Does Tarzan Still Rule The Western Imagination Of Africa? Comments On A Dubious Racist Exhibition At Musée Du Quai Branly, Paris, France
The exhibition, Tarzan! ou Rousseau chez les Waziri (1) presented at the Musée du Quai Branly, in September 2009, seemed to me to be portraying a very dangerous and offensive tendency in Western culture, namely, the tradition of ridiculing, trivializing and distorting the image or the perception of non-European peoples, especially Africans and their culture. This tendency has been described by some Francophones as “crapulocratie”. (2)
The homepage of the Musée du quai Branly describes Tarzan as
Gorilla welcome at the exhibition
Tarzan and an ape-man
“This hero of literature for young people, comic strips and the cinema who inspired the dreams of many a teenager in the 20th century, is today the paragon of a new fable: the son and protector of nature, Tarzan, with "the stoicism of an animal and the intelligence of man” exists first and foremost through his relationship with the African jungle, a stereotypical jungle, populated with wild animals, but invaded in turn by Roman armies, anthropoids, Amazons, and men...He also invites us to broaden our ecological conscience.(3)
The exhibition which retraces the Western prejudiced imaginations of Africa utilizes Tarzan films, photos and grotesque objects to represent racist colonialist ideology whereby the white man and woman enter wild Africa, inhabited by apes and ape-like creatures, face unforeseen dangers, battle with horrible creatures and animals but finally, come out as victors.
Right from the entrance to the exhibition, the visitor is confronted with a huge gorilla whose threatening size and expression indicate that one is entering a dangerous zone inhabited by unimaginable creatures like the ape-men. The masks, the films and feathers transpose the visitor to another world: the jungle of Africa as imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan who was influenced, inter alia, by Rudyard Kipling in the Jungle Book.
One sees also a lonely sculpture of a mother and baby which is titled “African maternity”. The baby looks as old as the mother and has no baby-like features except that it is smaller and lying on the lap of the mother. It should be noted that the museum has many beautiful sculptures from Africa depicting the theme of maternity, albeit stolen from Africa but these do not appear in this exhibition because they do not fit into the distorted image of Africa that the exhibition seeks to present.
The question I kept asking myself is what the curator and the Musée du quai Branly hoped to achieve with this horrible exhibition which throws us back to the worst periods of racism and colonialism. An interview in The Guardian with the curator of the exhibition is reported as follows:
"The idea is to tackle the imagery through which we westerners see our friends from Africa," said the curator, Roger Boulay. "It's about exploding stereo¬types and looking at how this big ¬western Tarzan myth was created through an intellectual mish-mash of ideas”.
"It's also about explaining the big ideas at the turn of the century from Darwinism to the enfant sauvage, the concept of nature and the King Kong myth of the giant ape kidnapping the white woman." (4)
When President Jacques Chirac opened the museum in 2006, he advanced as argument for building a new museum in Paris, against much opposition, that the arts of Africa, Asia, America and Oceania hitherto described as primitive and not accorded much respect, deserved a better place where their contributions to civilization could be appreciated:
”France wished to pay a rightful homage to peoples to whom, throughout the ages, history has all too often done violence. Peoples injured and exterminated by the greed and brutality of conquerors. Peoples humiliated and scorned, denied even their own history. Peoples still now often marginalized, weakened, endangered by the inexorable advance of modernity. Peoples who nevertheless want their dignity restored and acknowledged.”(5)
What kind of dialogue did the museum which describes itself as “the place where cultures dialogue” expect? Can one expect a meaningful dialogue from an exhibition where Africa is not presented as it was or is but as imagined by Westerners who had never been to Africa, such as the creator of Tarzan? Are Africans expected to discuss the ridiculous image of their continent presented by a racist American or the horrible ideas of those with no experience of their continent but bent on presenting it as land of savages and creatures inferior to Europeans and closer to apes than to men?
The Musée du Quai Branly obviously cannot escape its history and the social and political context in which it was born without great efforts. Though it is housed in a new building, the museum inherited looted artefacts that had been in other French institutions such as Musée de l'Homme and the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens as well as the racist superiority complexes which underpinned colonialism and neo-colonialism. The museum and its officials also inherited the manifestations of arrogance and feelings of superiority which Westerners have demonstrated in their encounters with non-European cultures and peoples since the sixteenth century. Chirac condemned evolutionary theories in his inaugural speech but such Darwinist ideas, in one form or other, are as alive today as they were in previous ages. The designations “Arts primitifs” or “arts premiers” are based on an assumed scale of development on which the Europeans are at the top and the non-Europeans at the bottom. (6)
At the establishment of the museum, there was a definite movement from the overtly condescending designation of “art primitif” to “arts premiers” or “art africain” among French intellectuals and institutions, including the Musée du Quai Branly. The art dealers in Paris however stuck to the pejorative name, “art primitif”. Paradoxically, at the time the Musée du Quai Branly was showing Tarzan and the very distorted image of African art and culture, the Parisian art dealers were having their own exhibitions which demonstrated the beauty and elegance of African art (7).True, many of the cultural objects displayed probably have dubious provenance and possibly came from the large stock of objects the French looted in the colonial era. (8). Jacques Chirac who opened the dealers' exhibition recently was still talking about the need to respect cultural diversity and rejected theories of evolution. He must surely have been aware that the museum he opened three years previously was busy purveying ideologies and theories based on evolution through the Tarzan show.(9)
Many who have seen the Tarzan! exhibition have acknowledged its failure. A New York Times feature article gave this devastating evaluation:
“The show is a mess, truth be told. It has wonderful drawings from bygone comic artists like Burne Hogarth and Hal Foster, and it means to use Tarzan to help dissect how Western pop culture has (mis)interpreted the non-Western “other.” But it's displayed in cramped galleries at a museum whose theatrical, heart of darkness installation of non-European cultures as diverse and unrelated as Inuit and Cameroonians — in meandering ill-lighted spaces connoting primitive, spooky peoples — is of a piece with the antediluvian ethos of the original Tarzan. (10)
Marion Festraëts has remarked that the exhibition resuscitates the worst racist, colonialist and sexist stereotypes. (11).
