Africa! Africa!

Musee des Art d'Afrique et d'Oceanie

Paris:- Wednesday, 20. November 1996:- Outside in the 12th arrondissement of Paris it is cold and raining, normal for this month, and it will be the same in nearby North Africa in the new year.

I have never been closer to Africa than on board a ship in the harbor at Casablanca, or somewhere offshore on Tenerife. I grew up at the wrong time, in an ex-colony - at the time all the Empire's colonies were being returned to their owners. I remember being told this was a 'good thing' and as a group of pimple-faced young scholars, we thought this was a pretty good thing too and wished everybody well and got quite excited while having 'Commonwealth' games as a celebration.

Since then I began to read newspapers and I even read a few books about Africa which made it sound like an interesting place - as if a continent could be summed up in a book! - but then there were 'unresolved colonies' and there was a lot of confusion, a lot of greed or envy, and later there were 'spheres of influence' and nationalism and all sorts of more confusion, and being somewhat confused myself, decided that adding to it by my going to Africa wouldn't straighten out anything.

I cheered Mr. Stanley finding Dr. Livingston, but now realize that the good doctor was probably not 'lost.' He knew where he was. Not quite the same as Señor Colomb 'knowing' exactly where China was, but not knowing the earth's circumference, nor knowing that America was in the way - but Dr. Livingston 'knew' all right.


All this is sort of a round-about way of saying that when I do think of Africa, I think at the same instant that I don't really 'know' very much about it. The news is usually 'bad' and is usually worth discounting at least 50 percent; but there is so little 'good' news to offset it - and I am sure that there is an unknown Africa that everybody should know well. Or better than we do.

Paris' Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie has a large collection of objects made in Africa by Africans. Of the about 8,500 pieces in the collection, about 1,000 are on display at any one time. This may be a 'large' collection, but it is a drop in a big bucket - as may be all the collections outside of Africa put together.

In the museum here, Africa is divided into two sections: North Africa and the Africa south of the Sahara. The western tropical part is represented slightly and the entire eastern and southern regions seem to be unrepresented. But then less than a third of the museum's total surface is devoted to permanent and temporary exhibition space, for all of the combined objects.

After being inside the building, I had the feeling that it was somewhat smaller than it seemed it would be from the outside - or maybe it is just that it has been designed for comfort, with more space for visitors than is usual.

The Africa of 'below the Sahara' shares the ground floor with the 'Océanie' sections in the form of the singular collection entitled 'Les Rois-Sculpteurs,' a legacy of Pierre Harter; an exhibition of 54 unique pieces collected over many years in Cameroon.

Burkino Fasso

I am a bit confused as I write this because as I did my tour, I made notes as I went along, and only afterwards got the press dossier, which I am now referring to in order to fill in blanks. I went to the cellar for the aquarium - to go with 'Océanie' in Part I, and then I went upstairs - to Africa - and North Africa was up another flight of stairs. I kind of think 'Les Rois-Sculpteurs' must be on the second floor, not, as it says, on the main floor.

For the photos my notes say, 'Lo Mask, Bobo-Fino,' from Burkino-Fasso - which used to be Upper Volta - and ornamental bow-ram from a canoe, Douala, Cameroon. Other than these vague geographical references, I cannot say anything about the pieces other than they were worth photographing. I had a ration of only two shots for this part of Africa - almost everything else was worth a photo and it was hard to choose just these two - and as I say, I have no context for them whatsoever.

canoe bow

On this first floor the floor itself is polished parquet, and there are art students, mostly sitting on it with big sketch pads, making mostly pencil sketches of the items on display. They look comfortable and I know smooth floors are easy to sit on. Like all art students, some are doing it very seriously and others are only making half-hearted stabs at it.

I did something like this once but for the life of me I can't remember what the subject was - zoo? - park? - or was it doing sketches of trees on a forestry course? There are a few professors around, dressed down like the students, but older - and I see them get to grips with a student's efforts.

The African sculptures, in their dark woods, lend themselves to pencil shading - but you can see from the student's efforts that the sculpture is a lot more complex than lines on paper. I was tempted, but I did not talk to any of these students, who seemed to have the whole peaceful floor to themselves.

The little cards identifying each item do not have dates, and there is no auxiliary guide posted - perhaps I was supposed to have the whole catalogue with me. Unlike all the visitors riding in the métro with their maps with nothing to see except tunnel walls speeding by, I do not like having hands full of catalogues while closely looking at unusual things for the first time.

Let's just say you can look at everything as if it were funky western abstract art and judge it on its merits, without knowing what it is, who made it or why, or when, with what, how - just like you can do with abstract art. Just like I have a big atlas open at my elbow, showing Africa. It is probably an accurate map, but it is still an abstraction of an entire continent, and it shares its double-page with a very detailed view of Sri Lanka.

So I go upstairs to the second floor to look at North Africa. Right inside the door there are a set of 18th century Tunisian tiles and after I tour the whole exhibit these are what I shoot, mainly because I have a fondness for tiles from days in Andualusia; in Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada.

I have been around the back side of the Sierra Granadas, up near the top in those villages there and I guy I knew who had been in the Atlas in Morocco told me there wasn't much difference - and somehow that is what I think this part of the museum lacks: a simple but large photo of a village up in the Atlas, so you could get some idea that Africa is a place where real people live - and not an incomplete collection of 19th century bridal costumes.


Oh I know, it is the museum of African 'Arts.' But art out of context, is abstract; it has no 'people' aspect to it. If we all didn't know Picasso was a really focused fellow, and his work was unidentified with his persona, would it be so highly valued? Certain pieces certainly, but not all of it by a long shot.

The building, the one-time 'Museum of the Colonies,' the former 'Museum of Overseas France,' the present 'National Museum of African and Oceanic Arts' is worth a visit for itself. It is really worth the 17-minute ride from Châtelet by métro. But Africa alone needs a much bigger building.

After all the money France has earned there, it should be able to afford one.

Note: If you are reading this first, you may want to read 'The South Pacific in Paris,' also in this issue of Metropole. It is 'Part I' 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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