French National Assembly criticised for mural depicting racist stereotypes

A mural by Hervé di Rosa hanging in the French National Assembly has been criticised for perpetuating black stereotypes. (Photo: Mame-Fatou Niang)
A mural by Hervé di Rosa hanging in the French National Assembly has been criticised for perpetuating black stereotypes. (Photo: Mame-Fatou Niang)

A decades-old mural hanging at the Palais Bourbon in Paris, the seat of the French National Assembly, has come under fire for its racist stereotypes of black people.

The 1991 work by the French artist Hervé di Rosa, titled "A painted history of the National Assembly," retraces key legislation passed by the lower house of parliament, including the first abolition of slavery in 1794 under the French Revolution. (It was later reinstated in the colonies by Napoleon before being finally abolished in 1848). One part of the 40-metre mural prominently features the heads of two black figures with exaggerated red lips, linked by a broken chain.

Mame-Fatou Niang, a French and Francophone studies professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, saw the mural in March during a screening of her documentary at the Palais Bourbon. She posted a photo on Twitter on April 2, writing that "This #DiRosa frescoe 'celebrates' the 1794 abolition of slavery" in France.

Racist depictions of black people, which often exaggerate certain physical traits, have long been used to perpetuate the notion that they are less intelligent than or subservient to their white counterparts. These stereotypes were widely disseminated through blackface and objects like Mammy jars, which portray black women as the motherly, obedient servants of white families, and in France through marketing campaigns for the chocolate drink Banania and the comic book Tintin in the Congo.

Niang and Julien Suaudeau, a writer and lecturer at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, launched a petition on April 4 later calling on the National Assembly to remove the mural. The work is "a humiliating and dehumanising insult to the millions of victims of the slave trade, and to all their descendants," they wrote in the petition, which has over 2,500 signatures.

In an accompanying column in the French magazine L'Obs, Niang and Suaudeau said they recognised that di Rosa frequently used exaggerated lips in his works, but that "one had to be incredibly ignorant -- or have bad intentions -- to not see the offensive nature of these lips in this context."

Di Rosa lashed out at the criticism in an interview with the French daily newspaper Le Monde. "Throughout my life as an artist, I have fought back against the censors of good taste in order to create grotesque shapes inspired by cultural imagery," he said. "Censorship of an artistic and poetic creation is unacceptable, no matter what the context.”

The National Assembly has since removed a photo of the mural from a page on its website on the 1794 abolition, replacing it instead with a stock photo of a black man whose hands are cuffed in chains.

Some Twitter users defended di Rosa's mural, saying that he regularly used similar lips on other figures in his works and that Niang had overreacted. Others said di Rosa's works spoke for themselves and questioned the Assembly's judgment in selecting the work to represent the abolition of slavery.

This story was written by Corentin Bainier.