Loose Threads

Meredith Martin on the “Nouvelles Indes” tapestries

Hôtel de la Marine, Paris. Photo: Frédéric Soltan/Getty Images.

THIS SUMMER IN PARIS, two museums installed versions of the same artworks—eighteenth-century French tapestries from a royal series known as the “Nouvelles Indes” (New Indies)—to tell very different stories about European legacies of race, slavery, and colonialism. One version hangs in the lavish period rooms of the new Hôtel de la Marine in the Place de la Concorde, while another was part of an exhibition devoted to the forty-two-year-old Congolese artist Sammy Baloji at the École des Beaux-Arts. Despite the fact that both sets of hangings came from the Mobilier National and were on view only a short walk across the Seine from each other, no one seems to have noticed the coincidence. Considered together, however, they raise important questions about the role of artists and museums in reconstructing the past and making it relevant for the present.

The newest member of France’s Centre des monuments nationaux (CMN), the Hôtel de la Marine opened in June 2021 after a multiyear, 132-million-euro ($155 million) renovation funded by a loan based on projected visitor income as well as by support from donors like Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, who will display some of their art collection on the ground floor. Housed in a former royal palace, the museum will share space with a motley crew of tenants, including an academy devoted to maritime research; the Fondation pour la mémoire de l’esclavage (Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery); and FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football. The project spanned three presidents (Sarzoky, Hollande, and Macron) and was hotly contested, with the CMN and various constituencies arguing over whether to create a museum devoted to slavery (which generated protests from the far right), gastronomy, history, or taste. In the end, the CMN opted to focus on the Hôtel de la Marine’s own past and to construct a “mini-Versailles” in the center of Paris.

Designed in the mid-eighteenth century to front a royal square repurposed as an execution site for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, the Marine building initially accommodated the crown’s furniture repository, or Garde-Meuble de la Couronne. After 1789 (and until 2015), it served as the headquarters of France’s naval ministry, responsible for overseeing the country’s maritime defense as well as its ports, colonies, and foreign commerce. (From 1940 to 1944, it served as the naval headquarters of the Third Reich.) The museum’s ninety-minute “Grand Tour” circuit brings visitors to the stately nineteenth-century galleries of the ministry, where they can watch virtual reenactments of imperial balls projected onto Dancing Mirrors, as well as to the eighteenth-century rooms that housed the noble superintendents of the Garde-Meuble, meticulously if somewhat fancifully restored. Throughout the tour, museumgoers are guided by the “Confidant,” an immersive headset with binaural sound that aims to bring these opulent living quarters and their former inhabitants to life. Interiors are staged as if their elite occupants had only recently fled the scene—with tossed oyster shells and empty wine bottles littering the floor of the dining room—a theatrical, Night at the Museum effect also present in the large corner salon where the “New Indies” tapestries reside.

Les Deux Taureaux (The Two Bulls) (detail), 1795, tapestry, dimensions unknown. From the series “Nouvelles Indes (New Indies),” commissioned in 1735. Photo: Benjamin Gavaudo/Wikimedia Commons.

Entering this chamber, visitors hear actors proclaiming it to be “the most sumptuous room in the apartments, worthy of royal residence,” as well as the kind of environment where so-called Enlightenment projects like the Encyclopédie were launched. We hear how gambling, represented by the playing cards and chips scattered on the tables, was “so much a part” of the “worldly” activities of its residents (not to mention a key aspect of the rise of global capitalism), as were the expensive, fashionable tapestries on the walls. But we hear nothing about the fact that these two “New Indies” tapestries, Les Deux Taureaux (The Two Bulls) and Le Chameau (The Camel), depict enslaved Africans in an exotic colonial landscape, laboring to produce sugar and other luxury commodities that were then shipped to the metropole to be enjoyed in elite interiors like this one.

