Reading architecture through La Noire de...
Text by Huda Tayob
In the opening scenes of the film La Noire de…, we arrive with Diouana, a young Senegalese woman played by actress Mbissine Thérèse Diop, at the port of Marseille, in southern France. We first see and hear a large white steamship as it glides inside the sea wall sounding its horn, and then the daily workings of the busy port, as the bustle of passengers disembark, gather bags, and greet families against the backdrop of cranes, railway tracks, and cargo containers. Diouana has come to work as a live-in nanny for a French family that had already employed her to look after their children when they lived in Dakar. The monsieur fetches her by car at the port and drives her to their apartment in Antibes, two-hundred kilometres east of Marseille. Only on this first day do we see the French Riviera, as they move along the palm-lined waterfront boulevard of Cannes. When they arrive at the apartment building, we see Diouana gazing up at her new “modern” life; and we follow her gaze, slowly taking in the modernist white apartment block, with its repetitive façade and brise-soleil. As we enter the apartment, on the blank wall behind her is the carved-wood mask she had given her employers as a gift when they hired her in Dakar—Diouana looks at the mask, and the mask looks back at us.
As a means to think through Diouana’s embodied experience of the two cities, this text brings La Noire de…, by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, into conversation with writings by Martinican political philosopher Frantz Fanon, specifically “Algeria Unveiled” and The Wretched of the Earth, written in 1959 and 1961 respectively. Through the lens of Fanon’s thinking, we may look at Antibes and Dakar as historically constituted and defined, as sites of racialized violence, resistance, and refusal.1 This text suggests that in addition to reading the film as a record of a particular moment in time in Dakar, it can also be read as an historiographic intervention—a proposition for how to study urban and architectural archives of the postcolonial city. Although the film begins with Diouana’s arrival in France, the plot travels back and forth in time and space between her tragic present in Antibes and the life in Dakar she left behind. This narrative technique draws attention to the enduring coloniality of the time and the ongoing associations between these distant cities, as well as presents a gendered and racialized reading of domestic and infrastructural space. La Noire de… can therefore be read as an embodied archive and as a spatial critique that asks us to think of architecture in terms of the entangled colonial and neocolonial relationships embodied within it. This is not only evident in the relationship between Dakar’s so-called native quarter and settler city, but also in the sustained inequality of the power dynamic between colony and metropole, between global south and north.
Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1961), 53. ↩
La Noire de…, often credited as the first feature-length African film, premiered in 1966 at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. This was a landmark moment because from 1934 until Senegal’s independence in 1960, the Laval Decree had restricted films made in and about France’s African colonies and prevented African directors from making films at all.1 Ousmane Sembène’s use of a narrative structure that records the juxtaposition of colonial urban conditions is therefore politically significant: while in Antibes our view is confined, along with Diouana, to the interior of her employer’s apartment, in Dakar we follow her movements between her mother’s home in the native quarter, known as the Medina, and the city centre and elite neighbourhood called the Plateau. The Medina was established following a 1914 decree that legalized the permanent relocation of Dakar’s native populations from the centre to a settlement beyond the city limits. At the time, the demarcated area was identified as “very poor land north and slightly west of the city.”2 While the relocation was ostensibly for health reasons, the planning was couched in a racial understanding of the city centre as a “White” space.3 Cordon-sanitaires, as buffer zones, were typical of colonial planning and used to racially segregate by providing a physical and spatial barrier between demographic groups. In this context infrastructure plays a central role as a political tool, often acting as both the demarcating and dividing lines that mark the inequalities between the racialized areas. It is therefore no surprise that every time Diouana moves between worlds, she must cross the single footbridge spanning the railways tracks that keep the native quarter conveniently isolated. This colonial practice of segregation was, as Fanon reminds us in The Wretched of the Earth, a means of confining bodies and limiting their movement in space and time:
The colonial world is a world divided into compartments. It is probably unnecessary to recall the existence of native quarters and European quarters, of schools for natives and schools for Europeans; in the same way we need not recall Apartheid in South Africa. Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized.4
From the outset of the planning strategy, the Dakar Medina was described as sited on “notoriously poor” land that, even after several years, was equipped with “no proper sewage system, no electricity, [and] no potable water.”5 In La Noire de…, filmed approximately fifty years after the establishment of the native quarter, we are confronted with the ongoing infrastructural inequalities—the “lines of force”—as we travel with Diouana between worlds. The Medina, a space of sandy streets and make-shift houses, is presented as a stark contrast to the “White” city, with its spacious, tree-lined avenues and bright, modern high-rise apartments where Diouana searches for work, and to the city centre with its monuments, notably the newly built sites of the National Assembly and the Place de l’indépendance. Yet, ultimately, the film does not suggest that this is a narrative of progress or development. Instead, her movement into the white city, and later to France, speaks to neocolonial structures and the unfulfilled promises of the moment of decolonization. Instead of a reorganization of society, as Fanon suggests is necessary, we see the maintenance of colonial planning into the postcolonial period.
Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics and Culture (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 22. ↩
Raymond Betts, “The Establishment of the Medina in Dakar, Senegal, 1914,” Journal of the International African Institute 41, no.2 (1971): 145. ↩
Betts, “The Establishment of the Medina in Dakar, Senegal, 1914,” 148. ↩
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 29. ↩
Betts, 148. ↩
La Noire de… also offers a critical reading of tropical modern architecture built as an emblem of grand, utopian ideals. The slow lingering shots of recently built modernist apartment blocks seem to celebrate their materiality and tectonics, but they also suggest the entangled relationships of power and control embedded in this new aesthetic. Just as the camera had followed Diouana’s gaze up at her new home in Antibes, it pans across similarly repetitive facades in Dakar, thus bringing the two cities into relation. In fact, in both places doors are abruptly closed in Diouana’s face. When she first arrives at the apartment in Antibes, for example, the madame shows her the splendid view overlooking the harbour, with Nice beyond. And yet, this is her last view of the world outside, as the apartment itself closes in around her. In a later scene Diouana asks, “What are the people like here? The doors are shut day and night. Night and day.”
