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21 November

Arts du mythe : the documentary serie

collection of Ludovic Segarra, directed by Jean-Paul Colleyn

Each episode from this collection dedicated to the first arts presents an emblematic work, the myth to which it relates, its use, history and the way that it is viewed today.

Curious objects, despised for a long time, then considered as simple ethnographic documents, the said “primitive” works are now recognized as true art objects.

Since 2005, the Musée du Quai Branly has shared the series in a co-production with ARTE and Program 33.

for further information

The special feature “Arts & Myths” can be found on the ARTE site: where summaries, extracts, interviews and episodes can be downloaded.

episode guide

White cap Kayapo

The Kayapo are today a population estimated at 5500 individuals spread over a vast area of Brazil, along the river Xingu, which is a tributary of the Amazon.

The Kayapo are the undisputed masters of the feather arts, through which they express the place of birds in their representation of the world.

Producer: Philippe Truffault

Mongolian horse-head fiddle

The Mongolian name for this two-stringed fiddle is “morin-xuur”.

It features ornate carvings of a dragon’s and a horse’s head. It measures 1.2 metres in length and is made from wood and goatskin with horsehair strings.

Directed by : Philippe Truffault

poulie de métier à tisser dogon

Dogon Heddle Pulley

Weaving is an essential act in the Dogon culture in Mali. Weaving also brings speech, structures it and gives it a sense of meaning.

Constructed in the image of the world, the pulley is in the middle of the loom, opposite the weaver. The action of the feet makes the pulley’s axle sing.  This is the primordial Word.

The pulley in this episode portrays two twins, a male and a female, joined by the head, the primordial being. Reported amongst the expeditions of the ethnologist, Marcel Griaule, its patina bears witness to its usage, its irregular curves of the work of the artist who produced it.  It is this, without doubt, that was so beautiful in the eyes of the Danish collector, René Rasmussen.

Director: Ludovic Segarra and Philippe Truffault

pendentif maori

Maori Pendant

This deep green carved jade figure, fifteen centimetres high, the eyes accentuated by red sealing wax, the head turned sideways, brings us to the heart of the Maori culture.  This pendant is currently in the Musée du Quai Branly.

It is an Hei tiki, « hei » meaning pendant and « tiki » a mythical human form, the figure of an ancestor.
Each pendant bears a name as witness to the history of an important person. This pendant, which is at the heart of the film, lost this reference when brought back by European navigators.

The film opens a window for us, through the sharp gaze of a sculptor, an historian, museum curators, a modern artist or one of the Ngai Tahu chiefs, on a complex culture where mythology is still very much alive.

Director: Jean-Loïc Portron

Fang Reliquary Head

At the heart of this film, a carved wooden head portrays a child’s face, seeping with a reddish resin and whose gaze, made of mirror fragments, gives a certain kind of fascination to those who look upon it. It is a Fang reliquary head brought from Gabon more than a century ago and is now exhibited at the Musée de Neuchâtel.

Fang reliquary heads hold an important place in Central African statuary. The finesse of their features, their mysterious patinas that still seep more than a century after their collection, fascinate westerners. They carry with them proof of their conversion to Christianity, but for the Fang it is not the figurines that count but the bones that they protect.

The reliquary head, at the heart of this film, leads us to the point of view of specialists of this aesthetic piece, to the contemporary view of the Fang which proclaims a certain permanence of their identity.

Director: Philippe Truffault

effigie des Iles Marquises

Effigy from the Marquesas Islands

The object consists of a wooden frame covered with tapa, a bark cloth (vegetal fabric). It is basically a human being where the head can clearly be seen in relief. This effigy is in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly.

The bark cloth is covered in black and reddish-brown patterns drawn from tattoos and comes from the Marquesas Islands.

One could not be considered a complete man on this archipelago in the middle of the Pacific unless tattooed. Tattooing has been prohibited and the Marquesans have lost sight of these patterns.  However, some objects such as this effigy still remain.

No-one is really sure what it is, although the Marqueseans still recognize in it the power marked by the taboo.

Director: Jean-Loïc Portron

Iatmul skull

The Iatmul people of Papua New Guinea believe that the head contains all the substance of the being. For this reason, they keep the skulls of their ancestors, which once overmodelled with clay and then painted, become familiar spirits and protectors of the community.

The skull overmodelled with clay in this episode was part of the Oceanic collections at the Musée de l’Homme.  Nowadays, it is at the Musée du Quai Branly. This relic, amongst other thousands of artefacts, was brought back by La Korrigane expedition which went around the world from 1934 to 1936. This artefact commands our respect not only by the delicacy of its workmanship but also because it evokes the mystery of death. The ethnologist, Milan Stanek lived amongst the Iatmul people for several years.

