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France: How One Looked at the Other

How One Looked at the Other

Exhibition Review by Yasmine Ryan


Image by Patrick Gries

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Just down the road from the Eiffel Tower, a significant exhibition with a strong focus on the Pacific, including New Zealand, opened last Monday. Titled Regarding the Other, it is the first major exhibition in Paris’ new Musée du Quai Branly. Amongst the 1400 objects featured are an impressive hei-tiki, paintings, and other taonga from Captain James Cook’s voyages in our corner of the world.

Curated under the direction of Yves Le Fur, this exhibition focuses on the multi-faceted ways that Europe has represented the indigenous worlds of the Americas, Africa and Oceania. Many cultures there were ‘discovered’ via the sea from the 15th century onwards; or, in the case of Oceania, from the late 18th century. Thus there is a strong navigational and explorational flavour to the exhibition.

Given that the exhibition spans a five century period, Le Fur has chosen to divide the immense display along five broad themes: The World Theatre (1500-1760), The Natural History of the World (1760-1800), The World’s Big Herbarium (1800-1850), The Science of People (1850-1920,) and The Aesthetic Mutation (1900-2006).

However, the viewer is allowed considerable freedom in interpreting the varied ways Europeans have tried to make sense of ‘the primitive’: from fantastical monsters to crazed cannibals; from the noble savage to the racially inferior; from conquered remnants to free nomads. Some ideas have been contradictory and absurd; some had their day and then disappeared; some have been re-born in different forms, in different places, in different epochs.

These diverse ways of looking at ‘the Other’ are reflected in the range of items on display. Particular things were sought at different times, from the ivory and coconut objects treasured by European aristocrats in the early 18th century, to the tribal carvings that inspired early twentieth century artists like Picasso and Gauguin.

Also in the exhibition are paintings by earlier European artists, such as the rich portraits by the Dutch painter Albert Eckhout and William Hodges’ visions of the Pacific. Similarly, an array of ethnological photographs and anthropological busts reflect the desire to catalogue other peoples, while an installation of spears and shields suggests colonial conquest and – perhaps – indigenous resistance.


Image by Patrick Gries

Whether curious, contemptuous, disgusted or idealised, what all these reflections on the non-European other have in common is that they reveal as much about what and how Europeans think about themselves than they do about the represented ‘primitive’ cultures themselves.

In stepping back to look at the biases behind this ‘regard’, Le Fur also is confronting a problematic that, arguably, is intrinsic to the whole Musée du Quai Branly project. Since its inception, there has been much controversy surrounding this institution, especially given its incorporation of the two major French museum collections, of the Musée de l’Homme and of the Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, that were an outcome of that country’s colonial endeavours.


Musée du Quai Branly, image by Yasmine Ryan

Not everything on display reflects this particular heritage. For example, there are photographic works by Fiona Pardington and Michael Parekowhai in the garden area, all gifted by the New Zealand Government to the Museum to mark its opening last year.

The bulk of the items exhibited in Regarding the Other are from the museum’s own collection or from other European museums. They are the spoils of five hundred years of European interest in non-European peoples and cultures, and these objects and the narratives constructed around them are part of a sometimes wonderful and often tragic, but very much entangled, history that links the modern West and the tribal non-West.

Tackling these important issues head-on is a good, and undoubtedly necessary, first step for the Musée du Quai Branly.

ENDS

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