Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 30, 2001
Patricia A. Morton Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition MIT Press, 2000. 380 pp.; 163 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (0262133628)

In a letter to the curator of the 5th Biennale de Lyon, held in the summer of 2000, Partage d’exotismes (Sharing of Exoticisms), artist Hassan Musa declined an invitation to join the exhibition, claiming that, “Personally, as an artist born in Africa, but with no urge to bear the burden of an African artist, I know that the only opportunities open to me to present my work in public outside Africa are of the ‘ethnic’ type, where people assign to me the role of ‘the African other’ in places designed for the kind of seasonal ritual where a certain kind of Africa is, in favour.”

The letter raises in simple terms the enduring ambiguities faced by the “postcolonial” artist when seeking a place in the Universal rather than in the marginalized Particular, a Particular where both the realm of the work and the proper place of the artist are determined by the dominant other. In a remarkable book, Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris, whose publication coincided opportunely with the Lyon Biennale, Patricia Morton problematizes with unforgiving lucidity the complex and contradictory relationship between France and its colonies as they emerged at the last major colonialist extravaganza, which virtually started the great anticolonial movements. In a certain sense, this book could be read as a cogent “prehistorical” account (in Walter Benjamin’s terms), of this year’s Biennale topic.

Following a materialist approach to history that examines forgotten or repudiated aspects of the recent past, Morton argues that the 1931 Exposition—a part of the neglected history of colonialism—represents one of those moments of our own prehistory. This is a past that dwells in the substrata of our consciousness and helps us gain insight simultaneously into our present condition and the condition of modernity itself.

Rather than rehearse the rhetorical claims of the Colonial Exposition’s organizers, Morton introduces today’s critical instruments to unravel their original assumptions. What is more, in order to compensate for the absence of an adequate discursive terminology to analyze the “colonial” architecture presented at the Exposition, Morton successfully parallels disciplines and their terminology. Her critical apparatus introduces contested analytical designations such as “collection,” “collage,” “hybrid,” and “physiognomy,” which she, in turn, critiques in regard to their adequacy to the phenomenology of the Exposition. Through this approach, the author creates the occasion for a broad interdisciplinary inquiry that provides an historical review of the events as perceived at the time, while reading them through our current epistemological discourses.

In her book, Morton looks at the Colonial Exposition as a means of ordering the “uncatalogued” archive of colonial artifacts as they appeared to the colonizer. She interprets the Exposition as a “collection” of colonized peoples filtered through the ideological screen of the colonizing power. In the book’s first part, she describes the Exposition and analyzes the intentions of its organizer, Marshal Lyautey, Governor of Morocco and noted Colonial City planner, who aimed to instill imperial sentiments in a reticent French population. The author uses the collection model to understand the ordered colonial domain that Lyautey sought to create in the former Vincennes hunting grounds, themselves “ordered” under Napoleon III into an urban park of recreated nature. Up and against the Exposition’s own collection, Morton raises her own “collection,” gleaned from available archives, to problematize the first. An intriguing part of the book covers the various anticolonial protests that colonized expatriates, Surrealists, and the Communist Party organized against the Exposition. Most noteworthy among these, as Morton shows, was the Surrealists’ Counter Colonial Exposition: Reconnecting, in a way, with the nineteenth-century tradition of counter-exhibitions such as the Salon des Refusés, the protesters derided the assumed superiority of Western culture. They compared the colonizers’ own “fetishes” to the art of the colonized (reduced at the official Exposition to the role of mere ethnographic paraphernalia). Not without humor, the Western fetishes were exemplified by the notorious production of religious kitsch and popular “images d’Epinal.” In this sense (without dismissing the avant-garde’s own mystification of a presumed “primitive art”), the exposition of the Surrealists represents an amusing case in the prehistory of the 2000 Lyon Biennale’s Sharing of Exoticisms.

