Ath (Belgium) (AFP) – The “Sauvage”, a carnival character dressed in black, chains around the wrists, supposed to scare children, paraded on Sunday at the ducasse d’Ath in Belgium, in the middle of a controversy with a collective accusing him of conveying “racism and negrophobia”, noted an AFP photographer.
This anti-racist collective, called Bruxelles Panthères, launched a petition at the beginning of August against this practice, assimilated to the “Black face” and denounced as “a vestige of enslavement”.
He challenged Unesco, which became involved in the controversy, in an email sent Friday to Brussels Panthères, of which AFP obtained a copy.
The ducasse d’Ath, in Wallonia (south), exists since the XVIth century and gathers tens of thousands of people the last weekend of August, with as a high point the Sunday procession of which the Savage is the star .
The procession was inscribed by UNESCO in 2008 as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, integrated into “the element + Giants and processional dragons of Belgium and France +”, according to the UN organization based in Paris.
As such, it must comply with principles, writes in this email Ernesto Ottone R., Assistant Director General for Culture at Unesco, citing in particular “the requirement of mutual respect between communities, groups and individuals” .
“Rest assured that Unesco will remain faithful in all circumstances to its founding principles and will not cease to be vigilant in the face of all forms of threats to human dignity and rights”, concludes the official.
In the initial letter sent by Bruxelles Panthères, this group of a dozen active activists identified several incidents or assaults that had recently targeted black people in Belgium, in particular racist chants during a music festival in August 2018.
“It is time to react to the negrophobia prevalent in Belgium”, wrote his spokesperson, Mouhad Reghif, asking that the ducasse d’Ath be deprived “if necessary” of its Unesco label.
The practice of the “Black face” in several carnivals or folkloric celebrations of Belgium – former colonial power in the Congo – subjects the black populations of the country to “unjustifiable symbolic violence”, according to him.
For their part, the municipality and the organizers of the ducasse d’Ath said they were open to debate to “change” the event.
“The population does not live this festive game as being a racist act, but wants to understand that it can shock someone from outside who does not know the context,” said Laurent Dubuisson, the historian who heads the House of Giants in Ath.
Sunday morning at the start of the parade, the Sauvage came symbolically to hand over its chains to the Burgomaster (PS) Bruno Lefèbvre, in a gesture of appeasement, to the cheers of the crowd. Many residents wore an “I am Wild” t-shirt.