Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Circuits of VisibilityGender and Transnational Media Cultures$

Radha S. Hegde

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814737309

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814737309.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM NYU Press SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.nyu.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of NYU Press Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in NYSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 18 October 2019

“Recycling” Heroines in France

“Recycling” Heroines in France

Coutured Identities and Invisible Transitions

(p.124) 7 “Recycling” Heroines in France
Circuits of Visibility

Julie Thomas

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the media space of the Petit Palais museum in Paris and its remaking of immigrant women as producers and consumers of commodified nationalism. For the exhibition of Petit Palais entitled “L'Etoffe des heroines,” thirteen women who are members of various disenfranchised and marginal publics from diasporic communities dealing with issues of immigration were trained in couture practice and encouraged to design and customize garments by recycling and using old secondhand clothing donated by the charitable association Emmaus. Like the garments that they produce, these women are portrayed in the mediascape of the museum as sewing for themselves the “right stuff” of accomplished French heroines from the raw material of their old identities. The national, global, and transnational museum audience is thus led to the conclusion that the proof of the marginalized women's ability to recycle culture in the production of appropriately coutured identities now entitles them to become full consumers of the stuff of culture.

Keywords:   Petit Palais, immigrant women, commodified nationalism, marginalized women, recycled culture, coutured identities

Museum exhibitions often present significant, if rarely analyzed, examples of framing group identities and masking cultural divides by presenting culturally hegemonic definitions of identity. In the contemporary mediated space of the museum, technologies of display may be manipulated in service to a variety of goals: mediation between cultures, naturalization of the nation, presentation of difference as spectacle, or promotion of cultural diversity. In a critique of museums, Tony Bennett argues that museums are civic laboratories where distinctive forms of cultural objecthood are produced and social relations regulated. They are “machineries implicated in the shaping of civic capacities.”1 Since museums, as James Clifford writes, “work the borderlands between different worlds, histories, and cosmologies,”2 these mediated spaces have gained renewed importance in the context of migration and transnational identities. Museums not only serve as custodians of national culture and regulate populations, but they also reveal how and to what extent the culture defines itself as open or closed to transnational mobility.

Exhibitions are thus beginning to be recognized as important communicative media,3 contributing to contemporary national and international mediascapes, which

are exploited by nation-states to pacify separatists or even the potential fissiparousness of all ideas of difference. Typically, contemporary nation-states do this by exercising taxonomic control over difference, by creating various kinds of international spectacle to domesticate difference, and by seducing small groups with the fantasy of self-display on some sort of global or cosmopolitan stage.4

The visual display of museums, as a national archive, particularly lends itself to a reproduction or evocation of conventional images of national or ethnic identity, which remain active in the hierarchical ordering of culture and ways of being especially when “others” are the focus of attention. The objects of the gaze of the museum spectator are reduced and deprived of agency even as they are framed by the mediation of the exhibitionary display, managed by the operative cultural narrative, and removed from the world of privilege inhabited by the active viewer. Commenting on the photographs of the National Geographic, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins note that production of cultural difference is often visualized as (p.125) dependent on whether or not “individuals or groups … hold on to their own culture or decide to go modern”—modernity in this case being defined as “associated with valuing money and Western commodities, and accumulating goods.”5 In the context of global consumerism, appropriate culture(s) are similarly commodified and are transformed into goods to be valued and acquired.

In France, cultural policy actively envisions the role of national museums as media to preserve and propagate the patrimoine—the national heritage—as cultural model. The official website of the Ministry of Culture and Communication explicitly states that this is one of its essential missions and that since the 1970s policy has aimed to place culture at the heart of the life of people, while guaranteeing to all the right of access to la culture.6 The importance of the role of the Ministry of Culture and Communication lies in its power to conflate French identity, citizenship, and participation in the national culture and also in its evocation of a right to access an established definition of culture, rather than a right to express cultural identity. As Catherine Ballé has pointed out, this right of access manifests itself in a policy that appears on the surface to be one of democratization:

Cultural democratization is an explicit objective of the Ministry of Culture and Communication. As for the museums, most of them have developed strategies addressed to the entire population. With such a goal, every social category is taken into account and, in a marketing approach, becomes a “target group” liable to become the object of a specific action.7

