By D. F. Effiong
There was a sudden consciousness of feminine qualities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, especially depicted by the French artist de Troy. De Troy’s painting “A Reading from Moliere” was in contrast to Hogarth’s “A Midnight Modern Conversation,” for he (de Troy) unlike Hogarth, had five out of seven figures to be women. This advancement in civilization was also true of eighteenth-century France, were the influence of women was on the whole, benevolent, and they were the creators of that curious institution of the eighteenth century, the salon. Those small social gatherings of intelligent men and women, drawn from all over Europe, who met in the rooms of gifted hostesses like Madame du Deffand and Madame Geoffrin, were for forty years the centres of European civilization. The ladies who presided over them were neither very young nor very rich. We know this because French artists like Perronneau and Maurice-Quentin De La Tour portrayed them without flattery, but with a penetrating eye for their subtlety of mind. Only in a highly civilized society could ladies have preferred this kind of likeness to the glossy fakes of fashionable portraiture (Kenneth Lark, 178). This has been the problem of our dear Africa, when she portrays unendingly her fake smile and preference towards welcoming saboteurs and unproductive strangers to her shores in the deceptive hope of being hospitable.
The eighteenth century salons were also free from too much toadying and pomposity because the French upper classes were not oppressively rich. It was a civilization that knew how helpful the margin of wealth is for a people. Throughout the shores of Africa, one trait seems ‘developed;’ it is the movement from respect due to age and wisdom to worship due to wealth as well as a growing attention to objectify the self at the knees of the excessively rich politicians, monarchs, musicians, etc. Chardin (the greatest painter of mid-eighteenth century France) in his painting “La Toilette de Matin” found his subjects in the gentle bourgeoisie, dressing or addressing their children. That painting began telling the story that people could feel that they had natural human relationships with one another. That is why the salons where the brightest intellects of France were assembled were more luxurious, but still NOT overwhelming. The rooms were of a normal size, and the ornament was not so elaborate as to impose a formal behavior (Kenneth, 253). That was the way of the enlightenment, the age of reason and of civilization. In deep contrast however, only in our Africa, can civilization mean going to the stream with a helicopter to console the family of a lad who got drowned! The entourage that accompanies our leaders is a sign of our enlightenment! Only in our Africa will formal distanced behavior be considered the ideal between a President, Monarch, Priest, Imam, etc to his or her subjects. Our luxury becomes our enlightenment. Yes! In Africa.
For the immigrants from the old world (to America), with their countless differing traditions and ideas, a new myth had to be created. First, were the noble, indestructible words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” ‘Self-evident truths’…that is the voice of eighteenth-century enlightenment (cf. Kenneth, 268). This voice, this new myth has to be heard and portrayed today in Africa. The need to erect an enlightenment salon is even more imperative to our quest for civility. The salon that will put an end to the burning of witches (jungle justice) and other members of minority groups, or extract confessions by torture (even in our police cells) or pervert the course of justice or go to prison for speaking the truth. When erected in Africa (and in Nigeria especially), these salons shall destroy the prejudices and stereotypes of terming a region more successful or backward than others. What then is this salon? It is the salon of the consciousness of equality of the sexes – in Africa – even of regions, ethnic groups and religions. This shall be the beginning of our enlightenment period, our civility and a new teleology. For in the process of addressing this change of myth, we too in the process, bargain for our change as individuals. What then shall stop us from being truly civilized?
Kenneth Clark. Civilization. NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1969.