For further discussion of this work and positionality, we recommend accessing Annette Joseph-Gabriel‘s 2019 article ‘Who gets to speak for black French people?

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