African art in Paris

Paris is a city replete with museums, and the idea of building another might have seemed unlikely, yet one has just been opened at an elite location near the Seine and the Eiffel Tower: the Musée du Quai Branly, devoted to the indigenous arts of

Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Visitors interested in the material culture of Zimbabwe will encounter an unexpected but welcome sight in one of the African rooms: a wooden headrest with the familiar concentric circles on the vertical support pillar.
This collection – the pet project of President Jacques Chirac – is housed in a series of magnificent new buildings, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel. When questioned, Chirac said he would not demur if the new complex came to be named after him. This museum is his monument, and it has established its collection by ransacking two smaller museums: the former National Museum of African and Oceanic Arts and the collections formerly held by the Museum of Mankind .
But it is also intended as a monument to something else: at a time when France is beginning the search for a way to acknowledge the ethnic and cultural differences among its citizens, while at the same time holding on to the ‘universal’ Republican values, the new museum consciously seeks to recognise and celebrate otherness. It displays 1000 items of indigenous art rotated from a repository of 70 000. The majority of its African artefacts is looted from the former French colonies.
The term ‘looted’ is not idle. The instructive element of Branly is not only the collection itself, but also the gormlessness of the labelling. The descriptions of objects on display are antiseptic, almost to the point of banal: only in one tiny touch-screen enclave is there a short illustrated sequence of how the kings of Dahomey resisted the invasion of the French. The Dahomean warriors are shown armed with rifles, but being driven back by the French.
This is the only recognition of resistance to the process of colonisation, through which the Branly’s collection was acquired – and it is a depiction of resistance lightly told. In actual fact, in the early 1890s, the armies of Dahomey fielded 1700 rifles, five machine guns and six artillery pieces; they hired foreign instructors; they deployed trench warfare and artillery control of river crossings. It took the French army two months to slog it to the Dahomeyan capital, whereupon King Gbehanzin burnt his city to the ground rather than surrender it, and took to the bush to fight a guerrilla war. His royal artefacts are on display in Branly, but his name does not loom large over them.
This much is expected of all postcolonial institutions that reduce colonialism to symbols and gestures. But there is a further element to the Branly museum that many will find troubling. Nouvel’s buildings are surrounded by a 200-m glass wall, facing the river, through which the greenery of the surrounding gardens will soon be visible. Those gardens have deliberately been designed to seem disorderly, and to form a contrast with the disciplined symmetry of a typical French Garden. Even the metal back fence of the Branly property is made to resemble the reed and bamboo plants which it will contain; at the museum’s front, there is an entire wall covered with vegetation – the Branly’s ‘hanging garden,’ designed by a botanist. It is as if it was deemed obvious that non-western art should be surrounded by something approximating a wilderness.
Inside the main building, galleries are shaped like great wombs – accessed through a narrow winding passage, earth-coloured, bathed in muted light and eschewing straight lines and right angles – so that African, Oceanian etc. parts of the exhibition merge into one another without strongly marked boundaries. The intended effect, we are told, is to preserve the poetic qualities of the other’s art – but what is also achieved is further distancing: yet again, non-western worlds are represented as both seductive and disturbing, both exaggeratedly ‘natural’ and irredeemably different.
Having said all that, it must also be said that the collection, as a collection alone, is superb. Some of the exhibits are so beautiful and powerful that it is perhaps no wonder they were taken back to France. It is also no wonder they later inspired an important part of Picasso’s work – some of it displayed across town in the Hôtel Salé in Marais. But the Branly museum seems suspended in its own world, isolated from both history and everyday realities surrounding it.
It is a museum that is greater than the other Parisian museums in this ability to secure an attention torn away from context; that is to say, a museum that succeeds through its dictatorial qualities. Perhaps to some French citizens, torn themselves from Africa and now inhabiting the poor housing estates around Paris, it might seem logical that the building should be named after Chirac. – For visitor information, see

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