Friday, August 21, 2009


During the four days that we spent in Paris en route from the US to Egypt, we saw an exhibit “Tarzan!” at the Musee Quai Branly. This is a new museum--think an updated American Museum of Natural History--devoted to art from the non-Western world. I anticipated a museum exhibit that was somewhat critical of Tarzan—one that attempted to place the development of Tarzan alongside US and European colonial policy toward Africa, which seems to me the obvious backstory of the Tarzan phenomenon. I was not looking for irony necessarily, but I was hoping for something much different than what I found.

The first clue was the ubiquitous little © copyright symbol that reminds you that Edgar Rice Burroughs retains all rights to Tarzan.

The exhibit did do a couple of things well, I thought. The extent of visual documentation—books, films, and ephemera—that was accumulated is a valuable archive. There were other connections that were made clear, such as tracing King Kong to the kind of racial imagery that preceded it in Tarzan films. Also there was a good explanation of the emergence of the leopard print in European fashion as a result of Tarzan. The racial imagery in these action figures is unmistakable.

BUT: There was no discussion of European imperialism in Africa and how that provided a context for the ways that readers and viewers experienced the stories, which began in 1912 with Burroughs’s first novel Tarzan of the Apes. It was just shocking to me. There has been some good serious scholarship on Tarzan that made me expect certain things from the exhibit. In a book I love, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), Gail Bederman concludes with a discussion of Burroughs’s first novel in the context of US ideals of racialized masculinity. So this work on Tarzan does exist. (There is newer book from Univ. of Georgia Press by Alex Vernon called On Tarzan that I have not read.)

Here are a couple of images, which I find offensive. (Keep in mind that the exhibit had no such warnings and was in many ways targetted at children.) The first is from a “view finder” (those kid binoculars).

These here are from comic books, which contribute to the hateful association of black people and crocodiles.
None of these images were accompanied by a substantive critique. Not only was I hurt and offended, but I was also surprised. Perhaps I am naive.

There were many more seemingly innocuous images, such as this one from a recorded storybook of "The Jungle Book." This grabbed my attention because growing up I had the exact same record (in English of course).For more images, the NY Times has a slide show that accompanies Michael Kimmelman’s (also negative) review. I have more thoughts and criticisms, but will leave it there for now.

Postscript: The day afterward, walking along the Seine, I noticed not surprisingly Europe’s endless fascination with Tintin, specifically Tintin in Congo, which, for those not familiar, is a terribly racist Belgian comic. Tintin is being made into a movie (supposedly without the more overt racism) by Spielberg. Two years ago, Borders wisely decided that it would no longer keep Tintin in Congo in their children’s section. Just this week, the Brooklyn Public Library has been receiving coverage for its decision to pull it from their children’s section. (The Brooklyn PL link reproduces some panels from the book.)

I did see a good exhibit in Paris too, so I will write and post some more in the coming days.

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