Art, aesthetics and international politics: Freddy Tsimba’s Porteuse de Vies (Carrier of Lives) in perspective
This article is part of IFAIR’s series “Revisiting African Narratives”. Please find more information here.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.
In December 2018, the Théâtre national de Chaillot in Paris unveiled the Porteuse de vies in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Made from welded bullets, remnants of military confrontations and police violence, keys and a prison door, the massive 4.25m, 220kg statue is the work of Congolese artist Freddy Tsimba. With her bullet body and a book in her hand, the “Carrier of Lives” intervenes in the political imaginary of human rights, violence and gender. Aesthetic insights such as the Porteuse de vies take the relationship between art and international relations seriously by “recogni[sing] that the inevitable difference between the represented and its representation is the very location of politics” (Bleiker 2009: 18-19). How, then, does the Porteuse de viesrepresent peace, violence and universal rights? And what do these representations tell us about international politics?
I Tensions between the Universality of Human Rights and the Civilising Mission
Unveiled on the occasion of the 70-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Porteuse de vies comments on the universality of human rights. Tsimba explicitly states that although his art originates from an African country and its own experience with violence, it speaks to everyone.
The artist thereby critically reviews the colonial past of Belgian-administered Congo. In 1948, the year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris, the Belgian administration introduced a scheme for literate Africans who had successfully rejected “barbaric” traditional practices including sorcery and polygamy and embraced “civilisation” (Landmeters and Tousignant 2019: 97), the so-called the Carte du Mérite Civique. Only 200 Congolese qualified for this status within a five-year period, but even to them political and socio-economic rights remained inaccessible (Mutamba Makombo 1998). Postcolonial critics have long called into question the unequal foundations and futures of the universality of rights (Nguyen 2012).
Bringing together international politics and visual studies, Sharon Sliwinski argues that, from the beginning, the struggle for universal human rights has been linked to the “circulation of visual images and spectators’ complex, emotional experience of viewing them” (2018: 167). Nazi crimes, visualised as photographs from concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Dachau, filled newsstands and public imagery in Allied countries in 1948. The vision set forth in the UDHR seems like a “profound phantasy invented to cover up the Final Solution” (ibid.).
The Porteuse de vies could therefore be a visual representation of an aspirational shift in human rights discourse. Choosing an artist from the DRC who consciously links his art to common human experiences of war and violence is an aesthetic attempt to overcome the exclusionary origins of universal human rights.
II Carrying lives, loving peace? A Critique of the Porteuse de vies and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda
The Porteuse de vies, “Venus de Milo noire éventrée” (Sirach 2018) is embedded in a narrative of women as life bearers, loving mothers, guardians of the family, icons of hope and resilience in times of extreme violence. While paying tribute to his own mother, Tsimba was inspired to use his art to highlight women’s resilience after watching a Somali woman forced to flee with her child on her back in a documentary (Braeckman 2016). Tsimba’s vision of women as guardians of peace and community resilience calls to mind the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. According to this international framework, women are either vulnerable and in need of protection or the bulwark against violence, making their political participation a guarantor of peace (Anderlini 2007: 2). Reducing women to these essentialist roles and excluding men and boys from efforts to end sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), has had unintendedly devastating consequences, as it prevents policymakers and peacebuilders from addressing the root causes of conflict that lie beyond gender stereotypes (Myrttinen et al. 2014).
The fate of women and their (reproductive) bodies has historically been linked to the survival or liberation of the nation. From Algeria to South Africa, anti-colonial movements “played upon the patriarchal ideology of women as caregivers and nurturers, upholders of traditions and customs, reservoirs of culture” (Chadya 2003: 153). These “mother politics” led many women to internalise the link between maternity and struggle as they joined politics and entrenched a clear gender bias in nationalist movements whose leadership was often nearly all-male. The Porteuse de vies carries the life and therefore hope of future generations in the DRC and elsewhere. With his claim to a certain universality of the experiences of people living under armed conflict, Tsimba broadens the idea of the nation to an international community, but the iconography of motherhood and its link to the hope for a better future remains. The Porteuse de vies therefore reflects an international political discourse that sees women as, firstly, the guardians of peace due to their nurturing nature and, secondly, the bearers of hope for future nations/an international community based on universal rights.
