By Alaa Eddine Sagid
Celebrated as the main cultural project of former French president Jacques Chirac, it eventually
confirmed the prominent role claimed by Paris as the world capital for indigenous arts, cultures and civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.
In fact one week earlier a local sale set a world record for any “primitive art” to be auctioned for a ceremonial mask sculpture from Gabon which found a new owner for a whopping 5 Million Euros concluding more than a century of passion and fascination French people had for aboriginal arts from around the world; Braque and Picasso among many others who successfully invented cubism under the influence of the exotic African masks and sculptures.
The MQB harbours a collection of more than 267,000 artifacts, of which 3,500 items are on display.
It has recovered the extensive collections of the now-defunct “Musée de l’Homme” and “Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie” which both were custodians of the rich history of French colonial ethnography.
The museum which is a few steps from the Eiffel Tower is a very modern and abstract building contrasting
with the classical display which the authorities have chosen to exhibit the collection: A geographical
journey through the succession of continents with some refreshing and original interactive stops.
As for the collection itself, sculptures, masks and religious artefacts take the lion’s share with jewellery
and costume relegated to a minimum; still one can feast their eyes on one of the richest ethnic adornment collection in the world.
Our journey begins in Oceania with some outstanding seashell, mother of pearl and natural fibre body ornaments. Among the islanders of this marine continent, jewellery embodies a deep sense of the supernatural and mythology, it reflects the social status when used as power attributes such as the displayed collection of walrus and whale ivory ornaments from Polynesia and sometimes, no longer serves to adorn, being used as a currency. In this field, the museum displays some astonishing shell beads necklaces as well as a wondrous feathered ornament used in the Solomon islands for trade and treasuring purposes.
From these same islands, a series of combs used by men confirming that the quest for beauty is not the prerogative of women alone.
Neighbouring Vanuatu islands offer us a glimpse of the connection between adornment and the hereafter in the form of a humanoid funerary effigy embellished
with paintings, feathers and boar’s tusks. Even more surprising is the complete set of shoulder, arm and anklets, made from ancestor’s hair and worn for dances and
warfare rituals which were used among the Polynesian people of Marquesas Islands.
A few meters away we reach the Asian continent after a short interlude in South-east Asia.
This region was under-represented in French museums’ collections due to the very few ties local ethnography had with this part of the world in comparison with Africa and the Middle-east for example. Fortunately, this gap was filled by the huge donation from he Barbier-Mueller family (part of which was also bought). One can now admire a complete gallery of gold jewellery and ornaments from the Malay Archipelago including anall-you-can-eat section of gold Mamulis!
Textiles from this very region are represented as well: a couple of Sumatran sarongs
highlight the local artisans’ skills, these weavings as explained by the attached label no longer showcase anthropomorphic or zoomorphic designs following Islamic influence.
Further north on the world map, South East Asia is well represented in the exhibit:
The French have been gathering ethnographic material from the region since late 19th century and the museum offers to its visitors a vast array of fabrics from the hill tribes and a pretty comprehensive silver jewelry selection.
China which is only represented by a couple of items regarding costume and adornment and leads the way to north eastern Asia and onward to Siberian wild spaces and their inhabitants from where the MQB has unearthed some fabulous examples of local costumes: namely a shamans ceremonial dress complete with all its accessories as well as an amazing decorated festive dress from the Siberian Nivkh ethnicity, entirelymade from….fish skin: A true masterpiece!
Our geographical trail emerges eventually in the subcontinent wing which is somehow very limited in regards of the items on display,only a few embroidered dresses and veils, silk saris should be closely inspected.
Very quickly the visitor is transported to central Asia for some delightful coloured
silk ikat coats.
On the way a robe made with camel hair and hailing from the antique Kalash people of Afghanistan should not be missed!
See also the lovely display of the much more common selection of Turkoman, carnelian-embellished jewellery.
Before entering Africa, the Middle East section is noteworthy with a nice picking of silver jewellery -have a look at the monumental coined headdresses-, Bedouin robes and a pretty comprehensive miscellany of silver Shia Islam charms and talisman holders from Iran.
The following section introduces us to many aspects of adornment in North Africa, which we shall begin by discovering the “khamsa wall” featuring different shapes of the ubiquitous and highly revered number 5!
Local Berbers ingeniously invented a series of talismans encompassing the repelling power of the hand against evil eye worn along a vast variety of heavy silver jewellery of which some samples are being displayed close by featuring diverse smithing techniques: An outstandingly huge Kabyle Tabzimt -round chest fibula- is also available for an eye feast. From the countryside to urban riches
through an easily missed recess where unfolds all the gold and gems glitter adopted
by city dwellers and the sumptuous silk and silver brocade Caftans that goes with it.
Local Jewish minority is also represented with its distinctive costumes and
dresses as well as couple of interesting and extremely rare silver headdresses.
Deeper into Africa beyond Sahara desert,the old Gulf of Guinea states unfold their golden treasures; yet it’s the monumental bronze anklets and bracelets from further to the east in equatorial regions that hold my attention. Here again the connection
with the invisible is a duty fully performed by adornment as seen in the beautifully executed silver bracelets from old Dahomey and which are part of the ritual dress worn during voodoo cult.
Ancestors worship and mythology are also fully depicted in the elaborate carvings
of Some Nigerian bracelets and armlets.
And when a whole region converts to Christianity, such as the case in Ethiopia, crosses are the norm adorning crowns, sceptres and necklaces proudly showing in the middle of the regular silver jewellery.
Our last stopover takes place in the new world: in the Caribbean where Haitian people imported ancient African religions and invented some interesting
ceremonial dresses with garish colours.
With the native North American Indians and their beautiful bead work, deer skin outfits and antique grizzly claws necklaces.
To the south through the remnants of pre-Columbian civilizations such as gold and jade jewellery all the way to bird inspired, feathers constructed ornaments from the
Amazon basin tribes.
And while Bolivian carnival performers would wear oneiric inspired dresses to mimic angels and demons, the southerly Mapuche people wear some
very modern yet simple silver jewellery of which the huge
beaten silver earrings are a treasure waiting for your gaze.
The MQB is a highlight for any visit to Paris. Criticism for the old-school display is easily thwarted by a quick overview of the collection. And if after all, your thirst for
more ethnic jewellery is still not filled, the online website of the museum will satisfy the pickiest amateur with a huge
picture database of the items hidden in the reserves.