From June 29 to August 19, 2007, the Petit Palais (Museum of Fine Arts of the City of Paris) mounted an exhibition entitled “L’Etoffe des héroines” (The Stuff, or Material of Heroines), which presented the successful completion of the cultural project of the designer Sakina M’sa, undertaken in cooperation with the Petit Palais. This project was described in the text displayed at the entrance to the exhibition as a “workshop of insertion through fashion and the creation of clothing.”8 The thirteen women who volunteered to participate in this project were identified as members of various disenfranchised and marginal publics from diasporic communities dealing with issues of immigration, or perhaps excluded from the mainstream by age rather than cultural affiliation or identity, thus, to rephrase Lowenthal, making age rather than the past “a foreign country.”9 The women were trained in couture practice and encouraged to design and customize garments by recycling and using old secondhand clothing donated by the charitable association Emmaus. This customization was defined in the “Communiqué de Presse” as “the action of personalizing and transforming a garment with the goal of making it unique. It does not mean inventing garments, but reinventing them so they may be reborn to a new life.”10

The artistic collections of the museum set the creative standards against which the creations of the participants were judged. At the entrance to the exhibition, (p.126) the role of the museum was extolled in the text: “The Petit Palais affirms itself as a site of life and exchange, open onto the world.” Sakina’s project, on the other hand, was defined as a “project of cultural development with a social aim … conforming to the political mission of the city [of Paris].” Indeed, the “Communiqué de Presse” issued by the Petit Palais in June 2007 echoes the official policy of the Ministry of Culture and Communication by confirming that the Petit Palais has, for the past fifteen years, been concerned with organizing access to a public distanced from cultural offerings.

Through a discourse analysis of the intended and alternative readings of the visual and verbal museum text,11 this chapter analyzes how couture is socially constructed as the entrance to culture for these marginalized women, whose transnational identities seem to matter only insofar as they prove a transitional step in the process of being recycled. Like the garments that they produce, these women are portrayed in the mediascape of the museum as sewing for themselves the “right stuff” of accomplished French heroines from the raw material of their old identities. The national, global, and, indeed, transnational museum audience (French visitors, tourists, and the very culturally disparate and transnational public of Paris residents) is thus led to the conclusion that the proof of the marginalized women’s ability to recycle culture(s) in the production of appropriately coutured identities now entitles them to become full consumers of the stuff of culture. Ironically, the participants also act as mirrors to confirm and reinforce a neoliberal version of modernity as consumption of commodified culture. Ultimately, the representation of the recycled identities is in turn meant to reflect the spectators’ own successfully cultivated identities.

Citizenship as Spectatorship

According to the press releases for the exhibition, as well as the texts that greet the viewer at the entrance to the exhibition, the Petit Palais, first constructed in 1900 for the International Exhibition to represent French national and cultural identity to the world, is continuing its mission as an active cultural institution. This mission is undertaken in cooperation with the Mission of Integration of the City of Paris, which aims to “integrate French citizens of foreign origins12 into the life of Paris by giving value to their cultural origins, promoting their access to their rights, and fighting against racial or ethnic discrimination.”13

The couture workshop, the focus of the exhibition, required a commitment from the volunteer participants of attendance once a week for six months, beginning November 2006. The participants, described in the press release as “for the most part, immigrants,” were encouraged through lectures and discussions on various works of art in the collection of the Petit Palais to consider four aesthetic (p.127) themes which would aid them in the customization of their own garments: Materials and Contrasts, Motifs and Colours, Silhouettes and Representations of the Body, and The Displayed and The Hidden.

The text of the press release clearly captures the benevolent stance of the nation toward its immigrants. The press release states that the women will be led to develop their faculties of perception and analysis and their mastery of language and self-expression through attending the lectures in the museum. They would also acquire some of the history and social customs of their host country and would experience the liberty of circulating in the museum, a space and history which would otherwise have been foreign to them. This experience is equated to the freedom of being at liberty in the city itself, which had hitherto represented a restricted zone and experience for them14—the assumption being that, given their marginal status, the women have not felt at ease culturally in the public space of the nation.

The way in which the immigrant women were brought into visibility in the Petit Palais was a comment on the very meaning of citizenship in a context of global mobility. As Ursula Huws notes, the term citizen comes to stand in for concepts such as participation, equality, and democracy.15 Embedded in the concept of citizenship is also the normalized civilizational superiority of the West in contrast to its Other. Thus, the implication that these women had not previously enjoyed the freedom of the city reinforces the impression that until their participation in the project, they had not truly been citizens in any functional sense, whatever their legal status might have been. In fact, they had been foreigners until they became accustomed to circulating in the museum. Learning through spatial stories is a characteristic feature of the medium of the museum, but it is also what constitutes familiarity, as de Certeau shows:

