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the anthropology exhibition: What is a body?

For the duration of 18 months, this major anthropology exhibition will focus on the universal issues behind human relationships. It is the outcome of a transversal, scientific research project. 

The museum admission ticket is also valid for entry to this exhibition, which is housed in the West Suspended Gallery.

What is a body? To this question, the musée du quai Branly’s first major anthropological exhibition offers some unexpected answers. The visitor is invited to compare ways in which the body and the person are represented in four different regions of the world: West Africa, Western Europe, New Guinea and Amazonia. In marked contrast to the western concept of the body as the seat of an irreducible individuality, the team of anthropologists led by Stéphane Breton demonstrates that no human society - including our own - looks upon the body as an entity of strictly individual thought and action. The body is in fact regarded by different cultures as a semi-finished product that must be completed. It is a work in progress, the raw material in a "manufacturing process". 

“I am not alone in my body”: with this postulate as a starting point, the individual cements a relationship with ‘something that is not themselves’, and which differs from culture to culture.

The body is where confrontation is expressed: male/female, living/non-living, divine/image, human/non-human… Oppositions which are also encountered in artistic, ritual and social productions (sculptures, artefacts, images of the body etc) presented here.


Qu’est-ce qu’un corps? edited by Stéphane Breton, 224 pages, musée du quai Branly/Flammarion co-publication, 45 €

exhibition layout

The exhibition is designed around four axes, each one highlighting a specific geographical area and presenting a different vision of this ‘something else’ which makes up the body: the dead in the case of West Africa, the divine in Europe, the opposite sex in New Guinea, and the animal kingdom in Amazonia.

1 -  West Africa

The body and its doubles (ancestors, mythical founding beings, and bush spirits)

Among certain West African peoples such as the Dogon, the Bambara, the Senufo and the Lobo, the constitution of the body is inseparable from the close relationship that unites the living with their ancestors, guarantors of prosperity and fecundity.

Men also worship the mythical beings that originally founded their village. Such emblematic entities are incarnated in sculptures, in which they take on human form.

The third constituent of the body is manifested through the abstract and intangible bush spirits, which, like the other doubles, pre-exist the body and survive it.

‘The body is the earth’

Altars are set up, composed of non-figurative elements derived, in most cases, from the earth, and representing the ancestors.

‘The newborn is a foreigner’

The newborn belongs to the world of the ancestors and spirits. Various rituals, including circumcision and scarification, enable him to become a fully-fledged person.

‘Play of mirrors’

Statues embody the image of exemplary mythical beings. Noble attitudes, physical attributes, symbols of fecundity and power, wisdom and wealth insignia all contribute to the plastic quality of a given work and to its symbolic potential.

Sculpture is therefore the plastic and necessary counterpoint to the formless or informal representation of ancestors, and to the spirits' invisible nature.

2 -  Western Europe

The body is image

In Christian Europe, Incarnation is a fundamental concept and Christ is its perfect expression. According to this notion, man is created in the image of God and the body, the physical expression of this image, becomes the sign and instrument of the relationship with the divine.

But in the modern, partly dechristianised world, transcendence has taken other forms and looks to the biological world for new canons of ideal beauty.

This section of the exhibition, which focuses on various ways in which the body is represented in the West, presents images that are often degraded or deformed, afloat in space like common property. A single sculpture confronts this virtual universe: a 12th century Roman work representing Christ on the cross.

3 – New Guinea

The male womb

In New Guinea, local theories of procreation according to which the embryo is formed by the mixing of the father’s sexual substance (sperm) with the mother’s (blood), result in the notion that the body is a male-female composite. Human beings are fundamentally androgynous.

‘Transformation of the contained into the container’

The male body is a contained body, in contrast to the female, which is a containing body.

If he wishes to perpetuate himself, a man must bring his maternal side to the fore, to become an encompassing body, a fertile body that contains something. This is achieved through initiation rites in which ritual sculptures are employed representing the transformation of the contained body into the containing body.

In the Gulf of Papua, the male body affirms its female aspect by the act of devouring. As such, the engulfed male object becomes an encompassing object.

In the Sepik River region, hooks and phallic tubes adorning ritual artefacts work together to transform the male body into an engulfing organ.

‘The female body is the ideal form of the male body’

The ideal, ritualised form of the successfully achieved male body is represented by a male ancestor wearing a woman’s loincloth, or by a wickerwork crocodile or monster symbolically bringing boys into the world through discharge or excretion. It is a body whose model is supplied by the maternal womb, and which becomes a social body, enabling fathers to perpetuate themselves in their sons.

4 – Amazonia

A body composed of viewpoints

In Amazonia, in the South American lowlands, the body does not have a form of its own. It assumes the form imposed upon it by the nature of a relationship with another, a form produced by the way two people see one another, and depending on the relationship between the observer and the observed.

Having a human body is a relative state, which also depends on the predator-prey relationship.

‘The body as kin’

Having a human body implies having moral attitudes towards one’s fellow creatures and towards non-humans, attitudes that are inscribed in the body and indicated by clothing and ornamentation.

The feathers of certain species of birds, for example, are used to signal that the wearers possess the ability to live in couples or ‘in kinship’.

‘The body as prey and as predator’

Solitude, weakness, sickness and death indicate that our body has become prey. One has become the victim of invisible predation.

In contrast, to become a predator is to see others as prey. This metamorphosis is indicated by adornments composed of teeth and claws, by body paintings and by non-human behaviour.

Predator spirits are often given material form through masks or human trophies. Such effigies, always endowed with eyes and fangs, materialise the bodies of non-humans, entities that regard the human race with hostility.

in relation with the exhibition

... some display cases in the permanent collections area and related to the exhibition

West Africa

A fine Bamana sculpture stands on its own in case AF 028 and another is on exhibit in AFO29, alongside two other Dogon and Mossi female statuettes.

Cases AF 030, containing Senufu statuary and AF 061, with its wide selection of Lobi sculptures, are also well worth lingering over.

New Guinea

Display case OC 004 presents two hooks and a Malu board connected with rites of passage for young men and OC 005 contains only hooks. OC 008 presents a hook alongside a mask and OC 0924 contains long-nosed masks, while OC 023 exhibits clan ancestor statuettes, including an interesting betel mortar.


Display cases AM 020 and AM 023 present a wide range of feather adornments, while AM 022 contains a single large Mojo headdress from Bolivia, particularly impressive for the richness of its colors.

What is a body?


Chief exhibition curator: Stéphane BRETON

Scenography: Frédéric DRUOT


The museum admission ticket is also valid for entry to this exhibition, which is housed in the West Suspended Gallery.


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