Architectures of Appropriation

Salvage, Repatriation, and the Politics of Jean Prouvé's Maisons Tropicales

in Museum Worlds
Author:
Leonie TreierPhD Candidate, Bard Graduate Center, USA

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Abstract

The Maisons Tropicales are three prefabricated housing structures designed by Jean Prouvé. Fabricated in France, they were transported to and assembled in Brazzaville and Niamey, then part of the French colonies, around 1950. Their design was tied closely to the belief in the so-called civilizing and enlightening power of European modernist design and, thereby, also the French colonial agenda. In the early 2000s, an American collector, Robert Rubin, and a French art dealer, Eric Touchaleaume, “repatriated” the houses to France. There, they were transformed into and celebrated as icons of French modern design, while their colonial histories were ignored. This article analyzes the importance of discourse in this transformation and how it reflects ongoing dynamics of power and dispossession in the art world. Rubin and Touchaleaume simultaneously employed conflicting narratives mirroring anthropological “salvage” and “repatriation” discourses to describe the Maisons’ removal. The case study highlights the moral weight associated with the language around processes of repatriation, the nested relationships between heritage and the market, and the continuation of colonial practices of dispossession.

Realising that I had the unique possibility to track and save for posterity one of [Jean Prouvé's] most historic objects, I made my arrangements in 2000 for a trip to Africa in pursuit of the prototype Maisons Tropicales, determined to salvage them from ruin and to bring them back to France. I was eventually able to buy them, dismantle them and ship them home. (Eric Touchaleaume cited in Christie's 2007: 9)

In 2001, a team was dispatched from Paris to Brazzaville to acquire, dismantle, and repatriate the houses. … A few marks of its age and history (including bullet holes, testifying to its hard life in the thick of the Congo's endless civil war), were selectively left intact. (Rubin n.d.)

Robert Rubin, an American collector of modern art and design, and Eric Touchaleaume, a French art dealer specializing in modern furniture, were two of the main actors involved in the removal of three prefabricated building structures, the Maisons Tropicales, from Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, and Niamey, Niger, in the early 2000s. French designer Jean Prouvé had developed the three prototypes to address perceived housing deficits in then French colonial territories, intending large-scale production and implementation in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Maisons were built from prefabricated aluminum elements produced in France, then shipped to the colonies, and assembled to form “metallic colonial bungalow[s]” executed in modernist, industrial design (Huppatz 2010: 36). Prouvé's design reflected a colonial European imagination of the “African condition” and was imbued with the spirit of architecture's ability to contribute to social transformation, an idea resonant with both modernist thought in Europe and the French colonial agenda (Diakhaté 2011: 178).

After “repatriation” from their postcolonial, independent nations in the early 2000s, Rubin and Touchaleaume transformed the three houses into icons of modern design and architecture through narrative and preservation strategies while neglecting their colonial histories. As Christoph Rausch (2011, 2018) demonstrates in his careful analysis, the Maisons’ removal from their local context and colonial legacies and the purely aesthetic, ahistorical, and placeless interpretation in their displays in the Western metropolis show parallels to twentieth-century constructions of “primitive art.” In that context, institutions like museums collected, classified, and displayed the “Other's” materials based on Western concepts of value like art, artifact, and authenticity (Clifford 1988; Price 1989). Histories of production and local meaning were erased in favor of an emphasis on aesthetics through physical isolation from similar objects, transforming material culture into artworks. Notably, the process of value creation for the Maisons post-removal relied on similar politics and poetics: focus on aesthetics and erasure of (colonial) meaning and context of production.

The Maisons have attracted scholars’ and artists’ interest in a variety of disciplines and media. Through archival research, Tristan Guilloux (2008) has positioned the Maisons in the tradition of modern, prefabricated architecture (in France and its export to the colonies). From a design history perspective, J. D. Huppatz (2010: 32–33) has approached the houses as a case study to engage more critically with the “largely repressed relationship between European modernism, industrial modernization, and colonialism” in his field of study. Rausch (2011, 2018) has analyzed how different heritage and art world actors have constructed the Maisons as modern heritage items and art pieces respectively with conflicting implications for preservation strategies and understandings of authenticity. Taking Ângela Ferreira's artwork Maison Tropicale as a starting point, Lydie Diakathé (2011) revealed the ongoing colonial power dynamic expressed in the re-presentation of the houses pointing to the exclusion of local voices and broader omission of the role of sub-Saharan Africa in conceptualizations of modern heritage. In her artistic engagement, Ferreira critiqued the politics of the Maisons’ removal and transformation by making their absence in Brazzaville and Niamey visible. Finally, filmmaker Manthia Diawara, working with Ferreira, included a diversity of local voices through his 2008 documentary Maison Tropicale.

