“France and the United States See African Art as Museum Exhibits”

Paris-trained Senegalese writer and philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne directs the Institute of African Studies at Columbia, where he connects French thought with Sub-Saharan cultures. African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude, his book on Senegal’s first president and his relationship with French philosopher Henri Bergson, has just been published in English in the United States.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne. © Nina Westervelt/The New York Times

France-Amérique: What is the role of a department of African studies at an American university?

Souleymane Bachir Diagne: African studies departments, which began to appear in the 1930s, oversee all disciplines with links to Africa, whether in terms of history, anthropology, literature, or public health. In practice, African history and literature are the dominant fields.

Is the African American world included in African studies?

In many universities, there is a tendency to combine the two. I am not in favor of this mix. African American studies tend to focus on what happens in the United States, while viewing Africa as a sort of archaic monument. For African Americans, it has become the periphery of their diaspora, and they are more interested in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe than in modern Africa.

Is the field of African studies finally emerging in France?

Yes, but this discipline is only starting to gain recognition. It is paradoxical that the destinies of both France and Africa are so intertwined, and yet the French find it so difficult to integrate Africa into its university curriculum. I would point out that the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris has finally created a program entitled Suds (“Souths”), in the plural form, which has provided ample place for African philosophies. I will actually be teaching there at the start of next year.

You discuss African art in your lectures and your book. But what unites Africa? I have the impression that Senegal is closer to France than it is to the Congo, for example.

You are right. We have shifted from an excess of Africanity to excessive distinctions. Initially, around the 1950s and 1960s, the term “African” was stuck onto anything that came out of the continent with little consideration for specific local cultures. Today, we have a better knowledge of these local cultures. That being said, Africanity does exist, and Léopold Sédar Senghor worked to identify its shared traits. For example, he observed that the totality of African art never truly represents reality. It is not mimetic. There is therefore a distinct African art in which the artist attempts to capture the symbolic meaning of an object. It is never realistic. There is a sort of cosmology shared by all of Africa – the same vital force, Henry Bergson used to say – which animates all African works defined as artistic.

© Hervé Pinel/France-Amérique

To what extent was Senghor misled by Western museums? It seems that the African works he analyzed were mainly those collected and displayed in Europe.

You are partly correct. France and the United States see African art as museum exhibits. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris is a good example of this. But Senghor was aware of this potential pitfall. His thinking on African art remained open-ended and not confined to any strict definition. Like Bergson, he insisted on the vital nature of these works, which transcended any particular museum collection. Senghor also never considered Africa to be an island, separate from the rest of the world. This has never been the case, if only because of the Christian evangelization and Islamization of most of the continent. Senghor is often defined as the thinker of negritude – a conception of Africa centered on its original community. But in fact, much like the Martinican poet Edouard Glissant, he was as much a thinker of métissage as he was a thinker of negritude.

The African intellectual community and others interested in Africa often compare negritude with creolization. This pits a perceived closed-off African community against an openness to the world as promoted by Edouard Glissant. What are your thoughts on the matter?

This is a false dichotomy. The Creole side insists on a return to Creole languages, but Aimé Césaire, the standard-bearer of negritude, only ever spoke in very classic French. Despite his staunch promotion of this movement, he was much like Senghor – profoundly and universally humanist.

The restitution of stolen artwork has become a major subject of debate in relations between Africa and its former colonial powers. Is this restitution a form of decolonization?

No. The idea is not to empty the museums of the North to fill those of the South. The African objects in the museums of the North have been changed by their journey; what they are has become inseparably linked to their history. Their presence in these museums has also given rise to new languages such as Cubism, discovered in museums by Western artists in the early 20th century – and this is only the best-known phenomenon. This African artwork is nomadic, destined to travel and create dialoguing networks. Restitution does not automatically mean reparation. What’s more, the idea that these objects could “come home” is absurd since their original homes have usually disappeared. Most of the religions that gave rise to these objects have been erased. This reinforces my definition of African art as nomadic and as a place of encounters and exchanges. I would also point out that Senghor organized a Picasso exhibition in Dakar in the 1960s and sent African art to French museums, thereby confirming that he shared this conception of nomadic objects.

Given the demands of those pushing for restitution and the anti-French protests in the Sahel region, it seems that decolonization is far from complete. Is this true? And if so, who is responsible?

Colonialism no longer exists, but it has been replaced by what today’s critics call coloniality, meaning modes of thought inspired by the North and alienated from those specific to the South. We have seen that the resulting decolonial movement mobilizes and even incites violence, but lacks any substantive content. Once someone proclaims France dégage (“France out”), a typical decolonial slogan, you cannot start a dialogue with them because their position lacks substance. I see the decolonial movement more as a performance than as a starting point for new, Africa-specific thinking. This lack of substance worries me as much as the violence it incites.

African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, translated from French by Chike Jeffers, Other Press, 2023.

Interview published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.