The Sweet 60s: Between the Liberation of Peoples and the Liberty of Individuals, or the Difficult Representation of the Self

Daho Djerbal

In the 60s of a twentieth century moving toward its close, the majority of colonial peoples gained their independence and their countries became sovereign. The 50s and 60s were unquestionably a turning point in the history of international relations. But can one say that the attainment of independence by states was accompanied by an emancipation of colonial peoples and the restoration of liberty for individuals?

In time, it became apparent that the colonial era carried within itself many processes, some of them often contradictory, yet all of them converging towards the discovery or rediscovery of “one’s self without the Other.”

The Other, the Stranger, the White Man had made his appearance in the universe of the colored men. Throughout the centuries, he had shaken the sky and the earth, destroyed, ravaged, remodeled, subjugated, “pacified” and “civilized.” He became the almighty master of the world.

The declarations of independence did not make a clean sweep of this violent and oppressive past in a single day. A potent residue, sometimes elusive, sometimes highly visible, remained behind. And this is what I would like to talk about, while attempting to understand what the diverse forms of (artistic and more generally aesthetic) expression and representation of that finally regained liberty contained, in terms of traumatisms, ambiguity and misunderstandings.


To dispossess, to dismember

To be able to live on a land that was not his, the colonist tried to make the autochthons[2] disappear, to rid the land of the uncomfortable presence of those who prevented him from full actualization as an almighty overlord. If actual physical elimination is not possible, then the colonizer will remove the native symbolically, by turning him into another “species..””[3] Then it became possible for the colonist to lay claim, without the slightest of qualms, by physical violence, or by the violence of the law, to the land of the indigenous peoples, to dispossess them from their ancestral rights.

In the distinct body of legal texts created specifically for the overseas empire, colonial peoples were considered as subjects of France. That meant the absence of all rights and liberties guaranteed by the French constitution to man and citizen. The colonized individual possessed only dismissible powers; he was subjected to permanent restrictions in terms of everything that concerned his existence. This included even his identity, which was denied him, since he was deprived of the right to claim his nationality; he was systematically assigned the status of indigenous person [indigène], a term associated with epithets or attributes such as Muslim. His land and his name became the attributes of an Other.

From proper noun to common noun. A syntactic displacement

According to psychologists and psychoanalysts who have worked on colonial trauma[4] and its consequences, colonial violence and the diverse forms of its heritage are defined by « the disappropriation, the deprivation of one’s own (language, history and culture).”[5]

The assignment of the autochthon to the status of an indigenous person will bring with it “a designation which sticks to the skin.” There will also appear a series of syntactic variations as regards the predicate of the colonized: the native [natif], the aborigine [aborigine], the natural [naturel] etc. Whatever designation is chosen, it is used in the figurative sense. What then follows is a “process of hollowing out of one’s self.”

In line with Fanon’s thinking, colonization, a phenomenon of domination and submission, consists of manufacturing subjects denied familiarity with themselves, in a way witness to their own failure, which takes them out of themselves, in both literal and metaphorical senses.[6]

In L’an V de la révolution algérienne[7] Fanon would write, “French colonialism has installed itself in the very center of the Algerian individual and has undertaken a sustained work of sweeping, of expulsion of one’s self, of a mutilation carried out rationally.”[8]

Docile body, captive language

This dismembered body, inhabited by the Other, which moves in a space and time which do not belong to it anymore, but which nevertheless has its own beliefs, reveres its own gods, must be addressed and incited to speak in a different, a more civilized language.

According to Hamid Mokaddem who works on contemporary New Caledonia and cites Norbert Elias[9] and Michel Foucault[10],

“Through ‘civilization,’ in the sense of the civilizing process of symbolic violence, many autochthonous clans of the North had been displaced and relocated in Catholic missionary establishments. […] Religion civilized and polished the bodies, the habitus, and abolished pagan social practices, which were considered to be savage. We will see that the education carried out by the missionaries served the purpose of manufacturing docile bodies.” [11]

This notion of “polished bodies” and “docile bodies” seemed interesting to me as regards the anthropological critique of the colonial. If language and speech should ever be granted to the colonized, the Catholic missionary school is to be in charge of that. The language the colonized people acquire in the strictly disciplined environment of the confessional school will be simple, passive, loyal to “superiors,” unquestioning of authority.

“[…] One could say that all types of schooling entail socialization outside of the family circle. Nevertheless, the rupture from the tribal environment, maternal language, cultural structures of behavior is bound to be traumatizing. Such schooling is not perceived as a regime of education, but rather as a civilizing process, in the sense of symbolic colonial violence.

[…] Raphaël Mapou talks about the sentiment of dereliction , he felt, or endured, beginning with his entry into confessional schools.