The opacity of the body in movement, gesticulating, walking, taking its pleasure, is what indefinitely organizes a here in relation to an abroad, a “familiarity” in relation to a “foreignness.” A spatial story is in its minimal degree a spoken language, that is, a linguistic system that distributes place insofar as it is articulated by an “enunciatory focalization,” by an act of practicing it. …Space appears once more as a practiced place.16

Further, the project in its design reduces the experiences of the women participants to the fact of their sex rather than taking into account the totality of their experience. This removes them from the collectivity both existentially and politically and, as Nira Yuval-Davis writes, results in women being set apart from the body politic and hence retained in an object rather than a subject position.17 For the imagined global audience of French and foreign visitors to the exhibition, the “transnational” identities of these women is easily submerged in their “otherness” as women and the commodification of both their ethnicity and the gendered body. (p.128) This results in a manipulation that masks the production of global hierarchies, which are simultaneously gendered and racialized.18

The ability to be at ease with circulation or free movement, acquired over weeks of practice during the project by the participants, is exactly the quality which the visitors to the exhibition exude as they navigate through the space of the displays. The spectators become both models for and witnesses of the women’s transformation and can engage in a self-congratulatory vicarious journey themselves. More interestingly, the new citizens, through the time lag between completing the project and the exhibition, are now emplaced to be the spectators of their own transformation and to trace their own initiation into spectatorship. Citizenship thus becomes equated not only with freedom of movement but also with the informed spectatorship necessary if the museum audience is to consume culture appropriately.

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam identify multiple registers necessary to any comprehensive and historically situated ethnography of spectatorship: the spectator as fashioned by the text, by the technical apparatuses, by the institutional contexts of spectatorship, and by ambient discourses and ideologies and the spectator as “embodied, raced, gendered, and historically situated.”19 Although the participants, now spectators, satisfy the first four of these conditions as they are fashioned during the course of the exhibition, they only become embodied once they have satisfactorily completed the journey from the invisibility of being foreign to the visibility that arises as a result of familiarity, of cultural citizenship.

Couture and Culture: Visible and Invisible

The creator of the project, Sakina M’sa, is herself a member of a diasporic community, having come to Marseilles as a child with her family from the Comoros Islands. She emphasizes the need for garments to express the individual identity of the wearer, to communicate history and a sense of place; she sews a label with the “birth date” of the garment on each one of her creations and expresses dislike of conventional “designer labels.”20 The garments themselves thus acquire agency and identity, and this concept is in fact crucial to the narrative of the exhibition. Previously M’sa has worked with the transformative powers of couture in several senses: the transformation of garments in terms of function and design (the use of recycled materials, for example, or remaking dresses into trousers) and also the ability of couture to transform human lives, as in the project she began more than ten years ago in which she runs workshops with the marginalized and disenfranchised as a method of offering self-esteem and possibly the opportunity of a new profession.21 Daika, the association founded to promote couture as a tool of integration, is based on the principle that clothing and fashion today are (p.129) vehicles of reinvention and adaptation. The official press release of the exhibition emphasizes Sakina M’sa’s commitment to encourage diversity in society.22

These platforms prove problematic when considering the project as mediated by the Petit Palais in the exhibition—the diversity of the participants remains for the most part hardly identified and certainly unexplored. Rather than avoiding any stereotyping of the individuals, which was perhaps what was intended, this absence has the effect of reducing the participants to an amorphous whole representing immigrants or marginalized women or even diversity—diversity as otherness, an otherness foreign to the French culture into which they are being initiated. Couture is definitely presented as an agent of transformation and an active terrain of culture—certainly an affirmation of French culture. Indeed, the display of couture in the Fine Arts Museum of the Petit Palais confirms the status of haute couture as an integral and active element in the constitution of postmodern French cultural identity, an identity which is, of course, being commodified and sold to the many foreign tourists and visitors to the exhibition as well as to the local French audience. The familiarity with the museum which has been acquired throughout the project and which has become the sign of the participants’ citizenship is embodied in the garments, which they have constructed during this time in the public space of the museum. As signifiers, the garments acquire a form of agency that is for the most part denied to the women themselves, who are reified as objects to be worked on in the process of transformation and initiation into full French cultural citizenship, rather than as active subjects.

The museum becomes a space of visual discipline prescribing cultural conformity to those who are outside on the margins of the nation. Commenting on the phenomenon of cultural security, Alison Beale writes that the use of culture as a tool is being increasingly used in Europe for a variety of government projects designed for the absorption of refugee and immigrant populations and mitigating conflict between these groups and native populations. This cultural surveillance, echoed in the project described here, indicates a return to assimilationist policies which have significant impact on further marginalizing the status of women.23 The affirmation of French culture represented by the exhibition is accomplished through these women, rather than by them—their participation in the project has merely granted them the faceless freedom of strolling or roaming in the city of culture, not a role in its shaping.