Going yet a step further, Sembène also presents the viewer with a critical reading of a gendered experience of the city. This critique can be understood in parallel to Fanon’s essay “Algeria Unveiled,” in which he emphasizes the separation between the historic kasbah and the so-called European City as not only a demarcation of race and class, but also that of a gendered society. In Fanon’s description of the practices of veiling and unveiling, he draws out the relationship between the dressed female body and her experience of moving through urban space. He argues that veiling is not simply an act of covering, but rather that both veiling and unveiling are religious, cultural, and political acts: at times the veil is a protective mantle, yet at others it is a camouflage and therefore veiling can be an act of resistance toward the colonial impetus to unveil and reveal.
The notions of veiling and resistance through dress are evident in La Noire de… throughout the film. While still looking for work in Dakar, Diouana remarks on two elegant Senegalese women. The camera moves from the view of these two women walking down the tree-lined boulevard, to Diouana’s aspirational gaze following their movement, alluding to the central reasons why she wants to find a job. Later, when Diouana first begins work in Antibes, she is excited at the opportunity to travel, earn money, and dress elegantly. Though her tasks are domestic work, she puts on a polka-dot dress, with sunflower earrings, a beaded necklace, and pointed high-heel shoes. As she cleans the sparkling interiors and modern kitchen of the apartment, she narrates her desire to buy beautiful clothes and take photographs on the beach. However, while in Dakar Diouana had been an employee, caring for the couples’ two children but living in her own home, in Antibes she soon realizes that she has become a servant, cooking and cleaning for the couple and their guests while the children are elsewhere. As she mops the striped floor and the sparsely decorated walls, her patterned dress adorns the flat, as the flat adorns her. Is she part of the environment or an object in the space, like the mask? Is her presence essential to cementing the modernism this apartment aspires to? She quickly understands that she will not be allowed to travel, or even to leave the confines of this space. The madame tells her to remove her shoes, which ring loudly on the hard, tile floors, and put on more appropriate clothing—she must know her place and wear an apron. The way Diouana dresses herself can therefore be understood, like the choice of veiling or unveiling, as an act of refusal to embody the identity of the maid as an object within domestic space. But, while her clothes and shoes defy the norm of servant uniforms and instead speak to aspirations for a cosmopolitan life, Diouana’s life in Antibes is in fact limited to “the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, and the lounge.” She has been tricked into a new form of slavery in which a bright apartment overlooking the French Riviera is her prison. She asks, “Is France that black hole? What am I here? Cook, cleaner, washerwoman? … I am alone.”
As Fanon points out in “Algeria Unveiled,” it is in fact only this figure of the “Fatma,” the generic female domestic cleaner, who traverses the divided Algerian city unseen and unnoticed. In this regard her movements reveal the multi-layered structures of race, gender, and class embedded in urban space.1 Fanon argues that through the liberation movement, the woman invents “new dimensions for her body, new means for muscular control.”2 Despite the very different context of Dakar, Fanon’s attention to the body along with its physical interaction and responses to the built environment and the city street, provides a useful analytic to read Diouana’s traversing of Dakar, from Medina to Plateau, and then on to France. As we travel with her, we experience the world through her positionality, and the interplay between domestic and infrastructural space, across areas not usually understood as interrelated. When she returns to her house in the native quarter to celebrate after being offered the job as nanny of the French children, she crosses the footbridge and runs after her mother who is collecting water at a communal tap, leaving behind the construction cranes and formal houses of the settler town, with their verandahs and lawns watered by sprinklers. As Fanon writes of the comparable Algerian context in The Wretched of the Earth, this “settler’s town is a strongly-built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly-lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage-cans swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about.”3 The settler’s town is the “world of statues,” a world of stone monuments and grand buildings.4 Yet despite the evident infrastructural inequalities, Diouana moves with ease from one world to the other and back, hoping for a better life. In the Place de l’indépendance, having just decided to leave for France with the family, she jumps in celebration onto the World War Two memorial to the Senegalese soldiers who fought with France. In using this monument as a site for play, Diouana reappropriates the city, offering yet another potential reading, along with Fanon, of a new means of interacting with the inherited remnants of colonial space. While La Noire de… is ultimately a tragedy—it ends with Diouana committing suicide in France—playful moments such as this clearly position Diouana as a subject, engaging with the city on her own terms. Perhaps, Sembène is alluding to what might have seemed possible at this particular early postcolonial moment.
The film ends with the return of the mask that Diouana had gifted her employer. We follow the monsieur as he travels to Diouana’s mother’s house to return Diouana’s bag, the mask, and offer money. The mother refuses this monetization of her daughter’s life, and through this act of rejection the courtyard of the make-shift house becomes a space of refusal. Diouana’s younger brother takes the mask, adorns it, and follows the monsieur as he leaves, haunting him as he walks back across the footbridge to return to the White city. Throughout the film, Sembene draws our attention to spaces that are foundational to social reproduction, through the figure of the female labourer. In following her movements through the city, we are asked to read disparate spaces, both domestic and infrastructural, in relation. At the same time, what distinguishes La Noire de… from documentary film is that it embodies Diouana’s imagination of the possibility of living otherwise within and around the confines of the built environments in which she finds herself. By reading Sembène’s film as architectural and urban commentary, we acknowledge the entanglement of architecture in coloniality, dispossession, and empire building.