Things and their proper places

.. not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint.
Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land

for Bouba Touré

1 (2008, 58, 75011)

At some point I asked myself when I had seen Bouba Touré for the first time, and I realized it must have been in the video he shot in 2008 in his apartment on Rue Trousseau in the eleventh arrondissement of Paris. In this video he introduces his viewers (who are they?) to the place where, he says, he spends a lot of time and where his dearest photos are displayed on the wall. The place and the photos of someone who “doesn’t want to die”, as Bouba Touré goes on to tell us. Then, about a minute into the video, a full-length mirror comes into view and in it — hardly surprising — we see for a second the man who is holding the camera, who now says: “Time is infinite and there are always things to do”.

I only know his former apartment from this video, Bouba Touré, 58 rue Trousseau, 75011 Paris, France. Since then, he has moved to Pantin, where I have visited him twice. The video is a simple and at the same time complex self-portrait, using the walls of his apartment to tell the story of his life with direct voice-over. The life of a Malian emigrant in Paris who feels connected to the world and the innumerable struggles for independence, liberation, and justice that have been waged in the past five decades. Some in faraway places, some nearby. Mandela, Cabral, his mother. The CGT, the Sans Papiers movement, the film Safrana by Sidney Sokhona in which Bouba Touré played a leading role. Thomas Sankara, who will only die if we let him. And again and again Somankidi Coura, the cooperative in Mali that Bouba Touré helped found in 1976.

In his apartment, nothing is arranged — or rather, everything seems arranged, but arranged by necessity. Even though virtually everything on these walls — posters, postcards, photos, flyers, CD covers — has a date on it, or is given a date when Bouba Touré speaks about it, none of the objects are there to represent either their uniqueness or his singularity. The dates, written mostly in black or blue marker, mark the moment when the trajectory of the object crossed Bouba Touré’s life: the date a CD was given to him, a book was bought, a note written or received, a flag brought home from a rally. Yet this is not Bouba Touré’s “private collection”. The fact that at some exact point in time these objects became his doesn’t make them less universal. They testify to a collective history in which Bouba Touré feels entangled, for better or for worse.

As I was writing “necessity”, above, I was thinking of a John Berger quote — “What you kiss or bang your head against”. Things that are too precious to ever give up, or too pressing to be ignored. Looking up the quote again, I find that Berger meant it to illustrate the idea that “[n]ecessity produces both tragedy and comedy” (Berger 2003, 12). His thoughts in this essay, “Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible (for Yves)”, stroll along a path laid out by Chinese painter Shi Tao, who noted that “the brush is for saving things from chaos” (ibid., 16). I don’t think that chaos is a term Bouba Touré would use to situate his practice, nor would he claim to be saving things by keeping them, or people by photographing them. But he might accept the idea that his way of dealing with things contributes to a support structure that helps him, and those he engages with, resist subjugation. Such solidarity is positioned not against chaos in the sense of an ontological disorder, but rather a man-made disaster, deliberately perpetuated injustice and a history of violent denial and active oblivion. “The mess that the world produces and the mess that produces it”, as Jared Sexton has put it, referring to what Hortense Spillers has called “the world’s mess”. It might sound too optimistic, but I want to say that it is because the world was made into what it is that it can also be unmade. And I think it is safe to say that the empathy and the fury, the sincerity and the exuberance in Bouba Touré’s practice can only be understood when it is seen as a means of unmaking the world.

Unmaking the world is probably based here on the same convictions and day-to-day experiences as those that made Frantz Fanon come to the conclusion that “[t]here will be an authentic disalienation only to the degree to which things, in the most materialistic meaning of the word, will have been restored to their proper places”. (Fanon 2008, 5) Things and people, one might be quick to add, yet I think there is an important distinction in Fanon’s writing, as well as in Bouba Touré’s activist engagement, between restoration and return — or, in other words, between material justice and a return to wherever one considers “home”. Once material justice, things restored to their proper places, has been fully accomplished, there will be no need to die in exile — not because nobody will be tempted to leave home anymore, but rather because exile won’t be a predicament in a world no longer segregated into bastions of pay-per-day living and areas that are gradually becoming uninhabitable. In fact, a sturdy materialism would have to insist that the foremost political gain of economic justice will be that henceforth there will no longer be any “improper” places for anyone to be in. That is when things will have been restored to their proper places. Bouba Touré’s photographic practice, I would argue, is an ongoing effort to shelter and keep track of things that remain to be restored to their proper places. His is a safeguarding practice, and at the same time it is a form of constructing the place it anticipates. This is why I think his photographs are both places for things and things in themselves. They are meant to be given, handled, shipped, and displayed, and to eventually reappear in new photographs which, on another itinerary, will repeat the same journey differently. Bouba Touré is an impatient historiographer, living for the time when things will have been restored to their proper places. From time to time, his desire for that time to be now is overwhelming.

