Wednesday, March 21, 2007

“Le monde est comme une goutte de rosée…

…Qui s'évapore aux premiers rayons de soleil.”

That is the wistful Syrian proverb that greets visitors to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, one of outgoing French president (and long-time Paris mayor) Jacques Chirac’s most notable cultural contributions to this ever-more diverse and multicultural European capital. The fruit of the merger of two Paris institutions - the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l'Homme - in a defiantly modern setting in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, as well as likely a tribute to Mr. Chirac’s immense self-regard and desire for “legacy,” the museum has stirred more than its fair share of debate since opening last summer. The International Herald Tribune described it shortly after its opening as "defiant, mysterious and wildly eccentric,“ while the New York Times last summer adopted a pouty theater-critic’s tone, bemoaning that “if the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection ( of the Quai Branly).”

Back from Spain, I finally made my way there today, taking in the market along Avenue du President Wilson (the name itself an echo of a time when the United States and France were not seen to be at odds) before crossing the Seine at the Pont de l’Ama to the Quai Branly itself.

Certainly, the dimly-lit, often music-filled chambers of the museum may seem rather otherworldly and transporting when stepping in from the gray, rainy boulevards of Paris on a March afternoon, but, on the whole, I found the museum’s impressive collection more reverent and subdued than sensational. One aspect of the material on display that has gone oddly underreported is the fact that it contains what is probably the best single collection of carvings and statues from Papua New Guinea that I have ever seen, including beautiful Asmat funerary posts, masks, matted shields, elaborate ritual costumes and even decorated skulls, all presented with an explanation as to their cultural significance to a region with a dizzying variety of ethnic and linguistic lines.

There are radiant Christian tapestries from 17th century Ethiopia depicting familiar kings and prophets with features that delicately blend African and Semitic traits, robustly-colored images from the northeastern Indian state of Assam illustrating the story of Manasa, and a 13th century Hebrew manuscript from the Moroccan city of Fes laying out the story of Esther. If there is any message to be taken from these various representations of the secular and divine, to me it was that the unity of spirit in cultures that political and religious leaders often try and put in opposition to one another, a unity that in facts shines through loud and clear. There is a common humanity in the simplest carved spoon just as there is in the most exquisite statuette of the Buddha, in protective figures from Angola and Congo as there are in mannequins from Malekula.

The weather in Paris, by the way, keeps getting stranger and stranger. The day began with a rainstorm, which gave way to bright sunshine. This in turn gave way to gray, cloud-streaked skies, followed by a steady drizzle, which unexpectedly erupted at around 4:30pm to a full-fledged hail storm. Now the sun is shining brightly again. If it keeps up like this, tomorrow I expect that I will walk out the door and there will be fire everywhere.

1 comment:

Eve Sibley said...

Lol, fire everywhere! Now that'd be some good art.