Postcolonial paradoxes and posters from the edge

October 3, 2003

A group whose work explores the Francophone world's contradictions and ambiguities is threatened by the proposed concentration of research funding, says Michael North.

The anniversary of 9/11 seems an appropriate day to visit a research team whose work includes a study of the links between European and Arab culture.

Debra Kelly, a member of the Francophone Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific research group at the University of Westminster, cites the example of how research on the Algerian writer Mouloud Feraoun offers a different insight into the Middle East crisis. "Feraoun kept a diary during the Algerian war of independence, and he was equally critical of the French and the Algerians, although he was assassinated by an extreme French rightwing group. If you read the diary, you would understand many of the problems of the Middle East and the West. It's very depressing because nothing has moved on."

The research group, led by Hélène Gill, with senior lecturers Maryse Bray and Aline Cook also members, is part of the university's department of modern languages. It grew out of research conducted on the Maghreb cultures of northern Africa. Since its formation in the early 1990s, its research has expanded to encompass all regions where French culture has played a role as a result of colonial and postcolonial history. To disseminate and broaden its work, the group publishes The Bulletin of Francophone Africa , a journal now in its 12th year, organises conferences and has made links with scholars around the world, from Paris to the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

The group's research also contributes to Westminster's undergraduate and MA curricula in French: there are undergraduate modules concerned with identity in the contemporary global context and an MA in French and Francophone studies.

But despite the successes resulting from a well-established link between research and teaching, the group's members are acutely aware of the need to justify their work. "There is no use pretending our research has an immediate business application," Kelly says. "But cultural understanding feeds into all kinds of areas where this country wishes to be engaged."

The French department scored 3A in the most recent research assessment exercise -the group says it has constantly improved -and is threatened by government plans to concentrate funding in fewer research departments. "The sword is hanging above our heads," says Kelly, who has seen the number of her colleagues in French cut from nine in 1998 to the equivalent of four and a half today.

The department of modern languages is entirely dependent on government and research-council funding, and staff feel "threatened and anxious" about the future of their research.

"The government's strategy is disgraceful," Kelly says. "When I came here in 1992, I really felt that we were moving forward. Now we are going backwards. The university believes in itself, with good reason, but we feel anxious all the time."

She says cuts to research funding coupled with increasing paperwork and teaching demands eat away at the commodity most vital to research -time.

And the unit's members are angry that the link between their research and teaching is in danger of being severed. Gill says: "One needs to feel involved in and excited about what is being taught and researched."

The diversity of the student body -"a living laboratory" that includes second-generation Spaniards and Italians, and overseas students from France, Portugal, Scandinavia and elsewhere -often stimulates the research. One Colombian student forged valuable research links while studying the cultural identity of Creole and French-speaking peoples in Martinique and made a video documentary that was shown in cultural institutions on the island.

Despite the ambitious scope of their work, the group's members lament a funding system that leads to a narrowing of research. Kelly says: "Because of government budget cuts, there are [only] certain research areas that have been selected for funding, and it is a straitjacket for new researchers trying to get on the ladder now."

She says the system also makes it hard to collaborate with other universities on research, something that is encouraged by the government in its white paper on higher education. It is difficult to plan more than a year ahead, and the need to agree on a lead institution, which receives the bulk of funding, is "problematic".

But within these "crazy" constraints, the unit continues to produce diverse and lively research. Bray's work examines postcolonial iconography in French colonies -such as songs, posters and poems published and sung during the colonial period -and Bray and Gill hope to produce a book provisionally titled Offbeat Representations of Empire . Gill explains: "We want it to be a novel way of looking at representations of empire -showing the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in them, and highlighting a way of breaking down assumptions about the traditional binary line between coloniser and the colonised."

Gill is also working on representations of the Maghreb in 19th-century French art. Kelly says: "These painters preserved a whole cultural iconography. Their paintings are being sold on the art market to Arabs, who are buying images of their culture. The paintings represent a slice of their cultural life, particularly in North Africa. Paradoxically, they have become a way of restoring cultural memory to a colonised people. They have become much-prized objects for a completely unexpected audience. And this is what we are saying about the ambiguities -things are not quite what they seem."

"That's the kind of work we do -rereading and rediscovering," Kelly adds.

"These cultural objects have a niche in the past, and we are looking at that. It is easy to misunderstand them."

Kelly remains optimistic despite the threat to the group's research.

However, she says: "Either people want the type of work humanities does and think it's a discipline that helps form good citizens, or they don't. If they do, it must be funded by the government because industry seems not to understand the value of this type of research. The government strategy has a paradox at its very heart."

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