The topic covered in this blog post is one we’ve been discussing for a while amongst ourselves, during cultural excursions and as we watch certain current events unfold around the world. Marion Charmoussis is our latest guest author. She’s been helping us in numerous ways for the past few weeks, and provides a compelling perspective on art ownership and its nuances.
I was introduced to the controversial topic of art ownership when I was quite young. I was visiting London on a school trip, and we went to the British Museum, which is known for its outstanding collection of art from all over the world. I loved the first parts of the tour, visiting the Egyptian and Roman gallery and the collections of various golden clocks and watches. Then we arrived at the Ancient Greece gallery, which I was very excited about because I am half Greek and I love to see my culture whenever I can. However, my excitement quickly turned into confusion as I saw pieces of the Parthenon and of spiritual places, such as the Nereid Monument. My first thoughts were, “why not bring these back to Greece and try to rebuild those places?”, but more importantly, “why are they here, in Britain?”. During a university class that took place at the museum a few years later, I visited the Quai Branly Museum for the first time. There, I got to really study some of the coming-of-age rituals from various African and Aboriginal cultures, and those thoughts lingered and evolved into a more critical reflection on owning art.
For the first time, I saw the invisible line between art that is owned and exchanged, and art that is stolen. As I grew older and understood more about my privileges as a white European person, I also realized that my feelings must be shared by many other people who, understandably, have a greater claim to feelings of injustice, due to a long history of discrimination against them and their cultures. If I felt so bad about pieces of monuments dating from thousands of years ago and symbolizing an (unpracticed) religion and tradition, how must people feel seeing their tokens of religion and their community’s traditional art pieces in museums of nations that brutally colonized their country and tried in every way to erase their history and practices? Moreover, Greek history has significantly influenced our political structure and art styles in France and in other European countries. Thus, learning about Greek art is learning about the foundation of our white European culture, whereas owning traditional, political or religious pieces of art from other parts of the world, such as Asia, Aboriginal Australia, the Indigenous Americas, and Africa, is only validating colonialization and expeditions led by white explorers in order to collect “exotic pieces of art”. Moreover, it is interesting to consider that Greek and Roman history has been “whitewashed”. Indeed, classicist and leading historian, Doctor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, has raised the question of the study of classics perpetuating the production of white hegemony. He questions historians and philosophers who praised the whiteness of Roman and Greek statues that were actually painted and whitewashed overtime. Why distinguish between “elite” white Greeks and “barbarian” Turks and Persians, when they were all part of the same people and therefore had the same roots? Padilla also argues that Africans and Semites influenced Greek culture. When speaking about these issues, he states,
“When folks think of classics, I want them to think about folks of color.”
When I went back home after that class in the Quai Branly Museum, I looked into the museum’s history to try and understand the intentions behind displaying such important and personal pieces of art and culture. I read about inclusivity and diversity in museums and in art. Yet, the first introduction of the Quai Branly Museum collection was at the Louvre, at the Pavillon des Sessions, where a collection of Oceanic, African and East Asian art were presented under the name of “les Arts Premiers” (the first arts), on the basis that some Indigenous, Aboriginal or African pieces of art resemble archaic art and implying that those cultures have not evolved as much as European cultures have. The museum, established by rich and influential white men, was structured through an ethnocentric lens, filled with collected colonized pieces of art, which were given value through exoticism and not for their meaning and cultural history. Some of the museum’s art was donated by Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, a white billionaire and CEO of a holding company. The museum displays this African and Oceanic art as his collection, with little to no regard about where this art really comes from and what it means. The only connection between those pieces is the collector, in the same way that the only connections between all of the museum pieces are colonialism and exoticism.
While a lot of people praise the Quai Branly for introducing more diverse art into the very elitist world of Parisian museums, a certain feeling of uneasiness remains when seeing these traditional arts on display.
Why do we understand the severity of Nazis and their collaborators stealing an immense collection of Jewish art and burning Jewish books, but yet we don’t understand the severity of displaying a collection of art collected by “the rape of Africa*”? We definitely should learn more about different kinds of art and culture, but is this the right way to do so? I can understand that during wars and the climate crisis, some people want to preserve various pieces of art and repatriate them once the conflict or crisis is resolved. For instance, the British Museum recently repatriated some art to the Iraqi museum in Bagdad, which just reopened after several years. Yet, the idea of preserving art is controversial in itself.
Our European vision of art: something to be admired, displayed and never touched, is not everyone’s vision of art, and it shouldn’t be. Some art is made to be touched and immersive, such as many pieces and installations of modern art. Some art is made to be worn, to be used, such as many pieces in the Quai Branly Museum. There is no better place for art than where it comes from, and ethnocentric visions of art preservation and of museums shouldn’t be the right and only way.
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*Term used in reference to the Scramble for Africa and to highlight the disastrous consequences colonialism had on cononized countries.