Building on these scholars’ analyses, I here focus on the discourse with which Rubin and Touchaleaume have articulated their collecting and reclassification project. As a museum anthropologist I have been fascinated by the fact that the two men have employed the language of “salvaging,” relying in their arguments on logics reminiscent of the ethnographic salvage paradigm with its associated concepts of authenticity, cultural purity, and preservation, while simultaneously talking about bringing the buildings “home” and “repatriation.” Their narrative then refers to two influential discourses in our field: the salvage discourse that shaped collecting practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when anthropology became institutionalized; and the repatriation discourse that has been prevalent since the 1970s.1 Through the latter, originating communities and descendants of dispossessed individuals have addressed and critiqued salvage collecting practices and their underlying assumptions. They have demanded their material culture back as a means of confronting historical injustices (and their legacies). But who, precisely, is claiming these houses as cultural patrimony, and why?

Rubin and Touchaleaume—a collector and an art dealer, respectively—insisted they “repatriated” the Maisons. Just as their French colonial predecessors salvaged (from colonialism and its effects) Indigenous African art, aestheticizing it in the European center and appropriating it for their own avant-garde modernisms, Rubin and Touchaleaume “salvaged” (from the effects they perceived in postcolonialism) the material products of French colonialism that remained in former colonies following independence. They “repatriated” the houses to the European metropolis, aestheticized them, and only preserved enough material evidence of damage (bullet holes) to support their argument that the houses were under threat in their local contexts and thus needed to be salvaged and repatriated simultaneously. They have justified their “repatriation” by arguing that the local population was incapable of caring for colonial European heritage, reminiscent of the anti-repatriation trope of defending continued possession of non-Western material by Western institutions based on the presumed inability of originating communities to care for their own heritage. Furthermore, they have consciously appropriated the anti-colonial language of repatriation while ignoring past and contemporary colonial contexts of the houses.

I argue that Rubin and Touchaleaume's employment of both tropes simultaneously reveals the inherent inconsistencies in their project and their uncritical use of anthropological concepts for symbolic and economic value creation. Rubin and Touchaleaume are commercial actors interested in economic profit, but they have repeatedly framed their project in terms of education and heritage preservation, using the language of cultural institutions, like museums, rather than that of the art market. That these incongruous discourses could coexist in their narratives demonstrates the power of language to influence how material culture is portrayed, interpreted, valued, and traded. I contend that the material conditions of the Maisons as prefabricated, lightweight housing structures, malleable to deconstruction and recontextualization, have contributed to the persistence of the two discourses concomitantly.

One can observe an extension of these contradictions in the very materiality of the houses: the modernist design that motivated their creation and for which they are now celebrated—the two Brazzaville Maisons, for instance, stood elevated on stilts—was responsible for the failure to implement them on a larger scale (for a careful description and analysis of the design and its various elements, see Huppatz 2010). Moreover, this appropriation of anthropological discourse demonstrates an absence of scrutiny on the side of current Euro-American cultural institutions, auction houses, and art and culture critics, who have frequently adopted such narratives without questioning them. That Rubin and Touchaleaume were able to sustain these narratives reveals the lack of critical engagement with colonial power relations in the worlds of the art market and collectors.2

Unlike museum anthropologists, who have undertaken a critical examination of their discipline's history and its ongoing colonial power relations in research and museum collections, the commercial art market has rarely addressed its history under colonialism or the implicit racism of “salvage collecting.” This case study shows how actors in the art world often appropriate and conflate certain discourses for their cultural currency and moral weight, without engaging with their actual meaning and the effect for historically dispossessed originating communities.3 As ongoing colonial agents, Rubin and Touchaleaume's simultaneous use of “salvage” and “repatriation” has contributed to the value production of the Maisons Tropicales on the art market while deflating the meaning of “repatriation” for dispossessed communities.

The focus on anthropological discourse adds a new dimension to understanding this case study because it highlights the role of language in expressing and sustaining power relations in how and by whom material culture is valued, engaged with, and exchanged. In this, I follow studies on the entanglement of how and by whom material culture is interpreted and valued, and how it circulates cross culturally and under (post)colonialism, for instance as cultural item, art, artifact, or souvenir (e.g., Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff 1986; Marcus and Myers 1995; Myers 2001; Phillips and Steiner 1999; Thomas 1991, 1999). I first provide a brief historical background to the Maisons Tropicales. Then follows a discursive analysis organized around anthropological concepts that I see deployed, such as salvage collecting, authenticity, preservation, and repatriation. I focus on how Rubin and Touchaleaume maintain salvaging and repatriation narratives simultaneously as presented in several of their publications, like scholarly articles, exhibition, and auction catalog entries, as well as the website of Touchaleaume's gallery. Additionally, I analyze how their discourse was taken up, repeated, and circulated by art and culture reporters from news outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Forbes. Likely because they wished to reach a wider audience and market, Rubin and Touchaleaume have largely published their work on the Maisons in English. In line with this, I focus primarily on material written in this language.4