2 (1938, 1947, 1987)

Since Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, written in 1938/39 and first published in 1947), the return to the post-colony has typically been depicted as a sobering if not devastating experience of deracination. The Caribbean (here Martinique) to which Césaire returns in this seminal poem stands out as a native land that registers all its children as uprooted by birth. This is because, at the base of the colony, and older than it, was the concept that the owner of the land is he who coerces others to work it. The humiliation of slavery, however, is not expended in being forced to labour while being excluded from the profitable exchange of labour’s fruits; it has its roots in the fact that in this exchange the slave him- or herself is turned into a commodity. It has often been noted that the slavery system, whose primary and most profitable product was the slave, not only coincided with but indeed funded European “modernity” and that it was a preliminary stage to all subsequent conditions of labour under capitalism. A preliminary stage in the form of an organized excess in relation to which other forms of coercion would be legitimized. The recent wave of “Afro-pessimism” has provided us with the fundamental reminder that the founding experience of modern capitalism was extracted from the suffering of Black people, that this experience has produced not only the Black subject but also the supremacist disposition of the white subject, and that this formative experience continues to haunt Black subjectivity today — not merely as a historical burden, but as an everyday experience of “continual Black relegation”. (R.L. 2013, unpaginated)

I am quoting these lines of history and thought not to make a point of reference, but rather a point of non-reference — to refer, perhaps, to an inability to refer, because I might not be equipped for the challenge of a critique springing from the “ontology of Black suffering” that Afro-pessimism has reasserted in recent years. I feel more at ease quoting (and embracing) Édouard Glissant on the epistemological and ethical merits of Creolization rather than bracing myself and what I write for an ontology of suffering I am ill-positioned to account for. I find the concept of Creolization as “a new and original dimension allowing each person to be there and elsewhere, rooted and open” (Glissant 1997, 34), and the image of the jardin créole in which nothing is autochthonous and everything that exists co-exists, to be more inviting than an insistence on the necessity to act on Black suffering by “putting the White out of the picture”, as Frank B. Wilderson III frequently puts it in Red, White & Black. This is meant both in the literal sense — as in “offing” white bodies on the cinema screen — and in the sense of seeking adequate revenge within the regime of gratuitous violence against Black bodies that is still in place in the world. This strain of Afro-pessimism seems to partly consist in denying Black subjectivity an easy way out of this cycle, while suggesting that for the white experience there is no way in.

Glissant’s “Poetics of Relation” might seem to be an equally history-laden proposal to forge — from the gestures of defiance and recoding, marronage and détournement, that made physical and social survival possible in and despite the plantation system — the weapons for a less combative and more optimistic engagement with “the Other”. “Our boats are open and we sail them for everyone”. (Glissant 1997, 9) Paradox? Delusion? Glissant’s language, and language is at once site and weapon in this scenario, is inclusive as well as extensive. It allows for antagonisms to come together in the same sentence, and for words to become clearings that can be reached from many directions. “The place was closed, but the word derived from it remains open”. (ibid., 75) Placing the site of the plantation and not the figure of the slave at the centre of the scenario does make a substantial difference. Yet I think the two aspects should not be pitted against each other, because they are both vantage points from which to describe the same furrowed space. If Glissant might be seen as “evad[ing] the nagging burden of proof of abolition”, as Jared Sexton has claimed (to no one in particular), his continued insistence on discontinuities and his scavenging in the “ruins of the Plantation system” (ibid., 72) can hardly be construed as making peace with the past (or with the present, for that matter). If we can’t speak of discontinuity, however, then we cannot speak of the maroons, either, who created discontinuity through defiance.

From the erratic absence of a maroon (named Gani), Glissant once wove a blanket of stars covering the forest (in the 1987 novel Mahagony). A pattern of softly flickering lights is made (for those in the know) from the spots where the women have hidden nightly rations of food to help Gani (who has left the enclosure) hold out as long as possible. “The inhabitants would peek through a crack in their huts into the nightly mass of forest punctured with these lights, which from time to time would expire like dwindling fireflies. It looked as if the sky was spread out like a blanket over the blackness of the earth”. (Glissant 1987, 66) When, in Poetics of Relation, Glissant returns to the plantation matrix as the “opaque source” from “which our common future takes its chances” (Glissant 1997, 73), he does not do so in the name of naïve dialectics (i.e., with the idea that something good must have come out of it), but in order to salvage the ingenuity of those past survivors for the struggles of today. Darkness and silence are not absolute. If, in Glissant’s thinking, the plantation does not appear as a dead end, but is instead studied as “one of the bellies of the world” (ibid., 75) from which emerges “a deferred or disguised speech in which men and women who are gagged keep their words closed” (ibid., 73), he is making a point, a choice even, about today, for what to do with what is there (here and elsewhere): memory, language, music, crops, “the cry of the Plantation, transfigured into the speech of the world”. (ibid.) A fragmented and dispersed speech, a narrative, a literature created under “the obligation to get around the rule of silence” (ibid., 69). For Glissant, the writing of this speech was clearly a joyful task. The erratic movements of this writing, the “errantry,” constitute not an aimless wandering of the desperately uprooted but the very poetics of relation. These poetics must no longer answer the question: “Relation between what and what?” (and may react in a blissfully unruly manner to the order, “Your papers!”); rather, they can finally consist of a practice that creates what it asserts and asserts what it creates, one that, instead of digging up (and claiming) roots, finds (and creates) kinships.