Yves Le Fur, who has chosen to exhibit this skull during an exhibition devoted to funereal art at the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, details the Iatmul idea that associates swirling rivers and all uncertain forms to the residence of spirits. The images of the filmmaker Hermann Schlenker, reconstruct the ritual of overmodelling with clay, on the banks of the Sepik River. The different facets of this skull are thus revealed, so referring to our own conception of death and memories of the deceased.

Directed by: Ludovic Segarra and Philippe Truffault

poupée hopi

Hopi Doll

It is a small wooden doll of forty centimetres. The Hopi doll, or tihu, represents one of some 350 Kachina spirits, a mirror society that shares the lives of the Hopi Indians of Arizona for half of the year, livening up the villages with their dancing and especially bringing rain and fertility.

Hopi children learn to familiarize themselves with this invisible world thanks to carved and painted dolls, just like these spirits.These dolls have fascinated surrealists, who brought large numbers of them back to France and Europe.                                         

This one which is at the heart of this film belonged to André Breton and is now in the Musée d’Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens in Marseille.
Like the majority of Kachina dolls, they bear the symbols of rain, clouds and maize, elements essential for the survival of the Hopi.

Director: Philippe Truffault

figure d'ombres chinoises

Chinese Shadow Figure

The Musée du Quai Branly has a complete set of Chinese shadow figures. On of these figures represents Guan-Yu, a 3rd-century warrior, and symbolizes fidelity and moral rectitude.  He joined the Chinese pantheon when he became the god of war, trade and secret societies.

Legend recounts that a Taoist priest was present at court one day before the Son of Heaven, who was crying bitterly following the death of his favourite wife. The priest then promised the despairing emperor that he would make the ghost of his loved one appear on a screen. And thus, this is how the Shadow Theatre came about by invoking dead souls and bringing the dead back to life.

In 1965, the Cultural Revolution finally abolished these ancient reactionary practices. It tracked down the superstitions and eradicated these « old fashioned practices ». Theatre companies were disbanded, shadow figures and repertory collections burned, exhibitors and musicians humiliated…

Nowadays, former red guards have converted to the market economy and the Shadow Theatre, deeply engrained in the Chinese culture, has survived.

Director: Jean-Loïc Portron

Statue fon du dieu Gou

Fon Statue of the God Gu

This work from Benin is considered as being « indisputably one of the most beautiful known specimens of African Negro art ». Upon its arrival in the west, this ritual object was called a « sculpture » in order to erase its true nature, of separating it from its mediatory responsibility between the visible and invisible worlds…

It is very unusual for the name of an author of an earlier African art object to be known in the twentieth century. This, however, is not the case as this grand iron statue was made around 1850 by a blacksmith called Akati Ekplekendo.

In the courtyards of Beninese houses, the Gu is usually only a clod of earth in which several metallic objects (bolts and keys) are mixed. Gu is seen as a functioning principle, a force with multiple facets which is not portrayed as a distinctive element.

The artist Akati Ekplékendo broke with tradition by changing a clod of earth to a human shape, creating a figure based entirely on the symbolism of Gu, the god of war and worked metal.

Director: Philippe Truffault

masque de l'archipel kodiak

Mask, Kodiak Archipelago

The historian Oleg Kobtzeff, whilst discussing the populations of the Great North, told us “to speak is almost indecent.” What is known about this moon mask? The centrepiece of a collection of 70 masks which came from the Kodiak archipelago in Alaska.

According to legend, these masks were made by a hunter who had dreamed about them. Thanks to them, the hunt proved fruitful. The Kodiak inhabitants, Sugpiaq or Alutiiq, associate them with songs and dances. Alphonse Pinart, without doubt the last eyewitness of these rituals, recorded them during his stay on the island in 1871. He brought back this extremely unique collection of masks and bequeathed them to the Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

The Kodiak archipelago, a Russian colony, purchased by the Americans in 1867, is losing sight of its own culture, where only a few of the senior members still retain a few fragments…

Director : Philippe Truffault

piquet de jarre mnong gar

Mnong Gar Jar Stake

The Mnong Gar live on the high Vietnamese plateaus and are called « Mountain dwellers» by other people.  For a long time, because they stay isolated on high ground, the populations on the plains have treated them as « savages ».

The anthropologist Georges Condominas lived in a Mnong Gar between 1948 and 1950, recording and taking photographs of everything that he saw. He brought back a stake jar, amongst other things, which is now in the Musée du Quai Branly.

This stake holds a jar containing rice beer. The stake and jar are essential in performing the buffalo sacrifice, an important ritual in Southeast Asia.

But why are these animals sacrificed?  What can one hope for by shedding buffalo blood ? Is this a barbaric act or, on the contrary, a sign of civilization ? To sacrifice is to eat with the gods. It also establishes man with the status that is particular to him, between creatures and deities.

These basic questions are carried by a simple stake, an ephemeral object designed for a buffalo sacrifice some years before the United States entered the Vietnam War.

