PARIS — In October 2013, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris staged an extensive survey of the art of New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific that was colonized nearly two centuries ago and that is still governed as part of France.
The exhibition featured more than 300 artifacts and documents relating to New Caledonia’s indigenous Melanesian population. Yet it was unlike any other Quai Branly show. Its co-curator Emmanuel Kasarhérou, himself of Melanesian descent, made sure that, in addition to statuettes, ceremonial weapons and ornaments, displays that represented the colonizers’ point of view were included, too.
“The objects were shown in the context of colonial history, which was a complete departure from what had been the policy of the Quai Branly Museum until then — to ignore the colonial dimension altogether,” said Benoît de l’Estoile, a professor of anthropology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris who published a book about the museum in 2007.
Last week, Mr. Kasarhérou was announced as the museum’s new president. The Quai Branly, a huge museum in central Paris, was inaugurated in 2006 to showcase the heritage of France’s former colonies in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and Mr. Kasarhérou is the first director of indigenous descent to lead a major French museum. He joins a club of top administrators that is almost exclusively white.
His job will be to transform the Quai Branly — founded as a museum for “primitive arts” — into a 21st-century center that examines non-European cultures and their colonial pasts. His dual heritage makes him uniquely positioned for the task: His father is Melanesian; his mother is from mainland France.
“Emmanuel Kasarhérou’s appointment is a very interesting symbol: the fact that he belongs to several worlds, and represents this complex and shared colonial and postcolonial history,” said Mr. de l’Estoile. “He’s someone who can open doors and transform the way this museum works.”
His first major challenge will be honoring a 2017 promise by President Emmanuel Macron to give back sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage, of which Quai Branly holds some 70,000 pieces. Figures on both sides of the restitution debate are hoping Mr. Kasarhérou’s background will make him more receptive to their views. But he could also try satisfying both camps, and end up satisfying none.
“I feel as much the descendant of people who were colonizers of a certain place as of people who were colonized,” he said this week in an interview at his office in the museum, where luscious plants covered the walls and a Tahitian statue, left by his predecessor, stood in a corner.
Mr. Kasarhérou said the issue of cultural heritage couldn’t be “tackled with big block ideologies.” Any restitutions would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis and in a dialogue with countries of origin, he added: “I’m not in favor of objects being sent out into the world and left to rot.”
The restitution debate came to a head in November 2018, when two academics commissioned by Mr. Macron — Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr — recommended in a report that objects removed in colonial times without the consent of their country of origin be returned if requested.
After receiving the report, Mr. Macron announced that 26 treasures looted by French colonial forces and currently in the Quai Branly would be given back. The objects are still in Paris, waiting for a museum in Benin to be completed and ready to show them, and no further major restitutions have been announced since.
The report’s authors welcomed Mr. Kasarhérou’s appointment. “We are convinced that it will be synonymous with opening and dialogue,” they said in a joint statement.
Yet, in the interview, Mr. Kasarhérou sounded reluctant to embrace their recommendations. He said their “very militant” report “cannot be a blueprint for policy.” It served one important purpose, though, he said: “Shaking things up” and driving Western museums to re-examine their collections.
That’s what Quai Branly has been doing for the last year or so, he explained: scouring its African holdings to identify objects that entered the collections illegally or by force. “What we’ve seen so far is that few objects match the definition. We’re not talking about wagonloads,” he said.
He disputed the report’s branding of all objects acquired in colonial times as being, by definition, eligible for restitution. He said many items had been acquired as a result of exchanges — offered by African communities as gifts, or brought back by missionaries. Not everything was seized by the military or by the French colonial administration, he added: The colonial era was complex, and deserved a closer look.
Mr. Kasarhérou was born in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, in 1960 and spent his childhood there.
His father was a tailor who had traveled to Paris to learn the trade in the 1950s. There, he met a young Frenchwoman who was studying linguistics and was fascinated by Oceanic languages. They married and settled in Nouméa, raising three children in a bustling house in the city’s Melanesian quarter, at a time when mixed marriages were very rare.
“I was lucky to have a happy childhood, even if it was a complicated one, because you’re necessarily having to manage two visions that are sometimes different and can sometimes clash,” Mr. Kasarhérou said. By the 1970s, when growing numbers of Melanesians were clamoring for independence from France, his parents had divorced.
Young Emmanuel finished his secondary studies in Paris, and went on to study art history and archaeology at university. After completing his curatorial studies and working at a museum outside Paris, he headed back to Nouméa to lead the Museum of New Caledonia, becoming its first indigenous director. He modernized the museum, and presented New Caledonia “as an island with a history, including a colonial history,” said Mr. de l’Estoile.
By then, tensions in New Caledonia had escalated, with an independence movement led by Jean-Marie Tjibaou rejecting French rule. After Mr. Tjibaou was assassinated in 1989, France named a new cultural center after him, designed by the architect Renzo Piano. Mr. Kasarhérou was charged with determining the center’s contents. He decided to display contemporary art from the islands of Oceania, and traveled all over the Pacific, acquiring objects from artists or commissioning them from tribal communities.
Diane Losche, who was then an art-history lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, recalled attending a 2001 symposium at the center organized by Mr. Kasarhérou, and being taken, along with dozens of other international academics, on a surprise field trip to Lifou, an island in the New Caledonian archipelago. There, the group was led to the traditional house of a tribal chief, feasted on a meal of pork and root vegetables, then visited a cultural center housed in a forest.
The trip “spoke to Emmanuel’s desire to share some of the attention, to get us out to the provinces,” she said. His aim was to “be inclusive, not leave smaller communities and less obvious and visible constituencies on their own — to give them some voice.”
Mr. Kasarhérou has been working for about a decade at the Quai Branly in Paris, and since 2014 has been its deputy head of collections. Both an insider and an outsider, he now faces pressures and expectations from all corners. How will he handle it?
“I know I will inevitably disappoint people. One always does,” he said. “The worst thing would be to do nothing.”
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