3 (1976, 14, 500, 1976)

In 1976, Bouba Touré returned to his native region in the north of Mali in order to help found Somankidi Coura, an agricultural cooperative on the banks of the Senegal River. Photos he took on this trip show typical settler activities, such as clearing the land, designating sites for houses and crops, digging trenches for irrigation, burning brushwood, eating from large open fires, washing the dishes in the river, and resting in the shade of the trees left standing. A reel of film shot on 8mm by a friend from France shortly afterward (the fields in full growth) starts with an image of two boats crossing a large river in opposite directions. This river is the Senegal, on whose banks the cooperative was founded.

“The location where we will settle is 18 km downstream from Kayes. On the right bank of the Senegal River, to be exact, in the great plain of Somankidi, and about 4 km from Somankidi village. On the other side of the river, just across it, lies the village of Samé with the seed farm and the agricultural school. Our goal for ’77 is to clear and irrigate some 20 ha of land.”(1)

While a lone man in a canoe steers away from the camera, the boat moving toward us is carrying six people. One of them is standing and steering the boat with a long paddle. He lets the current turn the boat in a half-circle, then waves, possibly to the person filming. I pause the film there, and instantly the still image of a group of people in a boat surrounded by water recalls other images, such as those excessively disseminated images of African refugees trying to reach European shores (the perspective of a camera filming from an elevated position reinforces this allusion, since most images we get to see of refugees in boats are taken from helicopters or larger boats and typically frame the refugee boat such that it appears surrounded by water, lost at sea). When I let the images move again, the frame widens and I see that the boat has reached the shore and that the group is about to disembark. A river ferry, public transport. The Senegal River remains a prominent site during these eight minutes of 8mm film and it also appears in many of the photographs Bouba Touré has taken over the years. The river is the lifeline of the cooperative — without it, it wouldn’t exist. Of particular importance, therefore, is the gasoline-driven pump that pumps water from the river into a basin from which point irrigation trenches spread it to the fields. The canals are built from termite soil — the adobe of termite mounds, which is known to make excellent building material. Bouba Touré has explained to me that one must take only the upper part of the termitière and only during that time of year when the termites are busy down below with breeding and reproduction. Later, the termites will rebuild their mound. Termites are abundant in most parts of West Africa, and that river never runs dry.

“Why Mali, and why exactly this region around Kayes? Simply because it was in Mali that we were offered the conditions we deemed indispensable for the group. The Kayes region is situated in the Senegal River basin; 95% of the immigrant workers from Mali, Senegal and Mauritania are originally from that region. The inhabitants of this area are linked not only through the shared experience of emigration, but equally by the socio-political and particularly the economic facts of life along the Senegal River”.

Founding the cooperative was a straightforward thing. The project was initiated by a group of West Africans who had emigrated to France in the 1960s and who, ten years later, realized that what in their time had still been an adventure for a few had become a compulsory ordeal for too many. They were disillusioned with their own aspirations and with French society’s readiness to consider them as equals. They had experienced segregated life in the foyers, the dormitories for male migrant workers, unequal payment and career opportunities, everyday racism. Most of them had also accrued sobering experiences within the French Left and the labour unions, which had fed on the internationalist spirit of the late 1960s but showed little interest in seriously decolonizing their own ranks and thinking. This particular frustration with what should have been a more reliable solidarity is a consistent element in films made by African filmmakers in France from the mid-1960s onward (e.g., Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô, 1969, and Les bicots nègres vos voisins, 1972), and it also created the momentum for the two collective films Bouba Touré participated in, Nationalité: Immigré (1975) and Safrana ou le droit à la parole (1977), both directed by the Mauritanian filmmaker Sidney Sokhona.

The first film introduces the viewer to the basic facts of labour migration to France and to the everyday lives of immigrant workers. It mixes staged scenes and cinéma verité to denounce the living conditions of the notorious foyers as well as the various profiteers of the status quo within and outside the diaspora community. In an article written for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1976, Serge Daney described Nationalité: Immigré as “a voyage to the country in which everything can take place on paper. Paper as a place in which the powers that be demand their dues in concrete terms (‘Your papers, please!’); paper on which another authority claims and braces up (flyers, posters, books); paper on which an authority fantasizes (paper as utopia, just as one remarks: ‘It looks beautiful on paper, but …’)”. (Daney 2014, 217)

This paper-ridden country is of course France, seen from the perspective of immigrant workers, for whom things written on paper have a different significance than they do for resident activists. Writing about Nationalité: Immigré, Daney realizes how the struggle for immigrants’ rights, which created new alliances in the early 1970s, involved a lot of paperwork, and how an activist who wanted to be of use “had to be of use with the pen”. (ibid., 215) His text is addressed to those who have frowned upon Sokhona’s film, because it “touches upon that which the leftists precisely eschew (the necessity of legal agreement)”. (ibid., 217) If spewing malice at bourgeois bureaucracy was (and still is) an integral element of leftist militancy, it also was (and still is) the same bureaucracy with which immigrant workers maintain their notorious paper-made relations; they frequently have to remind the administration of what is written on paper (in the law) to their own advantage. If the struggle is for rights (and it is), it is for rights that are written or should be written.

