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Tarzan swings into Paris

Museum exhibit highlights one of Africa's most potent (and misleading) myths.

“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,

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