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words CHARLES DARWENT The Musée du Quai Branly was always “The thing about this cloth is that
going to be problematic, and it is. it’s actually made in Holland,”
Real estate does not get more French Shonibare says. “I buy it in Brixton
than a two-hectare site at the foot Market. Using it frustrates any
of the Eiffel Tower. To hand that site kind of ethnicising – there’s a
over to a museum whose contents are schizophrenia in its story that makes
not merely not French but (and I use stereotypes redundant.” Fragonard’s
the word of the Quai Branly’s director, courtiers would have worn clothes
Stéphane Martin) primitive was asking embroidered with dreams of a better
for trouble. That it was railroaded place: pagodas, dragons, chinoiserie.
through by Jacques Chirac as a grand Shonibare’s Africanised variants
projet didn’t help matters. And beyond likewise wear their aspirations on
these vexations lies the perennial their sleeves – semi-detached houses,
embarrassment of the term arts rip-off Chanel logos. Such is the
premiers: a distinction that sends global world. But are they also trying
work made by young British artists to to out-ethnographise the French, to
the Musée d’Art Moderne, art made by beat them at the game of Lévi-Strauss?
Africans to the Musée du Quai Branly.
“There’s certainly a political story
All of which is of understandable going on,” Shonibare says. “Before the
interest to Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Revolution, Versailles was a kind of
Shonibare has just installed a new Garden of Eden paid for by the work
work, Jardin d’Amour (2007), in the of the poor. Now Paris is the Garden
museum’s temporary showing space. of Eden, supported by the work of black
Signage outside the work – an people in the banlieues. All this
eighteenth-century lovers’ labyrinth car-burning… already there are bits
with the feel of an African stockade of revolution, and it could get worse.
– picks up on the artist’s ‘typical That’s why I designed this piece as a
British sense of humour’. It has less labyrinth, why my figures are headless.
to say about his colour (Shonibare is It’s something the French haven’t
the child of Nigerian parents). So is worked through – that all the harmless,
Paris’s new ethnography museum trying innocent mode de vie stuff has issues
to ‘ethnographise’ him? beneath it that are very, very harmful.”
And then of course there’s Nicolas
Sarkozy, winner of last month’s hard-
Is Paris’s new fought French elections and famous for having called the rioting banlieusards
ethnography “scum”. Shonibare looks at the words on his figure’s coat – décisions,
museum trying to élections, développement – and picks his own carefully. “It’s something
‘ethnographise’ that needs flagging up right now. On the one hand, there’s this blind spot
Yinka Shonibare? here: because all Frenchmen are equal – égalité – you can’t ask how many black
people are unemployed, how many have
middle class jobs. On the other, the
French take culture very seriously.
Shonibare weighs up the question in I could easily have said no to this
front of The Confession (2007), one of project; I’m not short of work.
three sculptures that bring Fragonard But the commitment to it was amazing –
paintings to three-dimensional life in no financial barriers, no limits of
his Garden of Love. Over the rococo any kind. In a way it was as much a
fence, New Guinean tree frogs chirrup. dilemma for me as it is for them.
French culture, as weird as any, is I don’t like how objects in this museum
merely another exotic. Fragonard’s were acquired, looting and so on.
figures have been re-dressed, à la mode On the other hand, if you say,
Yinkaise, in the wax-printed cotton ‘Do I want them sent back to Africa…’,
beloved of West Africans. A corner of I can’t say yes. So what do you do?”
the man’s frock coat bears the words
décisions, élections, développement. Oddly, it’s the same post-imperial
Shonibare looks at them and smiles. question that is taxing French voters.
ARTREVIEW four.lineight.lin
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