A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Musee Dapper new directions for a postcolonial museum
African Arts, Summer, 2002 by Bennetta Jules-Rosette
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On a rainy afternoon in November 2001, I visited the new locale of the Musee Dapper at 35 rue Paul Valery in Paris. After considerable renovation, the museum had opened a year earlier with an inaugural show containing 150 pieces from several renowned European collections. Named after a seventeenth-century Dutch scholar and humanist who wrote about Africa, the museum boasts a history unique in the French art world. The private Fondation Olfert Dapper was organized in December 1983, spearheaded and financed by French industrialist Michel Leveau and his Antillian wife, Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau. The couple share a passion for Africa and the preservation of sub-Saharan African arts, artifacts, and cultures. Their early work involved roundtables, lectures, conferences, and tours. The Dapper's exhibition activities were launched in 1986 by two shows held at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, "Ouvertures sur l'art africain: Les cabinets de curiosites au [XVII.sup.e] siecle" and "Figures reliquaires dites Kota."
In 1989 the Dapper inaugurated its first permanent space at 58 rue Victor Hugo with an exhibition on African kings and ancestors. Just a stone's throw from the Arc de Triomphe, the Musee Dapper was housed in a three-story classical villa surrounded by a tropical-style garden. This building now serves as the museum's administrative headquarters. A visit to an exhibition at the old Dapper was a must for any well-informed tourist, art historian, or student of African art in Paris. Its atmosphere was intimate, giving one the impression of a stylish mansion adorned with objects from the owner's personal collection, tastefully placed and creatively illuminated.
The museum freed the artworks from the clutter of the usual ethnographic display. Breaking with the tradition of Trocadero and Tervuren, it introduced contemporary gallery aesthetics and presentation strategies into the exhibition of African art. Instead of crowding multiple objects into a single case as anthropological artifacts, grouped according to ethnic and "tribal" origin, the Dapper respectfully showcased each piece. This approach took advantage of the best aspects of museum and gallery environments. Occasionally the information about individual objects was only minimal, following the themes of a particular exhibition. While this absence of anthropological texts might have been a source of concern to Africanist scholars, it enhanced the streamlined aesthetic effect that has come to be the Dapper style.
Although four times as large as the original structure, the new Dapper, designed by the architect Alain Moatti, maintains the museum's signature style. The exhibition rooms are modularized so they can be adapted to displays of either traditional or contemporary art, preserving a sense of freedom and openness in each case. Minimal anthropological intervention sustains the elegance of the new displays (Fig. 1).
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Since 1986 the Fondation Dapper has sponsored more than thirty exhibitions, and the museum now organizes two (as opposed to its initial three) per year, each lasting approximately six months. Among the most memorable Dapper projects were the 1993 "Luba: Aux sources du Zaire," the 1994 "Dogon," and the 1996 "Magies" (Figs. 3, 4). All were memorable for the power of the African objects, the cachet of their provenance, and the dignity of their display.
[FIGURES 3-4 OMITTED]
The two ethnographic museums in Paris, the Musee de l'Homme and the Musee des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie (MAAO), formerly the Musee Colonial, were fueled by the colonial enterprise, their curators assiduously stockpiling collections of African artifacts and displaying them as icons of cultural difference. "Objets sauvages" have always fascinated European audiences, and the titillation of neoprimitivism continues to be an undercurrent in the display of old and new African art in France today. In this type of display, as Sally Price points out, "aesthetic experiences and beauty are not joined with ethnographic evidence and social curiosity, but opposed to them" (1989:87). The modernist approaches of these two institutions, which were innovative in the early twentieth century, contrasts with the Dapper's contemporary aesthetics.
In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the Musee de l'Homme is an important stop on any tour of official monumental Paris. The MAAO, with its grounds next to a zoo, is an exotic touristic site that recalls France's former colonial connections. The closing of the latter institution in January 2002 heralds the end of a nostalgic era of African-art acquisition and preservation in France. Under the government's new approach to so-called arts premiers, part of the MAAO's collection will be displayed in the Louvre, and other works from both the MAAO and the Musee de l'Homme will be conserved for research purposes. Certain objects are to be retained for occasional display. According to Bonny Gabin, cultural attache for the Musee Dapper, the government will decide which objects to keep and which to sell in order to upgrade standing collections and develop thematic exhibitions. As for the Dapper, Gabin explained its goals to me as follows (interview, November 29, 2001):
We have the same objectives as any museum--to conserve and disseminate culture through objects and paintings. In particular, we have the specialty of promoting the pre-colonial arts of sub-Saharan Africa. Toda); however, we live in a multicultural world, one characterized by metissage. Consequently, the Dapper is beginning to open up new vistas that include the cultures of the diaspora. All of this has its roots in a deep connection with the African continent.
