I went to go see the exhibition La Patagonie at the Musee du Quai Branly yesterday (finally) and it was pretty impressive… the indigenous Selk’nam tribe of Tierra del Fuego was given a significant portion of the exhibit, and although I have seen drawn pictures of them, it was my first time being able to see what their ritual costumes looked like when worn.
There was a video that went around through chain emails in the 90s that started out with a little car driving peacefully on a tree-lined highway. In the first minute it warned you to look closely and turn your speakers all the way up, so that you “could look closely.” After about a minute, a ghostly black object took over the screen, screaming, and without fail most people would literally fall over out of fright. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I got that same feeling when looking at the Selk’nam costumes. They hit you with that same hard impact, haunting and cold.
The rituals that the particular costumes I’m talking about were used for a type of male initiation ritual–they were the literal embodiment of spirits, walking around terrifying the members of the tribe.
In any case, this exhibition was incredible, right up my alley in terms of academics. I’m thinking about going back to the museum to pay the 35 euro price for the exhibition catalog which I can barely read, since it only exists in French.
In terms of the ‘remnants of past brutality,’ it’s hard for someone who has any background in indigenous arts whatsoever to ignore the history of how objects got to a museum like that one. The objects are almost completely religious or used in religious ceremony, and objects like the boli of the Bamana culture were never meant to be understood or really even seen by members of the populace other than the village’s priest, so infused were they with sacred meaning and materials. It makes me cringe a bit walking through that museum and understanding how much blood was spilt transporting them to this location so Westerners could gawk at them.
Another interesting choice made by this museum was to exhibit recent (circa 2008) Bolivian parade costumes–in the midst of ancient art from indigenous cultures the curators chose to exhibit mainstream festival wear… to me, this just reinforces the mental subjugation of cultures that express their art in different forms than realism: these forms of art are not created out of the inability to create a perfect, ‘photographic’ image, but because of the difference in the purpose that the art will serve. Showing contemporary art next to ancient, religious art seems to be in poor taste–it leaves too much unsaid to the viewer, even though the curator could have a great reason for displaying it in that way.
Despite my oversensitivity to issues like these, the museum made up for these inherent moral qualms through an obvious love and respect for the items it holds.The Patagonia exhibit was also breathtaking–they captured the sense of that land as “magical” through historical notions of its other-worldliness and through modern/semi-modern landscapes.