[…] Did the political will of the civilizers lie in the direction of breaking or of modifying the parental relations of the indigenous school children? In the long term anyhow, this process of civilization partially succeeded in having an effect on the structures of behavior.

[…] All testimonies and biographical accounts mention nothing but emotions and the rigorous alignment and control of bodies, their veritable dressage[12]. Manual labor in fields for social survival, complete isolation, as well as rules for living, which trans-form social beings into recluses.”[13]

And to conclude, H. Mokaddem arrives at the heart of the matter of the representation of the self. He states:

“[…] Despite everything, the experience of rupture is very much an experience of the absence of the reflection of the Kanak image, in the sense of the Freudo-Lacanian term imago, which forms and structures the recognition of the self. The education system does not reflect in the mirror an image with which the Kanak can identify themselves, and consequently become motivated to attain success in school.” (p. 162) [14]

Once independence is achieved, the colonized is confronted with a double question: Who am I outside of the Other that inhabits me? How can I get rid of the Other, which continues to inhabit me? How can I fill myself up on my own? How can I create my own metaphor and establish my own values?


The test of anxiety. The risk of mimicry and repetition

In the context of the newly independent nations, located primarily but by no means totally on the African continent, in the context of a new global situation which others will call the “postcolonial,” how can the supposedly liberated citizen of a supposedly liberated nation break out of this cleavage between two worlds, that of the colonized and that of the colonizer? How can the technically liberated and newly colonized individual break out of the position of the position of submission to which he had been assigned, for such a long period of time, during the entire age of colonization? Fanon argues that it would be an illusion to think that liberation would be sufficient for freeing oneself from the subservience created by colonial domination. In fact, it would be utopian to believe that political liberation would be enough in itself for a true change of status, from that of a “silenced” subject to that of a “free” citizen, engaged in an open process of communal living. As regards this question, Fanon’s thought is fundamental and more than ever up-to-date. He basically says, “Colonized peoples, who have been skinned, must get rid of the mental attitude which has characterized them until now.”[15]

But this process is not patently obvious, as Karima Lazali observes with her usual acuity:

“The liberation of a people, just like that of an individual, could constitute an extra-ordinary chance; however it could also push them into despair. […] It involves a kind of trial through the fire of anxiety, because the primary identity which had been assigned for so long by the Other falls apart, and through this founding action creates a great deal of anxiety, even a gaping hole in the “sentiment of self», that is, identity. Once this anxiety is liberated it can lead to a new and creative future, but it also contains within itself the risk of a return to the status quo, through the extension of a situation of domination, which claims to be familiar and thus reassuring. In this case the dominant Other takes its place in the interior of the self and weaves the social bond by reorganizing the same pursuit of subservience.”[16]

Becoming again the subject of one’s own humanity

The so-called modernization processes of colonial societies collided head-on with communitarian economies and social orders. They entailed an accelerated disintegration of the enlarged communities, which for a moment, had been blended in with the idea of the nation.

The processes of individuation which immediately followed independence were not accompanied by the formation of a political society in which the community of citizens would replace the community of religious adherence or the community of kinship. The absolutely essential negotiation between the constituent elements of the new civil and political societies needed time to take hold, to bear fruit. These embryos of nations in formation, these small republics, in the sense that Germaine Tillion gave to the “tribes” of the Aurès[17], also needed to recognize themselves in their differences and their diversity, in order to negotiate a new togetherness within the larger republic in formation.

As Karima Lazali formulates the question, “liberation (individual and/or collective) is a fundamental precondition to construct for oneself another place and thus another organization of intra- and inter-psychic relations; but it absolutely does not constitute a guarantee for the invention of an identity.”[18]

Much is at stake in colonies achieving independence, and especially in those that had experienced a significant European presence, in terms of human settlement. The massive departure of the Other, the Stranger, leaves behind a vacuum that needs to be rapidly filled. Maybe even too rapidly to be effective.

Just as in Vietnam, the war of liberation in Algeria created a moment appropriate for a radical remedy, or if not, a temporary substitution for this process of defection-renunciation-desertion of the subject, who had felt the pain of the branding-iron of defeat and conquest and occupation. This Being, suffering from the destitution of his identity, stigmatized because of his skin pigmentation, emptied out of his very self, disfigured, mutilated and downgraded in his own eyes, revolts and takes up weapons to liberate itself from the (physical) presence of the Other. Consequently, he transforms himself into a “resister,” into a member of the “people in arms.” He retrieves his own name and enters into dialogue and negotiation with the Other. His new image races across the screen in televised news programs, and makes the front pages of newspapers and magazines. He is not invisible, transparent, hollow, any more, and he gains consistency, weight, a new reality. He climbs the ladders of self-respect very rapidly. Then this new individual can, like the Vietnamese negotiators in Geneva in 1954, or the Algerian negotiators in Evian in 1962, go back down the steps of that ladder with his head held high, whether he is wearing a colonial helmet, rubber sandals, or an elegant suit with a tie; he can sit across the table from the representatives of the former colonial power, as the latter abandon their sovereignty. [19]

Very rapidly, however, the historical context of the new period and the will to power of the masters of the world will abort these potentially liberating processes, and thrust the majority of ex-colonial countries into a sort of permanent search for liberty and equality.

