Decolonising debates

Looted African art: “The Quai Branly Museum can’t preach”

By Nicolas Michel

Posted on August 30, 2020 17:33

Born of a Kanak father and a French mother – and a former director of the Tjibaou Cultural Center in Nouméa (New Caledonia) – Emmanuel Kasarhérou is familiar with the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, where he and Roger Boulay curated the exhibition Kanak, l’Art est une Parole in 2013.

It was at a tense moment in the museum’s history that he took over from Ecole Nationale d’Administration-trained Stéphane Martin, who was in charge of the public institution for more than 20 years.

After the publication of the Sarr-Savoy report on the restitution of African cultural heritage, Kasarhérou will have to devote a great deal of time to diplomacy and dialogue with his peers on other continents. He knows that the museum will not be able to avoid a self-examination and a renewed look at the collections – and the way they were built up.

Your appointment as president of Quai Branly was seen as a symbol because of your Kanak origins. How do you see it?

Emmanuel Kasarhérou: Good. I was the first Kanak curator appointed to the Museum of New Caledonia in Nouméa. The first image you offer the world is your appearance, what people guess about your origins. I am proud to be Oceanian, proud to be Kanak. Of course, it’s rather simplistic, since we are always a composite of identities and cultures, but that’s also what explains this decision.

Your job is not going to be easy…

There is only one such project. I don’t know of an equivalent in other countries.

The Quai Branly Museum is a pioneer in its desire to highlight objects from the four other continents, in the heart of iconic Paris… And especially near this Champ-de-Mars, where the great Universal Exhibition of 1889 took place, where villages from all over the world had been shown – including a Kanak village.

For me, it makes sense to give equal dignity to all the cultures of the world, that’s what convinced me to leave the shores of the Pacific.

What strategies do you intend to develop?

I want to work on the way we talk about our collections and pass on the information available to us. It is a question of better nuancing it, knowing that the elements in our possession may be valid at the time we speak, but evolve with research.

I would also like to open up the possibility of talking about these objects to other sensibilities. This is what I tried to do with the exhibition Kanak, l’Art est une Parole in 2013, when I was director of the Tjibaou Cultural Center and the Kanak Culture Development Agency.

What was that?

I had tried to historicise these objects and to show that they were not timeless works, but that they were always linked to particular contexts. I wanted to shed a double light: that of the culture of origin and that of the outside world, with the help of my colleague, Roger Boulay.

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The objects are interesting in that they are mirrors with several facets: of what one is, of what one would like to be, of how one is perceived by others. It is this dynamic movement of culture that I find interesting to present to visitors, beyond aesthetic considerations.

The aesthetic approach has often been the primary one, and this has been a criticism of the museum …

The aesthetic approach is the most democratic way to share a collection. Anyone will more or less like such and such a work… For my part, I would like to make the museum lose some of its loftiness, to make it more accessible to the citizen who wants to explore.

We cannot ask visitors to understand a complex scientific subject in order to have access to the objects. It is not easy to enter this place, which presupposes a lot of reading, historical knowledge and a broad geographical knowledge.

Moreover, one is faced with complex cultures, varied languages and very different world views. I would like to give elements of understanding to anyone who comes in good faith, with his or her curiosity. Curiosity is always healthy, it is what has allowed us to build our collections, with a real willingness to understand.

How can we go beyond this aesthetic approach?

We must find a balance that does not overload the artwork descriptions. I think this is possible, especially in the digital age. Quai Branly has both a physical and a virtual audience. My concern is to serve both.

What do you mean by “virtual audience”?

This museum is one of the rare, if not one of the only ones, to offer its entire collection online, along with the archival documents relating to them. If you want to access it, you don’t have to come to Paris; you can do it from N’Djamena or Dakar. And if you need more information, the teams here are ready to provide it.

This idea of transparency must be shared, especially concerning the work done on the origins of the objects. This is a recent request that requires an effort of reconstruction, sometimes of archaeology, to gather scattered information. Our current research is very rich and shows us that the information is not completely lost.

The provenance of the collections is at the heart of the question of restitution…

The collections exist because there was a curiosity in Europe, which was not necessarily self-evident. The bill recently presented to the Council of Ministers on the restitution of 26 works to Benin is, in this respect, very interesting.

These were taken by Colonel Dodds, objects that he removed from the inferno at the palace of Abomey after the flight of King Behanzin. If he had not removed them, these pieces would no longer exist. There is this duality in the objects.

