The forgotten men and women of France's colourful, multicultural history

·5-min read

Most of the people considered famous for making a mark on France's long, illustrious history were white men. But what about the women and men of colour, people hailing from immigrant families and the colonies? The Portraits de France exhibition at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris attempts to rectify this with a panorama of the "others", some of the forgotten heroes who helped make France what it is today.

The Portraits de France exhibition provides an opportunity to see France’s history from a fresh perspective, as it shines a light on the forgotten or little known heroes who came from Africa, America, the Caribbean and Europe and who were united in the fact that they chose to make France their home.

Spanning 230 years, since the French revolution, the exhibition endeavours to fill in the blanks in the collective memory, by pulling faces and names out of the archives.

Each wall of the exhibition resembles a family living room. The photos hanging close to framed posters and newspaper clippings help give the presentation a homely, cosy feel.

This was a deliberate choice, explains art historian Aurélie Clemente-Ruiz, who is in charge of exhibitions at the Musée de l’Homme and one of the three curators of Portraits de France.

By selecting a more down-to-earth array of photographs and artefacts, the "heroes" are portrayed as both famous and ordinary. There are tubes of make-up, an athlete’s jersey, cinema and concert tickets, postcards and record covers.

The incredible destinies of ordinary citizens

"We wanted to avoid having a bunch of photos frozen under glossy paper, distant from us. We really wanted to say these women and men, who at one point in their lives represented the values of France, are also like you and me. They may have fulfilled incredible destinies but they also had an ordinary life too, so that’s what we wanted to show in this exhibition, making it closer to the people," she told RFI.

Despite having experience in dealing with historical archives concerning Paris, Clemente-Ruiz was surprised by some of the figures who were chosen for this exhibition.

She gives the example of Severiano de Heredia. Born in Cuba in 1836, he became a French citizen in 1870. After excelling at his studies in France, he was elected to join Paris' municipal council and later became mayor in 1879, the first person of Afro-Caribbean descent to hold this position. He went on to become a government minister. He also created the system of municipal libraries in Paris, a legacy that citizens of the capital still enjoy today.

Then she cites Do Hûu Vi, who signed up to fight for France during World War I. Born in Vietnam in 1883, he studied at the St Cyr military school near Paris and served in Morocco, where he was acknowledged for his bravery, in 1906. He then became a pilot in 1911, during which time he carried out reconnaissance flights. Despite being in a serious accident in 1915, he requested to return to the army. Put in charge of a Foreign Legion group, he was later killed at the Somme in 1916.

Fellow curator Yvan Gastaud referred to the exhibition as a "patchwork of profiles" designed to complement existing historical documentation rather than attempt to replace it. It’s meant to "open the discussion" and provide a stepping stone to other research.

In fact, the exhibition grew out of a larger research project, which was commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron in 2020.

A group of experts in partnership with the Achac research group – overseen by historian Pascal Blanchard, also one of the curators – were tasked with combing through the archives to find examples of people who represented ‘French diversity’, particularly figures from immigrant or colonial backgrounds who had been previously overlooked.

The result was a report that contains the biographies of 318 people from all walks of life, who – through their actions – contributed to France's history in a positive way.

What does it mean to be French?

Using the report as a base, the three curators established 12 historical periods and set themselves the challenge of selecting 29 women and 29 men from different backgrounds to answer the question 'what does it mean to be French?'

"It comes at a time when France is facing a period of doubt, questioning its identity," explains Blanchard.

Putting together Portraits de France was not an easy task, Clemente-Ruiz admits, given the wide scope of historical events. There was a desire to maintain gender balance, and cover as many areas of competence as possible, from politics, sports, to arts and science.

Among the women, there are some names that are slightly more well-known than others, such as artist and Resistance fighter Joséphine Baker, who has just been immortalised in the Panthéon mausoleum. Others include Tunisian-born lawyer Gisèle Halimi, who was known for defending women’s right to abortion, and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, who was born in Poland and known for her contributions to physics and chemistry.

However, there are other women who were equally talented in their respective domains but who are not well-known by the general public.

Take Solange Faladé, who was born in Benin in 1925 to a couple of public servants. After studying medicine in Paris, she became a researcher at the CNRS scientific institute, specialising in the development of young children from the African diaspora. A keen activist, she was elected the first female president of the Black African Students in France organisation (FEANF) in 1951. She studied with well-known psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto and went on to found her own school in 1983.

Portraits de France, at the Musée de l’Homme, 1 December until 17 January, place du Trocadéro, Paris 75016. Free entry.

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