Paris is Burning.

Tamika Abaka-Wood
6 min readOct 7, 2023

Gut Reactions + Fieldnotes.
Written within 24 hours.

Stop writing when you’ve pushed through the words — not necessarily to reach an answer but to find new questions once something has shifted.

This week an American TikTok influencer is ‘exposing’ Paris for being ‘ghetto’. Neutrality does not exist in any practice, medium or industry — so, first things first — historically, I am not known for being Paris’ biggest fan. I find the city tells on itself pretty consistently. In the little time I’ve spent there, but also through the numerous workshops, interviews and sessions I’ve conducted with its inhabitants over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Paris seems to wear a veil so transparent it may as well not exist. The veil’s fabric is uncharacteristically cheap and poorly-constructed — take it off, its throwing the whole fit off.

What is paid attention to, seen and noted, versus what is not is an ability I wish I could turn on and off at my will. Yet, no matter how hard I try, I can’t — I am an extremely sensitive person and always have been. I remember seeing the adverts from UNICEF from my box TV in the ‘back bedroom’ which belonged to my brother and I. From the bottom bunk of the bed, I remember being no older than 8 and witnessing small severely malnourished children starving in front of our eyes whilst celebrities urged us to donate money, which — even then — I knew my parents clearly didn’t have, to help the cause. Why was this happening? Would it affect my cousins? What can we do to help? Why are their bellies so big if they’re so hungry? Wait, so this is happening right now? Why do we have this bunk bed, and our food, and our school, and our library? Why do we have what we have, and they don’t when it’s not their fault? There were too many questions and too many kind but insufficient answers. I cried uncontrollably throughout the night at the sheer helplessness of it all.

I am not an empath. I stand firm in my own shoes to both be invited inside various cultures, and I will always also observe more analytically from the outside. Even 7-year old me knew that those bags of rice I was donating to ‘Africa’ via UNICEF wasn’t doing shit and never would. Structural sensitivity hurts. It is not theoretical. It is not academic. It feels like a rupture, of varying magnitudes, every single time inequity is interrogated.

There’s a common mode of social discourse that happens in Paris, in which the absence of opinion is routinely concluded as vacancy and void. I have lived for almost 3 years in New York City where the same conclusion is valid. The key difference which sets Paris apart? The exact same absence of opinion of certain individuals i.e. men, i.e. white men i.e. white cis men manifests as so weighty and valid that the lack thereof becomes opinion itself. Silence from some fills the social arena with gravitas and sophistication, whilst the quiet from others leaves a palpable flatness in the air.

The French political tradition doesn’t recognise ‘communautarisme’. What other people may recognise and name as ‘historically marginalised, under resourced or racialised’ communities elsewhere are not officially recognised by the French Government. What does it mean when a whole set of people’s humanity, difference and unique value is not seen by another? How does that alter the way both groups see themselves? And the ways which they treat one another? There is nothing smart or new about the above questions. They’ve been asked and answered for centuries. Yet, sometimes we need to boil what can feel inevitable down to the simplest possible expressions and rinse and repeat.

It was the time of ‘Les Grandes Vacances’ when I visited Paris this week. This is the sacred time in Paris where the city shuts down and travels either South or North for a slower, more rustic version of life. I’d heard over and over again — “Paris is empty”. Reader, I assure you, Paris was not empty. It was quieter and certainly less dense but unless non-white bodies are ghosts of the underworld which can only be seen by the gifted — Paris was not empty. Charlie Dark once told me “you figure out who is really from London at Christmas — some of us post pictures in front of a fire in the countryside and others don’t.” This felt like the Parisian equivalent.

In the 2nd Arrondissement on Rue Montorgueil, I sipped a glass of Sancerre outside at a bar with a view into the street, whilst I was waiting for my friend, Bafic to arrive. I glanced up and spotted a beautiful pastel tiled piece that was clearly in contrast to the grey mist hanging over the city that particular day.

The waiter of my second glass of Sancerre was a West African man around 60 years old. His glassy eyes appeared to absorb the weight of the places he’d been and the people he had become. He carried untold stories in his gaze — he reminded me of my Dad. The waiter bristled at my disjointed A-Level French, handed me a disparaging look then eventually giggled, after I attempted to order some small plates. The server became the ‘proper’ preservationist of Parisian culture by default. I, the customer, am not too sure what I became in this interaction, if not the proper preservationist of the British culture by absolutely bastardising the French language.

Two sets of realities and conceptions of what it means to be in Paris on July 31st 2023 during ‘Les Grandes Vacances’ come face-to-face, as they do over-and-over-and-over-again in negotiations of how to live in arrondissements, neighbourhoods and communities city-wide, across the globe — that’s the consequence of being alive. It’s also about understanding structural power and who gets to have more influence in these negotiations, always. Having excess time to play with often leads to looking more closely. The second time I glanced up at the pretty pastel piece above the storefront opposite us, I could only see an undeniable relic of France’s colonial fabric.

The tiles depicts an upright Black man wearing pinstriped shorts serving coffee to a white man clothed in a linen suit sitting on Burlap bags; those bags are presumably coffee beans harvested from somewhere within Paris’ former colonies. The piece is labeled “Au Planteur Aucune Succursale.” The ceramic “Au Planteur” was an advertisement for a shop which sold products from the places Paris has colonised. This was the owner of a plantation who was being depicted. The “aucune succursale,” refers to the fact that it was the only shop in Paris to carry such ‘exotic’ products. A man with several shopping bags beside him at the table next to me began to noticing me staring up and above, quite vacantly I imagine, at a 45 degree angle at the shop in front of us. He looked at the ceramic too, and brought out his iPhone to capture the artwork.

This is when Georgia O’Keefe’s sentiment which I’d read the night before came to me : “I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your association with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see — and I don’t.” I want to know what the intention of the person who created this flower was. I want to know what the intention of the people who decided on the preservation of this flower was. I want to know what the intention of the people who will inevitably deface this flower will be. But until then, I’m hanging all of my associations on this lone decaying flower with no garden, soil or gardeners to be found.

Written on Sabbatical. Weeks 3.
Read: Tell Them I Said No. Martin Herbert.
Experienced: Nike Future of Air Ideation Session.
Smartest Person in the Room is always the Room.
Researched: Google + Not Much Further.

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