Historical Background

The Maisons Tropicales are three prefabricated aluminum housing structures designed by French architect and industrial designer Prouvé to address housing shortages and local climatic conditions in French West African colonies.5 The Niamey prototype, built in 1949, was commissioned by the colonial government to house the director of a local college (Guilloux 2008: 11). The two Brazzaville Maisons were built in 1951 for the state-owned Aluminium Français company involved in local resource extraction (Rausch 2018: 87).6 Prouvé intended them as prototypes for large-scale production, which never came to fruition. Interestingly, Prouvé had initially named his sets of prefabricated modules Maisons Coloniales; only later did he refer to them as Maisons Tropicales, which is how they are commonly known today (83).

As pieces of colonial architecture, Prouvé's designs addressed and attempted to solve what he perceived to be local needs, conditions, and problems. First, the prototypes were adapted to the local, tropical climates through the incorporation of a highly refined system of air circulation (Guilloux 2008: 18–20). Second, a perceived lack of skilled labor and infrastructure in the colonies led to them being produced in France and then flown overseas on cargo planes. Their prefabricated design meant they could be easily and quickly assembled by a small team once on site (Rodenbeck 2010: 107–108). Third, in line with European modernist utopian architectural projects, they were understood to contribute to the emancipation and social transformation of colonial subjects through their rational, technological designs (Huppatz 2010: 39; for literature on the entanglement of modernist architecture and colonialism, see also Diawara 2008; Holston 1989; Lamprakos 1992). Fourth, their layout responded to the imposed colonial social order by reinforcing the separation between colonizers and colonized, inhabitants and their colonial servants, through spatial layout (Guilloux 2008: 17).7 Finally, as architectural structures, the Maisons Tropicales expressed the underlying ideological formation of French self-perception as (technologically) superior and the construction of their colonial “Other” as inferior and uncivilized while simultaneously presenting the French as technologically more progressive than other colonial powers in the region (Diawara 2008: 24).

Despite Prouvé's intention to mass-produce the design, only three prototypes were built between 1949 and 1951. This development is commonly attributed to their aesthetics, which were not embraced by French colonial officials, and political decolonization (Huppatz 2010: 36; Rausch 2018: 83–85). Thus, the Maisons Tropicales not only embody a failed architectural scheme but also, in Brazzaville and Niamey, became material reminders of the failure of the larger colonial project.

In the years following independence from France (1957 in Niger and 1960 in the Republic of the Congo), the houses remained in their locations and “were said to be ‘forgotten’ or ‘long lost’ to the West until their so-called ‘re-discovery’ in the wake of a French heritage mission” in the 1990s (Rausch 2018: 89). However, in Niger and the Republic of Congo, members of the local population had appropriated them: after their French residents left, the Maison in Niamey served as shelter for poor residents and a copy shop was opened in one of the Brazzaville Maisons (87–89). For these purposes and to meet the demands of everyday life—challenging the narrative of the pure functionality of modern design—the inhabitants altered the physical structure of the houses (Rausch 2011: 123). In Brazzaville, for example, where the houses were installed on steel posts to increase air circulation, walls were built between those posts to create an extra set of rooms not intended by Prouvé (Huppatz 2010: 42). Prouvé's efforts to integrate climate control were not effective enough, so residents installed air conditioning, which required the sawing of some of the aluminum elements (Gentleman 2004).

Rubin and Touchaleaume, mirrored by the press, later interpreted these alterations as “architectural meddlings,” as signs of “neglect” and the incapability of the local population to understand and appreciate the value of these three icons of modern architectural heritage (Rose 2008a; Rubin 2005: 31), when in fact, the new inhabitants effectively created “hybrid” building structures. These interpretive moves support Huppatz's (2010: 44) careful reading that the Maisons’ conceptualization, implementation, as well as extraction and reinterpretation by Western art world actors are closely linked to (ongoing) colonial relations exemplifying Western engagement with “the Other.”

In the 1990s, the French government commissioned an inventory of French colonial architecture. Until then, Prouvé's work had been largely overlooked in the canon of French modern design. The report resulted in the “rediscovery” of the Maisons Tropicales and Prouvé's design more broadly. Rausch observed that while this inventory was motivated by a campaign for the protection of “shared cultural heritage” by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the final report presented the buildings as “distinctly ‘national’ inheritance” revealing ongoing colonial power relations regarding who is able to identify and preserve heritage (2018: 89; for an analysis of the dynamics of preservation of shared cultural heritage, see also Diakathé 2011: 188–190). Rausch also carefully analyzed conflicting definitions of heritage and subsequent approaches to preservation between the two art world actors and French and international heritage professionals.

