Paris Day 4
In the past few months I’ve come across various articles where known fashion designers have been accused of “cultural appropriation”. Below are a few examples:
Shetland Islanders, known for their Nordic style fishermen’s sweaters, claim that Chanel stole their knitting patterns. After representatives of Chanel appeared on the island and bought some of her sweaters, Mati Ventrillon noticed that black and white designs she created for the Queen’s Jubilee 2012 appeared on the catwalk of Chanel’s Metiers d’Art a few months ago.
The Nunavut family has a similar complaint. Qingailisag, an Inuit shaman, in the 1920s designed a caribou skin parka covered with sacred designs meant to offer spiritual protection to the wearer (Franz Boas even wrote about them). Qingailisag’s descendents are quite upset that these designs have been copied by designer Kokon To Zai for a sweater selling for $840.
French Designer Isabel Marant has recently been criticized for having copied the designs of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec’s traditional costume that’s been around for over 600 years. What’s even more bizarre is that another designer, Antik Batik, is using the same designs thus claiming that Marant has “copied” her. And even more surrealistic is a recent press release from a Mexican news agency saying that Marant was issued a patent from the French government for these designs. Thus if the indigenous people of Oaxaca want to use their own designs, they must pay copyright fees to the French designer. Marant, however, denies the existence of this patent.
So what does all of this have to do with Paris? Because today I went to the Musée Quai Branly, the anthropological museum featuring the indigenous art of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.
French presidents have the tradition of sponsoring some museum or monument while in office and this was the project of Jacques Chirac. The museum, which faces the Seine and is next to the Eiffel Tower, was actualized using collections of previous museums (including the Trocadéro Ethnographic Museum).
Many of these objects were accumulated during French colonization (including that of North America).
The museum is beautiful and sometimes overwhelming. It took me a couple of hours to slide through it all making an effort not to be a victim of a Syndrome of Stendhal attack. And when I left the museum, I said to myself: Cubism exists thanks to African art.
One day in 1906 while on his way to visit Gertrude Stein, Matisse stopped in a little curio shop and bought a small Vili figure from Congo. He showed the figure to Gertrude as well as to Picasso who was also there. Picasso pretended not to be interested but later made frequent visits to the Trocadéro. And, not long afterwards, painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) which many historians believe gave birth to Cubism. “Avignone” does not refer to the French town but to the name of a street in Barcelona famous for its prostitutes.
Picasso said “good artists copy, great artists steal” which is exactly what he did.
Man Ray was another artist who fell in love with African art. One of his most famous photos, Noire et Blanche, shows Kiki of Montparnasse holding a small African mask.
André Breton, known as the father of Surrealism, began living in an apartment on rue Fontaine 42 (Pigalle district) in 1921. His whole house was a Cabinet of Curiosities—more than 5,300 objects of interest. Breton died in 1966 but his wife continued to live there until her death. Rue Fontaine contained the largest known collection of the Surrealist movement but the government was unwilling to buy it. So Breton’s daughter, Aube, was forced to break up the collection and sale it piece by piece. All that’s left is a “look alike” wall at Centre Pompidou, “Le Mur de l’Atelier”, which includes a number of African masks.
Modigliani, like Picasso, often visited the Trocadéro finding much inspiration from the Ivory Coast’s Baule masks with their elongated faces, arched eyebrows and lazily opened eyes.
With the aid of a wheelbarrow, Modigliani scavenged stones from Parisian construction sites then sculpted heads resembling those of African goddesses.
In 1984, the art world went into a spin because of three carved heads found in a canal in Livorno, Modigliani’s hometown. Many experts claimed that they were works by Modigliani who, in 1909 after receiving negative reviews, dumped them in the Fosso Reale. Instead, with the help of a Black & Decker drill, they were made by three pranksters and local artist and activist, Angelo Froglia.
An appropriation is an appropriation is an appropriation.
Next door to Musée Quai Branly is a Vertical Garden by Patrick Blanc.
Related link: Native Appropriations is a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, activism, and more.