§Graphic Realities
Graphic Activism
by Sally Price

The July-August 2021 issue of Anthropology News [1] arrived in my mailbox at the same time as the summer issue of a French magazine called La Revue Dessinée. The first one was devoted to the trend in “comic-style graphics” for ethnographic subjects, from cross-disciplinary activism against racism during childbirth and labor politics in eastern Europe to environmental issues in Mumbai and transnational kinship networks. The second one was 226-pages of that same format, depicting the contribution of McDonald’s to French poverty, the use of toxic insecticides in the French Antillean banana industry, and the vulnerability of national forests to pollution and climate change. 

The present article is intended to open a window onto the new popularity and innovative uses for activist agendas of this “graphic ethnography” form on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in France.

La Revue Dessinée is subtitled “information en bande dessinée,” referring to the French literary form known as “bandes dessinées” or simply “BD,” so I begin with a brief introduction to that genre, which enjoys a tremendous popularity in France. Dubbed the “ninth art” [2], BD are similar to Japanese manga and have a popularity unlike any similar genre in the United States; subjects range from (for example) The Story of O to a multi-volume history of World War II. Throughout France, they form piles of reading material in bathrooms, bedrooms, and doctors’ waiting rooms, often as large-format, hard-cover books, and are celebrated in yearly festivals such as the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival.

My copy of the Revue Dessinée was sent to me by Hélène Ferrarini, a freelance journalist specializing in Africa and French Guiana who has explored the politics of the French art scene in numerous radio interviews, including one with me. It opened with an article by her and BD artist Damien Cuvillier (whose work has ranged from a story set in the Spanish Civil War to a political history of French unemployment) — an illustrated account of the recent discussions swirling around the politics, economics, and ethics of African art held in French collections, both public and private [3]. Other articles focused on food banks for the poor, the widespread use of chlordécone (a toxic pesticide, illegal in mainland France) in the French Antillean banana industry, climate change and biodiversity, efforts against the drug trade and money laundering, and a spirited debate about whether to designate “Covid” and other terms newly added to the French dictionary as masculine or feminine nouns.

The Ferrarini-Cuvillier article was the one that hit my own research interests most directly, and I found it to be an excellent synopsis of issues I had covered in more conventional forms of publication. It follows the story of African artworks from their seizure by explorers, army officers, colonial officials, and others in the outer reaches of the French Empire through their integration into national museum collections (especially the musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac [4]), their presence on the block of prestigious auction houses, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 appointment of two Africanists (Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy) to conduct an exploratory inquiry into African patrimony in French museums, with the charge to formulate a process for its eventual return [5].

The assorted page layouts are prototypical BD style, creating an eminently readable story that runs from the conditions of the objects’ departure from Africa to their integration into an ever-more-lucrative twenty-first-century art market. Cuvillier’s drawings include inspired caricatures of the principal players: President Jacques Chirac (who made the creation of the Quai Branly museum his crowning cultural legacy to the nation), Chirac’s close friend Jacques Kerchache (the shady collector who pushed the idea of both the new Louvre gallery of arts premiers and the new museum), and Stéphane Martin (the first president of the museum, who opposed all repatriation), as well as Macron, Sarr, Savoy, and outspoken advocates of repatriation such as activist historian Françoise Vergès [6].

The article’s main storyline concerns the current debate about repatriation in France, but it also provides historical background, depicting rumblings of discontent over stolen objects in Angola in 1933, repatriation activism in Algeria in 1969, a lecture in favor of repatriation by the director of UNESCO in 1978, and a document, discovered in the course of the Sarr-Savoy research, that supported repatriation of African patrimony in 1982. And while the principal focus is on holdings in national museums, the responsability of private dealers whose activities create strong financial incentives for keeping objects in France is underscored. An “autopsy” of a 2020 auction sale of a mask that was bought on the art market by a Parisian antiquarian in 1980 follows its ever-mounting financial value (as well as increasingly confident assertions of the artist’s identity) as it moved through auctions and private collections. The article also addresses the ethical question of the profanation of ritual objects displayed in museums. And it calls attention to efforts by some collectors to return pieces to African settings, citing the case of a collective that purchased objects at auction in order to establish an art center in Benin. 

Because the article focuses on objects from African cultures, it touches not at all on French repatriation debates that involve other parts of the world… debates that have been almost as lively over the past couple of decades. There is no allusion, for example, to the political struggle over the fate of tattooed Maori heads, which began with a decision by a museum in the city of Rouen for their return, inspired a hastily thrown-together international colloquium on repatriation, and ended up by flipping Stéphane Martin from a vociferous opponent of their return to a self-congratulatory supporter of de-accessioning not only the heads in Rouen but all those at the Quai Branly as well. 