The mirror effect or the difficult re-presentation of the self

As we have mentioned above, the transition to the status of free people and free man is not as simple as one might think. This is true not only in the political domain, but also in the realm of arts and culture.

The condition of Algeria in the 60s (Sweet 60s) is as painful as it is filled with contradictions. The country inherited a traumatized national memory, while also inheriting structures of education and aesthetic production, whose forms and conceptions had been conceived by the Other. François Pouillon’s remarks on the painting and the painters of the first generation following independence are very relevant in this context:

“Algeria […] had to put up with a current coming from the north, yet at the same time, it maneuvered against this current, opposed it formally, while asserting a self-referential existence. This existence was not devoid of vigor, but the force initially created was gradually depleted, while hiding the reality of the ongoing process. [during the colonial period…] Algeria, which did not have a proper pictorial tradition, which had refused with a particular determination this mode of artistic expression, was suddenly endowed with it: easel painting, an artistic expertise invented in the West, became [after independence] a legitimate activity – painters gained recognition as a social group, and painting as an autonomous activity.”[20]

So, it was necessary to pass through an initial reaction of symbolic refusal, which however did not impact what was truly essential. François Pouillon observes about this process that, beyond the self-proclaimed voluntarism of Algerian artists we have the transformation of a situation of dependence “which appears, in certain periods, to be barely tolerable, by making it into an original manifestation of one’s genius, even the expression of one’s autonomy.”[21]

In Algeria, during the entire colonial epoch, education at fine arts schools was conceived by the French for the French. Established in 1843, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Alger [Algiers School of Fine Arts] started out as a simple drawing school, and then became a municipal school in 1848. It gained the status of Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts d’Alger [Algiers National Fine Arts School] in 1881. The lessons there were free of charge and open exclusively to Europeans.

The Académie Druet of Algiers, a private academy, just like the Julian academy of Paris, was founded by the painter Antoine Druet in 1904. Georges Rochegrosse would become one of its most important professors. This academy collaborated closely with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts [School of Fine Arts] in Paris.

The Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français [Society of French Orientalist Painters] was founded in1893, and held its Salon, starting from that year onwards, in the Palais de l’Industrie or Grand Palais in Paris, coordinated with an exposition of Muslim art organized by the director of Musée des Beaux-Arts [Museum of Fine Arts] in Algiers. Its founders include names such as Maurice Bompard, Eugène Girardet, Etienne Dinet and Paul Leroy. Jean-Léon Gérôme and Benjamin Constant were named Honorary Presidents. The Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français reached its climax in the 1910s, with nearly 1,000 works on display in 1913 for its annual exhibition, though not a single one painted by an autochthon.

The Société Coloniale des Artistes Français [Colonial Society of French Artists] was founded in 1908. It rapidly emerged as a rival to the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français. In 1946, its name was changed to Société des Beaux-Arts de la France d’Outre-Mer [Fine Arts Society of Overseas French Departments], because the adjective “colonial” was beginning to acquire a pejorative connotation in the period immediately following World War II. In 1960, with the beginning of decolonization processes, it changed its name yet again to the Société des Beaux-Arts d’Outre-Mer [Overseas Fine Arts Society].

With the attainment of Independence, the burden of this double heritage had to be borne throughout the early decades: first, that of the Subject seen, and portrayed by the Other, and second, that of the art of representation, from which the Subject had been almost totally excluded.

During the 60s and right up until the 80s, says Nadira Laggoune,

“…the history of Algerian plastic arts was being constructed. All throughout this period, one saw the establishment of a painting style, particular languages, whose dominant expression was, starting in 1967, the “Aouchem” movement. This would give birth to multiple forms based on the sign (calligraphies, Berber signs, tattoos, etc.), on the letter, and on a particular sensation of pure color.”[22]

Is it by chance or is it an irony of history that the first attempts of self representation in a country finally liberated from foreign domination are carried out by a school which names itself Aouchem (Tattoos)?

