Poets and Witnesses: A Conversation between Bouchra Khalili and Jackie Wang

This interview originally appeared in Radical Ally, a publication created by Moroccan French artist Bouchra Khalili and co-edited with Xavier Nueno and Leon Muñoz Santini for her 2019 exhibition “Bouchra Khalili: Poets and Witnesses.” The project included Khalili’s film Twenty-Two Hours, which tells the story of French writer and activist Jean Genet’s 1970 visit to the US in support of the Black Panther Party.

Like Twenty-Two Hours, this conversation between Khalili and scholar Jackie Wang reflects on the activism of the Black Panthers and storytelling’s role as a “living archive,” insofar as it transmits knowledge from one generation to the next. Khalili notes that proponents of the Black Power movement “spoke their ideas through their publications” and traces the genealogy of international solidarity to North Africa and among migrant communities in Europe. Growing up in Morocco, she remembers her parents narrating their readings of the cultural magazine Souffles (1966–72), particularly the special issues on the Black Panthers and movements of liberation in the Global South, which she later channeled into her work as an artist—an example of how the Party’s platform transcended time and geography.

This interview is reprinted online in condensed form with permission from Gato Negro Ediciones.

Free print copies of the entire Radical Ally publication are available at the checkout counters in the MFA’s Linde Family Wing Bookstore and Shop and all MoMA bookstores in New York.

A pink image of two men leaning against a low surface.
Bouchra Khalili, Radical Ally, 2019. Two-color ink on paper. Courtesy of Gato Negro Ediciones.

Jackie Wang:
What I find particularly compelling about your film Twenty-Two Hours is the way that it incorporates archival images, footage, and documents without forcing the material to convey information in a straightforward way. Sometimes images of Jean Genet during his tour with the Black Panthers in 1970 appear on cellphones, as though to remind the viewer of the fragmentary and constructed nature of all attempts to recover history.1 It reminds me that there are other modes of exploring history—more poetic modes—that are, in some ways, more true to history’s partiality. What role do archives play in your work, and how, as a filmmaker and artist, is your work different from, or similar to, the work of a historian?

Two mobile phones with black-and-white photos on their screens.
Bouchra Khalili, Twenty-Two Hours, 2018. Digital film, 43’. Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris.

Bouchra Khalili:
Your question touches a key aspect of my practice—what Italian poet, writer, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini defined as stylistic magma, the core of his theory of the cinema of poetry. The cinema of poetry is based on a technique of equality, allowing multiple voices to come together, as well as heterogeneous material to combine. I’m referring here to Pasolini because his work in film and poetry, as well as his theoretical writings, had a major influence on me.

When I first encountered Pasolini’s concept of the cinema of poetry and stylistic magma, what came immediately to my mind was the dying tradition of Al-Halqa. Al-Halqa is the most ancient form of performing art in Morocco, an art of storytelling probably from the 9th century. The public storyteller performs in open air areas, markets, street corners...but the audience is key here. In Arabic, al-halqa means “the circle,” and the storytelling is defined by the position of the audience rather than the narrator. The storyteller performs stories inherited from oral poetry, popular tales, and local history performed in dialect, as well as sacred texts and classical poetry delivered in classical Arabic, often forming social and political parabolas. It is very similar to the Western African tradition of the jeli or griot. The performer is literally a living archive—a nomadic oral public library—going from place to place to share and disseminate the people’s knowledge and history.

Somehow, the use of archival material in my work operates similarly: what seems to be archival material is part of that heterogeneous material that participates in the performance of the storytelling. In the Al-Halqa, the audience is not passive, but is free to interrupt, ask questions, interrogate the storyteller—the same way that, in my work, what could be seen as archival material is not silent, but part of a visual material that is subject to examination, combination, and montage in the conceptual meaning of it. What matters is not the archive, but how, as a fragment, it contributes to producing stories that are alive.

Al-Halqa also epitomizes the common practice in Morocco of storytelling as an alternative form of historiography: it is not the one of the history books, drafted by the power to impose its narrative, but the performance of the people’s stories and history told by the people and for the people. It is a form of resistance, reclaiming history from the power.

Jackie Wang:
Can you talk a little bit about the narrators Quiana and Vanessa? What was their relationship to the material of the film? How were they cast? What role did they play in shaping the film?

Two woman in black shirts stare directly ahead.
Bouchra Khalili, Twenty-Two Hours, 2018. Digital film, 43’. Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris.