Or again, while there is excellent coverage (and critical analysis) of French auctions of African art and their role in pushing price tags skyward, nothing is said about the contemporaneous high-end auctions in Paris of Native American material heritage which, despite legal challenges to the sale of sacred (often stolen) objects by cultural/political activists in both France and the United States, were allowed to proceed on the argument that they did not specifically transgress the laws of France. Perhaps Ferrarini and Cuvillier could be persuaded to tell those stories in their next joint effort.

If we leave aside the intransigence of auction houses and the brazen shenanigans of collectors (see, for one striking example, S. Price, Au musée des illusions, pp. 294-296), it’s fair to say that France is suddenly moving (rather surprisingly) in a new direction on cultural property, one that’s potentially open to the reversal of past policies (and even laws) against the repatriation of the spoils of colonial conquest. President Emmanuel Macron’s endorsement of the idea that repatriation of African objects should be explored with care, and the resultant report by Sarr and Savoy was only the most mediatized step in this shift away from long-held iron-clad laws about the retention of objects in national museums. 

*   *   *

In North America, even greater (more organized and multi-faceted) attention has, for some time, been given to these same issues, and here again, graphic media have been used to recount past injustices and make pleas for the repatriation of native materials. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 has been active in promoting the return of cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony—to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated First Nation tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. In 2017, its goals inspired the creation of NAGPRA Comics, through the collaboration of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe archeologist Sonya Atalay, anthropologist/museum curator Jen Shannon, and archeologist/comics creator John Swogger. The first issue, “Journeys to Complete the Work … and Changing the Way we Bring Native American Ancestors Home,” which focuses on the status of human remains, is downloadable as a PDF. The second issue, Trusting You See This as We Do, is about tribal sovereignty and the return of sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony; access to this issue is limited to members of the Native American communities whose cultural objects are depicted and discussed.

As the authors of this series argue, “applied comics” can do three important things when it comes to promoting the goals of NAGPRA: “(1) they can show as well as tell, making it easy to (2) de-complicate unfamiliar subject matter without resorting to ‘dumbing-down,’ and (3) help ground and humanize a subject by using narrative and storytelling. The NAGPRA comic is also an example of how a storytelling-route, using actual examples, helps show how individual actions and decisions make repatriations happen (or not).”

Whether arguing for more respectful approaches to cultural property in Europe or in the Americas, use of the comic-book format underscores the power of images (to borrow a phrase from art historian David Freedberg) that emerge from (sometimes intense) collaborative discussions between visually- and textually-oriented creators, working together to discover innovative approaches to ethnographic, political, and ethical debates of current relevance [7].


[1] A bi-monthly publication of the American Anthropological Association.
[2] You can find different versions of the French classification online, but they all include, in some form, architecture, sculpture, painting/drawing, music, literature, theater/dance, movies, and radio/television/photography. Bandes dessinées have been on the list since the 1960s.
[3] Hélène Ferrarini, Damien Cuvillier, “Privés de retour,” La Revue Dessinée #32, summer 2021, pp. 8-35.
[4] In 2016 the musée du Quai Branly was renamed musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac. (Chirac, who was president of France 1995-2007, had been the driving force behind its creation; he died in 2019.)
[5] See Felwine Sarr; Bénédicte Savoy, Restituer le patrimoine africain, Paris: Philippe Rey/Seuil, 2018.
[6] Françoise Vergès grew up in Réunion and Algeria; her work focuses on postcolonial studies and decolonial feminism.
[7] Here, I’ve focused on the use of a “comic-book format” for ethnographic/activist writing in France and North America. But other countries are also benefitting from the political and poetic potential of the form. Cuba, for example, which enjoys a particularly vibrant artworld, is the subject of Goodbye, My Havana: The Life and Times of a Gringa in Revolutonary Cuba (2019, written and illustrated by graphic artist Anna Veltfort) and Aerial Imagination in Cuba: Stories from Above the Rooftops (2019, written by visual/multimodal anthropologist Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier, and illustrated by José Manuel Fernández Lavado). In Canada, the University of Toronto Press has provided active support for books in this form; and the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Law Research Clinic has produced a graphic novel entitled Cree Law: Mikomosis and the Wetiko.
[*] I’m grateful to Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier for helpful comments on an early draft of this essay.

Sally Price has taught in the United States, Brazil, and France and conducted research in Martinique, Spain, Mexico, French Guiana, and Suriname. Her writing (some with her husband/colleague Richard Price) has often focused on the Maroon populations of Suriname and French Guiana but it also includes a book on U.S. artist Romare Bearden and a novel about art forgery. She is best known for two critical studies of the place of “primitive art” in the imaginaire of Western viewers: Primitive Art in Civilized Places and Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly.