Revisiting Alain Resnais’ Statues Also Die

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By Adefoyeke Ajao
STATUES ALSO DIE is a 30-minute film essay directed by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Ghislain Cloquet and narrated by Jean Negroni. Released in 1953, the film dissects European attitudes toward African art and decries the effects of colonialism on African art and culture. Considering that majority of African countries were still under colonial rule when the film was released, it earned a 15-year ban in France for its scathing criticism of Western superpowers and their subjugation of African cultures and artefacts.
Filmed in black and white, Statues Also Die is an audio-visual exhibition of numerous masks and sculptures plundered by imperialists from various sub-Saharan African countries. The film accuses them of buying African artworks and degrading them to a mere spectacle. It also asserts that Africans and Europeans cannot derive the same interpretations and emotions when viewing artworks of African origin. While depicting these heirlooms of precolonial civilizations, the filmmakers propose that African art is an avenue for understanding pre-existing African cultures and civilizations – an opportunity the Western superpowers might have missed by disregarding the African culture as inferior to theirs.
For Resnais et al, African art is degraded when it ends up in a foreign museum; detached from its creators and the context of its creation, because in this state it is “able to provide [neither] spiritual nor social sustenance”. The filmmakers’ philosophy proposes that it is not just enough to regard objects as art, but to query the idiosyncrasies, customs and wisdom behind their creation i.e. what makes the object and its creation so sacred to be considered representative of a people and their culture.
The belief that African artworks are sacred and should not be relegated to museums is clear from the beginning of the film: “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears, and when we disappear, our objects will be confined to a place where we send black things: to the museum.” And statues die – lose their meaning or context – when they are taken out of the civilizations that bore them. They transform from sacred objects with a high cultural value into commercial objects as soon as they are “classified, labelled [and] conserved in the ice of showcases and collections.”
The film is unrelenting in its criticism of colonialists as denigrators of African customs, but they are also unforgiving of Africans who have become complicit in the depreciation and commercialisation of their heritage. The filmmakers identify similarities between African art and art from other parts of the world and are bemused that it has been reduced to an inferior commodity, while members of the African communities who should be regarded as master artists are reduced to copy artists who churn out caricatures: “Black art becomes a dead language, and that which is born over its death is the jargon of decadence […] black art becomes indigenous handicraft. Each time, even more degraded replicas of the beautiful pictures invented by African culture are fabricated.”
Resnais et al did not initially intend to make a film decrying colonialism and racism, but decided to after observing that African art was regarded as primitive, unlike European versions that were regarded as classics. According to Emma Wilson, in her book, French Film Directors: Alain Resnais (2006), “Resnais and Marker intended instead to make a film about African art, which was little seen or appreciated in France in the 1950s. As he researched the film Resnais wondered why African art was placed in the Musée de l’homme (an ethnographic museum) while Assyrian, or Greek art, by contrast, was on show in the Louvre.”
Colonialism might have eroded the continent’s identity as well as its art, but Resnais et al are unflinching in highlighting the uniqueness of and equality among all cultures, civilizations and the art that they create. In their words, “Beyond the dead forms, we recognise this promise common to all great cultures, of a man who is victorious over the world. And white or black, our future is made of this promise.” Statues Also Die is not simply a film about African art, it is a political and philosophical statement.
Images are from Statues Also Die (1953); Resnais, A., Marker, C. & Cloquet, G.
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