1The year 2007 appears to have been an exceptionally good one for Borneo in Europe. Two exhibitions were held in France, and one in Switzerland, which prominently featured the big island, its forests, its peoples, its cultures, and its arts. Here a brief review of these three events.
2The beautiful city of Laon1, only a short distance by train or by car from Paris, offers a large variety of first-class monuments, among which its famous early-Gothic cathedral, which served as a model to the builders of the cathedrals of Reims and Chartres. The old city is perched on a narrow plateau and surrounded with fortifications and medieval gates. The Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie is housed in a Templar Knights’ commanderie, next to an early-twelfth-century chapel. It displays one of France’s most important collections of Greek antiquities, a large collection of Gallo-Roman jewelry, weaponry, and bronze (including superb fibulae), as well as a collection of fifteenth-to-nineteenth-century paintings, sculpture, and furniture (including the world-famous retable of L’Annonciation).
3Members of the Institute for Research on Southeast Asia (IRSEA), Antonio Guerreiro and Bernard Sellato, with the assistance of PhD student Nicolas Césard and zoologist Didier Boussarie, have guest-curated an exhibition on Borneo, focusing on both the natural history and ethnography of the island. About 160 artefacts were exhibited, among which thirteen ethnographic objects on loan from the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, and a number of zoological and botanical spec-imens, as well as iconographic items—a large number of recent field photographs, old books, maps, engravings and drawings, stamps and postcards, and posters.
4The exhibition’s official opening was held on November 24, 2006, in presence of representatives of the city’s mayor and of the embassies of the Federation of Malaysia and of the Republic of Indonesia. On March 3rd, a guided tour of the exhibition was organized by Antonio Guerreiro and Nicolas Césard and, in the same afternoon, three films on various themes (Dayak ethnography, nature and culture conservation) were screened at the MAL (Maison des Arts et des Loisirs) movie hall, near the Museum, until 19:30. The local press (L’Union) advertized the event and reported on it the next day.
5Financial assistance from the Maison Asie Pacifique, Marseilles, is gratefully acknowledged, as well as invaluable help from the Museum curator, Caroline Jorrand, and her friendly staff.
Exhibition announcement, Laon, 2006
6The Brignoni collection of primitive art, consisting of about 660 pieces, was donated in 1985 to the City of Lugano. After organizing a preliminary exhibition (1986), the City decided to host the collection at the Heleneum, a superb neo-classic villa, where it set up a Museo delle Culture Extraeuropee, inaugurated in 1989—and later renamed Museo delle Culture,2 now headed by Dr. Francesco Paolo Campione. Another exhibition, in 1996, was devoted to Brignoni as artist and collector, a man con passione d’arte e con l’occhio dell’artista. The 2007 exhibition, in which half of the pieces are presented for the first time to the public, was organized thanks to an agreement between the City of Lugano and the Banca del Gottardo, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Bank.
7Serge Brignoni, born in 1903, studied the arts in Bern, Milano, and Berlin, then resided in Paris from 1923 till 1940. There he got acquainted with André Breton, Tristan Tzara, and many others in the Surrealist movement, and became part of the Italiens de Paris, with, among others, Giacometti and De Chirico. However, it was in Provence, in 1925, then in Basel, in 1931, with Paul Wirz, that Brignoni felt the call of the art of the South Seas, and in 1936 he participated with Breton in an Exposition surréaliste d’objets—particularly, Pacific art pieces—at Charles Ratton’s gallery in Paris, after which he got acquainted with Picasso. Contrasting with Breton, who bought in London, Brignoni built his collection mainly from acquisitions on the German, Swiss, Belgian, or Dutch ethnic art markets. For him, collecting was a true form of art.
8The Patong exhibition focuses, as its title indicates, on the wooden, mainly monumental, statuary carved by the peoples of Borneo. A thin exhibition booklet features a short text by Paolo Maiullari and his wife Junita Arneld, herself a Ngaju Dayak hailing from Central Kalimantan province of Borneo, and a number of good-quality color photographs. Antonio Guerreiro and the author of the present review, both IRSEA members, participated in the selection and identification of the pieces exhibited.
9A large illustrated book, edited by F. P. Campione, was released at the time of the exhibition’s opening, being the first of a two-volume opus devoted to the Brignoni collection, and subsidized by the Banca del Gottardo. It includes a long essay by Campione on the meaning and value of ethnic art; another, by Isabella Lenzo, on Primitivism as the foundation of the Brignoni collection; and various sections dealing, respec-tively, with the Naga of Assam, Sumatra and Nias, Borneo, the Lesser Sunda Islands, and with different parts of New Guinea (South Coast, Sepik, Maprik, Washkuk, Northeast and Massim), Melane-sia, and Polynesia. The volume ends with a sub-stantial bibliography (p. 247-255).
10The section devoted to Borneo, rather skimpy (pp. 84-95), focuses principally on the pantak, anthropomorphic wooden statues of the peoples of the northwestern corner of the island (J. Arneld), and on the only baby-carrier, ba’, of the collection (P. Maiullari). Extra illustrations in this section include a few tuntun, carved sticks of the Iban, one painted wooden shield of the Kayan, one ritual drum of the Ngaju, and a couple of anthro-pomorphic and zoomorphic wooden posts used in funerary rituals.
