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February 2003 - The End of an Era

The once controversial Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie is one step closer to closing its doors after 70 years of existence. The building which houses the museum was created during the epoch of colonial expositions in Paris. During the Colonial Exposition of 1931, French ethnologists presented objects and people from its colonies in a living display that many criticized as resembling a "human zoo". The building, nicknamed the "Colonial Palace", was meant to remain standing after the fair closed. Its interior is a tribute to art deco design. In 1935, the Musée de la France d'Outre-Mer (the Museum of France Overseas) was established here, containing rooms devoted to history, colonial works and indigenous art. An aquarium was added at that time.

Gradually, the museum evolved from one that glorified France's colonial activities to one that emphasized the art produced by the native peoples of its colonies. That evolution became official when in 1960, Andre Malraux, Minister of Cultural Affairs, created the museum that exists today. This was the era of rapid decolonization for France, and the change in emphasis for the museum was timely.

Recently, some remarkable exhibits have been shown here, including "Kannibals et Vahinés, Imagery from the South Seas" and "Ubuntu, Arts and Cultures of South Africa" (both held in 2002). But even up to the present day, the museum never completely shed itself of the image of an institution that defended the ideals of colonialism.

The last temporary exhibits at the museum ran from October 9, 2002 through January 6, 2004. One was a stunning display representing the art and craft of creating the boubou and the other, a series of photos taken by young Maliens with a device called the sténopé (pinhole camera).

Entitled "Boubou, C'est Chic" (Boubou, It's Chic), the garment exposition featured the best of the museum's collection, as well as several pieces that were loaned by the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland (the original exhibitor of this exposition). The fabrics, mostly bazin and cotton, were splendidly dyed. Many were colored with indigo, but there was at least one mud-dyed garment on display. Intricate patterns embroidered around the neck and sometimes down the front of the garments served not only to decorate them, but also to relate a message through symbolism and to strengthen the fabric at its most vulnerable stress points.

Each boubou was displayed with the arms extended along poles in a scarecrow-like manner. Their dimensions were extraordinary - the arm span was easily 8 feet for most garments. Projected onto one wall of the exhibition room was text that described the area of Africa where the boubou is worn (18 West African countries from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Chad), its cultural origins, what accompanying garments men and women wear with it, and other interesting bits of information. A slide show in a neighboring room projected images of contemporary African men and women dressed in boubous of all kinds.

The photo exhibit was entitled "Mali photos. Sténopés d'Afrique". An association called Obscura undertook the training of young Malians in the use of the sténopé and from 1996 to 2000, these youngsters set out to experiment with their newly acquired capabilities and burgeoning creativity. They produced a series of roughly thirty curious and striking black and white images of their peers and their surroundings with this photographic device. Taken from 1996 through 2000, the photos have been combined into a book published by Editions International in 2001. The title of the book is the same as that of the exhibit: Mali Photos-Sténopés d'Afrique.

At the end of January 2004, the museum's permanent exhibits were removed from the building and placed into storage to await transfer to the new Musée du quai Branly, a space that is currently under construction and that will be dedicated to the ancient art forms of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The aquarium and the historic rooms on the ground floor of the old museum will remain open, including the impressive Salle des Cinq Continents and the Salon Afrique.

The Musée du quai Branly is scheduled to open in 2005. Though the building is far from complete, the museum's team of curators and staff has already begun working to establish itself as a force in the primitive arts sector of the museum world. Last summer, it collaborated with the group Festival de Radio France-Montpellier to organize the first presentation of the ceremonial cult of Bwiti, performed by natives of the Tsogho people of Gabon in the city of Montpellier, France.

Its first official exhibit, one of masks, tools and other items from an ancient civilization in Kodiak, Alaska, was shown at the Musée d'Arts d'Afrique et d"Océanie from November 6, 2002 through January 20, 2004. The new museum intends not only to make its collections from around the world accessible to the public, but also to establish strong links with the global academic community and to provide an arena for the expression of "living culture" as opposed to focusing only on inanimate objects.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2003