The land had been given to them by the Malian government. It was a time when most countries in the Sahel were suffering from the effects of drought and the loss of harvests, and when the economic relations France maintained with these countries were increasingly seen as a new form of colonialism. Against this background, the photos of cultivated fields, irrigation trenches, the water pump, and the river, must be seen not as mere documentation of the stages of a process, but as a celebration of each step of the way as a step against the odds. Somankidi Coura became a success story, all the more so when, a few years later, the debt regime of the “structural adjustment” deals between the so-called developing countries and the World Bank began to strangle what little subsistence farming had survived in the region.

“The profitable exploitation of 60 ha of land in double culture and the stock-farming constitute a task important enough to keep all members of the group busy throughout the year. After all, the current problem in Africa is for the youth in our villages to find an occupation that gains them a living even during the six months of dry season. During this barren period the young people will typically move to the cities for work and then often end up emigrating, in order to earn a living for their families. In order to find a solution for this cluster of problems, our group — all of us immigrant workers — have organized this return. It is an obvious thing to do, because the best kind of help is when you help yourself”.

Today, Somankidi Coura counts some three hundred inhabitants; it is still organized as a cooperative, and it celebrated its fortieth anniversary in January 2017. The second film that came out of Sidney Sokhona’s collaboration with the workers in the foyers and activists like Bouba Touré (who had quit the factory after a few years and become a cinema projectionist), is a fictionalized account of how this cooperative came into being. Safrana visibly profited from better funding than Nationalité: Immigré. Not only was it shot in colour, but its narrative rigor also suggests that there was time to write a script and that the film was produced in a more or less conventional way, with reliable shooting schedules and prepared sets. Even though most of the cast consisted once again of amateurs (among them Bouba Touré), their often precarious existence does not seem to have directly influenced the making of the film in the way it obviously did in Nationalité: Immigré. In the latter film, the unguarded gazes of onlookers exposed real-life irritation about black people operating a camera in public, and narrative consistency was pieced together from footage shot without a permit over four years — whenever there was enough money to buy the next reel of 16mm film.(2) Politically, too, Safrana was made from a more favourable vantage point. Shot in 1976, it recounts, in retrospect, how a group of West African workers who had had enough of French racism and calculating solidarity, with the help of some people “useful with the pen”, organized six-month internships with farmers in the French countryside in order to prepare for what could be called an organized retreat from France to Mali, where they planned to found an agricultural cooperative on the banks of the Senegal River.

The farms on which the fourteen interns learned the basics of ploughing, digging, and raising cattle and poultry in the summer of 1976 were all in the département Haute-Marne in northeastern France. The film’s slow pace and softly lit scenes in the countryside remind me of scenes from some films of the 1950s and 60s — Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or, Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, Alain Resnais’s La guerre est fini, for example. Though they all share a wary disbelief in the way they look at the countryside idyll, it is important to note that for the protagonists in Safrana, the escape to the countryside does lead to a happy ending, whereas in the earlier films the countryside inevitably becomes the scene of doom and betrayal. Here again, as in the differing sensitivities toward paper, we might note a discrepancy between the aspirations of migrant workers and the political imagination of middle-class urbanites. The peasant-migrant solidarity that Bouba Touré and his companions experienced during their stay in Haute-Marne would have been out of reach to those whose ever more sectionalized struggles depended on visibility and lobbying in the capital.

In the photos that Bouba Touré took in Haute-Marne during the internship (and on visits in later years), there is a curious sense of amusement on people’s faces; they are amused, I suppose, not by the fact of their being together, but by their conviviality being photographed. They might wonder what somebody else would see in these pictures, and yet it doesn’t seem to worry them in the least. Some of the photos made me think of yet another film, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Too Early, Too Late, whose first section largely consists of long pans and static shots of rural towns and villages in Brittany. Over these shots, excerpts are read from the cahiers de doléances, the lists of grievances farmers of that region made to the clergy in pre-revolution France, which Friedrich Engels quoted in a letter to Karl Kautsky in 1889. In this film, shot in 1980, we see the plastered wall of a house on which somebody has written in red paint: “Les paysans se revolteront 1976” (the peasants will rise up 1976). In a way, Too Early, Too Late is all about the non-appearance of this revolt, the absence of peasants, and the blatant fact that whenever peasants have revolted, it is the bourgeoisie who have reaped the profits. It might have been the year “1976” that triggered in me the link between Bouba Touré’s internship in Haute-Marne and this film, but it was one of his photos in particular that I overlaid with the shot described above: a photo of Touré himself leaning spread-eagled against a towering stack of straw bales — higher even than the house with the writing on the wall in the film. While the vertiginous effect of the “1976” shot in Too Early, Too Late emanates from a promise written in future tense whose non-accomplishment already lay in the past, today we can read Bouba Touré’s playful victory pose as fully embracing of a proud future.

Dear Bouba,
I assume that you are still in Mali, Somankidi, and that you might not have access to the internet there. Nevertheless, here is a question I have: you once spoke to me about Jean Robinet, the writer from Haute-Marne — or so I think. I did a little research about the name, and here is a homage text that I found:
That’s him, isn’t it?
But what was your relation to him?
Did you meet him personally? Was it his farm where you did your internship in the seventies? I don’t remember the exact circumstances, only the name has stuck in my memory.