Thus, although the Dapper maintains a commitment to the display of fine "first arts" drawn from private, commercial, and public collections across Europe, its new approach to diasporic art and its sleek postmodern headquarters tell a different story.
In a recent interview (Merle des Isles & Mensah 2001), director Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau explained that the Dapper's projects are necessarily much smaller than those of the state-supported Pavillon des Sessions (at the Louvre) and the Musee du Quai Branly, the latter scheduled to open in 2004. Although she serves on the organizing board of the Quai Branly project, Falgayrettes-Leveau views her museum, which in 2001 had a budget of only seven million francs, as occupying a distinctive niche that is "less political" and less research-oriented than the state institutions. Its more modest objectives have pushed her to increase the museum's focus not only on diasporic arts but also on contemporary work.
From April to June 2001, the Musee Dapper exhibited Ousmane Sow's first three bronzes (Dayde 2001). The Senegalese sculptor is renowned for his larger-than-life anthropomorphic works, which have been shown in both Europe and Africa. His neorealism captures the emotional turbulence of Africa in transition (Fig. 5). Battle of the Little Big Horn, a series of thirty-five sculptures, was on display in Paris at the Pont des Arts, in front of the Louvre, in 1999. Seen by millions of viewers, it has garnered the artist international acclaim.
[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]
The Dapper rapidly followed with "Lam metis," an exhibition of historic paintings and prints by the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (September 26, 2001-January 20, 2002). This show marked the museum's entry into a new multicultural and postmodern era. In her preface to the catalogue, Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau (2001:9-10) states:
Lam, the man of every country, real or imaginary, traversed with emotion, suffering, and hope, Cuba, China, Spain, France, Africa, as a shared land.... Since its reopening in November 2000, the Musee Dapper intends to be attentive to voices emanating from the diaspora.
With his Hispanic, African, and Chinese heritage and insatiable interest in world art, Lam (1902-1982) was the perfect figure to launch the Dapper's new diasporic efforts. Closely connected to Picasso, Michel Leiris, surrealism, and the Musee de l'Homme, he epitomizes the international currents in the Franco-African art scene (Fig. 6). Lam's incorporation of multiple artistic strands, ranging in origin from Nigeria to Santeria to Picasso, made for a powerful exhibition. The African, Asian, and Oceanic influences on his paintings and drawings (Fig. 7) were highlighted by a display of works from around the world that were similar to those he himself had collected or whose imagery had inspired him (Figs. 8-10). This combination of traditional and modern pieces put a special spin on the concept of arts premiers, which became newly invigorated with the power of a contemporary creator who reread them in his own work.
Incorporation and reinvention are precisely what the Musee Dapper has achieved in the new space. By drawing together the old and new in an ultramodern setting, the museum reminds everyone that African art is in and of our time--an objective presently met in two concurrent exhibitions (February 13-July 21), "Afrique secrete" (Figs. 2, 11, 12) and "L'Art en marche: Sculptures de Ndary Lo" (Fig. 13). The exhibitions are complemented by concerts and theatrical performances in the state-of-the-art theater. Recent programs included hip-hop, African dance, and African tales and fables for children. Workshops attract a public interested in learning about African art in its conventional and contemporary forms. This multifaceted approach to museum display is reinforced by guided tours to African sites and a variety of local educational programs that are part of the Dapper's expanding outreach activities. The museum has also developed a world-class collection of African-art publications and has included African and diasporic literature among its published works.
[FIGURES 2, 12-13 OMITTED]
One has the sense that the Musee Dapper is on the threshold of important cultural innovations and is willing to take the risks associated with change. The museum has been transformed from a space of display to one of interaction and learning. Underlying all of this are the seeds of a new cultural movement that in its energy and dynamism reminds one of the heyday of the Parisian journal Presence Africaine. For these innovations, the Dapper deserves a special place on the international roster of museums of African art.
Museums occupy a contested terrain in the history and discourse of Black Paris. They are both preservers of patrimony and agents of domination. Behind this contestation is what V. Y. Mudimbe (1986:4) has termed "the meaning of integration" of African art into European epistemological frameworks. The Dionysian desire to see primal creative forces reflected in African art has a long history in the West and was recapitulated in the idealistic and essentialist orientations toward surrealism, cubism, and the Negritude movement. The idea of arts premiers offers a new Orientalist cloak for primitivism, but behind primitivism's reconstructed mask in France lies the political economy of the art world and its systems of patronage, protection, and exchange.
Issues of political economy and social representation go hand in hand. Responding to Senghorian essentialism in art, Frantz Fanon argued: "You will never make colonialism blush for shame by spreading out little-known cultural treasures under its eyes" (1963:223). But neither the availability nor the appropriation of African art objects is really at issue. More interesting questions revolve around the uses of these objects in cultural representation and cycles of exchange.
