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Ethnography, Thievery, and Cultural Identity: A Rereading of Michel Leiris's L'Afrique fantôme

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


During 1931–33 Michel Leiris took part in an ethnographic expedition across Africa, the highly publicized Dakar-Djibouti mission. This essay examines three documents related to the mission. The first, remarks that Leiris wrote before the trip, reveals his understanding, either conscious or unconscious, that theft would be an essential part of the mission's ethnographic strategy. In the second, a journal kept during the expedition, Leiris recorded specific incidents of theft. I argue that the ethnographers' thieving, portrayed as spontaneous acts, is in fact a political one that allows them to collect objects of great cultural significance while ensuring a European identity distinct from the identity of the colonized. The third document is the published version of the journal, which Leiris titled L'Afrique fantôme. Variants in this version and a photographic illustration prefigure Leiris's rethinking of ethnography's role in decolonization.

Research Article
PMLA , Volume 112 , Issue 2 , March 1997 , pp. 229 - 242
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 1997

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