Salut Tobias! I am well and have returned from Mali a few days ago. I am lucky that it’s not cold here. Ok, I reply to your question concerning Jean Robinet. I knew him well in his village in Haute-Marne. He’s a papa! It was thanks to one of his sons that I got to know him in 1985, ’86. I knew the family. I was a brother to his children. Their mother, Jean Robinet’s wife, considered me her son! And he gave to me and signed for me many of his books, which are all about rural life. His passing has touched me a lot. That’s life! Well, I hope you’re doing well. I hope we’ll see each other, I send you all my friendship. Bouba Touré.

And I forgot to specify that it was not at the Robinets’ that I did my six months internship before going back to Mali to found Somankidi Coura, our cooperative. Bouba Touré.

4 (24, 93, 1966)

In W ou le souvenir d’enfance (W or the Memory of Childhood), Georges Perec writes about the Parisian house he was born in on Rue Vilin:

“The building at number 24 is made up of several modest one- and two-storey constructions around a small and distinctly squalid courtyard. I don’t know which part I lived in. I haven’t attempted to go inside any of the dwellings, which are inhabited nowadays mostly by Portuguese and African immigrant workers, since I am in any case convinced that it would do nothing to revive my memories.” (Perec 1996, 48)

Perec had returned to the address where he had lived the first few years of his life. It was from here that he was taken away to the safety of a countryside refuge in the Isère region, just as his mother was about to be deported and murdered in a German concentration camp. When I picture him turning his back on the building and walking away, something in me wants to call him back, to challenge his weary assumption that entering the building would do nothing to revive his memories. What makes this passage painful for me is Perec’s dismissal of any possibility that entering the house and talking to the new tenants could be relevant to the story he is trying to tell. The fact that the new tenants are mostly Portuguese or African immigrants indicates that, in Perec’s view, nothing could be further from his own story than these people’s lives. Their presence on the street where he was born seems to signify the irretrievability of the past and the brutally indifferent course of time. So I find myself imaginatively lingering on the doorstep of this building, wishing Perec would have listened to the stories of those who live there now and written about their lives within the parameters of his own story, the story of someone who, after all, writes “because we lived together, because I was one amongst them, a shadow amongst their shadows, a body close to their bodies”. (ibid., 42)

But then things, people, were deliberately kept apart. The foyers were (and still are) not “normal” living quarters. They provide cramped and overpriced housing for people whose chances on the regular housing market are curtailed by legal discrimination and flat-out racism. Access to the housing is controlled and restricted; visits must be announced in advance and are only allowed at certain times and under certain conditions. A typical reason to refuse outsiders access has always been fear of political agitation. Bouba Touré has described this situation in his autobiographical book Notre case est à Saint-Denis 93; in one chapter, he recalls the awkwardness on both sides when he starts up a casual friendship with a colleague from the factory. Even if 24 Rue Vilin, the building Georges Perec turned his back on, had not become a foyer but was still a regular apartment building, the sense of alienation Perec describes non-deliberately brings to mind this deliberate segregation, the wilful production of parallel worlds whose long-term effect is persistent ignorance of each other’s situations and views. Bouba Touré’s photographs act on and against these circumstances. Yet, if the original impulse to take them was the need to convey an insider’s experience of life in the foyers, the photographs were rarely reproduced outside the context of those whose day-to-day life they document. They record a life for those who live it, and circulate mainly within networks of kinship and solidarity. These networks are not limited to the West African diaspora, but encompass a wide range of politically active groups, and what makes Bouba Touré’s photographs special is the fact that the photographic act as social praxis becomes subject matter in the photographs themselves. It chooses the frame, it sets the focus, and it results in the reappearance of images within other images, as a form of mise en abyme: a story within a story, an image within an image. An invitation to zoom in and find, not the same story or the same image, but the same story differently.

Bouba Touré recalls that he took his first photographs in 1966 when he was asked by French activists to document the conditions of the Saint-Denis dormitory he was living in. A very simple and straightforward business, it would seem. Photographing things that were not available to everyone’s gaze. “It was a Kodak Retinette”, he told me in an e-mail, “and this is how I became a photographer of our actual life in France”. The key word here is our. It points to the fact that although these photographs are meant to show what is not often seen, none of them was ever taken in the belief that it was revealing a secret. While for the “general public” the life of West African immigrants in France was largely invisible, what the photographs show are things and scenes that are well known to many, because they come from the shared life of a community. Bouba Touré’s photographs speak simultaneously to a shared knowledge and to oblivion, and their agency might consist in their existing in and making tangible, rather than obliterating, the space between the two. They are about the discrepancy between being visible and being seen, and about the fact that things can become painfully visible because of the very fact that most of us are unable or unwilling to see them. Even when these photographs are taken in intimate spaces, they never seem to speak of a solitary encounter, they never posit the subjectivity of a gaze or the exclusiveness of a moment. Everything that can be seen in them has been seen many times before. They make me want to tweak John Berger’s well-known verbalization of a painting’s basic message, “I have seen this”, to “We have seen this”. The claim to be depicting things exclusively or for the first time can only be made in defiance of the sociality of everything a photograph can possibly show. The question, of course, as so often, is, who is this we?

