Inventing savages

Inventing savages

The Paris museum of tribal and indigenous arts – better known as the Musée du Quai Branly – is rarely included on the tourist’s path even though it stands only yards away from the Eiffel Tower and our Hotel Plaza Tour Eiffel. The visitor’s interest is aroused as they approach the building designed by architect Jean Nouvel, with its vegetable façade facing the Seine river and its curious wildish garden. The exhibits inside, sadly inherited from France’s colonial incursions, are of incredible quality.

Until June 3rd, 2012, the Quai Branly holds an original exhibition on a theme as fascinating as it is uneasy and even terrible: the human zoos of the colonial period. Through over 600 documents, the exhibition retraces how Westerners created and exhibited “savages”.

Since 1492, indigenous people brought back from the Americas had been kept by members of the high society and of the royal courts as living conversation topics and subjects of aesthetical fascination. At the beginning of the 19th century however, the relationship changed, and people of other races began to be treated as inferiors. Scientists became obsessed with morphological measurements, desperately looking for the missing link between the ape and the man in individuals of African ancestry. From there, it is only one step to have indigenous people displayed in fun fairs, circuses and "colonial exhibitions" – a mass phenomenon, which will disappear only in the 1930s.

The exhibitions focuses on the life and fate of these people, returning them to an identity and a sense of dignity. This idea was essential to Lilian Thuram’s approach. An ex soccer star and founder of a the Lilian Thuram foundation against racism, he curated the show in order to question modern racism by exposing one manner in which it was constructed.