There is also another social project and campaign in which Sakina M’sa is actively involved and which was included in and publicized by the exhibition—the “Appel des 93.” This campaign, led by ninety-three personalities, was mobilized to change the public image of the Seine-Saint-Denis area—a suburb with the postal code 93 and the reputation of being an immigrant enclave marked by poverty, violence, and civil unrest. This project was motivated by the statement of (p.130) young students that being from “93” was a cultural label which, no matter how hard they tried, could not be removed, giving rise to the “Remove the Label” campaign.24 Young members of this campaign, residents of Seine-Saint-Denis, were invited to pose in their chosen “special” places of the neighborhood, wearing some of the garments created as part of the project or some of the garments from Sakina M’sa’s own autumn/winter 2007 collection. The resulting photographs, taken by Benoit Peverelli, with the accompanying commentaries of the young models, were displayed in one of the rooms of the exhibition.

Diana Crane, commenting on women’s performance of dress at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, relates that working women were often allowed to wear male-gendered (and thus inappropriate) clothing when in the workplace (such as factories) because they were considered invisible.25 The factory was not public space but liminal space. Immigrant and marginalized women today are often equally invisible because they work in positions such as domestic help or child-care providers or engage in housework—in private space. Sweatshop work is perhaps one of the most notorious and extreme examples of this invisibility. Emphasis on sweatshop work also demonstrates the very class-informed assumption that skills and/or interest in sewing are possessed by most women from so-called traditional cultures across a wide range of ethnic and national origins. The bourgeois and upper-class manifestation of this stereotype is the unquestioned commonplace that women everywhere share an interest in fashion and the consumption and performance of clothing. One of the most overarching globalized and heavily mediated myths of modernity is that, cultural diversity and class aside, all women share involvement in couture: however, even if this myth is accepted at face value, immigrant and marginalized women are often relegated to performing their involvement invisibly, through the actual practice of sewing in the liminal space of the workshop or the private, domestic space of the home, whereas the public performance of fashion is the practice of fully fledged, visible members of the community—citizens, as it were.

An interesting feature of the “Stuff of Heroines” project is that the participants not only attended lectures at the Petit Palais but also had their workshop in the Petit Palais, thus bringing their previously invisible practice out into public space and confirming their newly acquired status as partakers of the culture which grants them visibility. However, it was not for them to dignify their creations through the actual performance of wearing/introducing the clothing which they had created in the public sphere—this task was reserved for young people, the youth who are the most visible in contemporary consumer society and whose imprimatur is necessary to validate any transformation.

(p.131) Further, these youth also embodied the physical movement from the periphery, or margin, to the center—their photographs wearing the garments placed them and the garments firmly in the marginalized area of Seine-Saint-Denis, but these photographs were displayed in the central cultural sphere of the museum, dignifying both their role in the project and the garments created by the female participants. Here is another level of enactment, but one which illustrates the circularity and complexity of the center-periphery flow of cultural relations in terms of gender, race, citizenship (and age) in the commodification of diversity and marginalization. First, appearing here as models are both young men and women who are not being asked to sew couture to acquire their place in the center of culture but simply to perform their ease of mobility in the mainstream. As youth, the young models may validate the transformative nature of the garments, but the garments validate the presence of the marginalized community of the youth of 93—and the presence of the images of their accustomed marginalized home space of the banlieu (the suburb)—in the central public space of culture that is the museum. It is not only in production but also in the consumption of what is produced that the right of those on the margins to claim and access centrality is proven. As Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan note, cultural flows are not necessarily one way—they are multifaceted in their ability to accommodate collaboration of all kinds.26

