“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the rallying call of the French Revolution is embedded in the French Constitution of 1848,” writes Azu Nwagbogu, founder and director of the African Artists’ Foundation and the LagosPhoto Festival in Nigeria, in the introduction to First Génération. This new book, by Brazilian photographer Carolina Arantes, chronicles a group of French women of West-African descent building new lives for themselves in adopted lands.
“This motto has traveled well through the ages and is often quoted and appropriated in contemporary visual culture,” Nwagbogu continues. “What is less well known is the fact that in the late eighteenth century while the French working class was fighting for respect and democracy, the French government and institutions were rapidly expanding their imperialist and colonialist machinery all over Africa. The legacy of this colonial violence lingers till this day.”
Over a period of five centuries, France colonized the globe, subjugating peoples across the Global South from Haiti to New Caledonia. In Africa alone, France invaded what would become over two dozen countries as part of a self-proclaimed “Civilizing Mission.” Fully embracing the ethos of white supremacy, French statesman Jules Ferry declared in 1884, “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.”
In 1804, the peoples of Haiti organized a successful slave revolt, overthrowing the French invaders to become the first Black republic on earth. Terrified by this turn of events, in 1825 France forced the new nation to pay reparations in the amount of 150,000 francs (£200 billion today) — a debt that wasn’t settled until 1947. By that time, the African Independence Movement was fully underway. With conflicts rising in Algeria, the flame of freedom was sparked, and besieged nations — accounting for some 5% of the world’s population — liberated themselves from France’s reign of terror across the Global South.
As a Brazilian woman, Carolina Arantes intuitively understood the ways in which the structures of colonization permeate every facet of public and private life. After arriving in France in 2010, she felt kinship with other immigrants and first generation people hailing from the Global South, all trying to create a place for themselves in a foreign world after being forced to leave their homelands.
The seeds for First Génération were planted soon after her arrival. Looking at the children of the 1976 Family Reunification Act, which allowed African workers to bring their wives and families to France after a decade apart, Arantes was curious about how these women were able to honor and preserve their African roots while growing up in a European world.
In 2014, Arantes embarked on a project which included a series of photographs, archival objects, and first-person stories from 17 women between the ages of 24 and 46 as they searched for freedom and belonging, straddling the yawning divide between two worlds that could not be further apart.
“I don’t know if I can describe the feeling of not belonging,” says Maboula, a Dibula woman whose family hails from Ivory Coast. “I’m my parents’ daughter and at home I feel like I’m living in a world that is completely different and has nothing to do with what’s going on outside. Outside it’s white. Outside it’s French and outside it’s completely opposite to my life.”
At the same time, Maboula finds this difference intriguing and searches to discover a deeper understanding of her adopted lands. “I want to discover outside, I want to see what’s going on, I want to eat this way, dress this way. But it’s still not me,” she says. “What I can describe is maybe the frustration, the feeling of strangeness, all I can say is ‘I don’t know where home is.’”
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Through Carolina Arantes’ lens, we travel alongside these women as they embark on their daily journeys through France: attending school, working at jobs, visiting places of worship, running errands, spending time with family, and hanging out with friends. Here, in these quiet portraits of everyday life, Arantes bears witness to the challenges these women face in their search for a place where they truly can be at home.
Throughout First Génération, the women discuss issues of race, gender, identity, independence, partnership, and family with warmth and candor. Although they face misogynoir in a xenophobic culture, they forge their own paths, refusing to be cowed by the twin specters of white supremacy and patriarchy.
“What’s crazy and what people aren’t even able to understand is that we’re not asking to have a place of privilege or anything, we’re asking for a normal life,” says Mélanie. “We ask to be able to go out of our houses and not to think, well, what idiot am I going to meet today? How am I going to deal with them? How am I going to justify myself?”
Mélanie continues, “In France, you are asked to choose between being African or French. And I don’t want to choose. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I don’t have to choose and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I was born here…. There are times when I would just like to be me. I aspire to no longer have to calculate my identity.”
First Génération is published by FishEye Editions, 45€.