Wild Women Jostle Buffalo Bill in Paris Exhibition: Review

A poster for "Coming Soon at the Circus Robinson: Wild Peoples -- The Greatest Show of the Century." The undated poster is on view at the Musee du Quai Branly through June 3, 2012. Source: Musee du Quai Branly via Bloomberg

A soccer star organizing a museum exhibition, now that doesn’t happen every day.

Yet that’s just what’s happening at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris: Lilian Thuram, who was a member of France’s national soccer team from 1996 to 2008, is one of the three curators of a new show, “The Invention of the Savage.”

There’s a reason for Thuram’s involvement: He was born in the overseas department of Guadeloupe, he’s black and active in anti-discrimination politics.

The 500 or so items on display -- paintings, posters, photographs, films, costumes, masks and dioramas -- illustrate how, during many centuries, men, women and children from Africa, Asia and the Americas were exhibited in the Western world like exotic animals in a zoo.

The thesis of the show is simple: The savage was invented by the West as a byproduct of colonization.

The first section (of four) describes how the tradition started in the 16th century: European princes vied to amass the most original collection of curiosities, including dwarves and giants, Moors and Indians.

Here you find Omai, a Tahitian who arrived in London in 1774 and created a sensation when he was presented at court. Joshua Reynolds was intrigued enough to paint him.

From there we move to fairgrounds and amusement parks after the aristocratic passion morphed into a plebeian craze.

Missing Link

London became the capital of freak shows where crowds lined up to have a glimpse at the oversized buttocks of Saartje Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” or at Krao, the hairy girl from Laos advertised as “Darwin’s missing link” between human and ape.

In the 19th century, P.T. Barnum became the first show-business millionaire.

His “American Museum” featured Pygmies, Aborigines, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, Mexicans presented as “The Last Aztecs” and wild animals, some wilder than others.

William (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody’s “Wild West” shows, which ignored the massacres perpetrated during the Indian wars, attracted huge crowds on both sides of the Atlantic.

Other exhibitions were organized by the colonial powers to emphasize their civilizing mission. The last was held in Brussels in 1958 on the eve of the Congo’s independence. The “Congolese Village” provoked such a furor that it had to be closed prematurely.

Fetish Worshippers

The message is clear: None of this should have happened, we’re all one human family, and if you’re amused by the “Wild Women From Dahomey” on a giant poster inviting you to watch their “Holy War Dance of the Fetish Worshippers” you must be an incurable racist.

What the organizers overlook in their righteous indignation is that quite a few entertainers later made a lot of money by playing the exoticism card. There was Josephine Baker, whom you can admire in one of her “Revue Negre” dances, and the Cuban clown Chocolat (Rafael Padilla), whose portrait was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, to name but two.

I also looked in vain for the “Noble Savage,” a popular cliche in 18th-century literature used as a shining example of humanity unspoiled by the vices of civilization.

Reservations aside, “Exhibitions: L’Invention du Sauvage” is a fascinating show.

The exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly runs through June 3, 2012. Information: http://www.quaibranly.fr or +33-1-5661-7000.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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