Probably the organizers did not expect Africans to visit this insulting exhibition even though in a city like Paris, with a sizeable population of Africans and people of African descent, this is hard to imagine. An African seeing this exhibition is instantaneously revolted and filled with nausea, anger and wish either to leave the exhibition or destroy it. He can hardly avoid confrontation with the insinuations and implications purveyed by images of ape-men and leopard-men; they are supposed to inhabit the same territory as Africans. The racist tones are unavoidable and those who have been subjected to racist torment and comments by Europeans do not take long to recognize and feel these attacks. Are the African visitors supposed to dialogue about the over-sized sexual organs of the ape-men and the leopard-men? The sick products of Western minds are thrown at us as necessary materials for serious reflection by a museum supposedly dedicated to portraying our cultures and the contributions we have also made to civilization.
The exhibition seemed a throw-back to the worst periods of colonial and racist propaganda. We were back in the Jungle Book of Rudyard Kipling. Paradoxically, the show seemed to be fulfilling some of the expectations of the architect Jean Nouvel who designed the museum to reflect what Westerners considered characteristics of the jungle: unexpected turns, uneven grounds, sudden confrontations with unknown and horrible apes and the like. We may recall what we wrote when we first visited the museum at the opening in 2006:
“What worries me is the semi-dark atmosphere in the museum as well as the uncertainty about which floor one finds himself. We are used to modern museums where daylight and an airy atmosphere prevail and one does not have to be distracted by the need to watch one's movements. The spaces in the halls are too narrow. More seriously disturbing is the attempt of the architect and the museum management to create a jungle atmosphere and to present the non-European peoples as living in a jungle with little light and uncoordinated structures and unexpected objects. There is here a definitive intention to present non-European culture as irrational, exotic, and full of surprises and to some extent, dangerous. The dim light is used not to protect the objects in the museum but to reinforce the stupid European and US American prejudice that Africa is a “dark continent”.
That a famous architect and a group of well educated French men and women could in this 21st century spend 233 millions euros to create an image of Africa which we thought had ended with colonialism shows how deep eurocentricism is and how well anchored the foolish images conveyed by the ethnologists are in the European mind.
A recent book on the subject confirms these suspicions: Benoît de l'Estoile, Le goût des autres:de l'exposition colonial aux arts premiers. The success of the museum and its architecture with the French public is partly due to the fact that it corresponds to their expectations and prejudices. One cannot help feeling that images conveyed by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness prevail here. Somebody seems to have taken as a model The Jungle Book. A desire to entertain and amuse is very present here.” (12)
The organizers of the exhibition must ask themselves what contribution they hoped to make to fighting racism and prejudice. Could one overcome European racist ideas by resuscitating racist ideologies which some of us thought or hoped would die with end of the colonial regime? Is the museum obliged to present exhibitions which show lack of respect and understanding of other cultures and are based on unfounded assumptions about a whole continent which the creator of Tarzan had never visited? A pamphlet distributed at the exhibition states:
“Burroughs never set foot in Africa. It is more relevant to think of Tarzan's Africa as an imaginary location like Heracles' Peloponnese, where the Hero undertakes his works, rather than look for small traces of ethnological accuracy.
Although the films and comics are tinged with African realities, they remain slight and very conventional. Zulus, Maasai and Kikuyus, as well as leopard men dressed in big cat skins remain the building blocks of colonial imagery.”(13)
How many visitors to the Tarzan show, especially the young ones and there were many school pupils swarming around, could distinguish reality from fiction? How many could tell real African conditions from what has been provided as an imagined Africa?
What is very disturbing is the fact that the whole idea of the Tarzan exhibition came from the president of the museum, who argues that his museum was in this respect showing not only the cultures of minorities but also retracing the evolution of myths, collective fantasy and the very basis of the identity of peoples and was pursuing its policy of openness. The curator sought the basis for his exhibition in his childhood fantasies about Africa. (14)
The curator found in the gardens and architecture of the museum
the reflection of a jungle suitable for evocations of Tarzan. The glass windows of Jean Nouvel relayed the jungle atmosphere, in conjunction with the wall garden and the tropical plants. All this, according to the curator creates an ambiance of botanical garden and that of the country of the Waziri.
