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close this bookThe Courier N 145 - May - June 1994- Dossier : European Union: the Way forward - Country Report: Ethiopia (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
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View the documentTaino art in Paris

Taino art in Paris

This is the first Taino art event in Europe and the world's biggest exhibition so far of pieces by this Indian people, which was the first to face the onslaught of the Spanish invasion of the Americas.

The Taino, a division of the Arawak people (Taino means 'noble and careful' in Arawak), were the first civilisation with which Christopher Columbus came into contact when he reached America. Columbus was the first to recognise their wit and finesse, but, in 1992, the fifth centenary celebrations of the navigator's arrival contrived to eradicate all trace of them.

This outstanding exhibition is the fruit of the passion of two men who have been fascinated by Taino art for years and spent hours patiently tracing rare pieces through museums, galleries and public sales. Two years ago, the amateur, Jacques Chirac (the mayor of Paris), decided to get the professional, Jacques Kerchache, one of the rare Taino art experts, to make his dream come true and Kerchache, keen to present the quintessence of what he considers exceptional works of art, sifted through records of thousands of pieces. With artistic merit as his main criterion, he selected fewer than 100 of the very best of them.

All masterpieces... are born free and equal

Kerchache is an aesthete, refuses to consider himself as an anthropologist and thereby rejects the idea of primitive art as a category to which the creations of some civilisations are relegated. Instead, he uses a term which means something like 'primal art' and indeed considers Andre Malraux' idea of primordial art to be even nearer the mark. The art historian in charge of an exhibition on any period has to be able to separate the chaff from the wheat and pick out the - inevitably rare - masterpieces, those works whose plastic, aesthetic and human qualities are such that they transcend their historical framework and reach a universal plane. Jacques Kerchache believes that neither artistic choice nor art classification is neutral. One of his life's great campaigns was to force the Louvre to open a 'primal art' collection and to censure what claimed to be the world's leading museum for ignoring three quarters of mankind. In a manifesto published with the anthropologist Leiris, he proclaimed that the masterpieces of the world are born free and equal - and masterpieces are no strangers to him, because he started out as a specialist in Greek, Renaissance, Quattrocento and XVIIIth century art before he moved on. A petition, backed by a galaxy of art historians and intellectuals, was sent to the Louvre, forcing it to do an about-turn and declare the Museum of Art of Africa and Oceania its eighth department.

If comments in the French and foreign press are anything to go by, Jacques Kerchache has backed a winner, for the public is talking about this exhibition in terms of aesthetic quality, sensitivity and sensuality rather than anthropology. The beauty of the tripointed carvings, the stone fertility symbols representing the spirits (zemi - Arawak gods) of the land, has amazed everyone. They are unique, Kerchache believes. 'The lines are taken almost to exploding point and then fall delicately away,' he says. He likens them to Manzu carvings and the elongated shapes of Bacon, while others have seen aesthetic links with Brancusi and Giacometti.

Zemi carvings may be male or female, emphasising one or two of the points accordingly, or they may be in the shape of funeral urns or reliquaries or skulls in sophisticated pieces made of a variety of materials - stone, woven cotton and shells and beads, cut and polished, each one more intricately carved than the next.

Equally magnificent are the (duhos, thrones) fashioned in rotproof wood and decorated with animals whose eyes and jaws are picked out in carved shell and gold - that gold which aroused the greed of the conquistadors and brought the downfall of the Taino. It was on the duhos that the chiefs or the butios (priests) sat to commune with the gods. They built up the state of ecstasy required actually to communicate with the spirits in a long ceremony of preparation and inhalation of cohoba, a hallucinogenic powder, which was served on special platters and transferred to double-holed inhalers with special spoons. Inhalation was preceded by purification - vomiting induced with a long spatula.

Taino art, as Jacques Kerchache presents it, is a culture of love and death, Eros and Thanatos, and vibrant with contrasting sensitivities. It is unlike Amerindian or any other art. It is unique.

This exhibition is both an artistic delight and a tribute to an exterminated people whose memory has been erased.

The meeting of Taino and Western civilisation was a disaster. The Taino population of the Caribbean in 1492 has been put at between one and three million souls (three million according to Las Casas, who put the population of Ha-Quisqueya-Bohio alone at one million). But the exact figure does not matter. Of the one, two or three million Taino in the islands of the Caribbean, particularly the Greater Antilles, i.e. Cuba, Quisquaya (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico, only 10 000 were still alive 10 years later and only 200 still survived 50 years after that. They were massacred, they were ground down by hard labour in the gold mines, hunger and imported disease and they were pushed to the brink and to suicide. Collective suicide was common.

Taino civilisation was wiped out in less than half a century and very few of its achievements survive, so we are lucky indeed to have this exhibition of 85 uniquely beautiful pieces.

Tribute to virtue

Christopher Columbus' first landfall in the New World in October 1492 was on the little island of San Salvador. After a short stop in Cuba, he set up camp on the island which the Arawak Indians called Haiti, Quisqueya or Bohio (high land, great land, peopled land) on 6 December and he claimed it officially, by planting his cross, on 12 December. He had come ashore in the north west part of the island, in the Marien chieftainry, and there he was honoured by Chief Guacanagaric, who helped him when the Santa Maria ran aground and gave him presents, including land on which to build his first fort. A few weeks later, the Spanish attacked the Indians and were put to flight, but the 17 ships and the army of well-equipped infantrymen and trained dogs which Columbus brought out on his second voyage sounded the knell for the Arawak.

Slavery became an institution. The conquerors used all sorts of weapons. Chief Caonabo was treacherously attacked by Ojeda when he was invited to sign the peace treaty.

Ovando, Columbus' successor, took the Chief and the poetess Anacaona hostage at a 'friendly' reception purportedly held to thank them for an Indian feast in honour of foreigners. Queen Anacaona was hanged and her courtiers massacred. Columbus had described the Arawak es 'fine, noble-hearted people, full of kindness and without shyness,' who liked religious ceremonies and verse reading sessions (areytos) by poets (sambas).

· Politically speaking, the Taino civilisation was highly structured, both within and between the islands, which formed a kind of federation. Quisqueya-Ha was divided into five chieftainries and the chiefs consulted each other constantly, particularly with a view to protecting their land from outside attacks, in the event by Caribs, a relatively small tribe which lived mainly in the south of the Lesser Antilles and on the continent and in fact gave its name to the whole group of islands.

The Arawak have bequeathed us one or two words - potato, samba and maize, for example - and so many other things that we are only now beginning to be aware of. Sexual equality, as embodied by the lovely Anacaona, who lives on in the memory of the island and is still celebrated by painters, musicians, writers and more, is perhaps just one of them. The Taino are with us to stay. H.G.