Under the White Mask
Belgian artist Paul Haesaerts (1901-1974) was a multi-hyphenate: architect, painter, designer of carpets, critic and filmmaker. His documentaries on art and artists (from Picasso to James Ensor) are probably his best known works.
One of those is “Under the Black Mask”, a documentary on Congolese art he made for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. It’s a formally inventive film, but also one that perpetuates racist stereotypes and does not acknowledge the darkness at the heart of colonialism.
Scholar and filmmaker Matthias De Groof took apart Haesaerts’ film. He isolated the footage of African masks from that original and remixed it into a new short film, “Under the White Mask: The Film that Haesaerts Could Have Made”. He also removed the original soundtrack and replaced it with a voice-over reciting fragments from Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism”. (That manifesto was first published in 1955 and therefore was available to Haesaerts when he made his documentary, hence the subtitle De Groof gave his film).
De Groof’s is a modus operandi that is as simple as it is elegant and effective. Haesaerts’ mute masks are given a voice, and a powerful one at that: Césaire’s text was translated into Lingala (one of the official languages of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and then recited by slam poet Maravilha Munto. Her impassioned rendition is at odds with the conventional detached tone of the documentary voice-over. That tension makes abundantly clear that the scars of colonialism have yet to heal – yes, that colonialism’s lasting impact is still a day-to-day reality for many. “Colonisation is thing-ification”, Munto quotes as the shots of stock-still masks bleed into each other, and her voice work breathes life into those silent witnesses.
This inspired use of remix and appropriation – both staples of the video essay form – results in a short film that does more than critique colonialism. It also rehabilitates art itself. In Haesaerts’ film, aestheticism was used to gloss over racism. Art hid atrocities: it was used as a mask for the ugly face of colonialism to hide behind. This remix tears off that mask. De Groof uses exactly the same artistic means Haesaerts did but reclaims their critical potential.
“Under the White Mask” was commissioned by the MAS Museum in Antwerp, Belgium as part of their award-winning exhibition 100 x Congo. The film is not yet available online: it’s still on the festival circuit, going from Lisbon to Berlin, from Sheffield to Curitiba. The above trailer is the only excerpt available so far.