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Dans le Blanc des Yeux (Primitive art du Nepal).

Literal Translation of the title: In the White of eyes (Primitive art of Nepal)

Significance of the title: In the eyes' expression (Primitive art of Nepal)

Publisher: Musee du Quai Branly, Paris VII, 2003

Price: 8.90 Euros

Pages: 41 pages,

Along with Temporary exhibition of the masks contained in the book: 9 November 2010-January 9, 2011

Location: Musee du Quai Branly, Paris VII

For revealing to the public, these unprecedented art in Nepal, the book along with the video is presented by the author who is also the collector and donor of these masks, Mr. Marc Petit. The author as well as the exhibitor and publisher, the Musee du Quai Branly deserve the thanks of the anonymous Nepali artists who made these masks.

There was a great clamor about the publication of the book and the exhibition which contains a set of Twenty-five wooden carved masks referring to the Primitive Art of Nepal. The masks are exhibited in the manner that visitors can observe the artistic quality of the object on both sides. They are accompanied by explanatory plaques indicating the materials used, period of manufacture and the name of various ethnic groups inhabiting the plains (Tarai), the highlands (Pahad) and the Himalayas of Nepal, the source of this art.

In a lengthy video interview about the book and the exhibition, the author Mr. Petit expresses his extreme attraction to the masks which are very subtle aesthetically but posses great expressive value. The art, according to the author, has more charm in their eyes than any wood carvings of the African art. In addition he explained that to bring all those masks together and identify clearly was an extremely difficult exercise. A patient research was required to complete such a task. As the publisher of the book, President of the Museum Quai Branly, Mr. Stephane Martin's interview is also included at the beginning of the book.

The book contains two narrative articles on the exposed masks written by Mr. Petit. The book explains that exposure of these masks is only the first approach towards presenting the wealth of art collected in Nepal. These masks are artistic production inherited by the artisans from their ancestors. Tests on the materials of the masks reveled that these arts were created during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Some of them are even pre-nineteenth century (Petit, 2003: 14).

A question may arise how is it possible to be date the same object with such a long periodic differences (centuries)? It seems to me that the author left a vague space in the minds of the readers for their individual interpretations. Here, I trust, the author tries to indicate if the same masks are manufactured centuries apart (nineteenth or earlier and twentieth century) or whether they are carved only in the twentieth century as a reproduction of the ancestral or ancient masks. Hence the book and the exhibition present either a clear identification of masks, or the exact dating of the objects.

Eric Jacollit expresses his ideas or assumptions about the collection as follows: ... the mask is open: it is by no means stuck in a system of representation in a codification or consolidation that would attribute to such a register, such a family permanently. Certainly it refers to the ritual practices of shamanism which has a vague idea ... They are ... frequently damaged, amputees, and are become the object of repairs, additions or replacements and they are cobbled together. Over time, they molt and it is probable that some of them are barely recognized by their genitors--(who are) often simple artisans, non-professional, that means "non-artists"--to whom, they are fully escaped. As the historical contingencies, slow changes in the uses of these masks are added, probably battered by waves of acculturation as a Buddhist that--above all--Hindus, who make the first use for certains was being "covered" by the new religious cultures of dominant. The mystery makes them only more endearing strangeness' (Jacollit, 2011: 17-18).

Under these conditions, is it coherent to consider these masks as belonging to Primitive Art?

Primitive or archaic means belonging to human groups who ignore reading, writing as well as social and technical forms of society known as "advanced." Primitive society signifies, Men or prehistoric peoples, sometimes historically known ancient people (Societe Francaise de Philosophic (ed.), 1976: 856.). Men and peoples of inferior civilization today: In this misnomer, but almost essential to use, we mean simply appoint members of the simplest societies we know (Levy-Bruhl, mental functions in primitive societies, quoted in Societe Francaise de Philosophic (ed.), 1976: 856.). At the end of his life, Levi-Bruhl waived the notion of 'primitive mind' in which he described the mind of primitive people, very critical attitude vis-a-vis itself. And emphasize what Claude Levi-Strauss said, A primitive people is not a backward people, or retarded ... A primitive people is no more a people without history (Levi-Strauss C., 1958, Structural Anthropology, Cited in Le Petit Robert, 2004, 2070).

