“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).
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 Neuchătel 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, 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 Sitem or abamp in Baga Koba (Fig. 3). It recalled that this kind of artifact was not only used among Baga subgroups themselves, “but also by the Susu, the Nalu, and the Landuma, thus demonstrating the phenomenon of borrowing between different groups as well as the intense circulation of these objects along the coast of Guinea” (Berliner 2013: 90, MAAOA trans.). The various ethnic designations, which coexisted on many labels, were proof that numerous artworks from the Geneva collection, ranging from the dimba shoulder-mask (Fig. 4) to the serpent headdress known in Susu as bansonyi, could not be attributed to the Baga as firmly as was suggested by the title of the exhibition. The truth is that this corpus is mostly composed of objects acquired on the art market. Consequently, its items are generally deprived of any reliable field data. To some extent, it could even be considered that a collection like this, as a reflection of its founders’ identity (Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini 2008), reveals nothing more than their own aesthetic choices and criteria of selection. The personal archive of Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller's father-in-law, Josef Müller (1887–1977), who initiated the purchase of the artworks on display, indicates that he did not systematically care about the precise origin of the objects he bought (Perrois 1985: 8). The price of some of them, on the other hand, was meticulously set down in notebooks, as well as the name of their dealers (Perrois 1985: Fig. 2; Musée Barbier-Mueller 1987: 24, ill.).
Credit is, however, due to Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller for having been able to distinguish himself, as a sponsor of field research, exhibitions, and publications, from other collectors who pay attention mostly to their objects’ “pedigree” (Price 1989: 101). It is therefore regrettable that, contrary to Berliner, who deliberately left aside the issue of the reception of Baga art by Primitivists, MAAOA chose to stress their inclination for this art as a source of inspiration or as mere collectible items. The importance of this subject, which plays a major role in the appraisal of African art objects on the art market, was underlined in the leaflet. It was also suggested by the emphasis placed on certain objects such as the spectacular banda mask, formerly in the Andre Lhote collection, exhibited at the entrance of the chapel (Fig. 5), or the statuette that belonged to Maurice de Vlaminck (Fig. 6), reproduced on the jacket of the catalogue. The same was true of the dimba, which had pride of place in the center of the chapel (Fig. 4) as well as on the exhibition poster. Visitors were informed that Picasso owned a mask of this type, whose features are echoed in his own work. A well-known “tactic used to strengthen ‘African art'” (L'Estoile 2007: 263, my trans.), such a reference to Western artists was not new at MAAOA. As noticed by Benoît de L'Estoile, it was already apparent with the exhibition Arman et l'art africain (L'Estoile 2007), that took place there in 1996. Twenty years later, MAAOA did nothing but perpetuate this “process of selection of the works of Others through the mediation of Western artists” (L'Estoile 2007: 264, my trans.; see also Price 1989: 96).
Fortunately, the exhibition went beyond the issue of the “discovery of non-European arts by a whole generation of artists,” which was presented in the leaflet as “a turning point in art history” (my trans.). It included topics more directly related to Berliner's field of study and that of his predecessors, such as Frederick Lamp (1996), which encompasses social memory and cultural transmission. Patrimonialization was exemplified by iconic pieces such as the dimba, reproduced on banknotes in Guinea. More recent types of masks, known as yombofisa and sidondel, were not forgotten either, even if they were somewhat relegated to the sidelines, as they were shown in an adjacent chapel (Fig. 7). They bore witness to the renewal of artistic forms which circulated among the peoples of Maritime Guinea during the twentieth century. Drums with caryatids also reflect changes in religious practices, as men, whose initiation associations lost their importance, no longer use them in a ritual context. Women, on the contrary, keep alive activities involving those objects, either in the religious sphere or in more secular circumstances, as stressed in the film Baga Guinée (1996) by Laurent Chevallier, who was present for a showing at the Museum on September 16, 2016. (The film was also shown, without the filmmaker present, on September 17 and 18.)