Yinka Shonibare

Musée du quai Branly

If any dispute has defined the short life of the Musée du Quai Branly, it has been the standoff between beauty and ritual, aesthetics and ethnography. Should sacred, functional, and ceremonial objects from the civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, already removed from their native lands as a result of colonialism, suffer a further decontextualization and dilution of aura beneath Jean Nouvel’s seductive architecture and interior design? The museum’s president, Stéphane Martin, has called the museum a “neutral environment” with “no aesthetic or philosophical line.”

It’s hard to know whether Martin’s mugwumpery is preposterously meek-hearted or just plain preposterous, but he recently threw a gun into a knife fight: Yinka Shonibare, MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire), was asked to create an installation to inaugurate the Branly’s new temporary exhibitions gallery—the museum’s second contemporary art show. Shonibare designed an indoor Garden of Love, 2007, built like a maze so that you “discover” (as in, “intrude upon”) a pair of lovers—headless figures dressed in period costumes whipped up from his signature Dutch wax-printed “African” fabric—in three mise-en-scènes based on settings from Fragonard’s series “The Progress of Love,” 1771–73. From the panels originally conceived for the comtesse du Barry’s dining room in Louveciennes (and now in New York’s Frick Collection), Shonibare has re-created The Pursuit, The Lover Crowned, and The Love Letters, tastefully leaving aside Fragonard’s Reverie, with its hints at masturbation, among other scenes. His foliage fakery takes a page from Disney, but Garden of Love echoes postcolonial theory and the politics of identity, questioning the boundaries of authenticity and fabrication.

With luck, some of that theorizing will rub off on M. Martin. On the other hand, what rubs off on Shonibare’s art, once situated in the Musée du Quai Branly, is that the Dutch wax fabric tugs hard at its origins. Like the ethnographic artifacts in the museum’s collection, the fabric was not intended as art in the Western sense either. Seventeenth-century marketing blunders caused bolts of the stuff to be sent from Dutch Indonesia, where it was originally designed, through England to West Africa, but it was never more than everyday yard goods. The museum’s setting produced a new wrinkle in the routine reading of Shonibare’s art: Shonibare’s version of the fabric is fine art, but at what expense to its ethnographic legacy? Does contemporary art receive a pass on the aesthetics-versus-ethnography question because of its allegedly selfless relocation of the debate on context, or is this, too, adulteration by another name? Are Shonibare and Nouvel more kindred spirits than one might imagine?

Context got the best of me as I meandered through the labyrinthine Garden of Love and turned a corner to find Shonibare doing a Fred Wilson! A handsome maroon-red box held three or four funerary sculptures made from lavishly decorated human skulls. For sure, these objects of death shared the effects of overwrought rituals with Fragonard’s lessons in love. Given all the amorous overexertion built into Shonibare’s Garden, I was knocked for six by the extremely agile conversion in timbre and style that turned love toward death on a dime, and overwhelmed by Shonibare’s enlivened and captivating stylistic off-road escapade—until I realized that this wasn’t his curatorial work at all: I had taken a wrong turn into the section on La Mort et les Ancêtres in the anthropological exhibition “Nouvelle-Irlande, Art du Pacifi que Sud.” My accidental tourism had dropped me off in a contextual no man’s land, materializing the beauty-versus-ritual paradox with bamboozling consequences that neither Shonibare nor Martin could have imagined, or even wanted.

Ronald Jones