THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

3 posts categorized "Africa"

16 August 2019

‘C’est un dĂ©tournement’: Mezioud Ouldamer’s copy of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s MĂ©moires

Add comment

In 1959 Guy Debord and the Danish artist Asger Jorn published MĂ©moires, ‘a work entirely composed of prefabricated elements’ with ‘supporting structures’ by Jorn. In the jargon of the Situationist International (SI), the avant-garde anti-authoritarian movement they helped form in 1957, it is a work of dĂ©tournement:

DĂ©tournement is the opposite of quotation, of appealing to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation — a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework. DĂ©tournement is the flexible language of anti-ideology. (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 208)

Double-page spread from MĂ©moires featuring fragments of text and photographs with red splodges

Double-page spread from MĂ©moires (Copenhagen, 1957; RF.2019.b.63), section 2, bright red indicating Debord’s creative energy

Double-page spread from MĂ©moires with fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge

Double-page spread from MĂ©moires section 3, fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge

Wrenched from their original contexts, fragments of texts and isolated images are linked and obscured by roughly applied, bright inks. Not always ‘supporting structures’, Jorn’s paintwork draws connections between fragments, but ‘then Debord’s words and pictures change Jorn’s avenues into labyrinths [
] A connection is made, a connection is missed, the reader is lost, the reader enters another passageway, then another’ (Marcus, p. 128).

A page from from MĂ©moires featuring fragments of text, including a 'Guinness is good for you' advertisement. There is a large red splodge covering some of the fragments

‘Guinness is good for you’: dĂ©tourning advertising as the slogan is placed next to the fragment ‘in the daily struggle’

Through his creative reinterpretation of the autobiographical genre, the author enacts the process by which the ‘society of the spectacle’ and the commodification of experience might finally be blown apart to uncover again the unique everyday amidst the alienating capitalist superstructure. As MĂ©moires’ final fragment puts it, ‘I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’.

Final page of Memoires featuring the words 'I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time' (in French) and a large red splodge.

Final page of MĂ©moires

The British Library’s copy of MĂ©moires has an inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer (1951-2017), an Algerian political activist and author of a number of works inspired by the Situationists and his friendship with Debord.

Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in MĂ©moires

Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in MĂ©moires

Ouldamer writes: ‘It is a dĂ©tournement | It was in Ecclesiastes. | And even in Proverbs. | There is still a belief in this rotten “God”. There is nothing, Evy. I love you. | Le Singe [the monkey or the imitator]’. It isn’t clear when Debord gave Ouldamer the copy, of which there were perhaps one thousand in small circulation amongst associates, but their friendship appears to have flourished in the early 1980s. Ouldamer’s presence in our copy shifts the frame of the work and provokes us to think about race, ethnicity and the Algerian crises that were part of the context of both the original publication and Debord’s subsequent gift to Ouldamer.

Algerian intellectuals were already part of the Lettrist International, the SI’s forerunner, including Hadj Mohamed Dahou, who continued into the SI. Compatriot Abdelhafid Khatib wrote a fragmentary first example of a psychogeography in 1958. Thus the Algerian Situationist context was well established when the next generation came to maturity. Between 1953, the year of ‘The Manifesto of the Algerian Group of the Lettrist International’, and Ouldamer’s early activism came Algeria’s hard-won independence in 1962. From this point onwards, the violent suppression of native Algerian rights by French colonists transformed into the suppression of Berber rights by the single-party leadership Front de liberation nationale (FLN) with their exclusive focus on Arabization. This eventually led to the Berber mass activism and strikes of 1980, known as the ‘Berber Spring’.

Ouldamer, a native of the largest Berber region, Kabylia, co-edited a pamphlet entitled L’AlgĂ©rie brĂ»le! [‘Algeria is on fire’], attributed to ‘un groupe d’autonomes algĂ©riens’. In it, they pay homage to the activists for restoring to millions of Berber people a long-restricted freedom of expression. They reveal the illusion of Algeria being the standard-bearer for third world revolution, when it has reproduced ‘all the mediocrities and ignominies shared across all the world’s police states’. The incendiary pamphlet then evokes our inscription as it continues, ‘Les insurgĂ©s de Tizi-Ouzou n’ont fait que cracher sur toute cette pourriture’ [the insurgents of Tizi-Ouzou have done nothing else but spit in the face of this rottenness].

Cover of L’AlgĂ©rie brĂ»le!

L’AlgĂ©rie brĂ»le! (Paris, 1981) X.809/55238

L’AlgĂ©rie brĂ»le! was published by Debord’s longstanding publisher and friend GĂ©rard Lebovici at Ă©ditions Champ Libre, Paris. It appeared early in 1981, by which time Ouldamer had been arrested, ultimately to serve one year in prison for breaking article 144 of the Algerian penal code, which is cited on the back flap of his next book, Offense Ă  President. The law forbids citizens to attack the honour of authorities ‘by words, gestures, threats, [
] even by writings or drawings not made public’. This book was written in Paris, Ouldamer’s new home following his release, where his friendship with Debord developed. In March 1984, Lebovici was assassinated. Debord rigorously investigated the circumstances of his friend’s death, all the while encouraging Ouldamer to publish his work with the same publisher, now run by GĂ©rard’s widow Floriana under the name Ă©ditions GĂ©rard Lebovici.

