Within the past two years, French artist Camille Henrot has managed to find herself in the position as the art world’s critical darling. Seemingly absent from the discourse, however, is her attempt to play a dualrole as an anthropologist: Henrot’s practice is not only deeply seated in the physical process but also heavily incorporates archival elements to document human behaviour. Thus, her work inevitably raises the question – when does such reliance on foreign rituals and ideologies as artistic material begin to violate moral boundaries?
Henrot’s 2010 video Coupé/ Décalé (literally translated as “Cut/ Offset’) recalls amateur early filmmaking, similar to the type on which an anthropologist might have previously had to rely on whilst in the field. The colors are rich, the resolution grainy, and the continuous shaking of the handheld camera is a constant reminder of the filmmaker’s presence, emphasising that we are always merely observers of this unfamiliar culture. Recorded on 35mm film and lasting five minutes and 20 seconds, Coupé/ Décalé centers on young men from Pentecost Island in the Vanuatu archipelago, located in the South Pacific Ocean. The youths are tying liana vines around their ankles and jumping from a wooden platform a ritual that initially served as a rite of passage into adulthood, but is now primarily performed for tourist entertainment (one of those tourists being Henrot). The act is said to have been an early iteration of the modernday sport of bungee jumping, again emphasising Western appropriation of Southern Pacific cultures.
The film is split into two on the screen, creating a slight fraction of a second long time lag between the two halves. This fracturing, according to Henrot, addresses the “deconstruction of the original tradition and its reconstruction in the contemporary staging.”1 While Coupé/Décalé attempts to honorably confront the Western seizure (and later modification and commodification) of this once lifechanging ritual, one must also consider the video’s source. Henrot is a Caucasian European woman documenting what is essentially the manipulation of a sacred rite – a crime committed by the Western peoples from which she originates, and with whom she continues to work with in her daily life (the artist lives between Paris and New York). Henrot herself admits to the cultural appropriation that her work could be considered to embody: “I do not pretend I am handling concepts from anthropology without bias,” she says. “Somehow one could say that I have developed a ‘cargo cult’ for anthropology.”2 The term “cargo cult,” which once referred to the wealth that accompanied the arrival of white Western people to uncolonized societies, now denotes the human (and particularly Western) tendency to poach and incorporate elements of other cultures into their own lifestyle; often without completely understanding the true meaning of what was purloined.3
While Henrot uses the phrase to apparently excuse herself from any wrongdoing, her employment of the term is ironic. Coupé/Décalé is an exploitation of nonWestern culture in itself, as a French female artist is using elements of anthropological investigations from the South Pacific to further her burgeoning career.
Furthermore, “Coupé/Décalé” is also the name of a popular type of dance in the Ivory Coast. However, despite it’s overwhelming and primary popularity in Western Africa, the genre actually originated in Paris, France among Ivorian disc jockeys. Upon its inception in the early 2000s, the style rapidly gained popularity among the Ivorian diaspora in France, and soon spread back to the Ivory Coast, where it established itself as a mainstay in the music scene. In Nouchi (Ivorian slang), “Coupé” means “to cheat” and “Décalé” means to “run away;” the phrase essentially translates to the act of scamming and then abandoning somebody. This is especially significant given the subject matter of Camille Henrot’s video work. While the film Coupé/Décalé is not related to the Ivorian musical movement of the same name, it is important to note that the work’s title translates to both “Cut/Offset” and “to cheat and run away.” It is not without irony that the phrase “Coupé/Décalé” can be interpreted as deceiving someone before you make off with their belongings, and the fact that appropriation of culture is both the subject of and potential problem not only with Coupé/ Décalé but in Henrot’s work overall.
1 Camille Henrot. “C oupé/Décalé,” accessed 10 November 2015.
2 Cecilia Alemani, ‘Relations de Traduction,’ interview with the artist, Mousse (Issue 35, October November 2012).
3 Alemani, Cecilia, “Relations de Traduction,” (see Footnote 2).