DO AFRICAN SCULPTURES EVER DIE? COMMENTS ON THE EXHIBITION “ODE AU GRAND ART AFRICAIN : LES STATUES MEURENT AUSSI”, PARIS
During a recent visit to Paris, I was struck by a notice which announced an exhibition as “Ode au grand art africain: Les statues meurent aussi” from 9 September to 2 October 2010. The word “grand” which I understood to mean “great” is not a term I am used to hearing from Europeans in connection with African art which some still describe as “primitive art” (“art primitif”) despite the various discussions on “arts premiers”.(2) The official announcement refers to “arts premiers”. A short walk through the “rue de Seine”, the street where many French dealers in African art are located, demonstrates that many shops and dealers there indicate that they deal in “primitive art”, a term used to refer to all non-Western art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas.
An announcement stated that the exhibition was to “pay homage to a film and an extraordinary period in which institutions, private collectors and dealers worked together with the same passion.” The exhibition organized jointly by Parcours des mondes, (3) and La Monnaie de Paris (4) was also intended to be part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversaries of African independence and also an homage to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, two great filmmakers who made a critical film that challenged many of the assumptions of the colonial system.
Les statues meurent aussi (1953) was made at the request of Présence Africaine which felt that there should be a way of demonstrating the genius of African art and its equal validity with other arts. (5) The initial question posed to the film makers was why African art (or “art nègre” in the French original) was not in the Louvre in the same way as Greek or Egyptian art but was to be found in the Musée de l’Homme. The film-makers, like many intellectuals such as Aimé Cesaire, Sartre and others were of the view that the African statues should be liberated from the dusty and lifeless museums of the ethnologists. This view is expressed in the film:
“When human beings die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botanic of death is what we call culture “
(“Quand les hommes sont morts, ils entrent dans l’histoire. Quand les statues sont mortes, elles entrent dans l’art. Cette botanique de la mort, c’est ce que nous appelons la culture.”)
The short film of 30 minutes duration shows in fairly rapid succession some 150 masterpieces of African art that were in the British Museum, London, Musée de l’Homme, Paris and in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central, Tervuren, as well as in private collections of Jacob Epstein, Charles Ratton, Helena Rubenstein and others. Other scenes include a group of Africans working on road construction paid by a colonial master in helmet, dancers and welcoming crowds at visits of colonial governors and officials.
The introduction of modern machinery and medicine and their effects on the Africans are also mentioned. Further scenes show African-Americans excelling in sports such as basketball and boxing, indicating that the racism of the colonial government and the USA, oppressive as they were, left open for Africans some chances of using their talents provided they did not go too far. Beating Europeans in boxing was often greeted with projectiles and insults at the victor who by his achievement had exceeded the limits set by a racist society.
....by Dr. Kwame Opoku