The narrative of this exhibition in terms of couture, culture, diversity, and the creation of community may be compared with the approach of another exhibition “Fil de Trois” (Thread of Three), also held in 2007, at the Centre de Création Contemporaine 2angles in Flers, Normandy. This gallery and arts center sponsors residences for artists particularly having to do with the themes of urbanism and cultural diversity.27 In July 2007, the artist Danielle Lebreton, one of the three female artists whose project was documented and exhibited in the “Fil de Trois” exhibition, conceived and carried out a project entitled “2angles fillette” (Little Girl), in which women from the many diverse cultural and ethnic communities of the industrial town of Flers were asked to participate. The women from this economically depressed town were asked to create dresses for all the schoolgirls of Flers between the ages of five and six, who would then each wear and take away a dress at the end of the exhibition. In this project, the conflation of women and couture was used to create a community consciousness, which capitalized rather than effaced the transnational identities of the participants. It must be noted that the dresses that were created conformed to the traditional French image of an appropriate dress for a little girl, rather than expressing the cultural diversity of the participants, thus confirming the primacy of the French place/space in the creation of community. This results in an ironic construction of couture (p.132) as an avenue to building alternate community awareness, as opposed to the more hegemonic cultural reinforcements offered by haute couture. Lebreton, in the statement of purpose that defines the vision behind her artistic practice of the past fifteen years, emphasized,

It has to do with shaping the space of lived experience into a logic which is neither economic nor aesthetic, but which puts the artistic action in a very close relation with daily or practical life, so that it may be confused with life itself and may reveal another, eccentric point of view which has now been integrated and granted its own role and function.28

The Stuff of Heroines: Viewing the Exhibition

It is now time to become the spectators and to assume the role of the media audience for the exhibition in order to follow the thread of this stuff and examine how these heroines have been constructed. First it should be remembered that as spectators in the social space of a museum exhibition, we follow what Henri Lefebvre identifies as a “logic of visualization,” which seems to merge with a logic of “constant metaphorization.”29

The very title of the exhibition, “L’Etoffe des Héroines”—aside from the pun on l’etoffe (“stuff,” “material”), as fabric as well as spiritual or cultural content—has added resonance for the French audience, as L’Etoffe des Héros was the French title of the 1983 American film The Right Stuff. Thus, associations of courage, astronauts aiming for the stars, and embodiment of cultural values of patriotism and loyalty are reinforced.

At the beginning of the exhibition, we find ourselves in a darkened room, greeted on one side by a long formal white dress on which is scrawled in pencillike handwriting the word disobedience, followed by the phrase “Centre of great/grand ambitions.” The writing on the dress itself is primary proof of “disobedience”; however, as this dress is evocative of the wedding dress which traditionally closes couture runway shows, some further forms of reversal or “disobedience” of the rules is immediately evident. Here the dress is opening the “show” and setting the tone, which is reinforced by a later wall text telling us that these women, in customizing their own garments and reworking/transforming the secondhand clothing supplied by Emmaus, have integrated elements of their own cultures and learned how to cross the boundaries of traditional codes by following this principle of “disobedience.”

We are not, however, given further evidence of how they have integrated their own cultures or details about how they have actually crossed the boundaries of traditional codes in everyday life, as promised by the organizers. The conversion of dress styles requiring the women to convert, for example, trousers into skirts (p.133) is hardly subversive. Clearly the mere fact of being immigrants circulating in a museum is made to stand in for the crossing of boundaries. Here resistance is being evoked and enacted as a tool for inclusion, and the crossing over to the center of culture for the marginalized women both represents the fulfillment of a grand ambition and confirms the preconception that ambitions are only to be realized and fulfilled at the center of European modernity.

But what are the distinct cultures that the women, as we are told, have integrated into their work? And who are these women? On the opposite wall, we see a bulletin board which resembles a school bulletin board, with schoolwork. On closer inspection, we see these are the letters of the thirteen participants, written at the beginning of the project in answer to Sakina M’sa’s question, “Et toi, comment la robe est arrivée dans ta vie?” or, literally, “How did ‘dress’ first enter your life?” The use of the familiar second-person pronoun toi here emphasizes the easy familiarity and equality of the workshop—but all children are also addressed as toi. The presumed familiarity along the visual resonance of the school-like bulletin board and the fact that most of the letters, because of the inflection of the question, involve reminiscences of childhood infantilize the participants and make them emerge childlike, as beginners in their education process. This effect is reinforced by the fact that although Sakina M’sa herself has written a letter, her essay letter is longer and thus more visible than the others—she is the teacher, the leader. Further, as these reminiscences for the most part are rooted in the participants’ individual non-French cultural and ethnic pasts, these “pasts” also become, by association, a “sign” of their cultural childhood—a childhood that will be educated and elevated through contact with French culture during the project. This appeal to individual memory and feelings of personal nostalgia is juxtaposed later in the exhibition with images of works of art in the museum collection, thus equating and in some measure replacing individual memory with what Andreas Huyssen might term the “public media memory” of the museum.30

