Thursday, October 9, 2014

Two Black Men at the Institut de France

A couple of weeks ago, writer Dany Laferrière participated in Festival AMERICA. He is the first black person since Léopold Sédar Senghor to be elected to the Académie Française (French Academy - the organization that is responsible for the protection of the French language)*. He is also the first member who is neither French, naturalized French, nor a resident of France. His coming investiture was announced on December 13, 2013, and he will be officially inducted into the august institution in 2015. He will occupy the chair vacated by Hector Bianciotti, who died in 2012.

Dany Laferrière during the Salon du Livre in Paris (2010)
Creative Commons Attribution - Georges Seguin (Okki)

Laferrière is a native of Haïti who immigrated to Montreal in 1976 to escape the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc). A prolific writer, he has published over twenty books to date - using a Remington typewriter that purportedly belonged to Chester Himes. Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Baldwin are among the writers who have influenced him.

In 1985, he exploded onto the Quebeçois literary scene with his first novel Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired). In 1989, the book was made into a film, which was boycotted by the NAACP.

Book cover - Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer

Laferrière lived in Miami, Florida between 1990 and 2002, then returned to Montreal, where he lives today. He was in Haïti during the 2010 earthquake and wrote his book Tout Bouge Autour de Moi (The World is Moving around Me) from the notes he took during the hours and days after the disaster struck. Published in 2010 by Memoirs d'encrier in Montreal and a year later by the prestigious Paris editor Grasset, it provides an intimate look at the strength and dignity of the Haïtian people in the face of disaster.

A winner of numerous literary awards in Canada since 2009, Laferrière was named Officier de l'Ordre National du Québec (National Order of Quebec) in 2014. This is described as the highest honor in Quebec.

A couple of days prior to the announcement about Dany Laferrière - at 3:00 PM on December 11, 2013, to be exact - sculptor Ousmane Sow became the first black and the first African to occupy a chair at the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts)*.

Ousmane Sow
Image from

During his acceptance speech, the 78-year old Sow paid tribute to his continent, to his predecessor, Senghor, and to Nelson Mandela:

As was my colleague and fellow Senegalese Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was elected to the French Academy thirty years ago [2 June 1983], I am an Africanist. In this spirit, I dedicate this ceremony to the whole of Africa, it's Diaspora, and the great man who recently left us, Nelson Mandela...

Arriving in Paris at the age of 22, Sow began his life here by working odd jobs before studying to become a physical therapist. He repatriated Senegal when it gained its independence. He began sculpting in earnest at the age of 50 and began showing his works in Dakar.

The year 1999 brought the "tipping point" in Sow's career with the magnificent exposition of his African wrestlers and warriors as well as pieces from his Battle of Little Big Horn series on the Pont des Arts, which stretches across the river between the Louvre and the Institut de France. Seventy-five sculptures were viewed by more than 3,000,000 visitors during this show.

Ousmane Sow - Pont des Arts Catalog Cover

Part of the Little Big Horn collection was shown at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2003.

Sow was unanimously elected to the Academy. He takes the chair of the American painter Andrew Wyeth (1906-2001). The Tunisian fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa created the ceremonial costume that he wore to his investiture. He designed the pommel for the ceremonial sword himself. The first lady of Senegal, Madame Marième Faye Sall, presented the sword to him.

To view photos of the ceremony, click here.

*The Académie Française and the Académie des Beaux-Arts are part of the Institut de France (French Institute). The institute is responsible for the management of several foundations and cultural venues, including museums and historic monuments in France and abroad.

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