According to the definitions given above, "old" art, things or people are called "primitive" who have not suffered by significant changes and waves of acculturation. Anything that falls outside the Western standards is "primitive" and therefore "non-modern", but this does not mean it's just old. It can be historical or contemporary, but it remains outside the direct influence of other cultures. Thus, primitive art is closely related to the local context led to its creation: construction materials, environment, traditions and customs associated with significant use, and an ethnological approach (rites, magic, symbolic, etc.). To better understand this concept I include the following passages:

Primitive art generally refers to all objects produced in non-European history ... and accepted (them) as art according to Western criteria ... It is understood ... not in a chronological sense, but, rather in relation to the identification of cultural areas whose norms and values are not those of the western space (Encyclopedie Philosophique Universelle, 1990: 2038).

Hence, until we find identical parts of the origin, we can not define that these masks are ancestral art.

Dons le blanc des yeux (In the white of eyes), what is the significant of the title of the book? In explanation to the title, the President of the Museum said that let us read the free expression in art in the sense let the art for its free expression (Interview of the President, 2003: 3). Can a reader or a visitor meet those eyes as expressive as the President willing to find out? These masks are identified as being produced and used by the Rai, Limbu, Rajbamshi living in the Himalayas, the highlands and the Tarai (Himal, Pahad, Madesh). As the morphology of the face or the "physical structure" of the ethnic Rai, Limbu, Magar and Sherpa, most of the masks have only slightly open eyes exactly as their creators' which makes difficult to see the whites of the eyes. Moreover, the title makes no mention of these ethnic groups or their art itself. Hence, the title expresses an abstract sentiment of art rather than the exact aspect of Nepali art. That's why the writer has to add an indication "Primitive art of Nepal" at the end of the title. It makes better sense to title the book as Tribal arts from Nepal, which can indicate directly Nepali art including primitive flavor. I hope that the research is continuing to learn more about this complex subject.

The collector of these masks, Mr. Petit writes:

Why these strong and brilliant works are remained invisible for such a long time? These are created by a little group of unknown artists and tribal people, they are despised by the upper castes and the local elite, they are not the product of the great civilizations, conventional crops, the dominant religions, but witnesses of a tangible older tradition (Petit, 2003: 13).

What the author expresses in these sentences does not seem well founded for various reasons. Ethnic groups or tribes living in Nepal have their own art. From the ritual of birth to beyond death, the people are accompanied by ritual arts. The art corresponding to the ritual of birth and the conduct of life expresses joy, and the rituals of death and mourning following expression of pain and sadness. In other words, the life of a Nepali is accompanied by art, from birth to death. This type of artistic expression is linked to the tradition, guided by religious beliefs. Once the ritual is over, these arts are destroyed.

As for masks or other tangible art objects, again, all ethnic groups and tribes have their own production. These objects are made using local produce where they live (1) They are made for various reasons: to perform cultural spectacles on the occasion of celebrating the end of harvest, play dramas and for exposure at various festivals and may also be mandated to drive away evil spirits from their neighborhoods and villages.

At least once a year, ethnic groups organize such rituals using their own masks and musical instruments. Most of these drama or dance shows take place at the centre of the city, certain ethnic groups arrange to perform them around the neighborhood also. Mostly, those plays are related to the wars between the gods and demons. That means the conflict between good and evil, the story usually ends with the victory of good against evil. Another type of drama shows are played to convey the story of their ancestors.

Although there is no intervention by the central elite in these ethnic and tribal arts, they are far from being abandoned by the local elite as described by Mr. Petit in book According to observation of ritual performances in various ethnical groups in Nepal, these shows begin with the permission of the local senior elite (2). His presence is obligatory during such celebrations. Similarly, the local elite must takes responsibilities to continue the local tradition and Aboriginal art. He supports some funding (money, food) not only for artists and apprentices, but also for breeding of Aboriginal art.

Different ethnic groups, tribes even various castes of the Newar community, produce originals arts of their own culture. They have acquired a knowledge passed down from their ancestors "transmitted from father to son". For the first time, young apprentices will be introduced with a ritual process in transmission to make ancestral art. After that, slowly they themselves try to make similar objects to those of Aborigines by working in their own family workshops. Thus, Nepali artists learn to produce their ancestral crafts by trying to do or directly working.

Thus, in Nepal, most of the crafts, are either very simply carved or engraved on wood, stone, paper, made of clay/mud or they are sublime paintings, sculptures made of expensive materials such as gold, silver, ivory and precious stones. All ethnic or tribal products are manufactured in family workshops.

These craftsmen "artists" do not perceive art to be proud; their works remain unsigned, so anonymous. In stead of personal glory of artist the art becomes a Clear identification of family, ethnic group or tribe. It is a way to continue the artistic tradition in Nepal. They make items similar to those of the Aborigines that have ritual, religious, traditional and also commercial value. This has been practiced for centuries, from generation to generation, till today.

