Lettre de Paris
A summer trip to Paris usually includes pleasant visits to the palaces of canonical art, a couple of memorable meals, excellent markets and bookstores and, this year, just to add frisson, the excitement and perplexity of the World Cup. The hottest ticket in town this past June, however, was not for the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, but for an auction of African, Asian, and Oceanic art at the Hôtel Drouot.
According to a headline in Le Monde on the day we arrived, Paris was in the throes of a “Frénésie pour l’art ‘primitif.’”1 Four well-attended and lucrative auctions of African and Oceanic art, a dozen recent exhibitions, and the completion of Jean Nouvel’s new Musée des arts et civilisations d’Afrique, d’Asie, d’Océanie et des Amériques du quai Branly were contributing to “une effervescence internationale.”2 Crowds lined up for hours when the new museum opened on June 23rd.
Since then, critical response to the new museum has been mixed, even unfavourable. The institution is understandably haunted by Europe’s colonial legacy. The opening—coinciding with a World Cup series shadowed by racial unrest—was seized upon by President Jacques Chirac as a gesture of reconciliation. The Times of London suggested that the new museum was “an attempt to rewrite history in concrete, so that Chirac’s presidency won’t be remembered for race riots but for making over the nation.”3
The President clearly views the €232 million institution as his legacy. In the presence of Kofi Annan, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Paul Okalik, Jean Chrétien, and ninety-seven year-old Claude Lévi-Strauss, he declared that, “at the heart of our approach there is the refusal of ethnocentrism, of the unreasonable and unacceptable pretension that the West, and the West alone, determines the destiny of humanity. There is a rejection of the false evolutionism which pretends that certain people will always inhabit a lower rung of human evolution, that their so-called “primitive” cultures are worthy of study only by ethnologists or, at best, as sources of inspiration for the western artist.”4
Bold words. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic were quick to question the museum’s ability to realize these ideals. Jean Nouvel’s design, which he describes as “a snake or a lizard into which you walk and discover not so much a building as a territory—a zoo really—where there is dialogue between areas rather than individual rooms,” has received sympathetic notices.5 However, The Globe and Mail’s Lisa Rochon suggests that the museum’s “very existence is an assault on aboriginal peoples around the world. None of the horrors and injustices of the colonial era can be forgiven because eight aboriginal artists from Australia agreed to sculpt organic shapes into the wall and ceilings of the museum’s stone building on rue de l’Université.”6 Writing in The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman found it hard to contain himself: “If the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection galleries: devised as a spooky jungle, red and black and murky, the place is briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded. Colonialism of a bygone era is replaced by a whole new French brand of condescension.”7 A cranky article by Fiachra Gibbons in The Guardian calls the museum “a catastrophe sunk in a swamp of hubris” and suggests that it be closed until “the curators sort their mess out.”8
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About the Author
Colin Browne is a poet and documentary filmmaker. His book of poems The Shovel is forthcoming from Talonbooks.