In one of the first conversations I had with Bouba Touré about this book, he told me that he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of mixing the photographs of life in the foyers and the political struggles in France with those of Somankidi Coura, the cooperative in Mali. He said that they had been made for different purposes, and that they tell different stories: while for him Somankidi Coura is a success story, the photographs taken in France over the last four decades testify to a great failure. When he showed me what he considers one of the most painful photos in his collection, I wasn’t able to see right away where the pain was coming from. It is a photo of a young man stretched out on a simple metal-frame bed. The bed is made, and he is dressed and facing the camera. On the wall behind him is a short bookshelf containing a handful of books and several posters, photos, papers, and postcards. The photo was taken in a Paris foyer in 1998, and the pain it causes Bouba Touré comes from knowing that the man is lying on the very same bed that his father had occupied for more than ten years. The failure this photo documents is the fact that despite the relentless campaigning for economically fair relationships between Europe and Africa and for non-discriminatory treatment of migrant workers, despite the demonstrations, squats, and hunger strikes that Bouba Touré has supported and documented from the 1980s up to the present, nevertheless at some point the young man in this photo decided that his only chance in life was to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a migrant worker in France. For the one who took the photo and knows the backstory, the photo is about the cycle that continues on this very bed, the painful relationship that a person is forced to have with an earlier generation’s choices and failures.

5 (1996, 3, 1976)

I have described this image from memory and thus in a general way, since I wasn’t able to identify it with certainty among the photographs saved on my desktop. There are many similar ones; the man on the bed has been a recurring image over the years. We were clicking through a series of photographs when Bouba Touré told me the story of this young man, which is similar to many other such stories. (I am not sure whether he told the young man in the photo that he was lying on the same bed his father had lain on.) The relentless recurrence of the same framing, the same bed, the same pieces of basic furniture — bookshelf, chair, desk — and the more or less identical arrangement of the few personal objects in the small space designated for such temporary occupation make the scenes look like variations on a stale dream compulsively restaged. There is neglect, compromise, and deprivation in these images, and the only thing that seems to work against the defeatism is the equally persistent recurrence of the photographer taking them.

Often, Bouba Touré is more familiar with the dormitory rooms than those who live in them. He has seen the same shelf being cleared and filled again and again. His persistence has built up trust, familiarity, and filiations, and this all shows in the photos. Interestingly, even though he frequently uses a flash to compensate for the irregular lighting in the dormitories, and even though the scenes in his pictures are saturated with the ordeals of lives made precarious, his foyer photos are never intrusive. Even a top-down shot of an additional mattress crammed under a bunk bed in an already cramped room does not come across as documenting misery. I cannot fully explain this effect, but I suspect that it has something to do with the awareness that even when there are far too many things in too little space, even if things are not “in their proper places”, they are still somebody’s things, dignified by somebody’s life, however transitory their presence in it. And while the numerous photographs taken during the Sans Papiers struggles of the late 1990s inside squatted public buildings and churches document the extremely precarious and often desperate situation of the protesters, they also show their demands, written on the walls, the shared determination, a sense of togetherness and even conviviality that is not thwarted by the makeshift mattress arrangements, generic sleeping bags, and belongings in blue plastic sacks. Misery and intrusion only enter in a series of snapshots taken at the height of the church squattings in 1996, when a press corps teeming with cameras enters the scene as entourage to political functionaries expressing their concerns about the “humanitarian crisis” (or so I assume). Faced with a benevolent visitor bending down to them and shaking their hands, the same men who in Bouba Touré’s earlier photographs are seen resting on their mattresses to gather strength for the next stage of the struggle are suddenly made to appear weak, even ailing, and the squat comes to look like a sick bay.

In almost all of Bouba Touré’s photographs, it is apparent that those in the picture have agreed to participate in the photographic act as part of a narration that continues beyond the specific moment and room. This is indicated by, for instance, the photos pinned to the walls, sometimes framed and often taken by Touré in other locales. Some of them are double portraits taken at festive occasions like weddings or birthdays; others depict demonstrations in Paris or informal gatherings in public spaces; some bring in the cooperative Somankidi Coura with wide-angle shots of cultivated fields or the river. Banners and slogans that Bouba Touré rarely fails to capture during a demonstration or sit-in can also occasionally be seen on these walls (and on those of his apartment), next to world maps or newspaper clippings about Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, or Steffi Graf. If we look at Bouba Touré’s collection as an archive, we keep finding elements from it doubled inside the frames.

I would argue that in Bouba Touré’s body of work the photographic act consists first and foremost of a triangular relation (with the more active meaning this term conveys in French, and which Glissant employs in his Poetics of Relation) between the photographer, those who are being photographed, and a community, however large, they both feel affiliated with. The terms upon which participation in this act is accepted vary, and that, too, comes across in the photographs themselves. A certain agreement becomes part and parcel of the photographic act, a unison in stark contrast to the typically patronizing assumption of an implicit “deal” struck between the photographer and those photographed, a temporary joint venture between two parties we are expected to construe as opponents.