In stark contrast to these two essentialist but hopeful narratives, the Porteuse de vies tells a third story about the role of women in conflict. Her body is riddled with gaping holes. She is headless, footless, handless. She has no mouth to scream for help, no eyes to cry, no feet to run away from those who chase her. Presenting a mutilated woman as the carrier of life, Tsimba refers to the trauma of SGBV many women continue to experience in the DRC (Ferney 2018). Despite national and international prevention efforts, SGBV in the DRC continues to be on the rise (Freedman 2015: 77). Why does attention to the issue, embodied by the Porteuse de vies for instance, not seem to help to prevent sexual violence? By describing women, and explicitly not men, as passive victims of sexual violence and by separating sexual violence in conflict (perpetrated by violent men associated with the military or a militia) from everyday sexual and gender-based abuse, the narrative clouds root causes. Instead, it would be much more effective to see women in their different roles (victims, survivors, but also perpetrators and resisters), broaden the framework to include all situations of SGBV regardless of gender and to understand violence as a continuum – from the household to the international.
III A Statue as Cultural Diplomacy and Tsimba’s Artistic Subversion
In addition to the political debates around the statue itself, the very act of commissioning and exhibiting the Porteuse de vies in a French public space might be considered an act of cultural diplomacy (Lane 2013).
The artist, protected by an international reputation, is vocal about his criticism of the Congolese state and its self-interested politicians (Delhaye 2018). If his country has survived until now, it is due to artists who create a national identity, not politicians (Braeckman 2016). While politically minded, Tsimba does not see himself as a politician (Jédor 2018). His work draws attention to the DRC and establishes the country as a culturally important force, although Tsimba separates his artistic advocacy, his cultural-diplomatic potential from official state structures that have, so far, mostly harassed and threatened him.
His critique of state policy is not limited to his own country. Despite Tsimba’s appreciation of French investment in the arts, when questioned about the contested restitution of African art objects that were stolen by former colonial powers and are today on display in European museums, Tsimba takes the opportunity to unequivocally demand their return (Sirach 2018). As his mother and grandmother, for the first time in their lives, (were able to) leave their home in the DRC and travel to Paris for the unveiling of their (grand)son’s statue, Tsimba proclaims free movement to be the most important right (ibid.). His choice reveals a cynical observation. While his artistic practice and reputation allow Tsimba to enter Western states when invited, the vast majority of black bodies are denied the privilege of moving freely, as European policymakers invest endless energy and resources into the securitisation of their external borders.
Although the Porteuse de vies might add to the global prestige of French cultural diplomacy wishing to overcome accusations of neo-colonialism, Tsimba is ultimately able to sustain his critical view of state affairs.
To conclude, Tsimba’s statue is embedded in a discourse that upholds the universality of human rights, despite postcolonial critiques. It develops three distinct narratives of women as guarantors of peace, mothers of the (international) nation and victims of sexual violence in conflict, which resonates with global peacebuilding efforts – with unintended, but ineffective implications. Finally, Tsimba uses his reputation to voice his opinions on Congolese state corruption and French resistance to the restitution of African art and free movement. The Porteuse de vies exemplifies how art and aesthetics provide sometimes provocative and often astonishing insights into international politics. To appreciate the complexity of international affairs beyond the state, researchers and policymakers should take these hidden sites of political and diplomatic contestation seriously.
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Josefine is currently completing a Dual Master’s Degree in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris and LSE. She has lived and worked in Paris, Dakar, London, Soweto and Bremen and most recently worked for UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for West and Central Africa. Beyond the study of international politics, peace and conflict, Josefine is passionate about activism ranging from migrants’ rights to intersectional feminism.