Cover of Offense Ă  President

Mezioud Ouldamer, Offense à Président (Paris, 1985), YA.1987.a.18728

The success of Offense Ă  President led Ouldamer to work on the book that would spark the most reaction, Le Cauchemar immigrĂ© dans la decomposition de la France [‘The Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of France’]. Debord again offered advice throughout. One letter from Debord on 9 May 1985 invites Ouldamer to the small hamlet of Champot, adding that his girlfriend would also be welcome. Is this the ‘Evy’ mentioned in Ouldamer’s inscription in MĂ©moires?

Cover of Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France

Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France (Paris, 1986), YA.1987.a.3700

Le Cauchemar immigrĂ© inspired Debord to pass his own comments on the politics of immigration that had risen to the surface, especially since 1983’s March for Equality and against Racism. Debord’s ‘Notes on the “immigrant question”’ were written in response to Ouldamer’s ideas and are probably more famous today than the work that inspired them. Ouldamer’s matter-of-fact delivery is similar to Debord’s as he writes ‘the spectacle of a nightmarish immigration dominates every mind, to the extent that immigrants themselves have begun to give in to this image’. The last lines of Le Cauchemar immigrĂ© are indeed taken from Debord’s last lines of his notes to Ouldamer. The gist is, will the earth’s future inhabitants emancipate themselves from the current hierarchical and repressive system, or ‘will they be dominated by an even more hierarchical and pro-slavery society than today?’ Sharing a militancy, Debord and Ouldamer close by saying, ‘we must envisage the worst and fight for the best. France is assuredly regrettable. But regrets are useless.’

Ouldamer’s inscription in the BL’s copy of MĂ©moires arguably offers a dĂ©tournement of its own to Debord and Jorn’s dĂ©tournement. At the very least, this contextual history reinserts global and racial dynamics into a work of the European political avant-garde, in which the Algerian crises of the 20th century arguably often only played a sub-textual role. If MĂ©moires ‘wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’ then that language was surely not just the fragmented artistry of Paris, but also the Arabic and the Berber languages of Algeria.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further reading

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1994), YC.1994.b.6105

Guy Debord, Correspondance [vol. 6, Janvier 1979 – DĂ©cembre 1987] (Paris, 1999-2010), YF.2008.a.37298

Nedjib Sidi Moussa, ‘In Memoriam Mezioud Ouldamer’, in Textures du Temps

Erindringer om Asger Jorn, ed. by Troels Andersen and Aksel Evin Olesen (Silkeborg, 1982), X.425/4198

Greil Marcus, ‘Guy Debord’s MĂ©moires: A Siutationist Primer’, in On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972, ed. by Elisabeth Sussman (Cambridge, MA: 1989), YC.1992.b.1936

Boris DonnĂ©, Pour mĂ©moires: un essai d’élucidation des MĂ©moires de Guy Debord (Paris, 2004), YF.2004.a.15028

Tom McDonough, ‘The Beautiful Language of my Century’: Reinventing the Language of Contestation in Postwar France, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, MA: 2007), YK.2007.a.9440

Bart Lans and Otakar MĂĄcel, ‘The Making of Fin de Copenhague & MĂ©moires: The tactic of dĂ©tournement in the collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’ (Delft, 2009) 

Ella Mudie, ‘An Atlas of Allusions: The Perverse Methods of Guy Debord’s MĂ©moires’, Criticism 58 (2016), pp. 535-63

14 January 2016

West African Literature and Thought in French

Add comment Comments (0)

Some of the most important contemporary writing in French has emerged from West Africa. As part of the programme of events accompanying the current British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, the Library is holding a seminar on West African Literature and Thought in French on Friday 22 January from 10.30-1700 in the Conference Centre.

This event will bring together authors (including leading writer from the CĂŽte d’Ivoire, VĂ©ronique Tadjo), publishers, translators and other specialists to explore topics including the history of the Francophone West African book as well as the complex processes of translation between oral and literary cultures and across various other linguistic, historical and political contexts.

The programme for the seminar is:

10.30-11.00  Registration. Tea/ Coffee

11.00-11.10  Welcome: Janet Zmroczek (Head of European and Americas Collections, British Library)

11.10-12.00  Opening Panel:  West Africa at the British Library

  • Marion Wallace (British Library), Overview of the British Library’s current major exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ 
  • Jody Butterworth (British Library), Introduction to the Endangered Archives Programmes based in Francophone West Africa

12.00-12.50  Panel: Introducing West African literature and culture (Chair: Patrick Corcoran)

  • David Murphy (University of Stirling), NĂ©gritude and the rest? A brief history of West African Literature in French
  • ChĂ©rif Keita (Carleton College), The Sunjata Fasa (The Epic of Sundiata) as the Matrix of Mande Personhood

12.50-13.45  Lunch. A sandwich lunch will be provided.

