“Masks: Beauty of the Spirits” comes from the Musee du Quai Branly, an institution that former President Jacque Chirac spearheaded toward the end of his long reign. Opened in 2006 to both fanfare and controversy, the Paris museum’s stated mission is to celebrate the masterpieces of non-European countries with the same reverence as as given to the Western works seen by millions at the Louvre and the Pompidou Center.
Viewed as something of an apology for the transgressions of France’s colonialist past, the Musee du Quai Branly intended it to be a testament to Chirac’s iconic legacy. It was a departure in that it showcased objects that would normally be displayed in a natural history museum and shone a brighter light on their aesthetic aspects. It broke new ground, but maybe in the wrong way. Critics of the project argued that the museum made “first art” — the term favored over “primitive art” — “exotic,” and via separation, further ghettoized the Other.
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