Africa’s roads well travelled

L’Afrique des Routes, or African Roads, is an exhibition put together to explore, through various artefacts, images and documents, the routes that have existed through and from Africa for millennia. These routes allowed the migration of goods, ideas and beliefs long before Europeans landed on African shores.

As historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, the scientific adviser for the exhibition, says: “Europeans think they were the first to discover Africa. In fact, they were the last.”

The Musée du Quai Branly sits behind a sleek glass wall a block away from the Eiffel Tower. A small door lets you into the semi-wild gardens that surround Jean Nouvel’s contemporary building. The walkway up to the main floor wraps around a central glass column inside which is stored the museums 20 000 musical instruments when not on display.

This is “the largest collection of non-Western art in the world” and contains over one million objects, documents, photographs and textiles. Opened in 2006 by then-president Jacques Chirac to promote “equal dignity between cultures”, it sparked huge controversy over, among other things, the national rights to the objects inside it.

The first piece you see as you enter the exhibition is a scale reproduction of Tassili rock art. When the Sahara was lush and green, horses, domesticated from Asia, were the dominant mode of transport and were painted on to the rocks in Tassili, an area that is part of modern Algeria. This is the “oldest” artefact but Gaëlle Beaujean, curator and head of African collections, has chosen to arrange the pieces in themes that overlap and interact rather than chronologically.

This is also not an exhibition of African art. There is African art in it, both contemporary and classical, but the artefacts, collected from all over the world, are chosen because they illustrate these themes: methods of transport, cities and road markers, trade routes, religious and spiritual routes, aesthetic routes, colonial routes and a nation of artists.

The geography of Africa, we are told, with relatively flat terrain and rivers, facilitated easy travel. Carved models of canoes and ships show the vessels that took people over rivers and seas. Unfamiliar Arabic maps with straight lines and geometric curves show how much of Africa was mapped by Arabic traders. Dyed salt blocks and beads, which were used to trade for gold and slaves, are displayed.

A striking photograph of modern day Nairobi, which shows suited businessmen walking down a busy street against the backdrop of a Coca-Cola advert, is juxtaposed with a watercolour engraving of Benin City, printed in 1686, 200 years before it would be burnt to the ground by British troops. Further on are black-and-white photographs of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. A moving map projected on to a round table shows the rise and fall of Africa’s empires through the centuries, some of which I recognise, most I’ve never heard of.

A similar projection shows the spread of religion against a backdrop of black-and-white photographs of religious artefacts in homes. A painted panel from Ethiopia, 1930, illustrates the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whose son was Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia and the first Jewish king in Africa.

The African branch of Judaism is said to descend from the 10 lost tribes who wandered into the desert and disappeared. Islam arrived overland and spread from the north and Christianity arriving by ship, from the south. The religions de terroir, religions of the soil as the French call the indigenous pagan religions, are mostly wiped out, although elements survive not only in Africa but also in the Americas. A beaded voodoo flag by Haitian artist Myrlande Constant shows an image of Bawon Saturday and his followers against a gold background.

Stephan Williams, writing in the New African, criticised the lack of focus on slavery, suggesting that the role of France and other European nations in colonising and subjugating Africa should have been made more explicit. I think the curators have made the right choice in not allowing slavery to become the dominant narrative in the exhibition. Instead, they have allowed the work of contemporary African artists to address colonisation and slavery.

The familiar charcoal frames of a William Kentridge film show an altercation on Jo’burg streets after a traffic accident. The recurring images of angry shouting faces, one white, one black, and the repetitive, escalating score highlights the tensions of our post-colonial society.

A photograph by Ghanaian artist Philip Kwame Apagya, titled Come on Board, showing a smiling young woman posed as though about to step on to a painted aeroplane, suggests that the truth of the European dream for young Africans is merely fiction.

One of the final pieces in the exhibition is a sculpture of a ship pitching on rough seas by British Nigerian Yinka Shonibare. The title, La Méduse, references an earlier painting, The Raft of the Medusa, which illustrates the shipwreck off the coast of Senegal when 150 crew members were abandoned by their captain and fellow crew on a raft made from pieces of the wreckage. The few survivors had resorted to cannibalism by the time they reached safety. In Shonibare’s sculpture the ragged sails are made from the batik cloth introduced to Africa by Dutch colonisers.

The classical African artwork is equally as impressive. Most of it I am seeing for the first time. A fragment of a terracotta sculpture from Nok dated 930 to 40 BCE, intricately carved ivory pieces from Benin commissioned by Portugese settlers, wooden carvings and gold statuettes from Mali. Most of these pieces left African shores, legally or illegally, without the names of the artists who crafted them and little information about their origins.

L’Afrique des Routes is more of an ethnographic exhibition than an artistic one. Its aim, to challenge Western narratives of Africa, is needed at a time when the exposure of racism in Europe is on the rise. But the subject is too big for the collection. There are 350 items on display but, having so little information to contextualise them, they are almost lost in time and space. Perhaps this is more a criticism of myself, that I do not know enough about the histories of Africa to easily place objects.

And perhaps the exhibition aims to raise more questions than it answers and highlight the glaring lack of information. In this it certainly succeeds. A plate of Chinese porcelain tentatively dated to the 15th century, which was discovered in Madagascar, has led to ongoing research into the links between China and Africa. A few items on display have been dated specifically for the exhibition but it is a small dent in the work that is yet to be done.

It is an exhibition that requires days rather than hours but it is well worth the effort.

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