Benaouda Lebdai – The restitution of works of art questioned - The Point

A first novel is often a challenge, always up for an adventure. The Senegalese Fatoumata Ngom, publishing The Silence of the Totem pole, managed to bet with its

Benaouda Lebdai – The restitution of works of art questioned - The Point

A first novel is often a challenge, always up for an adventure. The Senegalese Fatoumata Ngom, publishing The Silence of the Totem pole, managed to bet with itself, all the more that it is rather a scientific training. First novel, classically semi-autobiographical,but that exceeds the autocentrisme to address an essential question, that of the restitution of works of african art to african countries some seventy years after independence. Indeed, it is surprising that Fatoumata Ngom transpose it into fiction in a given cultural post-colonial that would be current at the time of the publication of the Silence of the totem pole, in this case, the return to Africa of african works confiscated during the colonial period. Certainly, many countries, such as Benin, have requested since a few years, without response of any of the various French governments, and museums. So what is the purpose of this fictional text that illustrates how much this issue is vital ?

Read also The Benin wakes up the notion of cultural property wrongly acquired

Fatoumata Ngom was taken to arm-the-body-a subject dear to the peoples whose history artifacts adorn the museums of europe. © DR

the history of The book of Fatoumata Ngom

The Silence of the totem pole tells the story of a mask serer, the name of an ethnic group of Senegal, brought to France by an explorer, a missionary by the name of Alexis de Fabrègues during the colonization and thus became a property in the private collection of the family of the missionary. Later, the little girl of Alexis de Fabrègues, Marie-Charlotte de Fabrègues, was bequeathed to the French State. The totem pole was supported by the museum of the Colonies, then transferred to the musée du Quai-Branly. Through the investigation smoothly, well done by the narrator. The journey of the mask serer is tracked by the reader thanks to the notes left by the missionary explorer, but also to the memory of Marie-Charlotte de Fabrègues.

A story that takes the reader

Fatoumata Ngom has beautifully structured the narrative in the sense that the reader enters the story with subtlety and, as and to the extent, feels concerned by the adventure that has been experienced in this mask. The fictional word is far from being a novel with a thesis, as the story flows from the source naturally, and so the whole becomes perfectly credible and convincing. One enters into the game of a plot that becomes almost like a police investigation that attempts to resolve the enigma of the statue serer : its history, its route, its disappearance, its reappearance, its return with her own people, structure the narrative.

Fatoumata Ngom has imagined the story of his book before the issue of restitution is addressed by the president Macron. © DR

A story dense

The interest of the novel resides in a construction that is simple and complex at the same time. Of classic, linear, the development of multiple interests and multiple relationships, the story becomes dense. It is this mix which makes its strength and vitality of literature. The main character, Sitoé, has certainly achieved the fullness in his private life, married, one child, a beautiful profession, after a career of brilliant studies which started in Senegal, then in Paris in khâgne and admission to the École normale supérieure of the rue d'ulm. This is the journey of a young Senegalese who has succeeded in its adaptation and its integration into the French society with her marriage to a Frenchman. The beginning of the novel tells of the years of apprenticeship, those of the young novelist herself, and, therefore, the ingredients of a novel of initiation and learning appear together. His exile to continue his studies in Paris, is narrated with great detail, and the descriptions of Paris in the uptown of Paris and its intellectual elites of Paris and its culture, but also of Paris and of his solitude.

Sitoé, a heroine of african mission

The pages are exquisite, and the style of Fatoumata Ngom creates such an atmosphere of verisimilitude that the reader is put in trust, literally so caught up in the special history of Sitoé that it integrates psychology and its mode of operation. But, throughout the first chapters, flashbacks to childhood in Senegal come to mind, like a boomerang, and the faces of those who were born to haunt his mind of a young emigrant. The members of his family, serer sent a force immeasurable, and it is this that will transform the narrative. The plot revolves around the mask serer, which gives Sitoé the stature of a great hero to the african mission.

Benaouda Lebdai © DR

Prove that the totem is alive

The statue serer of the country Khalambass taken in 1870, his absence from the village was a source of misfortune for all the people of Khalambass, such as " droughts, bad harvests, diseases ". When Sitoé saw at the musée du Quai-Branly, the statue, she was mentally upset and the intrigue is based on his decision to convince the French authorities to restore the statue Pangool "unique witness to the history" of the clan, and of "the soul of the ancestors" to the people of serer, more than a century after its capture by the missionary Alexis de Fabrègues. This totem, " a black snake with the yellow eyes ", is living, and that is what Sitoé must prove to the authorities of the museum. In fact, Pangool is not a work of art, but it has a function " other than art ", and therefore essential to the life of the village serer, whose history dates back to pharaonic Egypt, where the close relationship with the Totem serpent that protected them since the ancient times.

the return to The sources of the Totem pole

Sitoé managed to convince. With the support of Unesco, the French State has agreed to make the totem Pangool to the people of Khalambass : "with trembling hands and legs to the point of collapse, Sitoé stepped forward with infinite caution, and, in a thoughtful gesture, she put the Totem on the pedestal to which he had been snatched there are nearly one hundred and fifty years. Finally reunited, the two elements that reformaient now one and the same set is tuned up in a total harmony. "Sitoé has played a historic role and his ancestors, grateful watched again on the people of serer.

A story that echoes the report Sarr-Savoy

The Silence of the totem pole of Fatoumata Ngom has backed up with force the report of Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy on the issue of restitution of african cultural heritage to the right. Fatoumata Ngom brings with fiction, a stone to this passionate debate raised by this report is initiated, the rest, by the president of france Emmanuel Macron. The story of the totem pole Pangool reports multiple questions : are these masks displaced during the colonization must be returned to the museum of the african countries concerned, or must they be returned to the clan leaders in the towns where they represent a function ? Fatoumata Ngom has set the stage for a different perspective, that of the soul, totems and masks, because, as described so well in this novel, they were not perceived as mere objects of art to admire in the museums, they were part of the life and death through the presence of ancestors.

outstanding issues

The cultural history of Africa is rich in teachings, and that is what this novel gives to read. Fatoumata Ngom defended the idea of a new cultural ethics in post-colonial that would allow wealth taken during the colonization back in Africa in order to regain their ancestral functions. Several question marks remain, however : the works of art recovered will enrich the museums of the ex-colonies often desperately empty ? Will they be made to clans and villages ? Of issues not trivial on a debate that still remains open.

* Professor of universities in african literature colonial and postcolonial.

** Fatoumata Ngom, " the Silence of The totem ", Paris, L'harmattan, 2019.

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Date Of Update: 27 May 2020, 11:33