French museum looks at rugby as art

There’s no question that great athletes take their sports to the level of art.

But as the French host the Rugby World Cup, they’re pushing that concept a step further by bringing rugby into an art museum. It’s a genteel Parisian touch to a sport more often associated with muscle, body-crunching tackles or even incidents of ear-biting.

To coincide with the September 7 to October 20 tournament, the Quai Branly museum is hosting rugby-related exhibits, visits and round tables with archaeologists, historians, sociologists and former players. The museum also covered its roof over with green turf and turned it into a mock playing field with a close-up view of the Eiffel Tower.

”Rugby is actually very close to what we’re showing here,” said Pierre Hanotaux, the general director of the museum, which is normally devoted to the so-called primitive arts of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania.

If that seems like a stretch, he adds: ”We can’t kid ourselves. It’s also our way of bringing in people who never come to museums, because they find museums boring.”

The first event of La Melee des Cultures (Scrum of Cultures) comes on Saturday, with a day of conferences ranging from rugby’s origins to how the body works during a match.

One highlight throughout the programme is workshops on the ritual tattoos of cultures in the Pacific. Other workshops will teach the haka, the traditional Maori war dance that New Zealand’s All Blacks perform. The All Blacks, the World Cup favourites, do the haka before the kick-off, chanting and stomping on the field.

The museum commissioned artist-in-residence Greg Semu, who is of Samoan heritage and grew up in New Zealand, to come up with an original art piece for the series. He took his inspiration from a team photo of the All Blacks doing the haka in a dark forest in their Adidas uniforms — a photo rife with themes to explore, such as the appropriation and commercialisation of traditional cultures.

Semu’s own photo, huge and breathtaking, hangs in the museum’s entryway. It shows Maori warriors in a clash in a forest clearing. Some wear British army uniforms, others wear loincloths or armour. Many have traditional tattoos over their faces. It’s a reflection on colonisation, war and modern sports.

Those themes were not immediately apparent to Arthur Bogouslasvy, a 16-year-old visitor, who suggested another message: ”The All Blacks will destroy all the teams on their way.”

The artist didn’t mind that interpretation. ”The more people look at it, they’ll start to think about it more,” Semu said. ”It’s a slow-burner piece.”

The Quai Branly series is not the only Parisian cultural event timed for the World Cup. An exhibit at Paris City Hall, called Rugby: A World of Emotions, explores a day in the life of a rugby team. For the Festival Ovale, in Saint Denis, north of Paris, artists from 12 countries will perform in 30 free concerts. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Masha Macpherson and Philippine Boudet contributed to this report from Paris

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