« EXHIBITIONS », L’INVENTION DU SAUVAGE
Do you consider yourself “civilized”? Do you secretly consider certain categories of persons “superior” to others? When you hear the phrase “Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show”, do you feel warm nostalgia for a bygone era? Perhaps it is time you visited “EXHIBITIONS: L’Invention du Sauvage”, running at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris through June 2012. I promise, you will be in for a much-needed shock.
This broad, deep and disturbing voyage through several centuries of ‘humans as entertainment’ begins with the original “clash of civilizations”, when Europeans first had greater contact with other cultures, during the Age of Exploration. White European explorers found and took samples of, some most ‘curious’ creatures from this New World, including human beings, which, along with flora and fauna, began to fill the “cabinets of curiosities” of the nobility. Thus began the era of the Noble Savage, seen as a Man, yes, but a marvelously odd one, at that, a first step, as this exhibit deftly points out, in the de-humanization of men and women from different, distant cultures and with non-white skin tones, or the “Others”, as they are referred to throughout the display.
Paraded before Kings, then Lords, these “Others” were soon brought before a larger audience, by popular demand, prepared by the advent of publicity in broadsheets, newspapers, and eventually, on advertising posters, which abound in “EXHIBITIONS”, and which serve to reveal both the broad-based appeal which human displays had for a Westernized audience during the 18th through the 20th centuries, as well as the truly exploitative and sensationalistic nature of this popular form of divertissement.
As the Enlightenment gave way to the reign of Science in the 19th century, the view of the “Other” as a fascinating being of child-like innocence began to turn to a view of the ‘Savage’ as a creature that must be measured, studied, even taken apart to be understood by Westerners. The curators of this show take us through the use of ‘phrenology’ as an example of how pseudo-science served to distance and then, objectify human beings who came from afar. A broader nose, a head of another shape, and women with wider hips and thighs, were all vaunted as irrefutable ‘proof’ that physical and cultural difference were equivalent to physical, cultural and even moral inferiority. After all, as human exhibits of the time advertised, “Seeing is Believing”, and how could the measurements of Science be wrong?
‘EXHIBITIONS’ gradually and comprehensively reveals to us, through visual imagery, sound samples and three-dimensional objects, how curiosity about other cultures and persons who do not look like ‘us’ can transform into a feeling of separateness and then aversion, which allows easily for the ‘use’ of humans as objects of derisive amusement and, in the case of women, as objects of sexual titillation.
I have a confession to make: ‘Exhibitions’ shook me to the core. I cannot remember the last time I left an exhibit feeling such revulsion and sadness. Yet, I am gratified to have experienced this show. It led me to ask myself essential questions we should all be asking: “Do I judge Others who are different from me without knowing them? How do I feel when I stand by and watch humans exploit humans?”, and, perhaps most importantly for the future of humanity, “Who do I become when I label fellow human beings as ‘Others’ or ‘Those People’?” In a time of such economic and social turmoil as we are currently experiencing, the ‘EXHIBITIONS’ show is more than relevant. It is essential viewing, so that we can ponder the truly disturbing foundations of the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ mentality, before we cede to the temptation of making scapegoats of ‘Others’.