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June 21, 2006

Musée du quai Branly

The Musée du quai Branly opens and with it both Jacques Chirac's mark on the Paris skyline and the latest in a long, long line of racist romantic anti-racism. A name change from the "Museum of Primary Arts" does not change the character of, or the logic behind, the collection.

The project has stirred much controversy, however. Inevitably, ethnologists have decried the décontextualisation of artefacts that were never designed as aesthetic objects, but for practical, mystical or ritual purposes. ...

More awkward, perhaps, is the symbolism of Quai Branly. The permanent collection's exclusive emphasis on traditional artefacts sits uncomfortably with the efforts by younger curators these days, in cities such as Johannesburg, to confront such tribal clichés of Africa. They contest the way African art is ghettoised and exoticised. Contemporary artists deal in tin, metal, recycled industrial materials. They want to show that Africa too can be modern, gritty and urban.

In other words, the Quai Branly collection asks us to consider non-Western "art" as art regardless of the purpose(s) for which these objects were intended in their particular cultures of origin. It presents objects through an allochronic discourse; in a story of an Edenic time-before-time or time-before-history uncorrupted by contact with the West (here represented by American "imperialism" and not an absent historical French imperialism). Finally, and perhaps most odiously, it recontextualizes non-Western "art objects" as part of an homogenous non-Western totality that is also somehow congruent with Nature. An 800-square-metre “vegetation wall" sounds nice but it could not make it more clear what the curators think of the artisans behind the objects. So, props to Chirac for his contribution to the centuries long tradition of the "noble savage" now put into service for a heady cocktail of spite and grandeur.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at June 21, 2006 11:15 AM