Slant

On the Tuileries Slave Memorial Jury “Impasse”

A view of the Tuileries Garden looking toward the Louvre. Photo: dronepicr/Wikipedia Commons.

I WAS ONE OF FIVE ARTISTS shortlisted for the competition to create the Memorial in the Tuileries to the Victims of Slavery. I write to correct some of the factual misrepresentations of this process that have recently appeared in the international press.1 The French Culture Ministry’s Call for Applications for that commission required the following materials from the artist applicants: (1) an artistic document of no more than 15 pages, (2) a portfolio presentation of five recently realized works, (3) a letter of motivation, and (4) a curriculum vitae of no more than two pages.2 In this first stage of the application process, the Call for Applications did not solicit any proposals or projects for the memorial itself, and the applicants did not submit any. Rather, in the second stage, the jury was supposed to review all of the applicants’ portfolios and choose between three and five finalists from among them. In the third stage, the five short-listed finalists were then to receive funding from the French Ministry of Culture to create detailed proposals for the memorial, which the jury would then rank, and from which, in the final stage, it would select the winning project. Three members of the jury—Serge Romana, Frédéric Régent, and Sonia Chane Kune—were former members of CM98, the group that has campaigned for the memorial for over twenty years, and remain closely associated with it.

The process broke down after the second stage because the jurors close to CM98 refused to accept the five finalists selected by the majority of the jury. Geneticist Serge Romana, a co-founder and former president of CM98, argued, “The political and symbolic stakes must take precedence over artistic questions. … This inscription is the center of gravity of the memorial.3 … CM98 said the inscription of the names should be the main element; if the artists had thought that, there wouldn’t have been a problem.“4 Historian Frédéric Régent objected that “the registration of some 200,000 names of slaves who became citizens in 1848 … was not central to the designation of the artists.”5 CM98 itself objected that “short-listed proposals by artists including Adrian Piper, Julien Creuzet and duo Sammy Baloji and Emeka Ogboh did not adequately adhere to the requirements … the five artists would not adequately take into account the names of the 200,000 freed slaves, which was a precondition for the project.”6 

It is difficult to imagine what basis the jurors associated with CM98 could have had for any of these claims about the short-listed artists’ thoughts and attitudes, as none of us had yet been asked to submit our proposals for the memorial. So there were no “inadequate proposals” for CM98 to object to. It is equally difficult to imagine how any of the applicants could have failed to think the inscription of the names was the center of gravity of the memorial, as this point was emphasized and explained repeatedly—actually ten times—in the Call for Applications.7  It was a presupposition that all applicants were required to accept in order to be eligible for consideration. Just as with the presupposition that all applicants were artists rather than novelists or composers, any artist who disputed it would have been immediately disqualified, both ethically and procedurally, for having first accepted this essential requirement in order to gain eligibility; and then violated it in order to promote their own professional interests. That would have been dishonest and self-serving.

Christopher Miles of the French Ministry of Culture stated, “We can’t continue with the procedure because it didn’t correspond with the project our partner [i.e. the groups associated with CM98] had imagined.”8 Thus the real objection to the five short-listed artists was that CM98 had, in fact, already conceptualized its own project for the memorial, independent of any solicited by the French Culture Ministry’s Call for Applications. CM98 states on its website, “It’s with the names or nothing.”9 But as we have just seen, everyone already agreed about the names. A more accurate statement of CM98’s position would be, “It’s with our project or nothing.” That would explain why the jurors close to CM98 declined to evaluate and rank CM98’s own proposal relative to the five short-listed applications; refused to interview any of the short-listed artists, although this was required by the Call for Applications; repeatedly declined requests by two of these artists (of which I was one) to enter into direct dialogue; and refused to sign the majority jury report on who had been chosen to create the memorial. In reality, CM98’s position would seem to be that if the commission for the memorial is not awarded to its own project, there will be no memorial at all. After accepting the French Ministry of Culture’s invitation to participate on the jury in order to select a winning project and award the commission to its creator, the jurors associated with CM98 in effect tried to award the commission to themselves.

So I would like to take a closer look at CM98’s project. First I want to briefly evaluate the artistic quality of CM98’s proposed memorial, based on the insufficient information about it I have been able to glean from various unofficial sources, in order to ascertain as best I can whether or not it deserves to be imposed on the French public without prior vetting, criticism, or discussion.

As I understand this proposal, it requires a simple wall in the Tuileries Gardens, on which the 200,000 slave names are to be engraved. As such, this proposal fits squarely within the Modernist tradition of Minimal and Conceptual art, which works with simplified, abstract geometrical forms and the strategic placement of text as part of the formal design of the work. In fact, as described, CM98’s proposal mimics almost exactly Maya Lin’s proposal for the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo: Hu Totya/Wikipedia Commons.

When Lin’s memorial was first presented to the public in 1982, it caused great controversy—in part because Minimal and Conceptual art were not widely known outside the art world in the early 1980s. But within just a few years, it achieved broad public acceptance, and has been widely copied in many American war memorials since then. Indeed, the universal and enduring influence of Lin’s memorial is evident even in the much more recent Memorial to the Soldiers of the Great War, installed in the City of Paris on 11 November 2018:

Memorial to the Soldiers of the Great War, Paris. Photo: Jean-François Python.