The second part of the book deals with the Exposition’s planning and architecture. It shows convincingly the degree to which the collection produced a collage effect, in Surrealist terms, through the incongruous juxtaposition of disparate cultural entities brought together from vastly distant colonial worlds, forming what James Clifford would term an “ethnographic surrealism.” The inclusion of “natives,” brought to the Exposition to work, dance, and play in and around the pavilions, further accentuated the sensation of strangeness in the Parisian context. At the same time, the presence of the natives exacerbated the vision of a double marginality—that of the alienated Paris population in shanty towns surrounding the Vincennes fortifications, and the colonial world within, which Morton calls “the layering of unresolved histories.”

Chapter 5 introduces a third category, hybridity, borrowed from postcolonial theory. The chapter examines the dual function assigned to the pavilions at the Exposition representing both the otherness of colonial culture and the benefits colonization purportedly provided to the colonized people. Yet, the sanitary separation this entailed between an advanced civilization and its assumed primitivism did not prevent, as Morton demonstrates, multiple, and usually undesirable interconnections between the representer and the represented. The author evokes the central paradox of a constructed distinction between the two cultural and racial worlds, which by the nature of the colonizer’s own action, generates hybridity, the colonizer’s ultimate nightmare.

Early nineteenth-century French colonialism attempted to legitimate itself not too differently from the model of the Napoleonic wars—through its presumed dissemination of the Universal Republican ideals derived from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Applied to the extra-European realm, the Napoleonic paradox of liberation from pre-Revolutionary absolutism through war and occupation of the “liberated” nations, took the form, in colonial wars, of a presumed mission civilisatrice based on a perverted notion of the Enlightenment. The policies of assimilation which set out to convert (and later on, the British model of ‘association’) “primitive” or “degenerated” cultures into a “superior” ones, invoked the achievements of the Age of Reason, as primarily a means to mask cruder imperial intentions. Throughout the book, Morton demonstrates how these contradictions were embedded in the Exposition, and how the pavilions and the self-styled didactic exhibits they housed revealed discrepancies in the colonizers’ civilizing mission.

What is missing, perhaps, from a better understanding of these contradictions, is an exhaustive discussion of the origins of such a mission. More consistent reference to the Enlightenment’s invention of the concept of universal human rights inherent in the belief of equality and brotherhood among humans would have helped avoid some minor inconsistencies in the book. Despite a chapter on the limited resistance to the Exposition itself, an examination of a society deeply divided politically between Right and Left (the France of J’accuse)—implicit in the resistance to colonialism that Lyautey meant to dispel—would have offered a stronger grounding for the interpretation of the Exposition.

At the same time, although the choice to treat the Exposition exclusively as a French colonial phenomenon is deliberate, a brief discussion of the substantial differences from the British colonial system would have cast a better light on the contradictions at hand. This absence is exacerbated when the author uses, unconsciously, a racial terminology that belongs more to the Nordic Anglo-Saxon realm (such as the term “colored people”) than to the Mediterranean basin—a notoriously hybrid realm—where Arabs, for example, are “white” (as indicated even in one of Morton’s unrelated quotations of a French anthropologist). In that sense, the fact that France itself is by definition a hybrid nation unified under a contract with the Republic is not without consequence for the argument. Finally, as a minor remark in a work of this caliber it is strange to have Niger, a French colony, spelled as “Nigeria,” a neighboring British colony.

The next chapter examines the architectural physiognomy of the colonies referred to by the pavilions. Morton demonstrates how the morphology of the pavilions was constructed in terms of a positivist science that quantified physical differences between races. She shows how the method through which the French architects mixed architectural vocabularies and monumentalized indigenous styles—a process Morton compares to composite photography—demonstrates the degree to which these buildings reinforced stereotypes of colonized peoples. Such “hybrid inauthenticity,” however, “undermined the efficacy of the architectural physiognomy as an index of difference,” (14) thus introducing another case of contested hybridity. The book closes with a final instance of hybridity in a particularly informative discussion of the making of the Exposition’s main and sole surviving building, the Musée des Colonies by Albert Laprade, ridden with all the paradoxes that haunted the Exposition as a whole. In an array of writings that has appeared in the last two decades on this relatively new subcategory of the history of architecture—international Expositions—Morton’s minutely researched book is certainly one of the most intelligent and most original scholarly contributions to the field.

Danilo Udovicki-Selb
Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin.