Following the “Savage” affair, UNESCO removes the Ducasse d’Ath from the intangible cultural heritage of humanity
Unesco decided on Friday to remove the Ducasse d’Ath from its list of intangible heritage, “in the name of the fight against racism“, indicates, in a press release, the office of the vice-president of the government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, Bénédicte Linard.
The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Unesco has decided to withdraw recognition of the Hainaut event because of the character of the “Savage”, dressed in black and introduced to the Ducasse d’Ath in 1873. “A reflection process is underway in Ath to develop the character of the ‘Savage’ and several alerts had been sent to the Athois municipal authorities so that they could speed it up, and thus avoid the withdrawal“, recalls the office of the French-speaking Minister of Culture.
Facing a “strong and legitimate international and societal pressure“, continues the press release, Belgium has decided “to request the withdrawal of the Ducasse itself“, to try to “emerge from the top of this difficult situation, firmly recall its commitment to the fight against racism and discrimination in all their forms and its understanding of the reproaches expressed by many voices, and protect the heritage as well as the image of our country“.
The office of the French-speaking Minister of Culture points out that “developments in our folklore, in Ath and elsewhere, have already taken place in the past“. He hopes that “the work of consultation and reflection underway in Ath will be able to continue in order to allow our heritage and our folklore to keep its joyful character recognized and anchored in its time, thanks to moments of sharing where each person feels respected and welcome.“.
Here is the reaction of the Athe authorities by press release
[…] This decision saddens us deeply.
This morning’s debate focused on the principles of respect for peoples and human rights. The countries represented at Unesco wanted to set an example with the Sauvage de la Ducasse d’Ath.
Of course, we strongly condemn racism and fully subscribe to all the principles that have been discussed.
However, it is regrettable that UNESCO did not allow us to carry out the process that we had initiated. Since 2019, we have become aware of the problem posed by the Savage. We conducted an open and honest dialogue with the actors of folklore, associations and the population of Athoise. A round table was organized, a website with educational materials with different points of view had called for reflection. Following this, an open investigation was carried out, educational work is still in progress with the schools (both primary and secondary) of our City. The character of the Savage himself had already made gestures of openness.
A few weeks ago, the municipal council of our city took the decision to set up a citizens’ commission for folklore. The objective was to consult the Athoise community to find a definitive solution to the problem of the Indian. It is unfortunate that UNESCO did not take this positive and civic dynamic into account. Today, we have the impression of being the object of an amalgam and a trial of intent.
We regret that the Ducasse d’Ath, and more broadly our population as a whole, is assimilated to racism. We are deeply convinced that our reflection must continue. The Citizens’ Folklore Commission will have to complete its reflections in the coming weeks.
The Ducasse d’Ath has existed for six centuries. She has experienced all the difficulties and vagaries of history. It has always adapted to the context of society. She will have to prove it again.
“We can talk about victory when the ‘Savage’ no longer exists as it is” (Unia)
“It will be a victory when the character of the ‘Savage’ no longer exists as it is. But, if during the next five or ten years, it remains as such, we will have gained nothing“, reacted Friday evening to Belga the director of Unia, Patrick Charlier.
ince 1873, the Ducasse d’Ath has staged a character called the “Savage”, interpreted by a person dressed in black. Until last year, he also wore a nose ring and wrist chains. This “blackface” is widely decried by anti-racist groups, who denounce its negrophobic character. “This character is really problematic.“, judge Mr. Charlier. Nevertheless, the decision of Unesco still surprises him “because we are in contact with the municipal authorities and we had the impression that they clearly wanted to develop this character“, explains the director of Unia.
The latter therefore thought that the UN organization would rather place the Ducasse d’Ath under surveillance, putting pressure on the authorities and perhaps forcing them to modify what some consider to be folklore. Patrick Charlier fears that Unesco’s decision will upset the municipal authorities, even if, in an initial reaction to Belga, the mayor of Ath Bruno Lefebvre confirmed that the “reflection must continue“.
When asked whether the withdrawal of recognition from Unesco could constitute a victory for the fight against racism, Patrick Charlier judges that the real victory would be that “the character no longer exists as it is“. The director of Unia therefore refers to the next edition, in 2023, to judge a possible evolution of the Ducasse d’Ath.
Brussels Panthers satisfied but also sad with the decision of Unesco
Mouhad Reghif, spokesperson for the Bruxelles Panthères collective, said he was both satisfied with the withdrawal, but also sad and bitter. This collective had denounced in 2019 to the UN organization the presence of the “Savage” during this event. “The first reaction is satisfaction because an authority, a prestigious institution, gives us reason all along (…), which legitimizes our work“, points to Belga M. Reghif.”We are happy to have been right and that (Unesco) excludes racism” of the cultural initiatives it promotes. “But we also feel sadness, because Belgium is humiliated internationally and this does not solve the problem of negrophobia and racism in our country.“, continues the spokesperson for Brussels Panthères.
He also fears that the withdrawal of recognition from Unesco will not lead to the abandonment of the character of the “Savage”. Indeed, on social networks, some people are delighted with this withdrawal, explaining that, from now on, they will be able to live as they see fit what they consider to be folklore. For Mr. Reghif, however, the victory is not just symbolic. “This is a serious exclusion and it is the second time that a Belgian element has been removed (from the list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity by Unesco, editor’s note), after the carnival of Aalst“, he underlines.
The spokesperson for the collective regrets that after the withdrawal of the carnival from Aalst in 2019 – due to “recurring repetitions of racist and anti-Semitic representations” – and his denunciation of the racist nature of the “Savage” in Ath, “we have not made progress“. He also laments a “political silence” on the question. He also points out that Belgium only voted for the withdrawal of the Ducasse d’Ath from the UNESCO list at the end of the session, “when she had no other choice“.”We cannot speak of a withdrawal from Belgium“, he insists.
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