As the first artist-in-residence of Times Museum’s All the Way South Research Residency, Marie Voignier began visiting Guangzhou in 2017 to research, interview, and eventually film the African communities in Guangzhou. Co-commissioned by All the Way South and the exhibition An Inquiry – Modes of Encounter (Times Museum, December 14, 2019 – February 16, 2020) curated by Biljana Ciric, Na China (“to China” in Igbo) portrays African women traders as active agents in “counter-hegemonic globalization” and the circulation of commodities in the non-Western world. The following conversation between Marie Voignier, Biljana Ciric, and museum staff Cai Qiaoling who assisted in the production of the film reflects on the method, process, as well as conceptual and practical challenges of the project.
The seed of the idea for developing a project in relation to the African community in Guangzhou was first planted when we met for a studio visit in 2015. What were your concerns before embarking on this project?
Before Na China, I did two films in Cameroon. The last one, Tinselwood (2017), began with research into testimonies recalling the French colonization of the East region of Cameroon in order to explore the relationship between the environment—the huge rainforests—its inhabitants, and the political history of French exploitation in this region. During the development of this project, I realized that in Cameroon, as in other countries of the African continent, China has become the object of great attention in everyday conversations and in the press. Chinese workers, Chinese investments, and Chinese policies are extensively debated in every city and village. I became interested in the ways in which the Cameroonians and the Chinese could work/live/trade together—or not. They follow a radically different path from the forms of western colonialism that have operated in the past and the present.
I started to dig deeper into those relationships between Africa and China, and I was thrilled to learn that for more than fifteen years, African entrepreneurs have been tracing the production chain of Chinese products sold in their countries and going to the sources of those trades. With a small amount of capital, often their family savings, thousands of young women and men, beginners or experienced, have moved to China to seek opportunities to invest, receive training, start a business, even make a fortune. They come from over thirty different African countries; some have been here for fifteen years, others for just a year or a month, holding all possible configurations of visa status, legality, risk, and capital. I knew that Guangzhou would be the best place to observe the heart of this globalization—being located at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, where a large portion of low-cost Chinese production flows through. For many traders looking for opportunities in the globalized economy, Guangzhou has become a new El Dorado over the years, promising social mobility no other place could offer.
KEEP READING THE INTERVIEW HERE