The feeling of dispossession, I understand it perfectly because I have experienced it myself. So Colonel Dodds’ reasons were no doubt particularly bad, but the fact is that we now have 26 works that can go back to Abomey and enrich the palace which, thank God, has since been rebuilt.

The essence of culture is this deep tie that connects people to their history. It is not necessarily a material link, it is a link made of words, of immateriality.

When did you start this work on origins?

This work began at the end of 2018 and concerns all the collections. What is pointed out in Africa is valid for the other continents. North America, South America, Indochina, Oceania… The question of legitimacy arises everywhere in the same terms.

But for research on provenances – which is done internally, without specific funding – it was decided to give priority to collections from Africa. Important work on donor biographies has been undertaken, and this attribution process is complex.

When we say that an object probably comes from such and such an ethnic group and probably from such and such a region, this is an intellectual construction. It is the same thing, sometimes, for Flemish masters! We spend our time allocating and reallocating.

You’re going to find yourself at the heart of the battle of restitution in the years to come.

I sometimes hear it said, “Heritage is on the outside.” It should be nuanced. It is the heritage considered by European museums and their particular way of looking at it that is on the outside.

But heritage, for an oral society, is 90% oral. It is language, all oral literature, dance, song, and know-how. This is why these cultures are still there.

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So let us remain modest: what we present as a museum is only a tiny part of a material heritage that is safeguarded for reasons X or Y, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but in any case that is there and must enrich the visitors’ view. When one comes to a museum, it is to learn about others, but also to learn about oneself, to take a step of de-centring.

What is your strategy in this regard?

To tell a complex, but shared story, it takes at least two people. I have not yet been able to visit my African colleagues because of the health crisis, but I would like us to work together to shed light on the colonial stories that bind us together. To have two voices, to be able to express feelings that are not the same.

Much emphasis was placed on those who were traveling, but there are vast reflections to be done on the people they met. As an example, we have begun to identify in our collection those who have been photographed. It seems obvious, but there is a lot of catching up to do.

Two voices means two curators?

Yes, but also to reflect on the way the story is told. For me, heritage is an opportunity to create cultural links. Whether they are here, given to Senegal or returned to Benin, the objects tell a complex story, and it is this complexity that I find interesting.

Are you kind of a diplomat?

It’s not diplomacy, it’s nuance. The museum can’t preach, it has to listen first, and I try for my part to reconnect in a different way with my colleagues around the world. This is the relationship I wanted when I was myself on the other side of the fence, in a museum in the South looking North.

There are moments of extreme tension in human relationships and in these moments, nothing can be done, we must wait until the climate becomes serene again and allows for dialogue.

It is interesting to ask what traces of the past remain and why. There are more absences than presences, and it is thanks to these presences that we can begin to discuss. Without witnesses, there would be nothing left but memory. There is everything to be built on the memory of oral cultures.

What do you retain from the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy?

One of the contributions of the report is to encourage museums to question the collections from colonial periods. This is a real question, one that has encouraged research on provenances and will enable us to identify collections that were taken by violence or coercion. These two criteria will allow us to select works that can later be discussed if countries wish.

What does the expression “decolonising museums” mean to you?

I understand the terminology, which is there to shake up and provoke reactions. The ways in which objects are appropriated, the terminologies, must be questioned, as must the way in which we write our art descriptions.

Historians and anthropologists can also be interested in ethnonyms. During the colonial period, we had to “put people in boxes”, so we made boxes that are probably not fair in relation to the fluidity of human groups.

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The objects come from cultural groups, not from nations that did not exist at the time. There are a whole series of conventions that we have to think about because they were used for convenience.

The important thing is to highlight the people who created these pieces, to explain their functionality and to show the changing ways we look at them. When they have been owned by artists, it also gives them another weight.

Are there any objects at Quai Branly that you would like to see in Caledonia?

I’ve already done this, twenty years ago, by obtaining long-term deposits and organising major exhibitions. The collection in Noumea is beautiful and accessible. Caledonia has given itself the means to buy its heritage.

It may seem a little strange, but French museums also bought furniture from Versailles sold during the Revolution. I did my shopping – if I may say so – a long time ago.

A deposit is an alternative to restitution?

The deposit route was easy because Caledonia is still in the sphere of the republic, but it is also possible with foreign museums. We ourselves have here items of great value, such as the lyre stone, deposit of the republic of Senegal since 1967. These dynamics and reciprocity are essential.

Do you miss Caledonia?

Where one comes from is important. But you have to know how to leave too. In the Pacific, we translate this idea with an image: we love the tree for its roots, but sometimes you have to know how to make a pirogue to be able to go to another island. I’m more like a pirogue at the moment…

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