The Coordinates of Neocolonial (In)hospitality

Curator's Note

In keeping with the theme of "cinematic architecture," my post will focus on the politics of space in Ousmane Sembene's 'Le Noire de..." (1966), a film that chronicles the suffering of Diouana, a Senegalese guest-worker transplanted to Antibes, France, and her eventual suicide as a result of the subjugating regime of her employers' domestic arrangement.

The accompanying clip shows Diouana entering the living space of the villa before passing into the kitchen. Sembene frames "Madame" in a deep-focus shot that draws the viewer's attention to Diouana in the background, visible through multiple door frames. Through the use of deep focus and the multiple planes of the image, Sembene creates a virtual triangle composed of Madame-Monsieur-Diouana. Through this geometric construction, the film suggests the political economy that underpins and produces the design of the villa's closed floor plan: relegated to the nebulous 'background' of the household, Diouana's predicament finds expression through the arrangement of space, and through how this arrangement produces a sense of distinction between the now-qualitatively different coordinates of the villa; Madame's and Monsieur's 'natural' environment is the living area, in contradistinction to Diouana's foreclosed positioning.

It is the African mask located on the wall just outside of the kitchen that provides an opportunity to speak of this scene as describing the paradoxical (in)hospitality of the neocolonial space; no mere accidental prop, the mask was actually a gift from Diouana to her employers, given as a gesture of gratitude for their disingenuous 'invitation.' Its presence in the shot reminds us that Diouana's treatment is, among other things, a betrayal of the project of hospitality that always accompanies the inviting of guests into the home, even when these latter are circumscribed by an oxmoronic 'guest worker' label.

On this register, the triangular domestic arrangement of the clip also opens up the ambivalence of this undecidable (in)hospitality: it both disavows and anticipates an economy of substitution, equivalence, and exchange, invoking the capitalist circulation of goods and people, and the general equivalence of that arrangement. The promise and the threat of substitution is further suggested by the French word hôte, which can mean both 'host' and 'guest' depending on context, and which provides an opportunity to view the household as constituted--and thus also haunted--by the promise of equivalence, equality and similarity which its domestic space both invokes and denies.


I really like your discussion of hospitality here, Daniel, and Black Girl is a great choice to think about the politics of space. One thing that strikes me is the spatial arrangement of sound in the clip: while Monsieur and Madame can (over)see Diouana through the doorframes, she can *hear* them from her kitchen. There is thus a porosity to the apartment, but rather than producing equivalence, sound leaks impose hierarchy. Diouana can hear through these walls because of her position as domestic servant, where the masters feel free to air their dirty laundry as if they were alone (because she doesn't count as a person). They also talk about her as if she wasn't there - this is another form of haunting that haunts the film; a proleptic erasure of the black girl who really won't be there by the end.

Daniel, thank you for this terrific post. I'm fascinated by your discussion of triangulation in domestic space, as well as substitution. Rosalind's observation about the sonic qualities of the space also make me think about Ousmane Sembene's other uses of porous space. Specifically, I'm thinking here about Moolaadé and the magical protective space of the colored rope. In that film, protective architecture is so slight as to be inexistent, yet its ritualistic power creates an impenetrable barrier against harm. In enormous contrast to the modern space of Madame and Monsieur's urban apartment, the moolaadé allows all manner of light, sound, and other sensory information to pass through while still preventing exposure to the most injurious of elements. Although modern European architecture often privileges transparency and flow, as you so deftly explain here, those flows and transparencies are only accessible by certain figures; more so, they can become means of oppression as opposed to liberation. In the moolaadé, however, Sembene finds a radical openness that is truly transparent, open to experience, and safe. Unlike the false hospitality of Madame and Monsieur's apartment, the moolaadé offers a flexible place for justice, and the protection, rather than continued exploitation, of the oppressed.

I'm really grateful to Galt's and Szczepaniak-Gillece's posts, both of which unpack dimensions of the clip - and of Sembene's cinematic project - that I had either not considered or under-privileged. In Galt's post, the figure of prolepsis is an invaluable contribution. I have been trying to think through the significance of prolepsis and metalepsis in terms of postcolonial cinematic formations, and I am particularly drawn to the way in which formal techniques indicate sites of predetermination, metonymic equivalence and catachestic representation. As for Diouna in the featured clip, her pre-emptive foreclosure raises the related questions of agency and manueverability; that is, if she is figured as socially dead by the coordinated inhospitality of the household, then the ambivalence of her physical death and the question of whose agency has produced this tragedy becomes central to working through the significance of the suicide as a rhetorical gesture. In contrast to the subtle montage of most of the rest of the film, the suicide scene is a strange, fragmented combination of seen and unseen elements. One could read this formal doubling as a mode of indicating the doubled nature of the suicide: that fact that it has already, on the level of architectural hierarchy, been accomplished in the social field. A central question: does Diouana's suicide serve as a final, traumatic acting out against an oppressive regime, or is it a grim confirmation of the social death that has always already figured her as erased? One of the things I appreciate the most about Sembene's films - and the reason I am so thankful for Szczepaniak-Gillece's post - is the way in which form comes to serve a doubling function for the thematic concerns. David Murphy mentions the binaries of presence/absence and voice/silence in his study of Sembene, both of which have come up in this ongoing discussion. Szczepaniak-Gillece introduces another one that I find immensely useful: that of transparency/opacity. I had not really considered Moolaade as much as some of his less recent films, but I am anxious to revisit it in light of the insight tht this discussion has afforded me. Thank you both!

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