Decolonizing Art for Art’s Sake

28 February, 2021

Les Indes Galantes  on stage at the Paris Opera (Photo courtesy Opéra National de Paris, Élena Bauer/OnP)

Mara Ahmed 


I recent­ly came across an aston­ish­ing pro­duc­tion of Les Indes Galantes, an 18th cen­tu­ry opéra-bal­let by Jean-Philippe Rameau, chore­o­graphed by Bin­tou Dem­bélé for L’Opéra Bastille in Paris.

Opéra-bal­let is French Baroque lyric the­atre or a loose blend of nar­ra­tive, singing, and over-the-top dance num­bers. Les Indes Galantes (The Amorous Indies) pre­miered at the Paris Opéra in 1735. Such hybrid works being all the rage in those days, it was per­formed more than 60 times in its first two years. It recounts four sep­a­rate love sto­ries, each set in an exot­ic locale: a Turk­ish pasha on an island in the Indi­an Ocean; a love tri­an­gle in Peru involv­ing Spaniards and Incas; love between slave own­ers and slaves in Per­sia; and final­ly the fourth and final act, Les Sauvages, which takes place in North Amer­i­ca. Euro­pean enlight­en­ment, with its foun­da­tion­al con­struct of oth­er­ness, need­ed to ven­ture beyond its fron­tiers through impe­r­i­al con­quest and mis­sion­ary zeal. Its vio­lence and dom­i­na­tion were jus­ti­fied by the pro­duc­tion of Ori­en­tal­ist stereo­types and the enforce­ment of racial, cul­tur­al and reli­gious tax­onomies. The prove­nance of Les Indes Galantes is, there­fore, ground­ed in racism and French colo­nial hubris. 

Bin­tou Dem­bélé, born of Sene­galese par­ents in the Parisian ban­lieues, is con­sid­ered a Hip Hop pio­neer in France. In her Paris Opera debut in 2019, she set out to sub­vert the colo­nial ide­ol­o­gy of Rameau’s work by using street dance such as krump, waack­ing and vogu­ing. She sees dance as “des gestes mar­rons” that hon­or the mem­o­ry of slaves, mar­ronage sig­ni­fy­ing resis­tance and escape from plan­ta­tions, and the con­sti­tu­tion of new com­mu­ni­ties on the out­skirts of slave sys­tems. How do these break­outs and rebel­lions man­i­fest them­selves in move­ment? For Dem­bélé, it’s through can­ny eva­sion and dodg­ing, so that one can remain stand­ing. It’s con­tin­u­ing to groove and take up space in spite of oppres­sion, slav­ery, police bru­tal­i­ty, colo­nial­ism and invisibility.

The clip I saw online was chore­o­graphed to “The Dance of the Peace Pipe” from Rameau’s fourth act. 

The music is vig­or­ous, almost hero­ic, and the dancers, most­ly peo­ple of col­or, seem conjoined—a liv­ing, breath­ing human organ­ism. At the same time, Dem­bélé gave the dancers free rein to per­form their solos with unre­strained bril­liance and emo­tion. They riff off of one anoth­er, mov­ing in and out of the periph­ery and onto cen­ter stage. It’s a heav­ing mass of human­i­ty at once col­lec­tive and indi­vid­ual, respond­ing to all of its diverse, com­pos­ite parts. One can feel the waves of pas­sion and resolve throb­bing in its aggre­gate body. It’s some­thing beau­ti­ful and for­ti­fy­ing that one con­nects with vis­cer­al­ly. I felt the jolt of it through my com­put­er screen.

Dancer-choreographer Bintou Dembélé.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, stun­ning art like this does­n’t always find sup­port. Dem­bélé is the first Black woman chore­o­g­ra­ph­er to be engaged by the Paris Opera, in its 350-year his­to­ry, yet the com­pa­ny’s pro­mo­tion­al mate­ri­als omit­ted this impor­tant fact. 

In an inter­view with Jan­nie McInnes, for The Sep­tem­ber Issues, Bin­tou Dem­bélé explained: 

“In France, the word ‘race’ was removed from the con­sti­tu­tion in 2018. There is some­thing ambigu­ous about this deci­sion: while its inten­tion is to dis­card a his­tor­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal imag­i­nary cap­tured by this word, it also express­es a type of denial, a French dif­fi­cul­ty with reflect­ing on the ques­tion of skin col­or. More­over, in France, those who decry the under-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Afro-descen­dants find them­selves reg­u­lar­ly reproached for being obsessed by this issue, for see­ing the world exclu­sive­ly through this prism—in short, for being ‘racist.’ This denial leads to invis­i­bil­i­ty for artists of col­or, col­o­nized com­mu­ni­ties, and large swathes of French soci­ety. Hence the chal­lenges we have in per­form­ing on con­tem­po­rary stages and telling our sto­ries in ways that are leg­i­ble to those audiences.” 

