Simplifying the non-West

Musee du Quai Branly is a museum that showcases art of the non-Western world right next to Eiffel Tower in a setting that suggests darkness, intrigues, evil, and the sheer absence of daylight 

Public buildings displaying possessions of a nation serve many political purposes. Libraries and museums are often built as signs of liberal promises of the state to citizenry fulfilled. But in France the official imagination has attempted something beyond this usual scope of publicly-funded exhibitionism by creating the Musee du Quai Branly, a museum that showcases art of the non-Western world right next to another hallmark of national pride -- the Eiffel Tower. 

Designed by Jean Nouvel, the Musee du Quai Branly is considered an architectural innovation even though the effects of the building design on what is housed within are difficult to celebrate. The museum was considered necessary because there was resistance in the establishment of the Louvre to display non-Western art, even though Jacques Chirac had successfully intervened on behalf of the non-West. 

It is difficult to ascertain whether the resistance of the Louvre establishment was more problematic or the resulting antidote in the shape of the Quai Branly. The museum tries to convince the public that the French or the Western people in general are on the side of light somehow because it displays non-Western art objects from Oceania, Native America, Asia, and Africa in a setting that suggests darkness, intrigues, evil, and the sheer absence of daylight. The windows are darkened by sheets of large plastic with pictures of thick bamboo forests printed on them and the passage ways through different exhibits are brown walls and mud mounds and superficial furrows created by plastering tanned leather to the lumpy protrusions reminiscent of cave-like dwellings. Dotting the brown leathery alleys are multi-media controls for audio and video, beaming out information about the surrounding objects and 'exotic' music from the culture the objects were extracted from. Almost all the informative plates on the walls near the art pieces do not name the non-Western artist/creator but proudly name the curator. The acquirer of "non-Western art" is the real discerner of value whereas the real producer of value, the non-Western artist, has been rendered nameless and often faceless after the contact. 

The Musee du Quai Branly is supposed to be for the non-Western art what the Louvre is for the Western art but one wonders if it can represent the non-Western world without mediating and distorting it through the process of acquisition. If a person is to accept the logic of the permanent exhibits of the museum, the non-Western world has never experienced the noontime sun. The contrast between the technologies of the acquirer and the acquired is another potent, though non-verbal, statement for the visitor. Amid the cackle of walkie-talkies of the security personnel and the vertiginous images on liquid crystal displays and the uncountable dimmed spot lights are the Maori warrior heads, the head gear of the Native American tribal chief, the hand-loomed turban cloth and saris of South Asia. 

The civilization that runs the museum is also exhibited without being part of the displayed objects. It is on exhibition as part of the implacable and inevitable technological environment. The argument goes something like this: the West has marched ahead on the path of technological sophistication whereas there is nothing resembling the Western present in the culture of the non-West. The non-West remains permanently "primitive" in this display of civilizational contrasts. The cure of discrimination in the established art world cannot help but discriminate in a more condescending and insidious way. 

This dilemma -- to patronise or not to patronise -- deserves more thorough examination in the form of a built environment in the non-Western world where Western art is given a condescending treatment and is simplistically exoticised and stereotyped.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated February 03, 2008