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Reviewed by:
  • Baga, Art de Guinée: Collection du musée Barbier-Mueller
  • Maxime de Formanoir (bio)
Baga, Art de Guinée: Collection du musée Barbier-Mueller
curated by Marianne Pourtal Sourrieu, assisted by Raymonde Armati and Floriane Hardy Chapelle du Centre de la Vieille Charité, Musée d’Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindiens, Marseille May 13–September 18, 2016

“Baga” art, from Guinea-Conakry, is one of the most famous of sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, surprisingly, the masks, statuettes, drums, and stools presented under this label at the Centre de la Vieille Charité in Marseille had never before been gathered together in France. All of the pieces came from the private museum opened forty years ago in Geneva by the late Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller. It was the third time that the Musée d’Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindiens in Marseille (MAAOA), whose collections formerly benefited from gifts by the prominent Swiss art collector and sponsor (Pourtal Sourrieu 2013: 13), organized an exhibition with the institution that bears his name.

Under the curatorship of Marianne Pourtal Sourrieu, head of MAAOA, the exhibition took place in Pierre Puget’s (1620–1694) chapel of la Vielle Charité, a refined Baroque building erected in the center of a courtyard elegantly framed by galleries (Fig. 1). The aesthetic pleasure procured by this ensemble similarly characterized the chapel. The visitor entered a space, rhythmically delineated by columns and pilasters, whose formal properties were skillfully enhanced by lighting. It was in this universe, perfectly adapted to the consecration of the most “classical” art forms, that the twenty or so objects lent by the Geneva museum were displayed in showcases or on platforms (Fig. 2).

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Pierre Puget (1620–1694)

La Vielle Charité, Marseille

View of the courtyard with the chapel

all photos: © Philippe de Formanoir

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Two drums with caryatids

Left: Timba male drum

Baga, Republic of Guinea

Hardwood, hide, polychrome; 172 cm

Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, Inv. 1001-14

Ex coll. Josef Müller, acquired from Olivier

Le Corneur in 1955

Right: Female drum

Baga, Republic of Guinea

Wood; 76.2 cm

Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, Inv. 1001-25

Ex coll. Julius Carlebach

Although the scenography of Baga, Art de Guinée was iconic of what has been characterized for many years as the “aesthetization à la Barbier-Mueller” (Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel 2002: 24, my trans.; see also L’Estoile 2007: 255), MAAOA did not neglect to furnish evidence of the original context of the exhibited pieces, whenever it was possible. The entrance wall text acknowledged the work of the Belgian anthropologist David Berliner, who conducted field research in Guinea-Conakry with the support of the Friends of the Barbier-Mueller Museum Association. His Mémoires religieuses baga (2013) served as the exhibition catalogue. The explanatory texts in French and English accompanying the objects, the map at the entrance, as well as the field photographs provided throughout the exhibition were from this book. An interactive kiosk was also put at the visitor’s disposal. Its content was available on smartphones and tablets through a free app. This range of data, [End Page 80] similar or complementary to those supplied through the exhibition, could be mobilized at any time by visitors, according to their interests, or by docents, over the course of the visits they lead. This electronic provision of information was also in accordance with the aestheticizing approach of the exhibition organizers, as almost nothing could interfere with the contemplation of the artworks themselves.

The exhibition layout focused on various themes that were made explicit in a free leaflet. It began with an introductory presentation of the “Baga people” and of their history, especially in modern times, when the arrival of Christianity and Islam occasioned religious shifts that impacted on artistic production. Little was said, however, about the fact that Baga are settled in a region which presents “permeable boundaries,” as noted by Berliner (2013: 64, my trans.). This gap was nevertheless filled through the exhibition by explanatory texts such as the one concerning bird masks known as abemp in Baga...


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pp. 80-82
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