John Howard didn’t make it to Paris for the official opening of the Musée de Quai Branly (MQB), nor for the following morning’s traditional Aboriginal ceremony that symbolically handed over eight specially commissioned Indigenous Australian artworks to France. And this despite the federal government matching the generous financial contribution of the Harold Mitchell Foundation – half-a-million bucks – for the costs involved in producing the pieces. There were rumours at the Australian embassy in Paris that Howard might drop by a few days later, on his way to a ceremony to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but apparently events in East Timor kept him at home. So we can only guess how the prime minister might have responded to French president Jacques Chirac’s monument to “civilisations too long ignored or misunderstood”, to his apology for “a long history of disregard”, to this official attempt at returning “dignity to peoples too often dismissed, looked down upon, sometimes even annihilated by arrogance, ignorance, stupidity and blindness”.
Chirac, like Howard, is at least consistent. He set plans in motion for the 232-million-Euro museum almost immediately following his election as president in 1995, just after creating the arts premiers (first arts) department in the Louvre. A passionate undertaking for Chirac, it is his only grand projet: he does not share François Mitterand’s architectural mania. And the philosophy of the MQB is entirely consistent with the concern for non-Western civilisations that Chirac has demonstrated throughout his political career. Whether refusing, in 1992, as mayor of Paris, to join in anniversary celebrations of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus – he compared the discovery to genocide – or recently creating an unpopular tax on aeroplane tickets to assist Third World development, he has continually rejected an “ethnocentric” response to political events. He’s known for detesting Christian “arrogance”.
But his enthusiasm for “primitive” art and artefacts – a taste, perhaps, for the exotic – is also consistent with a long-standing predilection of the bourgeois elite in Paris. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, intellectuals and artists have oohed and aahed over pieces from non-Western civilisations. Picasso may have started the trend: he first saw African art around 1907, when he visited the ethnographic museum at Trocadéro that later became the Musée de l’Homme, and whose collection is now housed in the MQB. The graphic forms Picasso saw are said to have inspired his masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which heralded the beginning of Cubism. The Surrealists, too, had a taste for these works, seeing in them something close to man’s true, primal nature.
Today the market for African art is one of the most important in the world, and the MQB has already strengthened Paris’ position as a trading centre, particularly in relation to its main competitors, New York and Brussels. At least three major auctions of “primitive” art took place in Paris in the days around the opening of the MQB: at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and, most significantly, at the French auction-house Drouot, which held the sale of the historic Vérité collection of African art. Parisian dealers in African art since the 1930s, Pierre Vérité and his son Claude amassed a colossal collection over two generations. The sale produced world-record prices: for example, more than 5 million Euros for a Ngil Fang mask from Gabon.
Jean Nouvel, the architect of the MQB, first saw contemporary Aboriginal art through the work of German film director Wim Wenders and was immediately attracted to “the repetitions, the patterns, the colours”. He had the idea of incorporating works by the world’s oldest continuing culture into the building’s design as a way of connecting the museum’s dusty collections to a vibrant, contemporary practice. On an exceptional site, snaking alongside the Seine and at the foot of the Eiffel Tower – that durable monument to nineteenth-century French power – Nouvel has attempted to create a “sanctuary”, a place of “respect”. But the MQB is sometimes a little trop literal and ends up resembling a kind of arts premiers theme park. After navigating through landscape-architect Gilles Clément’s enormous jungle, visitors enter the museum by a white spiral ramp, then greet the artworks in half-light. Primary materials abound: stone, zinc, wood; the half-walls dividing exhibitions are cloaked in leather. One of the building’s architectural motifs is a series of small caves, which patrons can enter to reflect on the surprisingly small number of pieces on display.
In his letter of intent, Nouvel wrote of a “haunted place, wherein dwell and converse the ancestral spirits of those who awoke to the human condition and invented gods and beliefs”. Haunted, indeed – with political, historical, intellectual and ethical dilemmas. Through its neutral appellation, the MQB attempts to sidestep the knot of issues relating to a museum of arts premiers or arts primitifs. But the collection is inseparable from France’s messy colonial past: the majority of the works were brought back from nineteenth-century expeditions. The director of the museum, Stéphane Martin, has stressed that the collection is a subjective one, a reflection of French history (which explains why Inuit culture is represented by a single comb). The majority of the 300,000 pieces held in the museum came from the ethnological collection of the Musée de l’Homme – now a bitter shell of its former self – and the rest from the now-extinct Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens, which was formerly the Musée des Colonies. One of the major criticisms aimed at the MQB is that it privileges the latter collection’s superficial aesthetic concerns over the solid scientific context of the Musée de l’Homme.
But any such exhibition of this booty is fraught with difficulty. What to do with pieces such as the nineteenth-century Bamileke royal statue from Cameroon, covered, incredibly, with precious Venetian glass beads, which the king – the only one who could afford such treasures – paid for with slaves?
On the other hand, Australia’s Indigenous art industry, often troubled by allegations of fraud and exploitation and now the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, can only benefit from such a prestigious international showcase. And while no federal minister attended the Aboriginal smoke ceremony for the handover of artworks to the French, Alexander Downer did lend his avuncular presence to the celebration of the MBQ’s opening held at the Australian embassy in Paris later that day. His jovial speech about there being no “inferior or superior” cultures went down like a lead balloon. Cheers greeted the response of Chris Sarra, chair of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, who said, “Despite the challenges we face … and the misunderstanding and ignorance that abounds back home about us … we continue to be there for white Australia … so that when it embraces us with warmth, respect and dignity … we can finally walk forwards together.”
John Howard didn’t make it to Paris for the official opening of the Musée de Quai Branly (MQB), nor for the following morning’s traditional Aboriginal ceremony that symbolically handed over eight specially commissioned Indigenous Australian artworks to France. And this despite the federal government matching the generous financial contribution of the Harold Mitchell Foundation – half-a-million bucks – for the costs involved in producing the pieces. There were rumours at the Australian embassy in Paris that Howard might drop by a few days later, on his way to a ceremony to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but apparently events in East Timor kept him at home. So we can only guess how the prime minister might have responded to French president Jacques Chirac’s monument to “civilisations too long ignored or misunderstood”, to his apology...