11The second volume, released in August 2007, by the time the exhibition folded up, is the collection catalogue proper. It includes three text sections on the museum’s cataloguing system (M. Cometti); on Brignoni, the artist, as a collector (A. Borellini); and on the cultural areas and styles represented in the collection (G. Giovannoni); as well as an extensive catalogue, over 90 pages, of some 660 pieces shown in black-and-white photographs, overwhelmingly dominated by the New Guinea area (400 pieces), with Borneo relatively well represented (40 pieces)—Africa, interestingly, accounts for only thirty pieces.
12As the Patong exhibition is scheduled to travel to other cities and countries, however, the exhi-bition catalogue, in English, is still in the works, and expected soon. Among other texts and profuse full-color illustration, it includes a brief Foreword on the art and labors of collecting, identifying, and interpreting by the present writer, and a substantial synthetic essay by A. Guerreiro on Borneo sculp-ture, its functions and aesthetic choices.
Dragon head, from an ossuary, Benua’, lower Mahakam
Source: Campione 2007.
13Georges Bourdelon (1924-2000) was a true free spirit. Born in Brignoles, Provence, he discovered his vocation—filming—after meeting with Marcel Pagnol and training with him at his film studio in Marseilles. His collaboration as a cameraman on a number of feature films in Paris, notably with playwright and film director Sacha Guitry, confirmed it, but he longed for spaces more open than stage sets. He then worked with Léon Poirier in southern Morocco, Henri Lhôte in the Hoggar, François Blasan in the Kalahari. It was in the Hoggar and the Tibesti, among the Hadad, that he shot his first personal movie, Les Forgerons du désert (1952).
14In 1950 he met with Louise Weiss, who later viewed him as her spiritual son. They remained close friends till the latter’s demise, and in the course of the years, they made 24 short movies together, in Syria, Lebanon, India, Kashmir, the Himalaya, East Africa, Mauritius, as well as two books, La Syrie (1951) and Le Cachemire (1955). In 1955 he traveled to Iran with another friend, anthropologist Noël Ballif, and shot with him two movies, Persépolis and Isfahan, and published a book, La Perse millénaire (1957).
15The year 1957 saw him traveling to Indonesia and Malaysia, where he remained several years, shooting movies in Java, Flores, and Komodo, and participating in the famous Borneo expedition led by zoologist Pierre Pfeffer. This trip gave birth to two books authored by Pfeffer, Aux Iles du dragon (1954) and Bivouacs à Bornéo (1963; reprinted 1990), another by expedition member Guy Piazzini, Chez les Rescapés du Déluge (1959; English translation, The Children of Lilith, 1960), a record-ing of traditional music (Musique de Bornéo-Kalimantan, 1957), and a long film, Les Dayaks, chasseurs de têtes, which was shown all around Europe – an English version of the film has been circulating lately. A cornerstone in Bourdelon’s career, Borneo made him famous.
16In 1963, he met Caroline Normandin, a collaborator of General de Gaulle in 1945, later a reporter with television pioneer Pierre Lazareff, and an explorer and photographer, soon to become his wife and closest work partner. Together they founded their company, Productions du Dragon. In the next thirty years, Bourdelon shot scores of documentary films, covering all sorts of subjects, from the private lives of Farah Pahlavi of Iran and the Negus of Ethiopia to the last days of Patrice Lumumba in Congo; from the problems of the youth in the Middle East to those of the offshore petroleum industry in Gabon; from the setting up of a gas pipeline between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego to the daily life of the French Garde républicaine.
17Retour à Kalimantan. Forty years later, in 1994, Bourdelon returned to Borneo. Documentary film maker Gérald Duduyer convinced an already weak-ened old man to retrace his steps to the upper Bahau River, accompanied by a film team. After visiting me in Jakarta—we had first met in Levallois-Perret, near Paris, in the 1970s—he and his team visited the villages upriver, locating individuals Bourdelon had worked with in the 1950s, and showing around his film and old photographs. Indeed, those were highly emotional moments, congregating again with very elderly Kenyah people, who still called him Shoshi—the Kenyah rendition of Georges.
18In a last baroud d’honneur, as Normandin wrote, Bourdelon visited in 1995 French polar explorer Paul-Emile Victor, his friend and peer, who was in his last days in Bora-Bora, and brought back a moving document for the French television. He retired in Arles, where he was soon to be “re-united with his Provençal ancestors.”
- 3 “Les Amis de Georges Bourdelon”, 13 rue Emile-Barrère, 13200 Arles. Ph. 33-(0)490966375. See an hom (...)
19After Bourdelon’s demise, Normandin established an association, “Les Amis de Georges Bourdelon”3, with famous feature film director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose, etc.), who considered him a great friend and a master, as its godfather. Normandin recalls that Annaud shot his very first movie with Bourdelon, a 3-minute commercial for Bastos cigarettes.
20The beautiful Espace Van Gogh exhibits about 100 photographs, representative of the various stages of Bourdelon’s career, and shows three films (in DVD format), including Les Dayaks. Those excellent documents, all a half century old, form a fantastic historical and ethnographic archive. Inter-ested parties should contact the Association.
Blowpipe hunter, upper Bahau River
Photo: Georges Bourdelon.