The emphasis on “education” is even more significant if we recall that in The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu argues that for culture to fulfill its ideological function of class cooptation, the link between culture and education, “which is simultaneously obvious and hidden, [must] be forgotten, disguised and denied.”31 However, here education is being highlighted rather than disguised as an important element of culture. The underpinnings of the power—the cultural capital—which education confers is being exposed because the spectators, in the process of knowing that such culture did not in fact come naturally to the participants, will be reassured in the possession of their own cultural knowledge. Having acquired their culture openly through education, the participants may become citizens, but they will never be perceived as equal; they will remain as the Other—transformed but still other. So who are these others who are about to be (p.134) educated? Although their letters are signed, it is only after a close reading that we learn some details about the individual women, and only in a few cases are the reminiscences located in places such as Senegal or Haiti, for example. Will the spectator spend the time to read these letters? And, even if so, will the audience wonder if this is a satisfactory way of removing the labels? The individual backgrounds and transnational identities of the participants become blurred.

Turning away from the bulletin board, we notice a large table in the middle of the entry room, on which a collage of images has been pasted. These images consist of photographs from fashion magazines and advertising which, obeying the rule of “questioning” and “disobedience” of contemporary cultural standards of publicity, have been cut up, taken apart, and reassembled to create new, more subversive images. This display echoes the school-like, ludic effect of the bulletin board, foreshadows the reworking of the actual garments to create new images, and it hints at the simultaneous reworking of identity—the goal of the project. Once again, superficial subversion is used in service to eventual conformity within an accepted hegemonic framework.

Walking into the exhibition down the long hall, a series of displays shows us the range of secondhand clothing that has been used—the raw material of the before—grouped with the tools of couture used in transformation and supported by an audio background of the disembodied voices of the women talking, laughing, and discussing their work. An aural space is created where we cannot see the women but can only hear them; we feel surrounded by them and momentarily become part of their community. It is at this point that the two levels of spectatorship mentioned earlier begin to operate—we are with the women, being faceless spectators at their own transformation. In a photograph, we see some of the women seated before a painting in a gallery of the Petit Palais, listening to a lecture, but their backs are to the camera and their faces are hidden. They remain raw material, an amorphous group, in the process of being transformed and not yet fit or ready to be seen as individuated citizens. A wall text informs us that none of the women was accustomed to going to museums, but they had been socialized into the practice by the workshop. The aesthetic diversity of the museum is also praised as a source of inspiration, but the ethnic diversity and indeed the possible diversity of aesthetic values of the participants themselves is not mentioned.

Now, in the next displays, the results of the “recycling” appear—the garments which the women have constructed are exhibited. On the level of couture, the garments demonstrate that a certain transformation has been successfully accomplished; here, once again, the garments stand in for the women and suggest the existence of their culturally acceptable bodies, which have not yet appeared. The display of these completed garments terminates the first half of the exhibition (p.135) and prepares us for a pause, or break, in the narrative, accentuated by the physical movement necessary in order to complete the visit.

We exit onto a staircase and cross the landing to enter a room of transition in which a story entitled “The Swan”32 can be listened to with earphones. A storyteller also participated in the workshop, and we read that this use of storytelling serves the function of an “Open Sesame” in the museum interface, to open the door for participants to connect the narrative of “The Swan” with their work—and with their own transformations. This use of storytelling reminds the spectator of the ludic, schoolroom atmosphere of the introduction to the exhibition, as well as providing a link with the fantasy, fairy-tale quality of the project.

At this point, the “rebirth” of these heroines is assured; yet they still exist as an unseen collective, their recycled garments standing in for their presumably recycled identities. The faces that are seen at the end of this room are the faces of the young models of Seine-Saint-Denis, whose photographs wearing the garments, together with their comments on “93,” provide a crucial element in the rationale of the exhibition. The garments are validated through being accepted and worn by the youth of Seine-Saint-Denis, just as the collective identity of the “93” is broadened and enriched through the garments, which in turn acquire further significance. The garments do more than simply stand for the “reconstructed” identities of the participants; they serve as active facilitators of identity and transformation. In fact, instead of remaining as just symbols of transition, the garments acquire a life of their own, apart from their creators, confirming the success and worth of the project and of the museum itself.

But Where Are the Heroines?

In the last section of the exhibition, we finally see the faces of the women in a video in which the women talk about their work. However, their testimony is interspersed with images of works in the galleries of the Petit Palais. Have they also become part of the valued collection of the museum? They have, after all, been created for the exhibition and now can be seen to inhabit the freedom of the public space of the museum and Paris. In fact, as mediated images, they exist as a documentation of their project; they have taken on their true form as testifying witnesses to the power and the implicit hegemonies of culture.

