The solitude of the cotton fields

Before a mystery, one must open oneself, reveal oneself entirely, in order to force the mystery to reveal itself in turn.(1)

The ‘deal’ represented in Bernard-Marie Koltès’ play, Dans la solitude des champs de coton, is defined by the playwright as a ‘commercial transaction that takes place with prohibited or strictly controlled values, and which is concluded in neutral, undefined spaces, not designed for such a use…’ The deal, thought of in this way, makes me think of everything that underlies an artistic project. Between the conceiver (the seller) and the prospective host or financer (the buyer or client), a negotiation takes place the nature of which neither protagonist is in a position to completely master. Unlike a calibrated, catalogued, identified commodity, the artwork finds itself situated in a blurry zone itself the product of the nature of the commodity up for exchange. Mohamed Bourouissa was certainly conscious of this when he left for a residence in the US with the intention of bringing two completely distinct, even contradictory worlds into cohabitation. The decision was not without an element of utopian humanism. But it is one thing to think of something in Paris, within the logic of a world you know your way around in, and it is another to multiply obstacles and initiate a process that is going to imply the participation of unknown actors in an unknown territory.

The work of the artist is to extract the best possible result from misunderstanding, agreeing to ‘reveal oneself completely in order to force the mystery to reveal itself in turn,’ turning your losses into wins. Bourouissa found himself in a space of confusion that forced him to rethink the very nature of the project he had envisioned. Faced with the spoken language of Black communities, language, for the artist, began to act as a metaphor for displacement and heteropia. How was it going to be possible to attain the planned result in a negotiation the parameters of which he did not have completely to hand? His desire to bring together ‘riders’ and artists for a fictional race brought forth a balance of power rich in lessons. What one ends up with is a double mise en abyme, where fiction and apparent reality get mixed up and become a single, blurred picture, as if a diptych had tried to tell a story that seemed to contain its own contradiction. This dichotomy is due to the distance between the viewer (the artist) and the viewed (the riders), without room for judgment: heterology is ‘an art of having it both ways’ that sets up a reversible scene where the last word does not necessarily go to the first subject of the discourse, and where critique does not stop short of the enunciator, but rather ricochets against him. Heterology, a place of experiment, takes on the risk of unbounded speech and constitutes a magnificent instrument for trying, in the words of François Jullien, ‘to evaluate in one place what is missing in another’(2) This is exactly the exercise Bourouissa tackles.

Having it both ways is an indispensable schizophrenia. A perpetual exercise in translation reflected in the scenography of given spaces and the artist’s other choices. It is the best form, at least the most intelligent, for telling a story based on lived experience, and to introduce into it blanks and amnesic spaces. Our brain works in no other way. We lie to ourselves when we think we remember, feeding the illusion that we are capable of reproducing a complete whole. Bourouissa has decided to operate with fragments, calibrating chosen pieces of material that, like in a jigsaw puzzle, cannot become completely intelligible until the spectator has been made to take a journey scattered with clues to which she may not have even given the necessary attention. There are objects and images, but not the ones we see. The artist manipulates a voluntary distortion that forces us to distrust appearances. The car bonnets, the horse, the drawings, the voices and films cannot be read at face value, like so many obvious givens, but rather as the pieces of an enigma to which the author himself does not have all the keys. The experience of putting oneself in the place of the other while continuing to say ‘I’ is one way of avoiding the trap of anthropology or ethnology. We are at the heart of a fiction and it is up to us to feel of what nature. The artist does nothing but offer us one version of his own understanding, without making axiomatic dogma out of it.

Simon Njami


1 Bernard-Marie Koltès, Dans la solitude des champs de coton, Paris, Minuit, 1986.
2 Michel Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’ (1967), in Dits et écrits, Vol. 4, Paris, Gallimard, 1984.