Bouchra Khalili:
Quiana and Vanessa are two Bostonians, both highly conscious of the major importance of the heritage of the struggle for equality of African Americans and very much aware that equality is still to achieve. They were not cast because I never work on a project with a preconceived idea of a profile. It’s more a natural process—all mixed up with life. Of course, it requires time, but for me what mattered above all was the interest of Quiana and Vanessa in the project and their will to literally embody it. From there, we had long conversations around the project, the material, the script—that was actually scripted specifically for them and in conversation with them, as with Doug Miranda. Doug joined the Party in 1969 to quickly become the captain of the Boston chapter of the Black Panther Party, then of the Connecticut chapter. He was such a great organizer and a talented speaker that he was appointed by the BPP headquarters in Oakland to organize the campaign of solidarity with Bobby Seale, who was detained at that time with most of the New Haven chapter. Doug was also in charge of organizing some of Genet’s public talks on the East Coast, among them the one in Cambridge in March 1970, only a couple miles away from where Twenty-Two Hours was filmed.

I have here to extend my warmest gratitude to comrades Quiana, Vanessa, and Doug for their dedication to the project, the extraordinary eloquence, artistic and political commitment, and the amazing grace that they shared with me and the viewers. Without them, this project would have been impossible to produce.

This kind of miraculous encounter is basically the core of the collaborative practice that I’ve developed in the last 15 years: I meet human beings willing to speak for themselves and, at the same time, who are very much conscious that their voices and bodies articulate a collective. In Twenty-Two Hours, Quiana and Vanessa appear at once as storytellers, film editors, historians, and even as the historiographers of their own history. They are not professional performers, but their presence, their voices, the performance of the storytelling, articulated with a practice of film montage (as can be seen in the film), allows [one] to develop a meditation on the role of the storyteller—the civic poet—as a witness to history.

Within this apparatus, a transgenerational conversation develops between Quiana, Vanessa, and Doug. Doug seems to embody the position of the witness, but he’s actually the one who transmits the burden of history and allows the lessons of failure and success to be examined and discussed. Eventually, with the burden of history comes the burden to bear witness. Quiana and Vanessa become the witnesses; the same way that, when interrogated by a journalist about his presence in the United States, Genet answered: “I came here to bear witness to the injustices being suffered by the Black Panther Party and the racism suffered by Afro-Americans.”

A man with glasses and grey hair stares directly a head.
Bouchra Khalili, Twenty-Two Hours, 2018. Digital film, 43’. Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris.

Jackie Wang:
In 1971, Genet issued a statement titled “Appel pour un comité de soutien aux militants politiques noirs emprisonnés” [“Call for a Committee to Support Jailed Black Political Activists”], calling for the immediate release of all détenus politiques (political prisoners), including George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo, collectively known as the Soledad Brothers. Using the rhetoric of Black Power, the statement denounces le système judiciaire raciste (the racist judiciary system) and draws attention to state repression against Black militants. Genet used his connections to the French intelligentsia to mobilize support for Black militants in France and was able to get a number of French intellectuals to sign his statement, including Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Julia Kristeva, Pierre Guyotat, Jacques Derrida, Marguerite Duras, Philippe Sollers, and many others. Apparently it was also Genet who introduced Michel Foucault to the Black Panthers, and there has been much speculation about how this encounter influenced Foucault’s analysis of prisons and his theorization of power. What kind of influence did Black radicals in the United States have on French leftist politics, and what role did Genet play in bringing Black radical thought to France?

Bouchra Khalili:
In 1971, the movements of liberation in North and sub-Saharan Africa were still fresh in the people’s memory. Algeria became independent only a few years before, and among the signatories of Genet’s statement in favor of Black militants are signatories of the 1960 “Declaration on the right of insubordination in the Algerian War,” such as Maurice Blanchot, Roger Blin, Alain Cuny, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Guyotat, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. The support to Vietnamese people was also massive. So French intellectuals obviously identified the BPP as a movement of liberation, mostly because the Panthers identified themselves with colonized people.

I think that one should also keep in mind the impact of May 1968 in France, which actually ended only ten years after, and which gave birth to many radical left-wing organizations.

