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Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly reviewed by Baj Strobel

Sally Price:Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly, University of Chicago Press, 2007. (French edition: Au musée des illusions, Le rendez-vous manqué du Quai Branly, Paris, Editions Denoël, 2011.)

Reviewed by Baj Strobel


This book should have tremendous interest for anyone in the Caribbean who is concerned with art and museums and with the exhibition of artists both from the region itself and elsewhere in the world. The author, Sally Price, has published a number of books on the museological representation of arts of “the Other”; see, for example, Primitive Art in Civilized Places, originally published by the University of Chicago Press in 1989 and now available in seven languages.She has also, often together with Richard Price, authored books on the societies of the Maroons of Suriname and French Guiana (see, for example, Maroon Arts: Cultural Vitality in the African Diaspora, Beacon Press 1999,which is also available in Dutch and French editions).

The central issue in Paris Primitive concerns the place of the Other in France’s new museum next to the Eiffel Tower, the musée du Quai Branly. The innumerable debates and controversies concerning the representation of non-European cultures have taken on particular poignancy since the early twentieth century as artifacts viewed as art objects have become a thorny concern for European artistic consciousness.

Listen, for example, to Guillaume Apollinaire: “The Louvre should take in certain exotic masterpieces whose effect is no less moving than that of beautiful specimens of Western sculpture” (cited by Price, p. 34). Since 1909, when this was written, dealers, collectors, and art lovers have made conscious efforts to recognize these “exotic masterpieces,” usually from Africa or Oceania, as worthy of a place at the summit of world art.

The question then becomes one of who decides, who defines. What role to accord to the “Others.” And how much to let them speak for themselves.

The changing status of “primitive” objects in Western settings has followed a trajectory that needs to be described with precision on the basis of meticulous research. What we call the “arts of the Other” reflects their creativity, their imagination, inscribed in both their material and spiritual culture, with all the rites and ceremonies that implies. But are they not also art for art’s sake? And how is that category to be defined? The question of the Other’s voice(s) as well as the place(s) the art objects occupy in their own setting (as well, of course, as how to place them when they arrive in our own spaces) become crucial questions. Sally Price engages them with subtlety, exposing the still-hefty residue of postcoloniality that they reveal.

Thus, the role of museums, those prestigious sites of exhibition, becomes central, for it is precisely museums that link ex-colonies to metropolitan powers. Yet the Musée du Quai Branly makes virtually no effort to take on this role. As historian Gilles Manceron has put it, “Many historians feel that France hasnot come to terms with the real history of its colonial era. The [Quai Branly’s] idea of a jungle or a forest surrounding the museum, a place where you will discover the ‘dark continent,’ is a problem” (cited by Price, p. 151). This is the logic that explains the subtitle of the French edition: le rendez-vous manqué (a missed opportunity). The museum becomes a site for the replay of colonial domination and the recasting of non-European objects in a Western mode.

Sally Price revisits the multiple polemics that surrounded the installation of “masterpieces of arts premiers” in the Pavillon des Sessions wing of the Louvre Museum in 2000 — a shift in the Parisian art scene that was born of President Jacques Chirac’s fascination with non-European art, from that of the Taino to the plumed headdress of Montezuma. Chirac’s close friendship with primitive art dealer Jacques Kerchache turned out to be the crucial factor both at the Louvre and in the decision to create the Musée du Quai Branly. Kerchache insisted on what he called “the equality of cultures” and bemoaned the fact that “three quarters of the world’s humanity are excluded from the greatest museum in the world [the Louvre].” Yet his criteria for establishing relative value were anything but respectful of the views of the original artists and their fellows; in 1994 he declared that “My selections follow directly in the path that I’ve taken over the past thirty years. I abstract out what I call the seductive elements of an object [including] the name and origin of the artist, in order to focus on one single thing: the artist’s ability to arrive at creative plastic solutions” (p. 21).

Chapter 5, “The State of Culture,” focuses on the functioning of a system that links museums and political power in France. “The prominent place of culture in French national identity has given the country’s presidents a direct role in museum affairs” (p. 27). Based on the idea of cultural exceptionalism, this notion grows out of “a dominant model that was firmly in place before immigrants constituted such a large segment of the population. … The privileging of national culture (while at the same time promoting the appreciation of foreign cultures in such controlled settings as museum displays) lies behind the idea of France’s famous ‘civilizing mission’ and lends a distinctive tone to representations of its colonial past” (pp. 40-41).

Chapters 7-12 recount the fiery debates that accompanied the transfer of ethnographic collections from the Musée de l’Homme to the Quai Branly, describing in detail the two opposing camps, one championing an aesthetic presentation and the other fighting to maintain the ethnographic meanings of the objects in question. “The virtually unanimous reading of the project by anthropologically leaning participants and observers was that decision-making power had been jealously guarded by aesthetically leaning members of the team” (p. 57). Here is also where the thorny question of repatriation is addressed, with particular attention to the debates over statues from the Nok culture of Nigeria and the Djenné culture of Mali, and emphasis on the importance of paying attention to the views of source communities with regard to the meanings of their art.

Questions such as these are addressed with expertise and intelligence. An epilogue brings the central arguments together, and in the French edition the story of the Quai Branly is brought up to date in a new afterword. The ample citation of other works, and a bibliography of more than 400 items further contribute to the book’s value as an essential reference for any exploration of the issues involved in the museological presentation of non-Western arts and cultures. While colonialism may be a thing of the past, Price argues, the politics and daily lives of today are indelibly marked by the upheavals brought about through colonialism. Questions concerning the origins of collected pieces, the aesthetic visions of the societies from which the pieces come, or again the invention of Western-inspired meanings become essential issues since even the simplest exhibited object deserves multiple readings that both challenge and complement oneanother. As Kanak scholar Emmanuel Kasarhérou put it, “You should not imagine that just by putting our objects in your museums you’re letting us be the ones to speak about them” (p. 176).


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