As we have noted above, the colonized, the colonial subject, who was branded, as if with a hot iron, with the fate reserved for the defeated, this Being, suffering from the destitution of his identity, suffering from the stigmatization of his skin color, from the very emptying out of his self, of his essence, disfigured, mutilated and devalued in his own eyes, this Being revolts and takes up weapons to liberate himself from the presence (physical) of the Other.

In fact one of the first figurations of the self during the Sweet 60s, the period of peace regained and sovereignty restored, was covering over, literally dressing up this body with signs, rather than filling it up from the inside, giving it solidity and reality. Artists even went so far as to question precepts of art transmitted by colonial schools, again with a streak of voluntarism. And, paradoxically, as N. Laggoune says,

“At the same time, the investigations carried out by the precursors of this new painting (Khadda, Mesli, Martinez, and others…) were fully part of the international movement of the deconstruction of art. The disappearance of the subject, of the pattern, and of the feeling were very much the characteristics of modern art, which inspired them. A whole generation of artists thus formed themselves into the avant-garde of Algerian painting.”[23]

What a strange paradox that Algerian artists, in order to fill up the Subject which had been hollowed out, and to assert its existence to the world, chose to transcribe it into signs and finally into the abstract.

Through our entry point of the examination of artistic trends, we gain access into the great upheavals surrounding the construction of independent states and nations. The postcolonial is full of this emptiness needing to be filled up, of this meaning calling out to be given. Plastic arts and performing arts go through a crisis of meaning. And it is neither the profusion of forms, nor their abstraction that will fill the “discursive” vacuum and relieve the anxieties created by the sudden loss of the Other.

August 2010

Daho Djerbal is the director of the journal NAQD

Translated from French by Barış Yıldırım

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[1] Translated from the French by Barış Yıldırım, with editorial assistance by Professor Emeritus David L. Schalk.

[2] Professor Djerbal employs the French noun “autotochtone” here and elsewhere. It is rarely used in everyday English, mostly only in the technical language of anthropology. I will italicize it. I suggest “native” might work in this context, and believe it captures his meaning. In everyday American usage, “native” standing alone has a negative connotation, as in “going native,” whereas coupled with “American” it curiously has developed a positive connotation, referring to the original inhabitants of the North American continent. (Editor’s note.)

[3] Frantz Fanon, Les damnés de la Terre (In English, The Wretched of the Earth. New translation, Grove Atlantic Press, 2004).

[4] See the work of Alice Cherki, especially Frantz Fanon, Portrait, Editions du Seuil, 2000; and the series of writings by Karima Lazali published in the Éditions Érès series.

[5] Karima Lazali, L’émergence du sujet face à l’Histoire. Quelques réflexions sur la situation de l’Algérie à partir de la pensée de Fanon, in La célibataire N° 20, summer 2010 “Les mémoires” ; and in Ché Vuoi? N° 34, October 2010.

[6] Id.

[7] Published in English translation as Year Five of the Algerian Revolution, re-published under the title Sociology of a Revolution, and once again published, and still available from Grove/Atlantic Press in paperback, under the title A Dying Colonialism. (Editor’s note.)

[8] F. Fanon, L’an V de la révolution algérienne, p. 57.

[9] N. Elias, La civilisation des mœurs, Paris, Agora Pocket, 1969-2002 ; Elias, Norbert and John L. Scotson, Logiques de l’exclusion, Paris, Agora, Pocket, 1997.

[10] M. Foucault, Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison, Paris 1975, NRF, Gallimard.

[11] H. Mokaddem, Anthropologie de la Nouvelle Calédonie contemporaine, PhD thesis submitted to EHESS, Janvier 2010, p. 158.

[12] M. Mokaddem uses this word, which has the same meaning in English – most commonly the breaking and training of horses, sometimes other animals. I have never seen it applied to the breaking of the spirit of a human being, but it fits perfectly here. (Editor’s note.)

[13] Id., pp. 158, 163, 161, 163.

[14] Id.

[15] F. Fanon, Les damnés de la terre, p. 136.

[16] K. Lazali, op.cit.

[17] G. Tillion, Il était une fois l’ethnographie, Ed. du Seuil, Paris 2000.

[18] K. Lazali, op. cit.

[19] For the Algerian case, see Redha Malek, L’Algérie à Évian, Le Seuil, Paris, 1995.

[20] François Pouillon, Les miroirs en abyme : Cent cinquante ans de peinture algérienne, NAQD N°17, Spring-summer 2003, p. 9-25

[21] F. Pouillon, op.cit.

[22] Nadira Laggoune-Aklouche, Le mutisme des peintres ou l’indulgence du silence, NAQD N°17, Spring-summer 2003, p. 27-38

[23] Id