France names first indigenous director of top museum

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Paris (AFP)

Emmanuel Kasarherou will make history Wednesday as the first indigenous person ever to head a major French national museum when he is named director of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris.

A Kanak from New Caledonia in the Pacific, the expert in Oceanic cultures -- whose treasures form a major part of the museum's collection of indigenous art from Africa, Asia and the Americas -- is a former head of the breathtaking Renzo Piano-designed Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in the New Caledonian capital Noumea.

Kasarherou, 60 -- who has co-curated two major exhibitions at Quai Branly including "Kanak: Art is a Word" -- has been the museum's deputy head of collections since 2014.

He was the founding director of the much-praised museum which opened in his homeland in 1998 and was named after a Kanak leader killed in 1989.

With restitution of looted artistic and cultural treasures now a political hot potato for many major ethnographic collections, Kasarherou could find himself having to navigate a minefield.

- Colonial hangover -

He has said that he was committed to a "dialogue between cultures" and would continue to cooperate with African countries, some of whom are demanding the return of artefacts taken during the colonial era.

Although a hit with the public, the Quai Branly museum was hugely controversial when it opened 14 years ago both for its architecture and for the way it displayed indigenous art, with some critics calling it "colonialist" and "regressive" for the way it seemed to fetishise indigenous by exhibiting it in cabinets of curiosity style.

Initially called the Museum of First Arts (or primitive art), the name was changed before it opened in 2006 to its address alongside the River Seine in a bid to calm sensitivities.

Former French president Jacques Chirac, himself a fervent collector of indigenous art, bulldozed the project through by merging two previous collections, despite a fierce rearguard action by some academics.

But Chirac said it was time to give non-Western art its proper place in the canon.

Having made sure it would be generously funded, his name was later added to its title.

The French minister of the country's far-flung overseas territories, Annick Girardin, was among the first to hail Kasarherou's appointment, tweeting, "It's a first. No other Kanak has ever led a major museum in mainland France. Bravo, much deserved for such a prestigious post."

He replaces Stephane Martin, the Quai Branly's founding director who left his post last year to join the French national audit office.