Les Arts Florissants  version of  Les Indes Galantes .

I was an imme­di­ate fan of Dem­bélé’s chore­og­ra­phy and the ener­gy she mobi­lized through her sharp, expres­sive dancers. Not hav­ing seen a per­for­mance of Les Indes Galantes pri­or to my intro­duc­tion to this exhil­a­rat­ing inter­pre­ta­tion, I want­ed to learn more about what it was that Dem­bélé had set out to sub­vert. As any rea­son­able per­son liv­ing through a pan­dem­ic, I googled Rameau’s opera and came across two productions.

The first one is by Les Arts Floris­sants, found­ed and direct­ed by William Christie. It dates back to the mid 2000s and in the fourth act, embraces 20th cen­tu­ry stereo­types of what indige­nous peo­ples wear and look like. Apart from dancers don­ning buf­fa­lo masks (pos­si­bly) and walk­ing on all fours, there is some tra­di­tion­al, quin­tes­sen­tial­ly North Amer­i­can chick­en dance and valiant singing whilst smok­ing corn­cob pipes. What is less hack­neyed, but equal­ly far­ci­cal, is the inclu­sion of “Walk Like an Egypt­ian” dance moves. An homage to the 1980s?

Watch  the Les Talens version.

The sec­ond ver­sion, which can be seen in full online, is a pro­duc­tion by Les Tal­ens Lyriques, direct­ed by Lau­ra Scozzi for the Opéra Nation­al de Bor­deaux. It dates back to 2014. Rameau’s pro­logue, a dis­cus­sion between god-like fig­ures about love and its entan­gle­ments, is turned into a ran­dom romp with lots of naked peo­ple, doing lit­tle besides being naked. I guess we’re all famil­iar with the max­im that nudi­ty = high art. Scozzi, an Ital­ian chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, tried to mod­ern­ize the oper­a’s exoti­cism by super­im­pos­ing mod­ern themes such as human traf­fick­ing, refugee hard­ships, vio­lence against women, and envi­ron­men­tal degradation. 

These scenes, besides being car­toon­ish and slack­ly chore­o­graphed, are alive with France’s colo­nial­ist obses­sion with Islam and the veil. In order to seem just, Scozzi added blond, white women in under­wear being sex­u­al­ly objec­ti­fied and man­han­dled on stage. She also shows women in bright pat­terned burkas run­ning around with H&M bags and cheek-kiss­ing jaun­ti­ly (in the end, cap­i­tal­ism will save us all). But the bus stop sig­nage in Ara­bic (“in the direc­tion of Yemen”), the ori­en­tal car­pets hang­ing from a clothes­line, the bur­ka clad woman walk­ing behind a man, her head bent, and the child in a sequin bur­ka with her ted­dy bear being mar­ried off to an adult male are nau­se­at­ing. A priv­i­leged white woman, speak­ing for women of col­or, sub­mit­ting them to her Ori­en­tal­ist gaze, and artic­u­lat­ing them in her own jaun­diced lan­guage is noth­ing new. Yet it nev­er ceas­es to repulse. 

That this Char­lie Heb­do-ish caper or the racist car­toon by Les Arts Floris­sants could be fund­ed and allowed onto any stage is a mar­vel. Bin­tou Dem­bélé’s work is not just polit­i­cal sub­ver­sion, it’s excep­tion­al art, where­as these oth­er two pro­duc­tions suc­ceed rather eas­i­ly in show­cas­ing white medi­oc­rity. This is why it bears repeat­ing that decol­o­niz­ing art/culture is not just good for pol­i­tics, it also makes for unques­tion­ably bet­ter art.

Mara Ahmed is an interdisciplinary artist and activist filmmaker based in Long Island, New York. She was educated in Belgium, Pakistan, and the United States. Her films have been broadcast on PBS and screened at film festivals across the world. She is now working on The Injured Body, a documentary about racism in America that focuses exclusively on the voices of women of color. Her production company is Neelum Films.