The Exotic Other : Statues Also Die (Les Statues Meurent Aussi) (1953)

Tom Denison, Centre for Organisational and Social Informatics, Monash University

“When men die, they become history. Once statues die, they become art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”

Memory and how we choose to interpret the past are interwoven themes that run through most of Chris Marker’s work. His second film, Statues Also Die, a collaboration with Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, was initially conceived as a film about African art – they were intrigued as to why African art was in an ethnological museum as opposed to the art of other ancient civilisations, housed in the Louvre. However, after considering the perception of and meanings attached to the artwork within a colonialist framework, they quickly moved to an attack on colonialism itself. Released in 1953, it won the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954, but the second half of the film was banned in France until 1963, and not screened publicly until 1968.

The film begins with a montage of sculptures, masks and other traditional art. The focus is on their emotional qualities, and their historical and aesthetic qualities from a European perspective, with almost no contextual information relating to their origins. The film-makers argue that when an African looks at this art “he sees the face of a culture”, whereas we (Europeans) see picturesqueness. As the narrator observes, “classifed, labelled, conserved in the ice of showcases and collections” these artefacts lose their original meaning. They die.

At the time of the film’s release, France was still a colonial power – a colonial power that celebrated its “possessions”, their “primitive” cultures and artefacts. In this context, African art becomes commercialised to meet the demand of western consumers, valued both for its representation of the exotic other and as a standard for judging what is “authentic”. In reality, however, they are only dead from a European perspective. Les Statues identifies a different path – one which already existed when the film was made, but which has been slower in being recognised in the west – with the incorporation of the traditional in post-colonial contexts, with its re-imagination and re-invention by contemporary artists, who reject any suggestion that contemporary African art is less authentic than the traditional. The film-makers don’t argue for an inversion colonial mores, but a recognition that African art is situated within a broader context.  This is no longer such a radical position, as evidenced by the recent Making Africa exhibition at the Bilbao Guggenheim showcasing contemporary African art, its diversity of forms and influences.  Even that exhibition, however, acknowledged that there remains a relative absence of contemporary African art in European Museums and galleries.

statues6

Similar issues are currently being played out in Australia, In Australia, where widespread recognition is given to more traditional forms, but artists such as Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Hookey and Megan Cope feel the need to come together as proppaNOW (https://proppanow.wordpress.com/) to increase the recognition of contemporary voices and the creation of  new forms of expression.

Statues Also Die is available in full online (30 mins)

For a more in-depth commentary, see Daniel Vilensky, Statues Also Die, Senses of Cinema, Issue 64, September 2012.

5 thoughts on “The Exotic Other : Statues Also Die (Les Statues Meurent Aussi) (1953)

  1. I think views of African art and seeing it ‘alive’ have changed since the time of that film, or this parallel article in Life magazine from 1953. The film is well meaning, a bit quaint (that mysterious music, nowadays it would be some amazing band from Mali etc. ) In S Africa at least, based on my experience, art is ‘proudly’ in place where it would have been dismissed in the past and there is a thriving market in ‘antiques’ and reproductions, to both white and black customer. But museums are for the bourgeoisie, not the poor, but the contemporary black art I have seen takes up older themes and concerns. However, the markets abount with ‘Africa kitch’. Negritude and cultural assertion are a powerful force, certainly in music. Afrika is alive! And Africa is not one place, it is a vast, diverse continent, we forget how big it is–it takes 8 hours to fly from Joburg to the Mediterranean.

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    1. I agree that the film is a little clumsy in places, and I’d even say it tends to overuse the exotic imagery to its own ends, but these are minor criticisms. Beyond that, I think the arguments they are making are a little more subtle than you give them credit for. The comments with regard to museums apply to all museums and their artefacts, regardless of origin. Metadata and curators notes do not bring objects back to life. The film overstates the case, but the basic point holds. And the film-makers have no issue with what happens in Africa – as big and diverse as it is – in fact they applaud it and say that this is as it should be (with the exception of the commercial aspect). Their argument is with European perceptions and I think the fact that in 2015 a major European gallery still feels the need to argue the case adds some weight to their point of view.

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    1. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make here. If you are saying that there are a lot of films on the topic made subsequently – sure. And hopefully they have been able to refine and extend the argument. To my mind that doesn’t negate the value of the original film. But maybe you were intending something else?

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