The title of the exhibition Les forět natales [Native forests] was borrowed from the great French poet Guillaume Apollinaire as an allusion to the environment from which the pieces on display derived. The exhibition layout was worthy of this illustrious reference. And there is indeed no doubt that this show will constitute a landmark in French museography of African arts, as the presentation of such a vast and fine corpus of works from Atlantic Equatorial Africa had no precedent.
Nearly one-quarter of the 325 works exhibited came from the collections of the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac (MQBJC). There were also contributions from other public institutions, either in France or abroad, but not a single one from an African public collection, such as the Musée National des Arts et Traditions du Gabon in Libreville, which was known, years ago, for housing “masterpieces” (Perrois 1986).
A loan of seventy-five pieces had been granted by two leading institutions, the now-closed Musée Dapper (Paris), and the Musée Barbier-Mueller (Geneva). Those from the former were familiar to the French public, as many of them had been already shown in 2015–2016 in Chefs-d'oeuvre d'Afrique dans les collections du Musée Dapper, the last exhibition organized by the Dapper Foundation in its Parisian space.
The MQBJC also relied upon other private collectors and art dealers in order to increase this corpus. Its composition reflected this sector's intense activity for many years through the presence of many pieces that had been recently sold for high prices or that established auction records during the last decade. This was the case of, among others, the Ngumba figure from the Myron Kunin collection (cat. n° 9), the Mabea that belonged to Félix Fénéon (cat. n° 18), the two Betsi from the Georges de Miré (cat. n° 65) and the Oliver and Pamela Cobb collections (cat. n° 72), the Kwele pipibudzè masks from the J.-M. P. collection (cat. n° 116), or the Shamaye-Shake reliquary figure from the André et Lucienne Mary collection (cat. n° 146). These works had been previously sold at auctions, where they had all benefited from catalogue notes by Louis Perrois, the scientific advisor of Les forěts natales.
Indeed, the exhibition layout mirrored the main domains of interest of the French ethnologist, whose expertise on Gabonese art has acquired an almost uncontested aura in the field, especially among collectors, art dealers, and auctioneers. It included two main clusters of objects that have also been the focus of the private sector until now: the figures known as Fang (Figs. 1–2), with which Les forěts natales opened, and the so-called Kota reliquary figures, in the central part of the exhibition. Central and south-central Gabonese art was also represented, albeit with less emphasis (Fig. 3). Artworks attributed to peoples from southwestern Gabon and the neighboring Republic of Congo were relegated to the end of the exhibition, where the focus was on masks, which constitute one of the most prized segments of the Atlantic Equatorial African art region.
The presentation of the objects on display was underpinned by the “ethnomorphological approach” implemented by Perrois since the 1960s (1966; 1972), and criticized by various authors (see Fernandez and Fernandez 1975; Siroto 1995: 9–11). This method essentially consisted of identifying styles and substyles within various corpora of figure sculptures or masks from Atlantic Equatorial Africa and attributing the resulting clusters to distinct ethnic groups or subgroups, regardless of the scarcity of reliable field data. This approach also characterized the minimalist scenography of the exhibition with a deliberate emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the works on display at the expense of an explanation of their contexts of production and use. Like in an art gallery, panels and labels were reduced to a minimum. They were often accompanied by maps of migrations but never by supporting field documents. Visitors could only glance at a short excerpt of the film Disoumba, by the ethnomusicologist Pierre Sallée (1969), which was unfortunately projected without its invaluable soundtrack.
The alleged aim of the organizers was to decompartmentalize Equatorial African sculptural styles and artworks so as to carry out “the task of placing them in their full historical context” (Martin 2017: 4). This was not the effect produced by Les forěts natales. Visitors were rather faced from the outset of the exhibition to homogenous ensembles of objects gathered together on the basis of some of their morphostylistic features and almost systematically attributed to putatively distinct groups (Fig. 1), exactly as physical anthropologists did in the past with the purported “anthropological differences” that they sought to identify between “tribes.” In so doing, the exhibition just rolled out, from north to south, the ethnic map of the main artistic styles of Atlantic Equatorial Africa and, more specifically of Gabon, which has been the focus of Perrois's work for many years.
This approach found its most poignant expression in the unquestionably spectacular display of 102 metal-plated figures arranged side by side in a showcase about 40 meters in length. All of the pieces were labeled “Kota,” an ethnonym whose “misleading familiarity” was denounced, nearly forty years ago, by Marie-Claude Dupré. As that author put it, “Kota” is nothing but a “hotchpotch used by military administration and then by collectors” (Dupré 1980: 347, my trans. See also Siroto 1980: 78). Paraphrasing the late Jan Vansina's words, it could be said that things happened in the “Kota” showcase as if the subgroups to which these artworks were attributed had to be “Kota” simply because those people produced this type of figure sculpture, even if they were not themselves Kota speakers (Vansina 1984: 33). It would have been less “artificial” if the artifacts gathered here had been “labeled … by reference to the institution to which they are associated,” as suggested by Vansina (1984: 33), quoted by Perrois himself (1997: 29–32). To mention only one example, three artworks in this showcase (cat. 154, 158, and 161) described, like the other objects displayed around them, as “reliquary figures” surmounting “the remains of important lineage members” were exhibited as “Kota, Sangu.” It is worth noting, however, that Sangu do not belong to Kota-speaking people (Vansina 1984: 32, Fig. 2.2), and that objects of the same type and style are still used, as previously noted by Sallée, within the context of the Mboyo initiation association, on the southernmost part of the Gabonese coast (1985: 136–37, ill.), more than 400 kilometers from where they were located on the Kota styles map provided by the exhibition organizers (Fig. 4). Known as simbondo (sg. mbondo) in Chivili, they do not function as a reliquary for ancestral bones, but rather as a container for the crushed skull of a slave and therefore as a power object (see Formanoir 2018a, 2018b).
The “Kota” showcase still deserved credit for attesting to the fact that “centers of style are never closed from one another” (Perrois 1997: 110, my trans.). The incorporation of “transitional” works throughout this showcase demonstrated a continuity that was not exemplified in the rest of the exhibition. The distribution of objects and styles through space and time should have been more clearly correlated to the dispersion of the “politicoreligious institutions” (Klieman 2007: 43) through which masks and figure sculptures still circulate and that often show resemblance from one people to another. The exhibition layout rather reduced the mobility of art in Atlantic Equatorial Africa to the movements of the peoples of the area (see Le Fur 2017: 5). In the introduction of his indispensable work on the history of the institutions of Equatorial Africa, Vansina emphasized the fact that “there is more to the past of the rainforests than gyrations and migrations,” adding that “there is a political, social, and economic history to be recovered here, along with a history of ideas, values, and ideology” (1990: 5). It seems, moreover, that here, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, migrations had a lesser impact on the mobility of art than trade and religious exchanges (Vansina 1984: 159–61). These were intrinsically associated to the Atlantic trade, which was completely neglected through the exhibition, even though it had shaped the past of this region during centuries and consequently a large part of its artistic creation.
The exhibition was accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue, with an introduction by Yves Le Fur and contributions by Guy Claver Loubamono-Bessacque, Patrick Mouguiama-Daouda, Louis Perrois, Bienvenu Cyrille Bela, Christophe Moulherat, Charlotte Grand-Dufay, Alisa LaGamma, and Pierre Amrouche. Included is an excerpt of an interview with the late physician Jean-Claude Andrault by Yves Le Fur, that had been previously published by Annie Dupuis (Andrault 2013).