Black Skin, White Masks

by Ricardo Nicolau

Remote controlled colonisation: Peripheral artistic programmes are forced to imitate centrally-located institutions and bank on well-known and ‛safe’ names

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The title of a well-known book Black Skin, White Masks by the Martinique-born psychiatrist, writer and essayist, Frantz Fanon, published by Seuil in 1952. His book provides an analysis, from a psychological perspective, of the legacy that has been left to mankind by colonialism, starting with the relationship between blacks and whites. Fanon uses psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theory to explain feelings of dependence and alienation experienced by blacks in the “world of whites”. Although it is still considered to be influential and of great contemporary relevance — cited, for example, by Palestinians and Afro-Americans — it was relatively unknown for several decades after its publication. It’s only since the 1980s that it has became an anti-colonial and anti-racist manifesto that is widely read and studied in Anglo-Saxon countries. Before then greater emphasis was placed on subsequently published works, of an explicitly revolutionary nature, offering a psychoanalytic explanation of colonial relations, nationalism, colonialism and liberation movements.


“The explosion won’t happen today. It is too soon… or too late.” These are the opening lines of the introduction to the book Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) written by Frantz Fanon in 1952. In the author’s own words, he aimed to provide the first psychoanalytic interpretation of the “black problem” and “dual narcissism” that he believed prevailed in relations between black people and white people.  I started reading this book after visiting a solo exhibition by the artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, held in the La Ferme de Buisson Arts and Cultural Centre, on the outskirts of Paris. I’m currently preparing an exhibition with this French artist in the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, which will open in April 2012.

The term ‘French artist’ is thought-provoking: in fact, Abonnenc was born and grew up in French Guiana, and is thus simultaneously French and South American (Guiana was a French colony until 1946 and then became an overseas department of France, and as such forms an integral part of the European Union – the only place in the American continent that uses the euro as legal tender). Obviously influenced by his roots, Abonnenc soon developed an interest in the colonial past of France – the country where he pursued his studies and currently works and lives. He also began to study the Portuguese colonial context (it should be remembered that Guiana formed part of the Portuguese empire before it became a French colony), in particular the liberation movements that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. This interest led him to investigate films and documentaries commissioned by these liberation movements and also analyse works by authors who explored the eminently dialectical relationship between colonists and colonised subjects, i.e. between whites and blacks. He paid special attention to the writings of Frantz Fanon, to whom he virtually dedicated his most recent exhibition, hosted in the La Ferme de Buisson, entitled Orphelins de Fanon [The Orphans of Fanon].

Black Skin, White Masks is a pioneering work that still has chilling contemporary relevance. It provides an interpretation of the issue of racism that goes well beyond mere historical data and proposes to analyse the phenomenon from a psychoanalytic perspective. For someone such as myself, who lives and works in Portugal, Fanon’s work inevitably inspires parallels between the relationship between blacks and whites and that between southerners and northerners. After all, according to both national and international news media, Portugal is likely to be the next “country to fall after Greece”. We are the southern nation to whom better-behaved northern countries need to provide management and organisation lessons, for better or for worse. We’re proud of that which distinguishes us from northerners and yet we simultaneously, and somewhat schizophrenically, feel that we owe a debt of obedience – after having our incompetence exposed, in comparison with more methodical Nordic nations.

Numerous opinion articles have been published recently in the Portuguese press, criticising the austerity measures imposed by Germany because they won’t resolve, and are more likely to worsen, the financial crisis that currently engulfs the eurozone – including several texts that defend an authentic insurrection against the debt and deficit dictatorship. A series of articles have also been published regarding Germany’s alleged proposal, yet to be denied (I’m writing this on 31 January), that Greece’s already questionable ‘independence’ concerning its own financial management should be removed, through the nomination of an external manager and imposition of immediate sanctions unless austerity measures are implemented. According to Portuguese columnists this would represent an assault on Greek national sovereignty, and set an extremely dangerous precedent. An article published today in one of the national newspapers states: “Germany now wants to illegalise – for the time being in Greece, but Portugal will be next in line, followed by others – the exercise of national sovereignty by indebted nations. An indebted nation won’t be entitled to take decisions in relation to its own domestic policy. Obviously, Berlin’s proposal only concerns decisions which could undermine financial objectives and payment of debts – the ‘budget commissioner’ nominated by the eurogroup for Greece will only be able to veto decisions taken by the Greek government that have a budgetary impact. But it’s difficult to imagine any government measures that won’t have a budgetary impact. In practise, the ‘budget commissioner’ will be a quasi-colonial governor, guaranteeing that the rights of the ‘metropolis’ (i.e. the creditors) will prevail under all circumstances over the rights of the local populations. This is a form of colonisation from a distance, i.e. remote-controlled colonisation, financial occupation.”

In Portugal (the next “country after Greece”) this “precedent” inevitably has greater significance than in other countries, but my key concern in this text is to explore, with the aid of Frantz Fanon, the permanent oscillation between, on the one hand, a sense of blame and inferiority – that to a certain extent leads us to accept measures imposed by organised, non-defaulting, methodical, serious and enterprising countries – and, on the other hand, a sense of pride and haughtiness through which we defend our creativity, imagination and spontaneity, which enables us, for example, to improvise and come up with last minute solutions. My method, if I can use this term – given that Fanon himself states “we should leave methods to botanists and mathematicians” – consists of using the line of analysis provided in Black Skin, White Masks, often copying entire sentences, but substituting the words “black” and “white” with “southerner” and “northerner”.

