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La Biennale di Venezia

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1941 – 1945, Martinica

  • TUE - SUN
    23/04 > 25/09
    11 AM - 7 PM

    27/09 > 27/11
    10 AM - 6 PM
  • Central Pavilion
  • Admission with ticket

In the 1920s, an invigorating new sense of identity swept through the international communities of the African diaspora. Paris, in particular, attracted a growing number of Black intellectuals, especially from Africa and the Caribbean, many of whom founded sleek literary and art journals that became arenas of heated ideological debate. In one of these, L’Etudiant noir (1935), Martinican poet Aimé Césaire discussed the disastrous cultural effects of French colonial policies and declared that Black youth were ready to celebrate their Négritude in art and literature. Césaire’s words inspired enormous optimism; reaching the colonies, they sparked the first Pan-African intellectual movement in the Francophone world. In 1941 Césaire returned to Martinique, where he founded the magazine Tropiques, along with his wife Suzanne Césaire and his friend René Ménil. For four years the journal published poetry, essays, and stories by leading Black international authors, presenting its own unique approach to Surrealism. While French Surrealists tended to flee from reality into the imagination, the editorial board of Tropiques seemed to have their eyes set on poetically militant goals. Because – even according to Suzanne Césaire – dream and metaphor are the only tools that can move beyond the dreary contrasts between Black and white, European and African. 

Stefano Mudu


Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil (eds.), Tropiques, 2, July 1941 (magazine cover). Gift of Friends of the Thomas J. Watson Library (PQ3940.A47 no.2 [July 1941]). New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. © 2022.
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Firenze

The Malaise of a Civilization

If in our legends and short stories, we see suddenly appear a suffering, sensitive, and mocking figure representing our collective self, in ordinary Martinican literary production, we search in vain for the expression of this self.
Why in the past have we been so unconcerned about expressing our ancestral anxiety in a direct manner?
The urgency of this cultural problem escapes only those who are determined to put their hands over their eyes so as not to be disturbed from an artificial peace: and at any cost, even the price of stupidity and death.
As for us, we can feel that our troubling times are going to precipitate the explosion of a ripened fruit, irresistibly called forth by solar fieriness to cast its creative forces to the wind; we can feel on this sun-drenched tranquil land, the formidable, the inescapable pressure of destiny which bathes the entire world in blood in order to give it tomorrow, its new visage.
Let us question life on this island that is ours.
What can we see?
First the geographic position of this strip of land: tropical. Here, we are in the Tropics.
...Where the adaptation of an African population has taken place. Imported Blacks had to struggle against the heavy mortality rates of the early stages of slavery, against chronic malnutrition — a reality that persists to this day. And yet one cannot deny that on Martinican soil the colored race produces strong, robust, adaptable men and women of natural elegance and great beauty.
But then, is it not surprising that this people, who over the centuries adapted itself to this land, this authentic Martinican people, is only now beginning to produce authentic works of art? Over the course of the centuries, how is it that there are no viable survivals of the uniquestyles, for example, of those that flourished so magnificently on African soil? Sculptures, ornate fabrics, paintings, poetry? Let's allow the imbeciles to blame it on the race, on its so-called predisposition to laziness, to thievery, to wickedness.
Let us speak frankly.
If this lack in Black character is not to be explained by the harshness of the tropical climate to which we have adapted, and still less by I don't know what inferiority, it can in fact be explained, believe us, by:
1. the horrific conditions of transplantation onto a foreign soil.
- We have too soon forgotten the slave ships and the sufferings of our slave forebears. Here forgetfulness is tantamount to cowardice.
2. coerced submission, under pain of the whip and death, to a system of “civilization,” to a “style” both even stranger to the new arrivals than the tropical land itself.
3. finally, after the emancipation of people of color, through a collective error concerning our true nature, an error born of this idea, anchored in the deepest part of the popular collective consciousness, from centuries of suffering: “Since the superiority of the colonizers comes to them from a certain life-style, we shall gain strength only by dominating in our turn the technique of this ‘style.’ ”
Let us stop and measure the far-reaching implications of this gigantic misunderstanding.

What is the Martinican fundamentally, intimately, unilaterally? And how does he live?
In providing answers to these questions, we shall see a stunning contradiction appear between the innermost self, with its desires, its impulses, its unconscious forces —and life lived with its necessities, its urgencies, its gravity. A phenomenon of decisive importance for the future of this country.
What is the Martinican?
- A plant-human.
Like a plant, he abandons himself to the rhythm of universal life. There is not the slightest effort to dominate nature. Mediocre farmer. Perhaps. I am not saying that he makes the plant grow: I am saying that he grows, he lives in a plant-like manner. His indolence? that of the vegetal. Do not say "he is lazy," say "he vegetates," and you will speak the truth for two reasons. His favorite phrase: "Let it go."
By that, understand that he lets himself be carried along by life, docile, light, un-insistent, non-rebellious— in a friendly way, lovingly. Obstinate moreover as only a plant can be.
Independent (independence, autonomy of the plant).
Surrender to self, to the seasons, to the moon, to the more-or-less long day. Fruit harvest. And always and everywhere in the slightest manifestations, the primacy of the plant, the plant trampled under foot but still alive, dead but reviving, the plant free, silent, and proud.
Open your eyes — a child is born. To which god should it be entrusted? To the Tree god. Coconut tree or Banana tree, among whose roots the placenta is buried.
Open your ears. According to popular Martinican folklore, the grass that grows on a grave is the living hair of the dead female buried beneath, who is protesting against death. The symbol is always the same: a plant. It is a vital feeling of a life-death community. In short it is the Ethiopian sentiment of life.[1]

Consequently the Martinican is typically Ethiopian.[2]  In the depths of his consciousness he is the plant-human, and while identifying oneself with the plant, the desire is to abandon oneself to the rhythm of life.
Is this attitude enough to explain his failure in the world?
No — the Martinican has failed because, unaware of his real nature, he tries to lead a life that is not his own. The gigantic phenomenon of a collective lie, of "pseudomorphosis." And the current state of civilization in the West Indies reveals to us the consequences of this mistake.
Repression, sufferings, sterility.
How, why, in this people, only yesterday slaves, can there be this fatal misunderstanding? By the most natural of processes, by the instinct-for-self-preservation game.
Let us remember that what the slave regime prohibited exceedingly, first and foremost, was the assimilation of the Black into the White world. Some decrees: April 30, 1764, prohibited Blacks and coloreds from the practice of medicine; May 9, 1765, forbade the practice of law clerk; and the famous order of February 9, 1779, strictly prohibited Blacks from wearing clothes identical to those of Whites, and required submission and respect for “all Whites in general,” etc., etc.
Let us cite further the decree of January 3, 1788, requiring free men of color “to take out permits to work anywhere other than in the fields.” One will understand that from that point forward the fundamental goal of the colored man became assimilation. And with overwhelming force, a disastrous confusion takes place in his mind: liberation means assimilation.
At the outset it was a good movement: 1848 — the mass of freed Blacks, in a sudden outburst of the formative self, refuse all regular world, in spite of the risk of starvation. However, broken by economic necessity, no longer slaves, but wage earners, Blacks will eventually submit to the new discipline of the hoe and the cutlass.
And it is during this period that the repression of the ancestral desire for unrestrained abandon firmly and definitively establishes itself.
It is replaced, especially in the colored middle class, by the unaccustomed desire for competition.
Hence, the drama, evident for those who analyze in depth the collective self of the Martinican people: its unconscious continues to be inhabited by the Ethiopian desire for abandon. However its consciousness, or rather its pre-consciousness, accepts the Hamitic desire for competitiveness. The race for economic fortune, diplomas, unscrupulous social climbing. A struggle shrunken to the standard of being middle class. The pursuit of monkeyshines. Vanity Fair.
The most serious thing is that the desire for imitation —just a short time earlier only a vaguely conscious one since it was a defense mechanism against an oppressive society — has now migrated to the area of fearsome secret forces in the unconscious.
Not one upwardly mobile Martinican will ever admit that he is only engaging in mimicry, so natural, spontaneous, and born of legitimate aspirations does his present situation seem. And, in so doing he will be sincere. He honestly does not KNOW he mimics. He is unaware of his true nature, which nonetheless does exist.
In much the same way, the hysteric is unaware that he is only imitating an illness, but the doctor treating him and curing him of his unhealthy symptoms knows it.
Similarly, the psychoanalyst reveals to us that the effort required of a Martinican in adapting to an unfamiliar like style will not have been without creating a state of pseudo-civilization that one can quality as abnormal, of teratoid aberration.
The current problem is to determine if the Ethiopian attitude that we have discovered as representing the essence itself of the Martinican sentiment of like can be the point of departure for a viable and imposing cultural style.
It is exhilarating to imagine on these tropical shores, finally restored to their inner truth, the long-lasting and fruitful harmony of humankind and soil. Under the sign of plant life.
Here we are called upon to know ourselves finally by ourselves, and here before us are splendours and hopes. Surrealism has given us some of our possibilities. It is up to us to find the others. With its guiding light.
And let me be clear:
It is not at all about a backwards return, a resurrection of an African past that we have learned to know and respect. On the contrary, it is about the mobilization of every living strength brought together upon this earth where race is the result of the most unremitting intermixing; it is about becoming conscious of the incredible store of varied energies until now locked up within us. We must now deploy them to the maximum without deviation, without falsification. Too bad for those who consider us mere dreamers.
The most unsettling reality is our own.
We shall act.
This land, ours, can only be what we want it to be.

Susanne Cèzaire
Tropiques, no. 5, April 1942

[1] Cf. Frobenius and Tropiques, no. 1.
[2] Another argument could be drawn from architecture: the Martinican hut is an exact reproduction
(in contrast to the conical roof, roof in the form of a saddle) of the huts of the Beni-Mai people (of the Congo Kasai region), in whom there dominates the "Ethiopian" sentiment of life. Cf. Frobenius, History of Civilization, p 198.

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