13.45- 14.45  Round table: Translation and reception (Chair: Charlotte Baker)
With Kathryn Batchelor (University of Nottingham), Georgina Collins (University of Glasgow), Michael Syrotinski, (University of Glasgow), Wangui Wa Goro (SIDENSI)

14.45- 15. 45  Round table: Publishing translated fiction in the UK (Chair: Ruth Bush)
With Becky Nana Ayebia Clarke (Ayebia Clarke Publishing), Suzanne Diop (Présence Africaine Editions), Samantha Schnee (Words without Borders), Audrey Small (University of Sheffield)

15.45-16.00  Tea/Coffee

16.00-17.00 VĂ©ronique Tadjo : a reading and a conversation with Nicki Hitchcott (University of Nottingham)

Veronique Tadjo books
A selection of Veronique Tadjo’s books from the British Library’s collections

The seminar has been organised by Teresa Vernon (British Library) and Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme and The Society for French Studies, with the support of the Institut Français. A book stall provided by the Africa Book Centre will be available on the day.

You can book by following the link to our ‘What’s On’ page or by contacting the British Library Box Office ( +44 (0)1937 546546; boxoffice@bl.uk). Prices are £25 (concessions £15-18, see ‘What’s On’ for full details).

The seminar will be followed in the evening by a performance at 19.00 by acclaimed Malian band Trio Da Kali, who will be performing from their own repertoire, before accompanying ChĂ©rif Keita’s recitation of the Epic of Sundiata. Please note that separate tickets are required for this event and for visits to the Exhibition itself (open 09.30-18.00) on the day.


22_23_jan_trio_da_kali_credit_youri_lenquette
Trio Da Kali (photograph: Youri Lenquette)

 

21 December 2015

World proverbs in speech, text and image

Add comment Comments (0)

All the world over, wise people say “Nobody knows his own defects” and “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over”. 

You may find this an inspiring indication of the oneness of mankind, or alternatively depressing proof of the lack of originality of the human mind.

The current BL exhibition “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song” includes some small figures which are thought to refer to popular proverbs.

  African proverbs weightAs described in the exhibition catalogue, “The gold-weight [above, from the collections of the British Museum] depicting two crocodiles with one stomach embodies the Asante proverb Funtufunefu, denkyemfunefu, won efuru bom, nso woredidi a na woreko, meaning that even though they have one stomach, they fight over food when eating.” (p. 123).

It’s from Ghana, and dated somewhere in the 18th to 20th centuries.

I’m reminded of European  misericords, carvings under the seats in the choir stalls of medieval churches. These often show motifs which can  be matched to popular tales or sayings. The examples below from the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam show a man banging his head against a brick wall and another falling between two stools.  (These two images also occur in Bruegel).  

  Proverbs misericords 1            Proverbs misericords 2

 European popular proverbs are written down, in the context of Latin literature, as early as the 13th century. The most common contexts are sermons and grammar books.

Arabic proverbs (more properly learned than popular) made their entrance in the West in 13th-century Spain, and were printed in erudite bilingual Arabic-Latin collections from the early 17th century on.

African proverbs, at least in those parts which were occupied by Britain and France, were not printed until the 19th century (see Moll’s bibliography).

The BL recently acquired a book which I think is typical of the first printing of African proverbs:

Elementos Grammaticaes tp
Elementos grammaticaes da lingua Nbundu  offerecidos a S.M.F.O. Senhor D. Luis I por Dr. Saturnino de Sousa e Oliveira e Manuel Alves de Castro Francina (Loanda, 1864) YF.2015.a.25009

The context is a grammar of the Nbundu (Kimbundu) language, spoken in Angola. Early printed grammars of French (etc.)  for English (etc.)  speakers regularly included an anthology of proverbs.  And so it is in this book of 1864.

Here the Nbundu original is given followed by the literal Portuguese translation, and then the Portuguese equivalent.

  Elementos Grammaticaes proverbs
Elementos Grammaticaes proverbs


The monkey doesn’t look at his tail

Often the ant dominates the elephant

What the eyes see, causes envy

The rat is an expert in his hole

One who makes water often cannot lie down in a wet place

The witchdoctor starts with his own house and ends up outside

 

 Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References/further reading:

Walter S. Gibson, Figures of speech : picturing proverbs in renaissance Netherlands (London, 2010) YC.2010.a.7023

Otto E. Moll, Sprichwörterbibliographie (Frankfurt am Main, [1958]) Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 398.9

Barry Taylor, ‘Los Libros de proverbios bilingĂŒes: disposiciĂłn e intenciĂłn’, in Corpus, genres, thĂ©ories et mĂ©thodes: construction d’une base de donnĂ©es, ed. Marie-Christine Bornes-Varol and Marie-Sol Ortola (Nancy, 2010), pp. 119-29. YF.2012.a.22372

Barry Taylor, ‘Éditions bilingues de textes espagnols’, K vĂœzkumu zĂĄmeckĂœch, měƥƄanskĂœch a cirkevnich knihoven, ‘Jazyk a  ƙeč knihy’, Opera romanica, 11 (2009), 385-94. ZF.9.a.4837

West Africa : word, symbol, song / general editors, Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace. 2015.