Why did Frantz Fanon write this book? He said it was because he wanted to shed light on a new form of humanism and contribute to a greater understanding of mankind. Why did I decide to explore his work? Because by substituting the term “Colonial Adventure” for “Capitalist Adventure” or “colonisation from a distance” or “remote-controlled colonisation” it’s possible to explain how the acronym PIGS (for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) was invented, and predict how “victim countries” will develop in the future, alongside countries that have created a form of “dual narcissism”.

But before embarking upon my interpretation of Black Skin, White Masks, I’d like to provide a small introductory note:

I work as a curator in a Portuguese contemporary art museum that has a semi-private management structure (the Serralves Museum has a public-private foundation). Until now, this status has guaranteed a certain degree of stability and immunity in relation to governmental changes, which in countries such as Portugal almost inevitably leads to alterations in cultural policies. My position has exposed me to the economic crisis and a wide array of different consequences, some of which are extremely disturbing. As a result, reading Fanon’s book, in addition to providing supporting material for preparation of a solo exhibition by a specific artist, also helped me to reflect upon the relationship between art and culture and the so-called financial crisis. The issues raised by the present financial crisis don’t begin and end with the lack of money. Obviously, sponsors and patrons have reduced their support, which leads to fewer resources for organising exhibitions, but the truly disturbing issue, more than the financial cuts themselves, are the ‘ideological’ cuts. This crisis represents an opportunity for administrators of cultural institutions to do away with everything that they don’t understand, which irritates them because it highlights their own ignorance, because it doesn’t attract enough visitors, because it implies expenditure that wouldn’t be understood by a community that now exercises zealous moral scrutiny over all expenses on ‘non-essential products’.

Today, more than ever, we’ve started to hear that it is reprehensible during a period of austerity to continue to lavish money on the personal whims of artists and irresponsible and egotistical curators. The conclusion: artistic programmes that previously stood out from the rest, because they took advantage of the peripheral status of the respective art centres and museums (peripheral locations can also deliver advantages), now risk having to imitate centrally-located institutions, and bank on well-known and recognised names, as well as exhibitions that some people believe may be of interest to large audiences. At the start of the present economic crisis it was claimed that the shortage of money would lead, in the case of museums, to a healthy and unprecedented focus upon local communities, and artists who are less international, less interchangeable and perhaps more singular. But it soon became obvious that the struggle to maintain sponsors would ultimately foster an attempt to imitate centrally-located institutions and markets. Instead of paying greater attention to the world around us – looking at small structures, spaces managed by artists, titles published by small publishing houses – museums now run the risk of mistakenly attempting to transform themselves into imitations of large museums, i.e. chasing the yardstick applied by administrations, patrons and sponsors – and in the process lose their distinctiveness, which differentiated them from ‘larger’ institutions.

It may appear to be somewhat exaggerated to talk about a new form of colonisation, but the truth is that if museum curators transform themselves into ‘budget commissioners’, by guaranteeing that the same names exhibit their works in all countries, we may end up with a form of “colonisation from a distance, remote-controlled colonisation, financial occupation”, as identified by the Portuguese journalist in relation to Berlin’s attempts to undermine national sovereignty. There is a risk that this crisis will lead to a slow strangulation of all contemporary art museums that are committed to offering fresh insights on established art history. Inferiority complexes may lead to the worst form of provincialism – in which some try to mimic others, who they consider to be more civilised. That brings us back to the essential issue… between North and South.

It’s a fact: northerners believe they are superior to southerners.  For the southerner there’s only one alternative: to become a northerner. 

Does the southerner suffer from an inferiority complex? Is that why he wants to become a northerner? 

Anyway, all forms of unilateral liberation are imperfect.

The South reveals a mixture of aggressiveness and passiveness.

The soul of the South is a construction, based on myths of spontaneity, exacerbated sexuality and virility.  

And is the perception of the lazy southerner well entrenched amongst northerners? 

The myth of spontaneity: if I’m a southerner, I’m automatically merged with the world, including the earth. 

And, in addition to the inferiority complexes harboured in southern nations, are there guilt complexes in the North?

The northerner is also enslaved by his superiority and behaves in accordance with a neurotic orientation 

Whenever a southerner protests, there is alienation, humiliating insecurity, self-accusation.

Individuals strive to fit into pre-established categories. First and foremost: a lazy southerner is someone who other men consider to be a lazy southerner. It’s the methodical, hardworking northerner who creates the lazy southerner. 

To colonise me is to strip me of all my value and originality. They call me a parasite of the world, and tell me I have to walk as quickly as possible, to keep up with the northerner. 

Emotion pertains to the South, in contrast with the rationality of the North. Sensitivity, essential violence. I marry the world! I am the world! 

When northerners feel excessively mechanised they return to the south. 

Good naturedness. 


Intensity, poetry, freedom.




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