A significant distinction among the various photo series is whether a photo is meant to promote a positive image or to act as a description intended to cause alarm. Typically, the first type of photo is taken to be sent to friends and family in other parts of France or in their countries of origin, while the ones depicting the hardships of life in the foyers are intended as proof of the shortcomings of France’s treatment of migrant workers. The latter has been a constant source of motivation in Bouba Touré’s work. He is thus a kind of double agent, not in any nefarious sense but in the sense that, while he acknowledges his companions’ need to send reassuring images to those who are emotionally close but physically out of reach, he finds it equally necessary to challenge the often euphemistic discourse on emigration by revealing the drastic conditions of exile. The two types of photos exist side by side. Rather than seeing them as blatantly contradictory (in the name of a rigid conception of what reality truly looks like), they should be seen as expressions of a practice that strives to exist in and make sense of two worlds, or rather, the “all-world”, to borrow again from Édouard Glissant, le tout-monde, in which discontinuities are not only the residues of ruptures, but also proof of the detours that have made it possible to speak.

This awareness of differing and often equivocal messages travelling throughout diaspora networks harks back again to the pivotal moment in 1976 when Bouba Touré and his comrades decided to found the cooperative in Mali:

“As sons of peasants we have known the hard labour demanded by the land which we decided to leave in search of better living conditions. Having been either illiterate or of modest education, we haven’t found the conditions that would have allowed us to live up to our expectations, which had been flattered by the flashy successes of some friends who returned to the village from abroad (clothes — radios — record players — etc.). Hence, here we are now, in France, tempted by immigration like so many others”.

It is curious to see the same props that the communiqué lists as the ingredients of a petty dream (clothes — radios — record players — etc.) often appear in the staged or seemingly casual portraits that Bouba Touré regularly takes of tenants in the foyers. A series of some twenty or thirty photographs taken in the late 1980s at the Charonne foyer in the eleventh arrondissement (close to Bouba Touré’s former apartment) stands out for me, because it appears to have been taken in a concerted action over the course of a day or two, at the end of which everyone was supposed to possess a presentable full-length portrait of himself. While each of these photos was probably meant to be sent to a different destination to serve as proof of the depicted person’s well-being, as a series they reveal the dress-up nature of what took place in front of the camera — in a comical way, which I assume was not lost on those who took part in it.

Almost none of these portraits was made in the actual room in which the person in the picture lives. Many of the men are posing outside, on the sidewalk, sometimes leaning against a car that is not theirs.
Two men, each of them sitting in front of a white wall in the limelight of Bouba Touré’s flash, are holding the same cassette player.
Several portraits are made on a stretch of lawn in front of a brick wall entirely covered by thick green ivy. Bouba Touré recalls that it was the lush and natural appearance of the ivy that made this framing attractive for most, even if the lawn was really just a patch between the building and the fence.
None of the photos was taken in a workplace, and all hints as to what the men do for a living, factory work or menial jobs, are carefully avoided. Clothes, composure, and setting either suggest a leisure mode or are designed to depict an office job by including a leather briefcase, a telephone, or a desk.
One of the men is photographed in the projection room of the cinema in which Bouba Touré worked at the time, with film cans on the floor and a switchboard behind him providing a professional setting. A leather briefcase and a phone held to his ear complete the impression that the man is at work.

Looking through these pictures, however, also means having to respond to the gazes these men offer the camera, and I must admit that I find their expressions difficult to interpret. I assume, from Bouba Touré’s explanations, that what I am looking at are staged and more or less euphemistic setups, but then what to make of their expressions? How relate the pride, sincerity, timidity, joviality, or roguishness expressed in them to the assumption that they think they know something their observers don’t? Or do they? Maybe we should assume that what we are not given to see is not so much hidden or camouflaged, but rather entrusted to a tacit agreement. Maybe their gazes are merely inscribing these photos into the shared understanding that posing in ill-fitting clothes in staged surroundings with borrowed accessories is a way to take hold of one’s image, to wrest one’s appearance from the grip of a reality that offers very little space for manoeuvring.

6 (1932, 1937, 2017)

Walter Benjamin’s remark that “a good archaeological report not only informs us about the strata from which its findings originate, but also gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through” (Benjamin 2005, 576), reminds us that any attempt to say something about the past is situated in the present. We should also note, however, that the metaphor Benjamin employs — the excavation site where the researcher is described as a man digging with a spade — is itself situated in a particular landscape, where history is layered like strata and research is a matter of vertical digging. Contained within this idea is the assumption of soil that hasn’t shifted, that wasn’t ravaged; it is the image of a static site in which elements have remained in place over generations, and time has settled in layers like humus, thick and heavy, not fleeting like sand, or ephemeral like water. It is not, in short, a site for diasporic histories. Benjamin’s short and oft-quoted text Ausgraben und Erinnern (Excavation and Memory), was written in 1932, at a time when his chosen life abroad was about to become a forced exile from which he would never return. Five years later, in a famous text about the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov that evolved into an essay on storytelling, Benjamin describes a landscape “in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body”. (Benjamin 2006, 362) This body, and by extension, we, humanity, Benjamin notes, have lost the capacity to tell stories. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences”. (ibid.) It can be argued that this loss of coherence in a war-torn landscape was never fully recognized by those European societies it affected, and that the havoc wreaked in wars up to now is the doing of people who cannot endure the silence inflicted by what they keep defending as their (or “our”) way of life. We should also note that this silence had set in much earlier, that “explosive seeds of absence” (Glissant 1989, 9) had been sown in the Atlantic for centuries, in water, which holds nothing and where digging is undertaken in vain. The findings will be elsewhere.

But elsewhere is a place. And this place can be found on rich, fertile soil, on humus, thick and heavy, where digging is not useless, but creates a grid of ditches “making profitable the exploitation of 60 ha of land in double culture”, and more. What probably made Bouba Touré hesitant about mixing the photos of the cooperative and those of the foyers in the same volume was his awareness that the interpretation of the images would totally depend on the beholder. Does a particular photo document the life of someone tragically torn (apart) between “two worlds” or rather someone playfully spread-eagled between, and firmly rooted in, several places? In many ways, Benjamin’s figure of the storyteller in whom two archetypes “overlap”, “the tiller of the soil” and “the trading seaman” (Benjamin 2006, 363), can be seen as a response to the “difficult, uncertain births of new forms of identity that call to us”, as Édouard Glissant would put it some fifty years later. (Glissant 1997, 18) If “[i]n this context uprooting can work towards identity, and exile can be seen as beneficial” (ibid.), it remains our task to fully comprehend what this means today, when we must concede that theoretically embracing a “new nomadism” has done little to prevent, in practice, the growing of new and yet increasingly atavistic forms of nationalist paranoia.

At the end of this text, I realize I have come close to calling Bouba Touré’s practice a poetics of relation, an extensive practice that strives to not only maintain a relation but to safeguard what is relative: “the thing relayed as well as the thing related”. (Glissant 1997, ibid.) I’d like to compare Bouba Touré’s “rooted errantry” to the process of weaving, but I must concede that the metaphor doesn’t quite fit. He seems to be the weaver and the thread and the shuttle, and so are his photos: shuttling and weaving, each of them already patterned by the process it is just about to enter.

Published in: Sowing Somankidi Coura, edited by Raphaël Grisey and Bouba Touré, Archive Books, Berlin, 2018.


1 – This and the following quotes in italics are from a press communiqué that the group issued before their departure. Translation from French by the author.

2 – In an interview with Cahiers du cinéma (conducted by Serge Daney, Serge Le Peron, and Jean-Pierre Oudart), Sidney Sokhona talks in detail about the making of Nationalité: Immigré. (Cahiers du cinéma, no. 265 [March-April 1976], pp. 25–33). Following the interview was Daney’s article “Sur le papier” (“On Paper”), which I quoted from earlier. Cahiers du cinéma would subsequently publish an interview with Sokhona on Safrana in issue no. 285 (February 1978).

Works cited:

Walter Benjamin, 2005 (1932). “Excavation and Memory”, in Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 2, Marcus Paul Bullock and Howard Eiland, et al. (eds.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Walter Benjamin, 2006 (1940). “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, quoted here from: Dorothy J. Hale (ed.), The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900–2000. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

John Berger, 2003. “Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible (for Yves)”, in John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket. New York: Vintage Books.

Aimé Césaire, 2001 (1947). Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Serge Daney, 2014 (1976). “On Paper”, trans. John Barrett, in Tobias Hering (ed.), Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme. Point of View. Berlin: Archive Books.

Frantz Fanon, 2008 (1952), Black Skin, White Mask, trans. Charles Lam Markman. London: Pluto Press.

Édouard Glissant, 1987. Mahagony. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Édouard Glissant, 1989 (1981). Caribbean Discourse, trans. J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia.

Édouard Glissant, 1997 (1990). Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

R.L., 2013. “Wanderings of the Black Slave: Black Life and Social Death”, unpaginated, (accessed May 2017).

Georges Perec, 1996. W or the Memory of Childhood, London: Harvill Press.

Jared Sexton, 2006. “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word”, in rhizomes 29 (2016), unpaginated. (accessed May 2017).

Bouba Touré, 2015. Notre case est à Saint-Denis 93. Mayenne: Éditions Xérographe.

Frank B. Wilderson III, 2010. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.


Bouba Touré, 58 rue Trousseau, 75011 Paris, France
by Bouba Touré (F 2008, 28 min)

Soleil Ô
by Med Hondo (F 1969, 98 min)

Les bicots nègres vos voisins
by Med Hondo (F 1972, 190 min)

Nationalité : Immigré
by Sidney Sokhona (F/MAU 1975, 69 min)

Safrana ou le droit à la parole
by Sidney Sokhona (F/MAU 1978, 99 min)

Casque d’Or
by Jacques Becker (F 1952, 96 min)

Le Bonheur
by Agnes Varda (F 1965, 79 min)

La guerre est fini (The War is Over)
by Alain Resnais (F 1966, 121 min)

Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late)
by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (F 1981, 105 min)