Organizing a coherent exhibition representing the 7,000 islands and some 80 languages of the Philippines is no easy task.
The Musee du Quai Branly in Paris has succeeded brilliantly.
With more than 300 objects illustrating the country’s pre-colonial heritage, “Philippines: Archipelago of Exchanges” must be the biggest show of its kind ever seen in Europe.
The Spaniards started colonizing the archipelago in 1565, naming it after their monarch, Philip II. In 1571, they founded Manila, the capital, as their main trading post in the Far East.
As in Latin America, the settlers were accompanied by missionaries. That didn’t prevent U.S. President McKinley, when the U.S. conquered the Philippines in 1898, from using religion as a smokescreen for realpolitik.
In principle, he told a visiting church delegation, the U.S. was opposed to colonies. Nevertheless, he had decided to keep the islands “to uplift, civilize and Christianize” the natives.
Before the missionaries arrived, local people had worshiped a vast pantheon of deities. The Ifugao tribe in the north had no fewer than 1,500 gods.
The rice god Bulul was the most important, and his image is ubiquitous in the show. He is mostly depicted as a seated figure with its arms crossed over its knees or holding a bowl.
As with Christian practice, communication with the other side was supervised by professionals. The mumbaki rubbed the blood of sacrificed animals into a sculpture of the appropriate god.
The mumbaki also was an expert in healing the sick, interpreting dreams and, if need be, practicing black magic rituals of vengeance.
Its followers were no prudes: A ritual box from the 17th century containing a chicken foot, a knife and seeds has an amazingly fanciful coital scene carved on its lid.
Many of the old traditions survived well into the 20th century and some are still practiced today.
In the 1930s, the U.S. authorities went to considerable trouble to suppress headhunting, a rite of passage among young men who believed that owning another man’s skull would provide them with a servant in the afterlife.
The show includes many elegantly shaped weapons. Among the less bellicose items, household utensils decorated with anthropomorphic figures stand out.
By contrast, the craftsmen in the Muslim regions of Mindanao, the southernmost main island, prefer arabesques and other abstract patterns.
The Philippines contains one of the world’s biggest gold reserves. It’s little wonder that gold has always played an important part in ceremonies and rituals.
The goldsmiths in what we would call the Middle Ages were virtuosos in no way inferior to their European colleagues. The jewelry in the show, mostly from the 10th to the 13th century, is absolutely gorgeous.
The funerary jars are no less fascinating.
The Ifugao and other tribes still bury their dead twice. First, the corpse is left to decompose in a pit or a cave. Later, the skull and large bones are placed into a terracotta jar, often sculpted with a human face.
If the practices are not correctly observed, many believe, the children risk being visited by their dead parents at night.
“Philippines: Archipel des Echanges” runs through July 14. Information: http://www.quaibranly.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include George Walden on books and Jorg von Uthmann on Paris culture.