Director: Jean-Loïc Portron

flèche faîtière kanak

Kanak Spear-like Wooden Totem

Originally from New Caledonia, this spear-like wood carving adorns the roofs of great ceremonial huts and represents the founder-ancestor of a clan. As such, it is the place of passage between the worlds of the living and the dead.

If the spear is not heard without the hut, the hut is not heard without the pathway.  It is the spear that passes the word and those who carry it. What is said and done in the hut must leave by the “speaking-pathway”. Thus the act and the word merge.

In addition to its symbolic function, this spear-like wooden totem also has a political function. It is the property of the chief and marks his power over the clan; an aspect that brought about it being adopted unanimously by the Kanak freedom fighters and has appeared on their flag since 1984.

Director : Frédéric Ramade

Peinture Pintupi d'Australie - Click to enlarge, open in a new window

Pintupi painting from Australia

”Papunya, a rock hole west of Kintore”, is an acrylic on canvas, painted in 2002 by Ningura Napurrula, an Aboriginal Pintupi artist.

The Aborigines of the Western Desert have been painting on canvas since 1971, when Geoffrey Bardon first introduced it in Papunya.

Directed by  : François Lévy-Kuentz

Manteau de chamane Evenk - Click to enlarge, open in a new window

evenk shaman’s coat

In order to enter the parallel worlds inhabited by spirits with whom they must interact, Siberian shamans wear heavy coats made from elk or wild reindeer skins onto which symbolic metal objects and fabric pendants are sewn.

Directed by: Frédéric Ramade

Ta no kami from Japan

The first Japanese artefact to be included in the collection Arts du mythe (Arts and Myths), this small sculpture depicting Tanokami, a small deity of the rice paddies and the harvest, is a handmade artefact manufactured in the fifties.

Directed by: Frédéric Ramade

shrine madonna from Prussia

This is the first time the collection has featured a European object, refusing to draw an arbitrary line in defining the “exotic” in finding subjects for Arts du Mythe.

The “Madonna shrine”, normally housed in the Germanisches National Museum in Nuremberg, is one of the few statues of its kind to have survived to this day. Why did these sculptures, so popular throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, suddenly disappear (whether they were hidden away or destroyed) around the fifteenth century?

This surprising depiction of the Holy Trinity on the Madonna’s heart, imagery from the Teutonic Order which became “iconographic abuse”, was strongly opposed by the Counter-Reformation on theological grounds.

Directed by: Simon Backès

crâne de cristal de roche

Rock Crystal Skull

Magnetic gaze, puzzling workmanship, light trap : encircled by questions, this rock crystal skull came from a distant era, then the ancient capital of the Aztecs and finally from the shop of Eugène Boban, a famous antique collector.

One of these rock crystal skulls is in Paris and, like those at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, or the British Museum in London, is the bearer of certain mysteries, not the least of which is the hole that goes straight through the skull.

Here are a few facts about the Parisian life story of this bizarre object : given to the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1883 ; in 1929 with the photographer Man Ray ; a long stay at the Musée de l’homme, where many came from the other side of the world to look at it; a rather odd appearance in 2006 at the new Musée du Quai Branly; and currently is hidden away in the basement of the Louvre.

It is being examined there by an electron microscope and is being bombarded by elementary particles. Will it now reveal its secrets ?

Director : Philippe Truffault

Xipe Totec du Mexique - Click to enlarge, open in a new window

Xipe totec from Mexico

This Aztec torso, carved in volcanic stone and covered with human skin, dates from the fifteenth century. It was linked to worship and sacrifices made by Aztec dignitaries in honour of the god Xipe Totec, “Our Lord the Flayed One.”

Directed by: Etienne Chaillou and Mathias Théry

Mât du clan de la grenouille - Click to enlarge, open in a new window

frog clan totem pole

The frog clan totem pole, or “kaiget” pole, was acquired in 1938 by the surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann during a trip that took him from British Columbia to Alaska. It was purchased after long negotiations with its Wet’suwet’en owners in the village of Hagwilget in British Columbia.

On exhibition from 1939 in the musée de l’Homme, today it is one of the musée du quai Branly’s extraordinary and iconic objects. It is distinguished by both its size and its history, as it bears witness to the extraordinary vitality of identity of these Indians of the Northwest Coast of Canada.

Directed by : Simon Backès

ethiopian magic roll

For centuries, Ethiopians have been using scrolls for therapeutic purposes. The scrolls contain prayers and images intended to ward off demons and other evil spirits responsible for disease.

Directed by: Simon Backès

Boli du Mali - Click to enlarge, open in a new window

Boli from Mali

The Boli from Mali is a large artefact (45cm in height and 20kg in weight) in the shape of an animal, and is covered with a layer of coagulated blood. It is one of the most intriguing acquisitions of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition in 1931.

In 1980, this power object was on the list of the one hundred treasures of the Musée de l’Homme. It is now on display at the musée du quai Branly.

Directed by: Jean-Loïc Portron