No doubt even fascist and racist ideas have to be discussed and their evil nature exposed. But is this a function of the Musée du Quai Branly?
Is this a pressing task of the museum? Surely, the President of the Musée du Quai Branly and the curator of Tarzan! will agree that the deep thoughts of Tarzan on humankind and on Africans in particular belong to European culture and ideology and not to African culture. So why was Tarzan! not shown in a museum that deals with contemporary European culture such as Centre Pompidou? What message did the president and the curator think they were conveying by this show? Or did the question not at all occur to them since Tarzan has become an important part of their culture and that of many Westerners?
It is the absolute lack of sensitivity on the part of many Westerners when dealing with other cultures, especially African culture, that is really frightening. There seems to be an inability or unwillingness to apply to others the same criteria and sensitivity they would apply to themselves. A contributory factor to this lack of sensitivity may also be the so-called African passivity and lack of vigorous reaction to insults and injuries. One can imagine that if this caricatural presentation had been made of other groups there would have been instantaneous and energetic response which would made the exhibition appear to be contra-productive. But where were the African diplomats and representatives of African culture? Fortunately, whole generations of peoples on our continent do not accept the old colonial and neo-colonialist attitude which often condemned their elders to silence and passivity and they are not prepared to accept racist manifestations as normal.
The fears and preoccupations expressed at the opening of the musée du quai Branly seem confirmed by this exhibition. There is no doubt a desire on the part of the museum to bring in as many visitors as possible and hence a certain amount of Disneyland features. Today it is Tarzan! Tomorrow Zorro and perhaps later, Sabu, to counteract excessive Eurocentricism. If this tendency is to continue, perhaps the museum which so far has been reluctant about restitution, might consider returning some of the thousands of looted African and Asian cultural artefacts it inherited from earlier institutions. One only needs to look at the hundreds of musical instruments in the museum to realize the extent of the French robbery. Tarzan and the like have no need for such cultural artefacts. (15) This will not only make room at the museum for more Disney-like activities but also answer the growing demand of the African countries for the restitution of their cultural objects stolen/looted during the colonial days. (16)
Kwame Opoku, 11 October, 2009.
1.Tarzan! ou Rousseau chez les Waziri, 16/06/2009 - 27/09/2009. The exhibition catalogue was produced by Musée du Quai Branly and Somogy, Editions d'Art, Paris. The exclamation mark is part of the title of the exhibition.
2. Africa Maat : « Discours sur la Crapulocratie »
5. Allocution de M. Jacques Chirac, Président de la République à l'occasion de l'inauguration du musée du quai Branly.Paris, 20 juin 2006 http://pastel.diplomatie.gouv.fr/editoria
6. K.Opoku, “Benin to Quai Branly: a museum for the Arts of the Others or for the Stolen Arts of Others? “http://www.museum-security.org
7. Parcours des Mondes, 9-13 Septembre 2009, http://www.parcours-des-mondes.com , as well as the exhibition entitled “La passion de art premiers, Regards de marchands”, 9 Septembre -18 Octobre, 2009.
8. Michel Leiris, Afrique Fantôme, Gallimard, Paris, 1953.
9. Jacques Chirac, http://www.parcours-des-mondes.com/chirac
10. New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com
11. Marion Festraëts. « Si la lecture de Tarzan ne nous apprend rien de l'Afrique, elle nous renseigne sur la manière dont son auteur, Edgar Rice Burroughs, et toute une époque avec lui envisagèrent le continent noir et ses habitants à l'aube du xxe siècle. Terre de fantasme, d'exploration et d'aventure, l'Afrique de Tarzan combine les préoccupations d'une période déjà nostalgique d'une nature intacte, en même temps qu'elle trimbale les stéréotypes coloniaux, racistes et sexistes les plus crasses ».
13. Tarzan! p. 10.
14. “Tarzan relevait indéniablement de celle de l'enfance. J'entrepris donc de fouiller plus au fond de mes greniers enfantins l'Afrique et les hommes sauvages”. Ibid. p. 10
15. K. Opoku, “The Logic of Non-Restitution of Cultural Objects from the musée du Quai Branly”, http://www.museum-security.org
It will be recalled that the looted Nok artefacts that the French bought were intended for the Musée du Quai Branly. See K. Opoku, “Recovering Nigeria's Terracotta” http://www.modernghana.com Now that the Louvre has agreed to return looted Egyptian objects, the Musée du Quai Branly may be prepared to release some of the looted objects it inherited.
LOUVRE GIVES IN TO DEMAND OF ZAHI HAWAS FOR THE RETURN OF STOLEN ARTEFACTS. IS THIS THE END OF A STORY OR THE BEGINNING? http://www.modernghana.com
16. K. Opoku, “Nefertiti, Idia and Other African Icons in European Museums: The Thin Edge of European Morality”, http://www.modernghana.com
Development / Ghana / Africa / Modernghana.com
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Kwame Opoku, Dr. and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.