In 1970, Foucault, Sartre, Vidal-Naquet, Genet, and other intellectuals contributed to found the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons to support radical left-wing political prisoners in France who were subjects to a fierce repression. Many of them were members of Gauche Prolétarienne, a group of militants who also had a newspaper called La Cause du peuple, supported by Sartre and Foucault, among others (the leader of Gauche Prolétarienne, Benny Levy, would become, shortly after the dissolution of the organization, Sartre’s secretary).

So it is hard to answer your question in an univoque way, because it is also a matter of context. As an example, North African immigrants in France were also starting to organize themselves autonomously, first around the Comité Palestine, the Palestinian cause forming a political consensus among the Arab diaspora in France, and shortly after, around the Movement of Arab Workers (MTA) officially founded in 1972, but that started to organize North African immigrants in the aftermath of ’68. The Gauche Prolétarienne supported the struggles of the MTA, and Foucault and Genet also took part in some of the demonstrations organized by the MTA.

The Tempest Society (digital film, 2017), which I produced for “documenta 14,” took as a departure point Al Assifa, the MTA’s agitprop theater, which toured between 1972 and 1978. Foucault strongly supported the theater group as well.

Similarly—and I speak here as the daughter of a North African who was living in Paris at that time—the BPP had a great prestige among Arab workers because to them, they were colonized brothers and sisters struggling for their liberation. They were also very much aware that among the Panthers there were many Black Muslims. So, to North African workers, the Panthers were literally brothers and sisters.

And I won’t even mention the presence of the International Section of the Black Panther Party in Algiers between 1969 and ’72, which was very well known in North Africa. The legendary and very influential Moroccan cultural magazine Souffles published in 1969 a series of enthusiastic papers about the International Section, which demonstrates the support to the BPP among former colonized populations in North and sub-Saharan Africa.

The International Section is actually extensively mentioned in my Foreign Office (mixed media, 2015), produced in Algiers, and that goes back to the internationalist era in North Africa in the aftermath of the independence.

So, for French intellectuals and artists, various struggles—the BPP, Vietnam, political prisoners in France, immigrant workers’ struggles—were strongly connected to each other. And to go back to Foucault, the fact that he taught at the University of Vincennes in Saint-Denis certainly had a huge influence on his politicization: Vincennes was a major meeting point for political organizations, including immigrant groups. And his encounter with Genet around ’69–’70 was definitely instrumental.

The same way, Genet influenced the position of the BPP with regards to the LGBT revolutionary movement that conducted Huey Newton to publish a major statement in August 1970 in the BPP newspaper that starts like this: “Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion.” This statement literally opened a political space for allyship between various oppressed groups in the United States.

So eventually I think that the intellectual and political climate allowed encounters that would have seemed impossible before: the BPP influencing white intellectuals, African and Asian struggles for independence influencing the BPP, immigrant struggles in France connecting themselves with the BPP, and other movements of liberation. It is not by chance that Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Here and Elsewhere is quoted in Twenty-Two Hours, which starts like this: “here”—a French middle-class apartment, and “elsewhere”—the Palestinian Revolution. Learning to see here, to hear elsewhere.

Eventually, this dialogue between various spheres here and elsewhere is also one form of international solidarity.

So, I would say that what my work aims to investigate, and mostly at a moment when nationalism and racism are reaching an unseen level in recent history, is the urgency to rethink egalitarian forms of civic belonging—what I eventually call radical citizenship.

And that’s what Twenty-Two Hours investigates as well: the specter of equality and collective emancipation that is still haunting us and the urgent need to create forms of allyship.


1In 1970, members of the Black Panther Party met with Jean Genet in Paris and requested solidarity with their movement. He responsed by traveling to the US and speaking at numerous university rallies and to the press between March and May, advocating for the Panther’s cause. His subsequent public statements in support of the Panthers are collected in his posthumous book The Declared Enemy: Texts and Interviews (2003). In his book Prisoner of Love (1986), Genet understood their struggle as akin to that of the Palestinian resistance, in which he also directly participated. (Caygill, Howard. “Philosophy and the Black Panthers.” Radical Philosophy, May/June 2013.)


Bouchra Khalili is a Moroccan-born, Berlin-based visual artist working with film, video, installation, photography, and prints. Her exhibition “Bouchra Khalili: Poets and Witnesses” was on view at the MFA from March 21 to August 25, 2019.

Jackie Wang is a PhD candidate in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Her latest book, The Sunflower Cast a Spell To Save Us From The Void (Nightboat Books), is a 2021 National Book Awards Finalist for poetry.