As the visitor exits the exhibition, framed photographs of twelve of the women line the walls, and underneath the portraits, each one has signed her first name in chalk, reminding the visitor of the original school bulletin board. The names—the unframed raw material—have now become the framed face, transformed by and endowed with French cultural capital, finding full identity visually only after being “recycled.” Their names, which reflect their origins and their diverse individual, (p.136) ethnic, and cultural identities, are the only remaining infantilized clues of their history and former selves.

At the exit, the obligatory small exhibition shop sells examples of Sakina M’sa’s couture products. Here a final wall text informs the visitor how the participants have benefited from the project. Three of the participants, we learn, have been permanently hired by the association Daika. In addition, we are told that “the discovery of paintings, the acquisition of knowledge about couture, the discovery of their creative capacities have given confidence to the participants. They have looked for work, enlarged their network, signed up for further training, taken their children to museums.” The spectator should now not only welcome these women to the freedom of the center of French culture but should even identify with them. At this stage, the women, like the visitor, have participated in the ritual of museumgoing and have become familiar with the traditional ritual site of museum space, which “is carefully marked off and culturally designated as special, reserved for a particular kind of contemplation and learning experience.”33

The French visitor might also remember that André Malraux remarked in Museum without Walls (Le Musée Imaginaire) that “the museum was an affirmation”34—in contrast to the “museum without walls,” which is an interrogation. Although we are now in postmodern, rather than in Malraux’s modern, France, the museum continues to affirm rather than to interrogate. The multicultural diasporic communities represented by the women taking part in this project are literally invisible, as are their own identities. The women only acquire faces once they, like their raw material of secondhand garments, have been recycled and are appropriate representatives of integration with the national culture. Now that they have acquired confidence and self-esteem, they no longer feel they are in a restricted zone when they navigate as citizens in the public space of the museum that contains the treasure of French culture.

The transnational does not speak in this narrative. The fluidity of immigrant cultures which straddle nations has been diverted to flow into an all-encompassing reservoir of acceptability. The museum of colonialism, which highlighted difference in order to establish and justify cultural superiority, has morphed into the contemporary museum, in which the shifting qualities of the transnational are tamed in service to the goal of cultural assimilation. Cultural institutions such as museums in France follow the official policy of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, which guarantees citizens the right to have access to the cultural patrimoine of France. This places the expression of transnational cultural identities as secondary and subservient, often depicted only in order to confirm the dominant power of the patrimoine, a culture which has been commodified for public consumption. The museum both offers a cultural commodity and produces (p.137) citizens who have been educated in the proper way to consume it—citizens who are not only comfortable as spectators but are themselves “fit to be seen,” at ease in the public spaces of the nation.

As noted earlier, this public visibility as offered to the participants of “L’Etoffe des Heroines” is both part of the process of their integration and a crucial sign of their successful assimilation. Further, as women, their gendered bodies serve to mask their ethnicities and their dual otherness, conflated and more easily manipulated in service to the triumph of the dominant cultural values. At the same time, they themselves are reduced and objectified in the final video by being juxtaposed with images of works from the collection of the Petit Palais. The fact that the designer Sakina M’sa is herself an immigrant lends authenticity and rectitude to the narrative of the exhibition and raises issues about the appropriation by the dominant culture of the successfully integrated other.35 Her own ethnicity is here commodified to lend credibility to the cultural work of mediating and perpetuating the myth of modernity. To become modern, one has to be the recipient of a civilizing education, which here implies a replacement of previous practices in favor of appropriate forms of consumption. Behavior, like the garments that are featured in the exhibition, must be customized, reinvented, so that the participants “may be reborn to a new life.”36 The message of these heroines suggests otherwise—integration for marginalized women in France demands the invisibility of the transnational.


(1.) Tony Bennett, “Civic Laboratories: Museums, Cultural Objecthood, and the Governance of the Social,” Working Paper No. 2, CRESC Working Paper Series (Milton Keynes: Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, Open University, 2005).

(2.) James Clifford, “Museums as Contact Zones,” in David Boswell and Jessica Evans, eds., Representing the Nation (London: Routledge, 1999), 451.

(3.) Flora Kaplan, “Exhibitions as Communicative Media,” in Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, ed., Museum, Media, Message (London: Routledge, 1999), 37–58.

(4.) Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 39.

(5.) Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, Reading National Geographic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 240–241.

