Tarzan swings into Paris

PARIS — Edgar Rice Burroughs never visited Africa but he created one of the continent’s most enduring myths: Tarzan.

In his story about the aristocratic orphan boy raised by apes in the jungle, Burroughs painted a picture of a jungle Africa populated with “savages [who] danced in frantic ecstasy.” The fantasy picture of Africa was compounded when movies, such as the 1929 "Tarzan the Tiger" depicted tigers in Africa, when, in fact, they do not exist on the continent.

Now Tarzan is on show at one of Paris' most popular museums, which has dedicated its summer exhibition to the ape man. 

Viscount Greystoke, the orphan who became Tarzan (“white skin” in Burroughs’s ape language), has had a huge audience ever since he was first published in a magazine in 1912. Dozens of films, comic strips, video games and toys have been devoted to his loincloth, his famed call of the wild and his female love interest Jane, all of which are on show at the Musée du Quai Branly beside the Eiffel Tower.

“We know Africa very badly. This exhibition helps us to rethink our view of the continent,” said Pierre Hanotaux, director of the museum, which is dedicated to non-Western arts. “But we still don’t have a real image of Africa.”

It’s not clear how much the exhibition — filled with comic strips, film clips and Tarzan memorabilia — helps rethink Tarzan’s Africa, however. Spears, fetishes and animal skins line the walls and fill the showcases. There is a giant stuffed crocodile on show.

“It seems that the negative and diabolical figure of Africa is wholly contained in the figure of the crocodile,” says the museum’s publicity material.

The exhibition maintains that the Tarzan movies have “humiliated” the first books, replacing a man of 12 languages (including ape and Latin) with a grunting man-ape who can manage only “Me Tarzan; you Jane” by way of conversation with his beauty.

Burroughs originally created an altogether more thinking hero, representative of a rejection of modern society for the call of a wilder nature. He read up on Darwinian theories of evolution and was fascinated by the growing interest in eugenics. He picked and mixed myths as he pleased, more intent on creating an image of a superhero of a man surviving a primal wildness — whether it be amid Vikings, Roman armies, crusaders, Neanderthals, mermaids, Nazis or Mars, all of which Tarzan has to contend with at various points. Later renderings claimed the character as descendant of the 12th-century English king Richard the Lionheart and a cousin of 19th-century detective Sherlock Holmes.

Multiple Tarzans have certainly reflected changing social mores, whether on nudity, foreigners or modern society’s relationship with nature: the museum claims the vine-swinger was a proto-ecowarrior, beating back ivory smugglers, animal hunters and zoo traffickers. He’s even been adopted as an ecologist by the World Wildlife Fund.

“Tarzan is a very good referee between the good and the bad,” said curator Roger Boulay, keen to note that the hunk battled against slave traders and was “real friends” with the Waziri, Burroughs’s fictional African tribe.

For Burroughs, Tarzan was a link between the animal world and the human, but one very clearly with the upper hand. For others, including some of the characters in later comic book versions, this upper hand meant something fundamentally threatening.

“‘Tarzan’ is a symbol of the white supremacy that chokes the land,” says one of the characters in a more modern rendering of a Tarzan comic. Modern Japanese manga cartoons have also pilloried the sexism implicit throughout the series, casting Jane as Tarzan’s wife who lets herself go, becoming hugely fat after settling down with her ape man.

Our white-skinned hero is not the only entity raising eyebrows. The existence of the museum itself is no stranger to controversy. Former French President Jacques Chirac created the Branly museum three years ago as a new and populist institution dedicated to traditional non-Western arts. While France’s anthropological museums were becoming dusty monoliths with few visitors, the colorful Musée du Quai Branly has so far attracted 4.6 million visitors in its three short years, by far the majority of them French and with their families in tow. Little sticky hand prints on the glass showcases show where fascinated children crane to get a close-up on the animal action.

The popular Tarzan exhibit lures visitors who are then exposed to the more serious permanent collection of 70,000 objects from Africa, including masks, drums and other musical instruments. The Tarzan exhibit and the Branly museum have been criticized by some for highlighting the more exotic aspects of Africa rather than developing a deeper understanding of the continent’s culture.

“They don’t like or respect us but still they take our things and show them off,” said Prince Gontie from Ivory Coast, who drives a taxi in Paris and has lived in France for the past 30 years, but is keen to move home. “There’s no understanding.”

Tarzan! Rousseau and the Waziri runs until September 27 at the Musée du Quai Branly, 37, quai Branly, 75007 Paris, tel: +33 1 56 61 7000, www.quaibranly.fr.

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