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Culture in France

Bettina Rheims’ portraits jive with sculpted African beauties at Quai Branly

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"Heroines" Kim Noorda, Polaroïd N°1, March 2005, Paris
"Heroines" Kim Noorda, Polaroïd N°1, March 2005, Paris © Bettina Rheims, courtesy Galerie Xippas

In this week's Culture in France, RFI's Rosslyn Hyams visits the Quai Branly Jacques Chirac museum in Paris where ancient African sculptures and polaroid portraits by renowned French photographer Bettina Rheims mutually reflect feminine strength, beauty and character.


It's in l'air du temps. A cross-cultural exhibition of 'woman-power' fits neatly into a mezzanine in the middle of the museum. Its director Stephane Martin a few months ago called on veteran photographer Bettina Rheims to rustle up a show, to set off her work and the Quai Branly's collection of indigenous art and culture.

Rheims' images is all about women, from all over the world since the 1970s. In her studio in Paris, she found some boxes of small-scale polaroid studies for a series she took in 2008. African art from another place and another time, inspires her for ongoing photography projects.

"It was the idea of confronting these different cultures together... We had to go through the storage of the Quai which is amazing and find some feminine figures to go ahead with my series"

Porteuse de coupe
Porteuse de coupe © Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Ollivier/Urtado

She teamed up with curator Philippe Dagen, and they rummaged together in the museum's stores to meet their deadline for the opening on 20 March 2018.

"It seems very important to me to have, in the same space, the same light, works from different origins, African or may be a different part of the world that has been considered 'primitive' art. According to me 'primitive is the worst word you may use to qualify these sculptures."

They were looking for visual or sensual connections between the early 21st century faces and bodies of actresses and models in two dimensions, and those of much older and symbolic shapes. Colour was one bridge they found useful.

"You have the photograph with the breasts painted in blue. So we supposed it would be fine to have the sculpture with a white body close to it. We did it 3 or 4 times in the exhibition."

A concurrent exhibition of Bettina Rheims' portraits of women called "Détenues" - Detainees is on show in Vincennes, just outside Paris, and then near Bordeaux till November 2018. It was inspired by French lawmaker Robert Badinter who championed the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981.

The exhibition shows about 50 photos of women detainees who volunteered to pose for Rheims, and pitches prison with art, managing to reveal natural femininity.

Both chateaux hosting the exhibition, Vincennes and Cadillac, were used as prisons. Vincennes was a jail for political prisoners from the 15th century till the late 18th century when during the French revolution was used as a lock-up for so-called women of ill-repute.

Women were sent to the Cadillac Chateau jail from 1818 until 1890 when it was converted into a detention centre for juvenile deliquent girls.

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