My understanding is that that CM98 wants the memorial to look just like this, except substituting the names of freed slaves for the names of deceased soldiers. This more recent installation follows the same Minimalist and Conceptual design aesthetic as that established by Lin in 1982: the long, even wall, the regular and repeating columns of text, engraving in orderly lists the names of the fallen, and calling to mind the regular and repeating column formations in which soldiers march to war.

These design criteria are very respectable, and the artistic sensibility they express is one that I share with CM98 and the jurors close to it. However, to replicate for a memorial to the victims of slavery the same artistic design that was first used in the United States forty years ago to memorialize American soldiers in the Vietnam War would be a political and ethical blunder of mind-boggling proportions. Lin’s design, and those that have more recently copied it, commemorate soldiers who have died in service to their country. They intentionally ignore the fate of the victims against whom these wars were waged. To apply these same symbols, connotations, and formal configurations to slaves who have been trapped, chained, imported, and murdered by the countries that enslaved them—often by soldiers in service to those same countries—would be a travesty, an international embarrassment for the French state and a cultural disaster. Even if it were not a blatant conflict of interest for the jurors close to CM98 to ignore the legitimate applicants for the commission and effectively try to award themselves the commission instead, CM98’s proposal as described above—let us fancifully refer to it as The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial to the Victims of Slavery—would be inappropriate for these reasons alone.

Next let me turn to the choice of the jurors associated with CM98 to flout the procedures of rational deliberation that define the selection process to which it initially consented: that Call for Applications could not have been issued without the prior agreement of all jurors to the guidelines to be applied during the decision-making process. All implicitly promised the French government to observe those guidelines in their deliberations. Indeed, the jurors gave their word of honor to realize the express wish of President Macron, that

the Republic remembers the slaves themselves […]. So that their suffering will never be forgotten, I give my support to the proposal to erect in Paris, in the Tuileries Gardens, a national memorial paying homage to these victims, as is the legitimate demand of many figures in this commemoration.10

Instead, by blocking the completion of the established deliberative process, the jurors close to CM98 forced the Ministry of Culture to choose between CM98’s own insufficiently researched proposal that, if accepted, would have turned France into an object of international ridicule; and breaking its word of honor to the President of the Republic to bring the memorial to completion. We Americans call this a “spoiler.”

It would seem, then, that the jurors associated with CM98 in reality committed the same act of bad faith as the hypothetical dishonest and self-serving artist earlier imagined: They agreed to follow the rules in order to gain access to the commission, and then proceeded to deliberately sabotage the rules in order to promote their own, uniquely ill-informed proposal. They thereby made a mockery of the jury’s public credibility, authority, and competence. And they debased the value of rational dialogue itself. This is not the approach to decision-making that we ordinarily associate with modern democracies.

So I think the Ministry of Culture was right to cancel the project and suspend the process. It would have been unthinkable not to invite individuals representing CM98 onto the jury, out of respect for this group’s longstanding commitment to the memorial. The extraordinary dedication and resourcefulness CM98 has invested in bringing it to fruition deserve our unconditional gratitude and respect. But the moment they chose to subvert for personal advantage the time-tested deliberative guidelines, procedures, and processes for reaching that goal to which they themselves had previously consented, the jurors close to CM98 betrayed their roles as rational and responsible actors who could be relied upon to make impartial and well-informed decisions. At that point, in my opinion, these jurors automatically disqualified themselves, CM98, and anyone associated with it from further participation in the jury and in the process of realizing the memorial. I believe we need to thank these extraordinary individuals for their invaluable contribution, bid them farewell, and move on to the successful completion of this profoundly important endeavor.

Adrian Piper is an artist and philosopher based in Berlin.

NOTES

1. Roxana Azimi, “A Paris, le projet de memorial des victims de l’esclavage aux Tuileries dans l’impasse,” Le Monde, 22 février 2021 à 18h00 CET. www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/02/22/a-paris-le-memorial-des-victimes-de-l-esclavage-aux-tuileries-dans-l-impasse_6070824_3212.html#xtor=AL-32280270 ; Anna Sansom, “France’s planned slavery memorial on hold over debate about naming 200,000 freed slaves,” The Art Newspaper, 1 April 2021 at 16:38 BST. www.theartnewspaper.com/news/france-s-slavery-memorial-suspended.

2. See “DCE_2020_070M_EN,” 01 RC Phase Candidature, page 10.

3. Azimi.

4. Sansom.

5. Azimi.

6. Sansom.

7. See “DCE_2020_070M_EN,” 02 Annexe 1, page 7, page 8 (twice), page 9 (three times); 03_Annexe, page 2 (three times), page 12.

8. Sansom.

9. Sansom.

10. Emmanuel Macron, “Memoir on Slavery: the time for action,” 27 April 2018; quoted in “DCE_2020_070M_EN,” 03_Annexe3_insertion_Patrimoniale_EN.

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