The tall sentry at Paris’s Branly Museum greeted me with its left arm stretched above its head, palm forward, breasts sagging. Its neatly bearded regal face was cut with minute scarification and set above a long and graceful neck draped with a three-string necklace.
I continued gazing at the exquisite androgynous wooden statue and finally read the caption. It said: “Djennenke statue, 10th or early 11th century, Dogon region of Africa, Mali.”
I looked back up at the ancient figure, thinking of the legendary city of Timbuktu, trying to imagine what was on the mind of the artist who carved the stunning statue more than 1,000 years ago in the heart of Africa.
So began my first visit to the Musee du Quai Branly, or Quai Branly Museum, which opened in June 2006, boasting more than 300,000 pieces of non-European art in a lush setting near the Eiffel Tower on the Left Bank of the river Seine. The artifacts are from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and there are finely carved statues, exquisite masques, whimsical shells and jewelry, startling musical instruments, soaring totems, dazzling fabrics. Most of the art is hundreds of years old and addresses everyday life.
Much of it was plunder from the European conquest of distant lands, which peaked in the 15th century with the incursions in the New World, the subsequent slave trade in Africa and the conquests in the Pacific regions. The pieces of art wound up in the cabinets and chests of conquistadors, colonials, military officers, explorers and missionaries, where they were often admired as quaint oddities and fetishes.
The Branly Museum is the brainchild of former French president Jacques Chirac, who said in the museum catalogue that it put “an end here to a long history of disregard of art forms and civilizations too long ignored or misunderstood.”
Now the art was here in front of me, my thoughts turned to my Parisian friend, Johana Anguile, a schoolteacher who had already visited the museum several times. Johana hails from Gabon in West Africa, and she is part of my “adopted” family in Paris, and so is Danyla, who is Afro-Chinese, was born in French Guiana in South America and is married to an engineer from Senegal.
I was introduced to both women years ago by my friend Beth Shorter, a native New Yorker and former Alvin Ailey dancer, who now lives in France with her French actor husband and son. All of these faces are a familiar sight on the streets of Paris today, mirroring the images displayed at the new museum.
This was not always the case. During a stay in Paris in the early 1970s, the few African and Arab guys I met on the street invariably stopped and engaged me in conversation, wanting to know my lineage, as surprised to see me as I was to see them. I was from royal stock, of course, they always said. Since I was born in the United States and rootless, I always fell for their line, or at least pretended I did, yearning for an ancestral homeland connection, one filled with the kinds of faces I now see at the new museum.
“You have to watch your feet at the Branly,” Johana said to me the day before my first visit there. “You can think you are looking at art from one continent and realize later that you are in another. At one time the world was connected, you know.”
Perhaps. So I kept her advice in mind as I ambled through the cavernous exhibition hall, moving across the world, the floor changing color as it wended its way, serving as an artistic map.
There is mustard yellow for Africa, burnt orange for Asia, a deep cinnamon or sienna for Oceania, and bright sky blue for the Americas. Computer touch screens embedded in a leather-covered wall provide descriptions and images, which I checked often, excited about my discoveries, just as Johana said I would be.
I saw clan headdresses from Alaska, a solemn female Ekotame statue from Nigeria, exquisite ceremonial spoons from the Ivory Coast with handles jeweled and shaped into animal and human forms. I glimpsed Aztec sculptures from Mexico, a majestic ceremonial seat from Indonesia boasting an animal head. A late 19th-century carved offering stand with four hands upraised, as if reaching for the heavens, snapped at my breath. It was from the Gambier Islands in Oceania.
But it was the vivid blue indigo wrappers on display in the textiles exhibit at the African Pavilion that froze my steps. I moved closer to the glass-enclosed exhibit, captivated by the wrappers’ designs, thinking of two quilts made almost three-quarters of a century ago by the women in my family and passed on to me, both stitched with tiny fabric rectangles and triangles formed into snazzy, asymmetrical patterns inside squares.
It was as if the fabric had been transported from the heart of Africa to the deep South in Alabama where I was born and reared. In one of Mama’s quilts, the squares are tilted like a flock of birds in flight, the same pattern I discerned in one of the wrappers on display.
I leaned over, my heart now racing, and read the exhibition caption. Both wrappers were from the early 20th century, one a wedding shawl from Senegal, the other cloth from the Yoruba area of Nigeria.
“The processing of textiles is women’s work throughout Africa,” the caption read, which reminded me that I was at home a long ways from home. Soon after, I left the museum, weary with discovery but exhilarated.
“When you come to Paris next year,” said Johana, sounding a little wistful the day before I departed, “we’ll go out to the museum for dinner. There is a fine gastronomic restaurant, French food with spices from around the world. The restaurant is rooftop, with a wonderful view of the Tour Eiffel. Paris is best at night, you know.”
The perfect excuse for another visit to one of the most memorable museums ever.