The concept of ‘strategic essentialism’, a term coined (and since rejected) by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to refer to a temporary strategy through which a minority group can present themselves, has been explored with varying degrees of success by a number of recent exhibitions and by a number of different artists. From Manifesta 8’s investigation into the possibility of dialogue between Europe and the Maghreb region to Renzo Martens’ pseudo-anthropological documentaries, the exploration of cultural representations of Africa become fraught when the map becomes mistaken for the territory. The supposedly temporary image or voice of the Other becomes a permanent identity and the ‘strategic’ prefix is erased to mere essentialism.
The product of a two-month residency, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s exhibition at Gasworks took as its starting point an unfinished film by French director Sarah Maldoror, Des Fusils pour Banta (Guns for Banta). Along the way he used this work to navigate post-colonial legacies and the enduring resonance of politically and culturally loaded imagery. Titled ‘Foreword to Guns for Banta’, the show continued Abonnenc’s ongoing interest in Maldoror, who studied in Moscow under Soviet realist filmmakers during the early 1960s and went on to assist Gillo Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers (1966) – the young Paris-based artist showed Maldoror’s first film, Monangambée (1969), at Manifesta 8 as part of his project Tricontinental, A Graphic Survey (2010).
Des Fusils pour Banta was filmed over a three-month period on the Bijagós archipelago off the coast of Cape Verde in 1971. Maldoror had been commissioned by the Algerian government to chart the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde’s (PAIGC) revolutionary struggle for independence against the Portuguese colonial power of the time. Following rebel fighters and working with untrained actors from a local village, Maldoror’s intention was to focus on the women involved in the resistance: the film centres on Awa, a young woman who joins the PAIGC. Footage of women carrying guns and even bombs are interspersed with shots of their domestic chores. However, following a disagreement between Maldoror and the Algerian government as to who had control over the final edit, Des Fusils pour Banta was never finished.
Exploring the way in which politically fertile images can shed or retain their meaning decades afterwards, Abonnenc skillfully weaves his own research-based methodology into this story. His attempts to gain access to the original film rushes (purportedly still in the hands of the Algerian government) were unsuccessful, so he instead presented a slideshow of various production stills and images taken by war photographers who accompanied the film crew. A conversation between the artist, Maldoror and the Angolan writer Mario de Andrade, Maldoror’s former partner, was played over the slideshow. They discuss Des Fusils pour Banta in much the same way as someone would describe a distant event from looking at a photo album – the director’s account of the filming process is by her own admission unapologetically hazy and inconsistent. Publications – such as Tricontinental, a Havana-based magazine dedicated to the lusophone struggle for independence in Africa – and supporting documentation were also shown at Gasworks. Clearly illustrating the surprisingly global awareness of the PAIGC’s struggle, Abonnenc suggests how a seemingly isolated event becomes coded as a globally linked political movement.
Maldoror describes how the filming process inadvertently abstracted the very real war situation into a neatly packaged narrative – for example, local resistance fighters were puzzled at having to repeat some takes up to ten times. She knew that to give voice to a subaltern (another disputed Spivak term) leads to a difficult engagement in an image system not of their control, likely to become fetishized, reappropriated or essentialized. Abbonnenc’s considered re-crafting of the shooting of the film as a story in itself shows his understanding of this too. Though the source material may still be contentious, it is thankfully not lost.