(6.) “Depuis sa création, l’une des missions essentielles du ministère de la Culture est de rendre accessibles au plus grand nombre le patrimoine architectural et artistique ainsi que les œuvres de création contemporaine … Dès le début des années 70, apparaît la notion de développement culturel pour nommer une politique destinée à mettre la culture au cœur de la vie des gens, répondant aussi à l’obligation de l’État d’assurer à chacun l’exercice de son droit à la culture.” Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, “Développement culturel,” www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/politique-culturelle/accueil.htm (accessed January 28, 2009). See also Dominique Poulot, Patrimoine et Musées (Paris: Hachette, 2001); and Catherine Ballé and Dominique Poulot, (p.138) Musées en Europe (Paris: La Documentation Française, 2004).

(7.) Catherine Ballé, “Democratization and Institutional Change: A Challenge for Modern Museums,” in Diana Crane, Nobuko Kawashima, and Ken’ichi Kawasaki, eds., Global Culture: Media, Arts, Policy, and Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2002), 142.

(8.) All texts displayed at the exhibition and cited here and throughout the chapter were in French. The texts were transcribed by the author in a visit to the exhibition in August 2007 and then translated by the author.

(9.) David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

(10.) Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. “Communiqué de Presse,” June 4, 2007. Translation by the author. “Depuis une quinzaine d’années, par le biais de son Service éducatif et cultural, le Petit Palais a eu à cœur d’organiser l’accès et l’accompagnement des publics eloignés de l’offre culturelle. … La customisation est l’action de personnaliser et transformer un vetement dans le but de le rendre unique. Elle permet non pas d’inventer des vetements, mais de les réinventer et de les faire renaitre pour une nouvelle vie.”

(11.) Here, the exhibition is considered as separate from the project itself, but as defining the project for the public.

(12.) “Foreign” is defined here as not coming from European Union member states.

(13.) Dossier de presse, “L’Etoffe des Héroines” (Service éducatif et culturel du Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, 2007). Translation by the author.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Ursula Huws, “Women, Participation, and Democracy in the Information Society,” in Katharine Sarikakis and Leslie Regan Shade, eds., Feminist Interventions in International Communication: Minding the Gap (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 45.

(16.) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 130.

(17.) Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation (London: Sage, 1997), 47.

(18.) Radha Hegde, “Feminist Media Studies—Transnational,” in Wolfgang Donsbach, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Communication (Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2008), 1794–1799.

(19.) Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994), 350.

(20.) Severine Maublanc, “Sakina M’sa, Créatrice Capitale,” Latences (Paris) 2 (Summer 2007). Translation by the author.

(21.) Ibid.

(23.) Alison Beale, “The Expediency of Women,” in Katharine Sarikakis and Leslie Regan Shade, eds., Feminist Interventions in International Communications: Minding the Gap (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 68.

(24.) L’Appel des 93, http://www.appeldes93.fr/(accessed July 8, 2008). Also see B.S., “Expo cet été au Petit Palais,” Le Parisien (May 24, 2007); and J.D., “La Seine-Saint Denis ou l’éloge de la diversité,” Metro (November 15, 2006).

(25.) Diana Crane, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 199–231.

(26.) Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, “Introduction: Transnational Feminist Practices and Questions of Postmodernity,” in Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds., Scattered Hegemonies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 1–33. For further remarks on the inadequacy (p.139) of the center-periphery model, see also Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, “Warrior Marks: Global Womanism’s Neo-Colonial Discourse in a Multicultural Context,” in Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, eds., Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and Transnational Media (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 256–278.

(27.) 2angles, “Filles de Trois,” http://www.2angles.org/expositions/2007-2008/fildetrois/trois.htm (accessed July 8, 2008).

(28.) Danielle Lebreton, “2anglesfillette,” in Fil de Trois (Flers: Editions 2angles, 2007). Translation by the author.

(29.) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991), 98.

(30.) Andreas Huyssen, “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia,” in Arjun Appadurai, ed., Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 57–77.

(31.) Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, trans. Randal Johnson (Oxford, UK: Polity/Blackwell, 1993), 235.

(32.) A narrative with an ugly-duckling motif.

(33.) Carol Duncan, “Museums and Citizenship,” in Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine, eds., Exhibiting Cultures (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 91. For further work on museums as “civilizing rituals,” see Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London: Routledge, 1995).

(34.) André Malraux, Museum without Walls, trans. Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967), 62.

(35.) The project itself, as considered separately from the mediating exhibition, raises other interesting issues and prompts further questions; however, the author’s attempt to interview Sakina M’sa about the project and exhibition was not successful.

(36.) Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. “Communiqué de Presse.”