Early encounters with contemporary African art, such as the 1966 World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, opened up new possibilities for a revisionist African aesthetic canon in France. As this art emerged as a viable domain of production, consumption, and criticism in the festivals of the 1960s and '70s and the biennials of the 1980s and '90s, movements to re-examine and repatriate the continent's artistic treasures also gained momentum. During the 1980s, President Francois Mitterand's positive policy toward black arts, implemented by Minister of Culture Jack Lang and the support of the Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique (ACCT), placed more resources in the hands of galleries, theater groups, and publications interested in Africa. State-supported art academies on the African continent also began to train a cadre of cosmopolitan artists ready to enter the European marketing loop. These academies also boosted the growth and circulation of popular arts. All of these influences, often glossed under the term "globalization," transformed the public milieu for African art in France.
In 1988-89, the extravagant exhibition "Magiciens de la terre," under the direction of Jean-Hubert Martin and Andre Magnin at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de La Villette in Paris, epitomized a new direction in African art (Aareen 1989:3-14). Works of European avant-gardists and "world" artists were juxtaposed for their "magical" qualities (Njami 1993:17). The presence of contemporary African art within major French museum spaces transformed the symbolic and economic value of the work. Within a year after the exhibition, across the Parisian landscape new African art galleries opened and others were reinvigorated: Galerie New Black Arts on rue Hermel, Galerie Patras on rue Sainte-Anastase, and Galerie Est on rue Keller (Equipe du Guide Paris Mondial 1992:54-56). All of these galleries became important iconic and touristic sites in Black Paris. Although the trend was short-lived (for example, Galerie New Black Arts was closed by 1998), this moment of artistic effervescence marked a turning point in the interpretation and valuation of African art in France.
With the constricted state resources of the late 1990s, the African art scene changed. The closing of ACCT removed crucial funding for galleries, African-art publications, and individual artists. The flourishing artistic and literary movements of the late 1980s and early '90s stagnated. African-oriented publishing houses such as Editions Silex went out of business, and other gallery outlets and publishers such as Presence Africaine engaged in serious restructuring and financial cutbacks.
Throughout this period, the Musee Dapper continued to grow and thrive, becoming a focal point for some of the artistic activities of Black Paris. Falgayrettes-Leveau engaged African and diasporic artists in the museum's outreach events, theatrical performances, and educational tours. Inclusion of contemporary art on the museum's roster of exhibitions became a logical step.
Economic changes have brought into evidence the troubling ideological and social issues surrounding African art and artists in France. With globalization and rising south-north migration, more African artists have gone to France to perform, to record, to sell their works, and sometimes to take up permanent residence. Symbolically, immigration is one factor contributing to the cultural pressure to separate contemporary works, characterized by metissage and blending, from "pure" or "authentic" arts premiers, which can be reinterpreted as part of the cultural patrimony of a universal civilization.
At this point, Fanon's dictum on the theories and practices of museology comes back to haunt us. The salvaging and safeguarding of African artifacts have the potential to distance them even further from their sources of creation. The Dapper's inclusion of contemporary and diasporic arts addresses this problem by blurring the boundaries between arts premiers and modern works. Ultimately, this strategic move may help to protect the old arts and reinvigorate the new.
[This article was accepted for publication in April 2002.]
Araeen, Rasheed. 1989. "Our Bauhaus, Others' Mud House," Third Text 6 (spring):3-14.
Dayde, Emmanuel. 2001. Les trois premiers bronzes d'Ousmane Sow: 27 avril-30 juin 2001. Paris: Musee Dapper.
Dogon. 1994. Foreword by Germaine Dieterlen. Paris: Musee Dapper.
Falgayrettes-Leveau, Christiane. 2001. "Avant-Propos," in Lam metis: Catalogue d'exposition, eds. Jean-Louis Paudrat and Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau. Paris: Musee Dapper.
Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. Originally published as Les damnes de la terre. Paris: Francois Maspero, 1961.
Merle des Isles, Isabelle and Alexandre Mensah. 2001. "Une nouvelle ere pour le Musee Dapper," Arts plastiques. Paris: December 26:1-3.
Mudimbe, V. Y. 1986. "African Art as a Question Mark," African Studies Review (March):3-4.
Neyt, Francois. 1993. Luba: Aux sources du Zaire. Paris: Musee Dapper.
Njami, Simon. 1993. "The Invention of Memory: Birth and Evolution of Contemporary African Art." Colloquium presented in the Dept. of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles, April 14.
Paudrat, Jean-Louis and Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau (eds.). 2001. Lam metis: Catalogue d'exposition. Paris: Musee Dapper.
Price, Sally, 1989. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
BENNETTA JULES-ROSETTE is a professor of sociology and director of the African and African American Studies Research Program at the University of California at San Diego. Her publications include Black Paris (World Press, 1998), and she is currently working on a book about the life and work of Josephine Baker. She is also a consulting member of African Arts.
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