The art and crafts produced by the Nepali ethnic groups, tribes or castes correspond to the exact definition, neither of primitive nor of modern art. They are not made by "artists" who obtained the academic diploma of a Fine Arts School. Their art are not designed according to institutional theories or standards described in the West or even in Nepalese Schools of Art. These crafts accompany every aspect of local life: they are the expression of religious beliefs; they express the joy of living together, socio-economic realities, their sufferings, sorrows, fears, and how to deal with these difficulties. These art also have commercial value. These crafts reveal the artistic ability of its anonymous artisans and their love in art.

If all the art made by artisans who have not acquired artistic skills of Western standards is considered "primitive", we can say that all crafts and arts created in Nepal which is resulting from a traditional practice are "primitive."

Therefore, the masks exposed may be as ancient as the origin of the ethnic group, dating hack to the origin of the ethnicity that manufactured them. Or they may simply be an imitation of the aborigine form, produced recently for the local market. If these masks are really made in the last century, how it can be possible to sell them to a foreigner and granted permission to send them out of country?. So, without further study of this issue, it seems to me that these masks are identified as "primitive art of the nineteenth--century" is unwarranted.

One more remarks on the author's opinion, ... tribal art is despised by the upper castes and the local elite. That seems neither fair nor right. According to the tradition of Nepal, elites are supposed to ensure that local perpetuated custom, especially in the art which is a major aspect of life. So, in conclusion, I noticed that the book by Mr. Petit, interesting as it is, seems to lack experience. It needs to be incorporate deserves aspects of socio-anthropological study of art: the local culture and ethnology as well as give more space to ethnic traditions for expressing tribal and primitive sense of art. It seems to me that we must conduct a concerned field study, with a vision, not only artistic and aesthetic of the craft but also anthropological, sociological and ethical and ethnical policy related to these masks and their use in the socio-cultural and religious context.

The field research has proved that art reflects not only the satisfaction of an ideal or even an aesthetic need. It can also reveal aspects of the organization of space, the models of the transmission of knowledge, records of signification of ritual symbolism.... Anthropological research on art, itself is a task of comparative study of forms that every culture requires the expression of an idea of space. ... Any evidence of primitive art can be read in the context of a particular organization of space located in its own horizon, representative object becomes an essential reading key for the interpretation of a tradition. (Forge, A. (ed.), 1973, Primitive art and society, Bonte-cited in Izard, 1991, p.84).

It seems the research of Franz Boas (1927) and anthropologists G. Bateson, A. Forge and E. Carpenter proved once and for all

How the study of primitive art can be based not only on the detailed knowledge of styles and techniques, but also on understanding the mental categories of its own.... (Boas, F. 1927, Primitive Art)

It seems to me that a huge field of research on the sector is waiting for exploration to accurately identify such a sensitive subject. To reveal the value of these masks, a multidisciplinary study seems necessary.


Musee du quai Branly (ed.), 2003, Darts le Blanc des Yeux: Masques primitifs du Nepal: Paris.

Jacolliot, Eric, 2011, "A masques ouverts", La Quinzaine : litteraire no. 1029; 1-15 janvier 2011: pp. 17-18,

Le Nouveau Petit Robert, Dictionnaire de langue francaise, 2004.

Bonte (Pierre), Izard (Michel) (eds), 1991, Dictionnaire de l'ethnologie et de l'anthropologie, Presses Universitaires de France: Paris.

Encyclopedie Philosophique Universelle. Les Notions Philosophiques, Dictionnaire, 1990, vol. 2, Presses Universitaires de France: Paris.

Societe Francaise de Philosophic (ed.), 1976, (1926), Vocabulaire Technique et Critique de la Philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France : Paris.


(1) Those objects are the products naturals, animals or human. Examples of natural products: mud/clay objects, wood, herbals, leafs of trees, plants, metals ...; animals' productions: objects made of leather, horns, bone, nails, hairs, even the wastages of cows, such as urine, dough ...; Human productions: objects made of tissue, thread, grains powder, jewellery, bruderies, etc.

(2) The local seniors are called: Mukhiya, Subba, Jimwal, Lama, Kaji, Thakali, Kajie, Dware, etc. according to the ethnic or tribal groups and their belonging space of habitations.
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Author:Manandhar, Sushila "Fischer"
Publication:Contributions to Nepalese Studies
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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