Thursday 6 October 2011


Wood panel by Maori sculptor Tene Waitere
Objects at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris tend to provoke unease and even anger in some visitors. Critics say that the museum, which focuses on the arts of Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas, has a colonialist, outmoded approach to regions outside Europe.

But a new exhibition could change the way the museum is perceived, at least for now. “Maori: Their Treasures Have a Soul” is an impressive show of art and culture organized by the Maori people themselves, and one can feel the difference.

Opened this week, the exhibition presents ancestral treasures along with contemporary artwork, linking the past and the present. Materials used include wood, stone and shell, reflecting the Maori communion with nature, according to Matiu Rei, a Maori “tribal leader” – as he calls himself.

“Ancestry is important to us,” Rei told SWAN. “What canoe our ancestors arrived in is something we want to know about. We still retain that kind of organization, and we genuinely regard ourselves as tribal people with our own ideas of self-determination. That’s what this exhibition is about.”

Rei performed an incantation ceremony before the show opened, blessing the artwork, as the Maori believe that objects “can have a spirit”, he said.

The show, composing 250 pieces, has traveled from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tangarewa, where it was first presented earlier this year. Rei said that the exhibition “looked better” in Paris because of the large and attractive space the Quai Branly Museum could devote to it. This space means that visitors can take their time to wander among the exhibits, appreciating the various themes being portrayed.

One learns about the Maori skill at sailing, with depictions of their canoes and paddles; traditional Maori music, with musical instruments on display; contemporary Maori art, with works from artists such as Reuben Paterson and Brett Graham. 

Maori oars
Other objects include stunning jade pendants, tall wooden sculptures of ancestral gods, photographs depicting ornate tattoos, and historical documents. They all show Maori culture as seen by Maori, “free from Western views and biases,” the museum says.

The main thread throughout the exhibition is the resolve for empowerment, leadership and identity in New Zealand, after centuries of “dispossession and colonial conflicts”, said Stephane Martin, president of the Quai Branly Museum.

“The approach of this exhibition is different from one done by ethnographers or collectors,” Martin told SWAN. “This show has been done by Maori people in the way they want to be seen or perceived.

“It’s a very large vision of the Maori world, from its origins to the present situation, following a chronological line,” he added.

Asked about the criticisms of the museum’s general focus, Martin said that the Quai Branly wanted to be seen as a “cultural centre” rather than as a “real traditional ethnographic” museum.

“We give voices to very, very different points of view,” he said. “When people came to the opening of the museum and said ‘I don’t like this museum’, what they disliked were very small parts of the museum.”

He said that the temporary exhibitions were distinct from the permanent objects in the museum’s so-called Espace de Référence (Reference Space), which houses traditional pieces from regions outside of Europe. The presentation of these pieces as “primitive arts” is the reason many people are uncomfortable with the museum, which was created in 2006. 

But visitors at the opening of “Maori: Their Treasures Have a Soul” said that they welcomed an exhibition organized by the community that was being portrayed.

“This is a good approach,” said Djamal Mohamed, as he viewed a sleek, imposing canoe on display. “I’m learning a lot.” - A.M.

The exhibition runs until 22 January 2012. Side events include dance workshops, storytelling shows, and the projection of films such as “Whale Rider” and “Once Were Warriors”.