A reflection on the place of African Art in the Quai Branly
Written by: Raphaëlle Killick
When entering the grand and opaque halls of the Musée Quai Branly, a wind of exoticism and escapism overcomes you. The amber textures and the imposing walls trap you inside a cave of wonders far away from the elegant and poised Paris you were just walking the streets of. Further along the corridors, you will find the African section, a row of colourful, cubist, scary, beautiful masks starring at you. The bright spotlights absorb you, force you to confront these imposing and foreign figures. As a young girl, I was fascinated, and marvelled at this art I had never seen before, attracted by its difference to the Greek statues I saw the day before in the Louvre. But today as a young woman, I feel sceptical and uneasy. Why was this art displayed in an ethnographic and historical museum? Why wasn’t this art displayed with those Greek statues in the Louvre? I started thinking about those dark corridors absorbing the light and black-and-white photographs adorning the walls. They all exuded an air of primitivism by creating an atmosphere removed from the present, into the past and far, far away. This phenomenon served to reinforce the idea of a more developed West, African art placed in an ancient and primitive realm. Then, to my horror, I realised why: here, the ethnographic museum projected a value of otherness and sameness to the objects. Whilst on the other hand, art galleries attribute an aesthetic quality to the objects. This difference reveals how museums shape the way we perceive and judge artworks, modelling our minds into a racist and colonial mind-set.
In the 1953 documentary film ‘Les Statues meurent aussi’ (Statues also die), the director Chris Marker asks the same questions and dives into the meaning of these statues stripped of their purpose, dead in a western museum. The concept of the ‘dead statue’ is one that Marker develops throughout the film: a statue, when entering the museum, is devoid of its past life and significance. Through the careful juxtaposition of images and the chilling audio, the director narrates on the emotional qualities of the statues and breathes life into them once again. But this is accompanied by its bitter-sweet philosophy: The wrongful placement of this African art in the western cosmology. Indeed, Marker observes that the western world places art outside of everyday life, into the timeless and transcendental. Whereas the African statue lives within our world, in a cosmology of unity. The film explains this through the example of religion: the concept of ‘religious art’ is a western one because it can be separated from everyday life. But Marker claims that ‘it is not very useful for us to call it religious object in a world where everything is religion, nor to speak of an art object in a world where everything is art’. Art, in its creation and production is already sacred and ingrained in our world, it is part of it. In African culture, art and artefact are one and the same as all creation is sacred, whether it is an everyday object or what we call ‘Art’. Two different ontologies and approaches to art clash in the museum as we project a false perception of the artwork. Thus, the placement of the statue in a western museum leads to its degradation, its cheapening and finally, its death. Rather than bringing us closer to the statue, we find ourselves being more distant from it, as it stands alone, stripped of its purpose and deprived of its essence.
‘Les Statues meurent aussi’ reveals a racist and fractured system at the heart of the museum but also at the heart of the French nation. The film was banned in France for 11 years because it violently condemned the country’s colonial past, in a time when it was still profiting from its overseas’ territories. Even though the themes and ideas are deemed ‘ahead of their time’ and can still resonate with the audience today, it feels like the film is still remnant of a different era, through their choice of words (using the word n***o instead of Black) or even by placing all ‘African statues’ under the same veil, denying any geographical or cultural differences within the vast continent. However poetic and true Marker’s statements are about Black Art, it is important to keep in mind that he is himself a white filmmaker and might not have the authority to define and explore the significance of African art.
Even though the origins and the truth of these statements might be dubious, ‘Les Statues meurent aussi’ raises the important and urgent question of the place of the African statue in the western museum. Back to the Quai Branly, the central narrative seems to revolve around the glorification of the French explorers and ethnographers who collected the items rather than the focus being on the ethnic groups that produced them. In November 2018, a report commissioned by the French government recommended the restitution of some objects of African heritage. Ms Savoy, one of the academics in charge of the report, believes that a rebalancing of African heritage in the world is necessary and advocated the return of ‘any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions’ by the army or scientific explorers. Moreover, the appointment of a new Président of the museum, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, a Kanak (indigenous people of New Caledonia), will perhaps diversify and bring a breath of much needed modernity into the post-colonial museum that was the Quai Branly. A reform of the western museum might reconcile these clashing cosmologies mentioned earlier, through a more comprehensive and collaborative approach to the exhibition and coupled with the restoration of artefacts to their rightful owners.
De Groof, Matthias. 2010. Statues Also Die - But Their Death is not the Final Word. Image and Narrative : Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative. 11.
Gignoux, Sabine. 2020. "Emmanuel Kasarhérou, Nouveau Président Du Musée Du Quai-Branly". La Croix. https://www.la-croix.com/Culture/Emmanuel-Kasarherou-nouveau-president-Musee-quai-Branly-2020-05-27-1201096233.
Marker, Chris. 1953. Les Statues Meurent Aussi. Film. commissioned by ‘Présence Africaine’. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/hzFeuiZKHcg
Nayeri, F. 2018. Museums in France Should Return African Treasures, Report Says. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/arts/design/france-museums-africa-savoy-sarr-report.html