Marc Petit

Born in 1947 in Paris, Marc Petit is a former pupil of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. A poet, novelist, essayist and translator of German poets, Marc Petit has published more than twenty works including Architects of ice (1991), The Compagnie des Indes (1998),The Kolmogoroff equation(2003),The Night of the Sorcerer(2006).

A collector of primitive art from more than 30 years, Marc Petit was particularly keen to promote the primal art of the Himalaya population, largely unknown to primitive art lovers and museums until the 1990s. He has undertaken over a dozen trips to Nepal, which has allowed him to constitute an absolutely remarkable collection of Himalayan masks. Most of these masks date back to the 19th and 20th centuries. The entirety of his collection was published by Marc Petit himself in a book entitled, "A masques découverts-regards sur les arts primitifs de l’Himalaya" (1995). This book was awarded the grand prix du livre des arts of the Société des gens de lettres.

Donation of 25 Nepalese masks

Marc Petit donated 25 19th century Nepalese masks to the musée du quai Branly in 2003. These are subject to the right of usufruct and five of the masks are already exhibited in the Asia section of the Museum's Permanent Collections.

Several of these masks will be showcased in the exhibition: "Dans le blanc des yeux, masques Himalaya", (In the white of the eyes, Himalayan masks), which will be held at the Museum from November 9th 2010 to January 30th 2011.

anthropomorphous mask - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
anthropomorphous mask, 19th century Nepal, Donation Marc Petit © musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Valérie Torre
anthropomorphous mask - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
anthropomorphous mask, 19th century Nepal, Donation Marc Petit © musée du quai Branly, photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado

Among these 25 masks, two dance masks exhibited in the Asia section are particularly worthy of attention. 

Description of these two dance masks by Marc Petit in the book Musée du quai Branly- La Collection (Skira Flammarion, 2009)

dance mask
dance mask, male figure, 19th century, Nepal, Marc Petit Donation, © musée du quai Branly, photo Thierry Ollivier

«Simplification of shapes, an expressive concentration imprinted with a strange ambiguity, mid-way between the serious and the grotesque, derision and fear: who would believe that these works originate from the Himalayas?

These impressive masks - male and female figures of a couple - come from the Middle Hills of Nepal.


Similar masks, dancing in pairs in pantomimes on the occasion of village seasonal festivals or ceremonies dedicated to ancestors, are still in use these days in various regions of Nepal. The mere sighting of these figures with exaggerated features gives rise to general hilarity among the spectators. But for the people of the Himalayas, laughing is not the opposite of seriousness; it bears a message, accompanies mythical stories, and passes on a moral message. Homeric, Rabelaisian, at times mixed with dread, this laugh is not the enemy of the sacred, it is an essential part of festivals just as in the olden days, in Old Europe, at the time of the rites of the Carnival.


Tribal arts of Nepal and its neighbouring areas were acknowledged quite late: It was only in the 1970s and the 1980s that representative works, collected initially by a handful of passionate art lovers, made their way onto the art market. One must admit that Nepal opened its doors to foreigners only quite recently, from the 1950s to be precise; the status of the village sculptors, tribals or people belonging to the lower castes, in the ladder of respectability prevalent in Nepalese society, was not such that it could retain the attention of the local elite, and, till today, few ethnologists have shown interest in objects whose sense and function, at least for the oldest among them, have been forgotten over the course of time and successive acculturations.


It is to be feared that henceforth the information gathered on the field can only give us a limited and compartmentalized access to knowledge related to objects belonging to ancient, pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist layers, of tribal cultures whose traditional rituals, founded on the worship of ancestors and the worship of local deities whose identities have been lost over time, were gradually dethroned by the rituals of the dominant religions, different from truly shamanistic practices that are still alive among Indo-Nepalese populations or those with Tibetan affinities».