Kanak, LArt est une Parole
Musée du Quai Branly | October 15, 2013 - January 26, 2014
As a colonial power, France accumulated rich ethnographic collections, which have now been consolidated near the Eiffel Tower in the Musée du Quai Branly. This theatrical building, designed by Jean Nouvel, stirred controversy when it opened in 2006, with some considering its dark interior spaces a throwback to mid-century exhibitions of “primitive” art. Yet the museum aspires to leadership in a postcolonial reclamation of world cultures, to which it contributes a powerful presence, with its cave-like passageways and “living walls”. If there is a “second life of heritage”—Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s term for the ongoing development of indigenous arts in today’s global village—the museum offers a stage for its presentation: “là où dialoguent les cultures” (“there where cultures engage in dialogue.”)
Kanak, l’Art est une Parole, which has been on view in the museum’s Jardin Gallery since October, extends a long-standing dialogue with New Caledonia—a French island territory with a rich Melanesian heritage, where the drama of colonialism is still unfolding. The island faces an upcoming vote on autonomy, after years of conflict between the large population of French colonists, some descended from convicts and Communards deported there in its days as a penal colony, and the “Kanaks”—a once pejorative term adopted by Melanesians in their push for cultural renewal. The curators, Emmanuel Kasarhérou and Roger Boulay, take advantage of the museum’s theatricality to showcase the performative character of Kanak tradition and advance its political agenda. They’ve assembled outstanding examples of the island’s material culture and compiled an encyclopedic catalogue, with an inventory of objects in European collections, records of the oral tradition, and rich historical documentation, that support their comprehensive analysis of Kanak cultural heritage.
The show’s title is difficult to translate, given the scope of parole, which extends from “word” to “oratory” to “act”. Its intention is to give objects a voice—to link them as embodied memories to the oral tradition, articulated by the chief in traditional discourse with ceremonial jade axe in hand, on a pile of yams, the natural embodiment of the masculine force of the clan. Assertive wall texts insist on the first person plural: “we” plant yams, record genealogies, and construct monumental houses. Traditional dances inaugurated the show, and tabu poles wrapped in brightly colored fabrics mark its entrance, addressing the viewer with a reminder of coutume (custom), but also, for those familiar with the island, of a local memorial to Kanak activists slain during the “events” of the 1980s. Near the end, a full-scale video projection of a young Melanesian rapper evokes Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the leader of the autonomy movement, assassinated in 1989, expressing Kanak aspirations in a contemporary enactment of parole. Can the museum become a new medium for cultural transmission?
The museum encourages dramatic gestures, with peripheral galleries and wall texts adding more nuanced historical commentaries. A darkened gallery of dramatically illuminated masks, their grimacing faces adorned with feathers and human hair, impresses us with the presence of ancestors. It also conjures up familiar stereotypes of the primitive, which coexist uneasily with adjacent displays documenting the psychosocial drama of colonialism—a French tobacco container carved as a Melanesian head, horrific French depictions of cannibalism, or photographs of the exhibition of Kanaks in the 1898 Exposition Universelle.
In another gallery, an impressive array of ceremonial axes is displayed to strong aesthetic effect in well-lighted vitrines. Masterpieces of Stone Age technology, their blades of translucent jade are bound to handles wrapped in delicately woven fibers of flying fox fur. These distinctive objects merit a spotlight, but objects speak in multiple, sometimes contradictory voices; one bears a gold cross added by Catholic missionaries, who used it to celebrate Mass in acknowledgement of its symbolic power. Again, wall texts add nuance to the cultural dialogue, noting a shared symbolic reference to the sun. Elsewhere, sculptures are contextualized to recreate a ceremonial space, in a long, window-lit gallery which recreates the layout of a typical village: a central walkway adorned with colorful fabrics leading to the Grande Case (Great House), which symbolizes in its construction the chief supported by “younger brothers.” Monumental door-posts mark the entrance, flanked by elaborately carved finials representing the chief himself: a celebration of ceremonial power past, and possibly future.
This village layout figures prominently in the display of extraordinary engraved bamboos that punctuate the exhibition with their meticulously detailed renderings of daily life. Kanak tradition was not entirely oral, if, as suggested in the catalogue, these engravings recorded histories of clan alliances and significant events, perhaps serving as aide-mémoires to orators. Engravers responded to the arrival of Europeans with lively, sometimes humorous enumerations of rifles and hats—or more somber arrays of severed heads, the result of colonial revolts—all set alongside scenes of traditional agriculture and village activities. Dating from the mid-19th century, they reflect that period’s relatively balanced dialogue of cultures, which spawned a sort of indigenous ethnography: depictions of European ships are so precise that the bamboos can be dated based on naval records.
The bamboos open a broader dialogue, engaging the spread of global modernity, which cuts across cultures and exposes everyone to strangeness on a daily basis. James Clifford writes of the “ethnographic surrealism” that developed out of European efforts to examine their own violently modernized culture after World War I (and after Marcel Duchamp exhibited a snow shovel in 1915). In its legacy the Musée du Quai Branly endeavors—empowered by its strong sense of place yet somewhat impeded by its cave-like interior—to mingle the exotic and the everyday. Here, videos of contemporary yam cultivation (the equivalent of our own high-tech engravings), are displayed alongside traditional tools. They extend the exhibition’s reach into everyday life and inspire visions of a museum fit for Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village—not just a monument but a medium.
There’s poignancy to the realization that most of the works in the show are no longer produced. Aside from engraved bamboos, revived with contemporary subjects by artist Micheline Néporon, new artistic production seems isolated and idiosyncratic. While the introduction of metal tools initially encouraged greater geometrical precision in wood-carving, pleasing to modernist tastes for formal purity, the predominant Western influence has been towards naturalism. A major contemporary sculpture, “L’Homme lézard” (1992) by the improbably named Dick Bone (who has since succumbed to mental illness), expresses the traditional identification of human beings with animal totems and resembles the hybrid monsters of Romanesque sculpture, whose carvers interbred classical prototypes with vernacular forms when Europe itself was a tribal culture. Naturalism enhances the strangeness of the patterned reptilian skin that partly cloaks the figure’s exposed sexuality and powerful musculature; Bone treats elements of tourist art with a vulnerability more characteristic of the humble, stone-carved figures collected by first explorers.
To find strength in vulnerability, to negotiate a hybrid identity—such are tasks for art in the Kanak society that will emerge from current politics. As the exhibition moves on to the light-filled spaces of Renzo Piano’s Centre Tjibaou in Nouméa, it brings not just a celebration of the past but a complex legacy that Kanaks must assume as they wean themselves from France: a context for parole in global culture.
37 Quai Branly // 75007 Paris, France
HEARNE PARDEE is a painter based in New York and Northern California.