The opening of Quai Branly Museum in Paris
by Carol Brown
I was fortunate to be invited to the preview of a new museum in Paris on Wednesday June 20. I have followed the debates and plans for many years so it was a really exciting moment when I received my invitation and air ticket. On arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport, the promotions and posters all over the concourse made me realise the extent of the buzz around the city. Unlike in our country, the French take art and culture very seriously and this event was being eagerly discussed by airport porters, taxi drivers, hoteliers and not just the elite.
Of course the amazing location might have something to do with this - the museum is built on one of the last areas of vacant land in the city, just under the Eiffel Tower and across the road from the River Seine. This must be one of the most sought after pieces of real estate in the world and probably because this has been the dream project of President Jacques Chirac it was able to happen. The idea was apparently suggested to him several years ago by his late friend, Jacques Kerchache, an art historian and collector, who believed that the existing collections of 'tribal arts' which had been housed in the Museé de l'Homme (where Sarah Bartmann's remains had been on display) and the Museum of African and South Sea Island Arts. But what do you call a museum that's attempting to set right colonial appropriations?
Part of these collections had been installed in the Louvre in 2000 under the name of 'arts premiers' or 'first arts'. Tribal arts don't sound that good anymore either so the idea to name it after its very sought after site won the day. It's appropriately called simply the 'Quai Branly'. After its lifespan of over 100 years the famous Eiffel Tower finally has some competition from the new kid on the block - this long low dramatic edifice designed by the internationally renowned architect, Jean Nouvel.
The museum is the culmination of six years planning and construction at a cost of 232m euros (which translates into about 2 billion rands). Its gradual growth has generated much excited anticipation over the years from the passers-by who have had their noses to the fences trying to catch a glimpse of what lay beyond the scaffolding and rubble.
The opening night was no less frenzied with all of the invited guests clutching their coveted invitations and queueing in the street until the exact hour of 6pm printed on the invitation. The wait was an event in itself. We could check out who was there, who they were with and what they were wearing while soaking in the ambience of a magical, sunny Parisian evening. I chatted to the very elegant doyenne of African Art exhibitions, Susan Vogel, who was the originator of the African Art Museum in Soho, New York and had been on a discussion panel that afternoon in the company of Marilyn Martin. Frederick Brouly Boubre from Dakar was there with his agent, as was Yinka Shonibare who has been invited to exhibit at the museum in 2008.
The spectacular exterior façade also grabbed our attention. The one storey building is divided into four sections. On the South side the Administrative block disappears into a vertical carpet of greenery. Urban artist Patrick Blanc has designed a pattern of evergreen foliage which is attached to the walls by a system of PVC panels covered in a type of felt onto which plants are attached. The plants will be changed according to the seasons and will provide an ongoing exhibition of their own. The green clad walls blend perfectly into the green wooded environment alongside the flowing waters of the Seine.
You are then jolted out of the greenery into the next section which boldly asserts its position as the art space by the blue, yellow, ochre and purple boxes jutting out into the street, just in case we needed to be reminded that there was art inside. The blocks are really clever because on entering you realise that they become display spaces for sculptures which then appear as though they are set in the walls. There's also metres of glass in the building much of which is etched and printed with pictures of tropical foliage printed into layers of window reminiscent of the areas from where the art was made.
And then it was 6pm and the much awaited moment arrived. The doors were opened, not with a flourish but in a slow, dignified manner befitting the seriousness of the occasion. The audience was less restrained and we jostled to cross the path from the formally laid out garden, with its 'lake of lights' onto the entrance ramp through which one actually enters the large space. The architect has designed the interior so that the viewer has the sensation of making a journey through the continents of Asia, the Americas, Africa and Oceania. As you walk into the darkened area you encounter a 23 metre high glass tower packed with over 9000 tribal musical instruments acting as a vast public storeroom. Projections of photos of indigenous people and their homes literally stop you in your tracks as they are shown on the floor, the glass and the surrounding walls.
It's a strange feeling to be walking over people and a method of display which has been highly criticised in the past, so it was interesting to see this presented as cutting edge technology. You then follow a low leather clad wall which snakes along further emphasising the jungle theme. It's reminiscent of a low level Richard Serra sculpture but is softer and more organic. This area is punctuated by seating spots and small screens which give information about the various exhibits and the cultures represented. The experience is more like entering a theatre than a museum where sudden shafts of light in the darkness lead you from area to area.You stumble across a window view of the Eiffel Tower lit with its twinkling lights and it's hard to realise you are not right under this icon but in a museum interior. The walls are mostly black and lighting is bold and dramatic. This also adds to the idea that museums have changed their image from elitist academic institutions and now rival buildings of entertainment, fun and glamour.
We completed our journey under a colourful ceiling painted by Australian aboriginal artists, having being amazed by objects such as a Soninke sculpture from Mali from the 10th century, a spectacular Peruvian feather headdress made from exotic birds' feathers, a 13th century Haitian mask, a 19th century Moroccan carpet, an Alaskan mask, an Asian ceremonial robe, and a giant totem pole. There were vertical cabinets which, when pulled out, revealed African beadwork and gold of a quality which our local museums would envy.
Glass showcases form part of the architecture and sometimes stretch to the ceiling displaying only one dramatic textile appropriately lit to inspire awe and wonder. Each artwork is enshrined in a specially designed spot which can be a reconstruction of an altar, one of the famous cubes or down a dark and windy passageway. You are constantly stopped in your tracks by a spectacular sight and can either follow a trail through a specific continent or jump from one to another. This type of display has obviously been influenced by Chirac's wish to deliver 'A message of confidence and hope in the affirmation of the respect we have for the Other'.
Then it was time to party! We were led out of the dark, dramatic spaces into a bright, light, white oval space closed off from the rest of the museum by an Issey Miyake designed sheer pleated curtain. It was a bit like being enveloped in a cloud! This space will be the temporary exhibition area but for the night it was empty of displays except for beautiful flower arrangements which were the only colour in the environment. The staff rivalled the guests in their wonderfully cut, black, high fashion 'uniforms' and the many platters of snacks being passed around were also designer fare. There were elegant little creations of caviar, smoked salmon, truffles and other delicacies while French champagne flowed freely. Artists, directors, curators, critics and socialites from all four corners of the globe oohed, aahed, exchanged cards and debated the merits and problems of this exciting new space. Finally the early hours of the morning struck and we drifted out into a sudden Parisian rainfall to catch the last bowl of onion soup being served in the warmth of a nearby bistro thereby returning from the 'other' continents and firmly back to Europe.
Carol Brown is the director of the Durban Art Gallery