Originally commissioned by the French monarchy in 1735 and rewoven multiple times during the eighteenth century, the “New Indies” series comprises eight hangings designed by the artist Alexandre-François Desportes, who modeled them on an earlier suite known as the “Anciennes Indes” (Old Indies). That series was based on studies made from life by two Dutch artists, Albert Eckhout and Frans Post, who in 1637 had accompanied Prince Johan Maurits to Brazil after he was appointed governor of the Dutch colony there. Eckhout and Post had sought to capture some of the flora, fauna, and Amerindian inhabitants of the region and of Chile, where a Dutch delegation had traveled in 1643 to seek an alliance with the Mapuche peoples. Eckhout additionally made oil studies of ambassadors from the Kingdom of Kongo who had traveled to Brazil, and they informed the depiction of African figures in the “Old Indies”—though this Kongo connection, as Cécile Fromont has shown, was largely forgotten by the late-seventeenth century. In reworking the earlier series, Desportes suppressed some of its historical and cultural specificity, opting to create a more generically (and incongruously) exotic landscape, for instance by swapping out Eckhout’s depiction of a Mapuche rider with the camel in Le Chameau, and by adding flora and fauna found in the French royal menagerie rather than in Brazil. Desportes didn’t have to do much, however, for French viewers of the late 1730s to connect his scenes to France’s own colonial possessions in the Americas: namely, the Caribbean sugar colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), conjured in The Two Bulls by the pile of sugarcane in the animals’ cart and by the sugar mill in the background.

View of “Sammy Baloji: K(C)ongo, Fragments of Interlaced Dialogues,” 2021, Beaux-Arts de Paris. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

The fact that none of this context is mentioned in the Hôtel de la Marine’s audio guide (or anywhere in the room itself) is jarring to say the least, especially given the building’s history and current status as a site of public education, maritime research, and remembrance. No guidebooks or articles about the Hôtel de la Marine seem to mention it either, noting only that these hangings (which did not actually reside in this room during the eighteenth century) were added because they fit the dimensions of the space. This absence contrasts sharply with Sammy Baloji’s one-room show across the Seine, where versions of the same two tapestries were displayed alongside other examples from the “New Indies” and the artist’s own work, and where the themes of slavery, colonialism, and Congolese heritage were emphasized. Known for his archivally driven installations that explore history and memory in Congo, under Belgian rule from 1908 to 1960, Baloji has said that he is “not interested in colonialism as a thing of the past, but in the continuation of that system.” That interest was on full view in his exhibition, which fused time periods, cultures, media, and materials to explore the unacknowledged debt that history and modernity owe to African sources and bodies.

On one side of the room, “New Indies” tapestries were installed next to works by Baloji inspired by historic Congolese textiles dispersed in European collections. After encountering them in a 2015 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Baloji made negatives of these textiles and cast them in bronze, a copper alloy that for him embodies Congo’s colonial past and neocolonial present, particularly in the mining town of Lubumbashi, where he grew up. While the display highlighted two cultural traditions that valued textile manufacture as an expression of power and prestige, it also underscored how the origins and identities of these artworks, as well as their makers and subjects, became lost over time as the objects acquired new meanings in different contexts. Elsewhere in the gallery, Baloji exhibited wooden panels ornamented with Congolese motifs that, in the late-nineteenth century, were appropriated by Belgian Art Nouveau designers to decorate the colonial pavilion that became the infamous Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The vibrant colors of Baloji’s panels, meanwhile, pay homage to the “infographic” diagrams used by W. E. B. Du Bois in his “American Negro Exhibition” of 1900, whose primary colors and geometric shapes prefigured European avant-garde movements like Russian Constructivism and De Stijl.

View of “Sammy Baloji: K(C)ongo, Fragments of Interlaced Dialogues,” 2021, Beaux-Arts de Paris. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

Baloji’s goal, as art historian Anne Lafont wrote in a short text for his exhibition, is to encourage us to “see and rethink our relationship to art objects and to history.” To some extent, that aim echoes the mission of the Hôtel de la Marine, except that the museum has opted for a particular and partial view of history, one that trades on an outdated myth of the glories of the ancien régime while occluding the forced labor and violence that propped up its existence. Might it be possible to bring some of the insights of Baloji’s show—which was up for only five weeks during a summer still plagued by Covid—into the Marine’s permanent galleries? In a final ironic twist, Baloji, in collaboration with the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, was recently named a finalist in the competition to design a French memorial to the victims of slavery that will be erected in the Tuileries Gardens, directly in between the Hôtel de la Marine and the École des Beaux-Arts. Though the project is currently stalled, perhaps the CMN could enlist Baloji in the meantime to rethink its display, to help bridge the gap between two exhibitions that were so close and yet so far away.

Meredith Martin is an associate professor of art history at New York University.