The South Pacific in Paris

Musee des Art d'Afrique et d'Oceanie

Paris:- Wednesday, 20. November 1996:- Sunrise is late and the sky is dim grey and it will rain any minute, and it is cold and damp. It is a perfect day to go to Africa and the South Seas.

I can not afford to leave town but I can afford a métro ticket to ride to the edge of town, to the edge of the 12th arrondissement, to the Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie. From Châtelet, it is about a 17 minute métro ride, which includes one change of lines.

On the avenue Daumesnil at the Porte Dorée, it is windy and raining and the sidewalks glisten, and the trees are nearly bare of leaves. The museum is towards the Bois de Vincennes, on the edge of it really, just a bit more than a block from the métro exit.

The golden bronze statue in the place Edouard-Renard looks too gold to be true as a rare bit of almost-sunlight hits it, but it has been here, surrounded by its fountains and pools since the end of the Colonial Exhibition of 1931, held in the Bois de Vincennes.

And there is the museum just to the left, also erected in 1931 for this exhibition. Along with the Palais de Chaillot, it is one of the few examples of 1930's monumental architecture; it was one of the first to be constructed of reinforced concrete. I have already read this before seeing it, so I do not expect its actual appearance - its 100 metre-wide bas-relief muraled front, 1,200 square metres in all, so totally exotic that its being cement doesn't register.

The black iron fence in front looks formidable, but its sharp, jaggy edges somehow go together with the few palm trees in the yard before the steps leading to the entry. The bronze statue used to be here, but was criticized by the building's architect, Albert Laprade, and was moved after the exposition was finished.

This museum has gone through a few name changes - reflecting the changed relationships between colonies and their founders. Until 1935 it was the 'Museum of the Colonies,' and then it was the 'Museum of Overseas France,' until 1960 when Andre Malraux mutated it into the National 'Museum of African and Oceanic Arts.' By then, all of France's colonies had become independent countries or 'overseas departments.'

Inside, the 1930's Art Deco decor is partially retained and it is mixed with Bauhaus and the exotic - as the architect had considerable experience in Morocco - and it is arranged around a central 'salle des fêtes' with mezzanines, stairways, and a very cool ceiling over the big salle itself. This large room also contains monumental wall paintings by Pierre Ducos de la Haille and his students.

As a whole, the building itself is worth a visit - there simply are not many like it around, built in the 1930's, built in Europe.

The Ocean - The Pacific

On the ground floor, up a short flight of steps, is the entry to the 'salle des fêtes' and on either side of it there are the sections devoted to Australia and to the islands of the South Pacific.

This section is represented by a collection of 180 items on display, with another 3000-odd in reserve, and 60 on loan.

Throughout the museum, the passages are roomy and the overall layout is easy to follow. Many items are of medium size and are handily contained in well-lit glass-enclosed niches. The passages are fairly dark, so the pieces stand out well in their display settings as each niche has its own lighting.


Flash photography is not allowed, but a fast film with a steady hold should do the trick - and there are few light reflections to mar a camera's view.

At one time, in those bad old colonial days, artifacts were collected as curiosities. Times have changed and so have tastes. Many items on view here have been in the museum's collection since it started - but public perception of them no longer regards them as 'primitive.' Many look modern, strongly crafted; crafted by skilled hands and sensitive minds, and I think, could be sold on the open market as pieces of art without any reference to their origin or age. The mask of a society of guards from Vanatu is a good example, with clever use of 'pig's teeth,' although they look distinctly like tusks to me.

A new wind is sweeping this type of museum and an example of it can be seen in the hall representing Australia. Instead of ancient masks and decorations, the present exhibit has a display of modern paintings, done by Australian natives - who used acrylic paints. The one shown here could represent a myth or segments of several myths, called something like 'Dreamtime.'


The modern paint material was introduced in the early 1970's and at Papunya, in the Northern Territories, only men painted at first. At Warlpiri, Yuendumu, in the same area, women took up the painting in the mid 1980's. The motives are basic, going back 20,000 years, and several artists may have worked on one painting; each adding their own particular strokes.

Although all of the paintings were somewhat the same - with a dotted mosaic effect - all were distinctly different and I am sorry I can only include one here. The one shown was not my favorite - it had the best light.

To me it is welcome, to see what people are doing today. The sad part is, there is only so much space to show it in - most of the museum's collection is in storage someplace.

'Portraits Kanak'

This is a temporary exhibition of photographs that goes with the 'Océanie' section, but is located on, I think, the second floor - that is: two floors above the permanent collection. It shows blowups of a series of portraits done by Fritz Sarazin in 1911-12 in New Caledonia.


The exhibition was first shown in Nouméa and was at the Volkerkunst Museum in Basle before coming to Paris. When the exhibit closes on 30. November, it may go to the ethnographic museum at Stuttgart.

There is a printed catalogue containing comments by Kanaks who saw the show in Nouméa in 1995. The 62,000 residents of the islands speak about 28 languages and in Hawaiian, 'Kanak' means 'man.' At one time the term 'Kanak' was considered pejorative, but since 1970 it has been used by its inventors.

Personally, what I missed was a more complete icongraphy. Items are tagged with a small card and a short text - but I am not carrying a detailed map of the world's remote - to me - regions around in my head, and I think it would be helpful to have a few more maps for reference - especially for an area as large as the south Pacific Ocean.

The Aquarium

This is in the cellar and it is dark and cool, with underwater light coming from the various fish tanks. There are a lot of these tanks and there are a lot of fish here with strange names - written possibly in underwater marine-lingo, although it may be Latin.

Since fish move, there are a lot of school kids down here watching the action, and several of the tanks have ledges big enough so that very small kids can stand on them with their faces pressed to the glass - which is sort of like getting in the tank without getting wet. Good for them and a lot of work for somebody to get their handprints off.


There is sort of a big hole of a pit that is filled with several hundred sleeping turtles and not many kids were waiting for them to wake up. Instead they were over by the semi-enclosed alligator pit, waiting for a sleeping alligator to close its jaws. It looked like several other alligators were hiding under a waterfall, but that may have merely been some decor of the bed of the tank. The enclosed space has a tropical mini-climate, but the lone alligator I saw looked as dry as an old log.

I think I'll come back in summer on a very hot day and see if it is as cool as it looks and feels today. So far I have been through about half of the exhibition space of about 6,000 square metres, so the rest of my tour is contained in the companion feature about the African sections.

Note: If you are reading this first, you may want to read 'Africa! Africa!' also in this issue of Metropole. It is 'Part II' of the report about this museum.

Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie
293. Avenue Daumesnil, Paris 12.
Access: métro station Porte Dorée, bus number 46, from Gare du Nord, or the PC bus.

Open daily except Tuesdays, from 10:00 to 12:00 and 13:30 to 17:30 from Monday to Friday. On weekends the aquarium's hours are 10:00 to 18:00, and the rest of the museum is open from 12:30 to 18:00.

Normal entry fee is 28 francs and reduced is 18 francs, for ages 18-25 and teachers. Those under 18, and legitimate art students, free. There are other rates for some temporary exhibitions. There are also group rates, rates for conferences, for instruction for teachers and for ateliers. For information, tel.: 01 44 74 85 00. There are several other phone numbers for specific services, but I think you can get them from the number given here. The fax number is 01 43 43 27 53.

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