(notes on Sector IX B)

– Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc

           The starting point of the film Sector IX B was the discovery of an old family photo album containing a series of pictures of objects, and a series of pictures of individuals, families, officers and landscapes. All these photographs were shot in Gabon by my grandfather over a period of three years, from 1931 to 1934.
           In 1931, health worker Emile Abonnenc had a position in Lastoursville in central Gabon, and he undertook his collection of objects during his time there. He very likely followed the instructions written by Michel Leiris and Marcel
           Griaule, the ‘Short List of Instructions for Collectors of Ethnographic Objects’, published by the Museum of Ethnology the same year. Its introduction calls on ‘those who live or circulate far from the city—civil servants, travellers, tourists or colonists—to help create collections’, in order to ‘restore our Museum of Ethnography to its deserved place among the world’s greatest museums’.[1]
            And yet we know little about the acquisition conditions of these objects, most of which are now lost. Their photographs and index cards remain silent about their creators and owners.
           When it was published in 1934, l’Afrique Fantôme (Ghost Africa) was brutally rejected by the scientific community, particularly by Marcel Griaule, who held something of a grudge against the author and collaborator, Michel Leiris. If the Dakar-Djibouti Mission plan was to gather objects on an unprecedented scale in order to build the collections of the future Musée de l’Homme in Paris, Leiris’s text confronted it with a kind of passive resistance by minutely describing the mechanics of this kind of project and the environment in which it operated. As a participant, the narrator lays himself open, showing his doubts, his frustrations, as well as his erotic and morbid fantasies. An unwitting precursor of so-called reflexive anthropology, Leiris’ text offers a key document whose originality is in ‘provid[ing] an account that is still unique to this day, about the conditions of ethnographic practice under colonialism.’[2]
          To get the objects of the health worker Abonnenc to speak, we would have to twist the different ways of building narratives and linking historical moments with the truth of facts, we would need to hallucinate history, takestock of Heritage to better rid ourselves of it, to better squander it.
           To help us with this task, we have Michel Leiris’ account of the collecting of objects during the Dakar-Djibouti mission in 1931–1933, an account that is bitter, disillusioned and contaminated by the author’s distress. 
          Apart from that, there is only that absence, that space left vacant, that I had to refill by speculating about hypothetical encounters, effecting a kind of ‘to-and-fro between striking reality and elusive reality’, linking these stories ‘like an impression with an imprint, keeping in mind the amount of darkness each side will have contributed to the void.’[3]
           Sector IX B is a fiction film, almost a science-fiction film, which seeks to address political issues as well as scientific and artistic narratives, echoes of which still inform national and international relations in the former colonial empire today. The idea of the project was to re-read a personal initiative of collecting and classifying objects, in the light of a wider collective history. Among all the collecting campaigns, the Dakar-Djibouti mission and its role in the creation of the Musée de l’Homme is the most significant example available, especially thanks to Michel Leiris’ diary. 
           Sector IX B deals with the policies of cultural appropriation, of places and modes of production of knowledge, and how we can question this scientific legacy in the present day.
           On the one hand, the film aims to subvert the homogeneity of the narratives of scientific adventures in a colonial context; on the other hand, it aims to question the place each individual occupied – in this specific case my grandfather – in the processes of cultural appropriation and of accumulation of symbolic and economic wealth.
           The main character is a young anthropologist who tries to redefine the boundaries of her discipline. In order to do this, she reconstitutes the pharmacy box and the medical prescriptions given to the members of the famous Dakar-Djibouti Mission, then she tests the effects of the drugs on herself. She falls slowly in a fantastical world, and sinks into a hallucination, entirely produced by the synthetic substances. Step by step, the viewer will doubt the reality of what is happening to her.
           As Johannes Fabian writes in the introduction to his book Out of our minds:  ‘In recent anthropology there has been much criticism of the disembodied scientific mind. The importance of gender has been recognised; senses other than vision have, as it were, been rehabilitated, emotions have received attention, and the body as a site of knowledge has been rediscovered. In the perspective opened up by these developments, a critical study of the objective conditions that determined knowledge of the Other as reported in travelogues and early ethnographies must consider the effects of alcohol, drugs, illness, sex, brutality, and terror, as well as the role of conviviality, friendship, play, and performance. Included in this approach are the sounds, movements, and objects that made up performance – music, dance, art, material culture, whatever mediated encounters and made it possible for the participants to transcend theirpsychological and social boundaries.’[4]
           Even more than enabling this transcendence of boundaries, it appears that all these stimuli, including chemical stimuli, produced these fantastical images of the ‘Others’, these distorted and violent images, that still irrigate the Western collective mind.
           Each of the artists, theorists or architects I have invited to participate in this issue of Oberon share some of the concerns of the film Sector IX B.  I envisioned these invitations as a way to discuss several of the empiric conclusions contained in Sector IX B.  Candice Lin’s text brings us a to a place where the divisions between nature and culture, object and subject, human and non-human are blurred, defining a co-evolutionary mode of survival as an urgent political necessity.
           Mexican-based artists Julia Rometti & Victor Costales share their visit to anthropologist Anthony Henman’s San Pedro cactus garden. Known for its psychoactive effects, the San Pedro cactus was used in rituals in pre-Columbian times in Peru. This interview with Henman unfolds a whole continent contained in the modest scale of a garden.
           In his contribution, Jorge Satorre analyses his series Emic Etic?  This body of work echoes two different methodologies – those developed by Marcel Griaule, which consist of describing cultures, rituals and traditions from an outsider (‘objective’) point of view, and those developed by Michel Leiris who proposes describing them from one’s own (subjective) point of view.
           Ethnography has been widely discussed and criticised for its objectification and consumption of the ‘Other’, the cultures it tried to describe and ‘salvage’. The geography of this consumption lies mostly across an asymmetrical North-West axis of power relationships. With her contribution, Sarah Frioux-Salgas proposes an alternative route with the figure of ethnographer Shalom An-sky. Famous for his play The Dibbouk,  a classic of the Yiddish folklore, An-sky travelled during the early 1990s through eastern Russia and gathered folktales, stories and documents from the shtetlech (small Jewish settlements) that had endured the pogrom led by the Russian Empire. An-sky’s collecting complicates the ‘salvage’ paradigm[5]  by giving us access to fragile stories that are at the same time a subtle testimony of his own attachment to them. It is precisely this ambiguous state of attachment to the object of research that captures the subjectivity Leiris conjured in l’Afrique Fantôme,  and how these few contributions materialise in a strange speculative landscape.

Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc's
Sector IX B, 2015 (video stills with subtitles)
HD video, colour, sound, 41 min 58
Production red shoes / CoproductionCentre Pompidou Metz, CAC Brétigny, Marcelle Alix
Courtesy of the artist and Marcelle Alix, Paris

[1] ‘Instructions sommaires pour les collecteurs d’objets ethnographiques’, Musée d’Ethnographie, Paris, 1931, p. 7

[2] Jean Jamin, ‘Foreword to Ghost Africa’, in Leiris. Miroir de l’Afrique, ed. Gallimard, 1996, p. 69

[3] Annie Le Brun, ‘Raymond Roussel – Source de rayons réels…’, in Michel Leiris. Roussel & Co, ed. Fayard, 1998, p. 17

[4] Johannes Fabian, Out of Our Minds. Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa, University of California Press, 2000, pp. 6–7

[5] ‘The salvage paradigm designates the peak period of ethnographic collecting, led by the idea of the preservation of the material culture of societies that were about to change fundamentally in the forced renewals of colonial exchange relations.’ Lotte Arndt in Crawling Doubles. Colonial Collecting and Affect, Mathieu K. Abonnenc, Lotte Arndt & Catalina Lozano (eds.), B42, Paris, 2016, p. 56

Rometti Costales
Study for altered forms and colours
colour photographs, in progress.
Photo: the artists

This text introduces the second section of Oberon 2 –  click here to subscribe.