The publication of the inventory led to a scramble among art dealers to collect Prouvé furniture in the former colonies to sell them for high prices on the art market, where a hype around the modernist designer was just unfolding. Intrigued by these developments and driven by “the basic competitive collector's urge to own the coolest Prouvé piece” (Armstrong 2006), Rubin, an American former investment banker turned collector and architectural scholar, worked with the French design dealer Touchaleaume, commonly referred to as the “Indiana Jones of furniture collecting” (Rose 2008a), to find the Maisons, dismantle, and “repatriate” them (Rubin n.d.). After a long, adventurous, and arduous process, Touchaleaume had the buildings shipped “home” (Rose 2008b).8 In France, the Maisons were restored to their “original state,” although the collectors decided to keep some of the bullet holes intact (Hamilton 2006; Rubin 2005: 35).

From there, the Maisons began to circulate in the art world as modern design icons with one prototype reaching a price of almost five million dollars at a Christie's auction in 2007 and the other houses being displayed in art and design institutions across the Western hemisphere, such as the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern, Hammer Museum, and the Yale University campus. These displays celebrated them as ingenious architectural masterpieces, devoid of any reference to their involvement in the French colonial project, but carefully imbedded in heroic narratives that frame their “salvaging” from war-torn, failing-at-being-modern Africa as “repatriation” to France (Diakhaté 2011: 189; Huppatz 2010: 43).

Discourses

Salvage Collecting

In the quotes introducing this article, Touchaleaume describes himself as “determined to salvage [the Maisons Tropicales] from ruin and to bring them back to France” (Christie's 2007: 9). Similarly, Rubin (n.d.) argues for the importance of preserving some of the bullet holes as signs of the Maisons’ “hard life” and his motivation to “acquire, dismantle, and repatriate the houses.” Elsewhere, he highlights that “the various prototypes that have survived exist in a purgatory somewhere between neglect and haphazard adaptive reuse” (2005: 31).

The media picked up and reinforced these tropes: Steve Rose (2008a), reporting on a meeting with Touchaleaume in The Guardian, described the condition in which the art dealer found the Maisons: “they were damaged by bullet holes, corrosion and various architectural meddlings.” In “Bullet Holes Extra: A Classic of Modern Design Has Been Saved from Squatters, Snipers and the Congolese Jungle,” Amelia Gentleman's (2004) report for The Guardian, she wrote:

The Maison Tropicale was designed to withstand most of the ravages of colonial life: still humidity, overpowering heat, relentless sunshine. The only thing its designer neglected to add was bullet-proofing. Now, a few Kalashnikov holes in the aluminum slatted sun-shades provide a discreet reminder of this building's extraordinary past … Some pieces were missing, others were rusty beyond repair, and large chunks had been cut out of the metal walls when recent residents installed air-conditioning units. Clearly, the people who did this had no idea how much is now paid for even small parts of Prouvé designs.

William Hamilton (2006) noted that the Maison on display in New York was “resurrected from pauperdom in Brazzaville, the Congo Republic, to princedom in Paris by a restoration.”

Rubin and Touchaleaume portrayed the Republic of Congo and Niger as failing not only the Maisons as heritage items but also more broadly failing as postcolonial nations (Diakhaté 2011). They positioned themselves as experts and subsequently as being able to evaluate—and counter—this threat through the methodology of collecting. Their justification for the removal of the Maisons Tropicales relied on the following logic: identification of something as valuable, its value as based in an understanding of authenticity dependent on cultural purity, which in turn is perceived as under threat due to cultural contact, thus requiring salvaging.

As a museum anthropologist, I cannot help but be reminded of justifications for salvage collecting practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. With the formalization and institutionalization of anthropology, collecting became motivated by a disciplinary conviction of the vanishing of non-Western peoples and their (material) culture as a result of Euro-American expansion (Gruber 1970). This belief was closely tied to and justified by the organization of cultures along an evolutionary sequence representing “progress” from simple to complex, in which the disappearance of peoples perceived to be less developed was considered inevitable (e.g., Stocking 1985). Furthermore, anthropologists understood the adjustment of those “less developed” cultures to new ways of life through contact with the colonizer as a loss of authenticity and deterioration. As a result, the collecting of material culture was considered essential to salvage that which was considered authentic (precontact) from decay to ensure future study. While this was a late nineteenth- / early twentieth-century framework for collecting, James Clifford (1989: 73) noticed that “the salvage paradigm, reflecting the desire to rescue something ‘authentic’ out of destructive historical changes, is alive and well. It is found in ethnographic writing, in the connoisseurship and collections of the art world, in a range of familiar nostalgias.”

Rubin and Touchaleaume depicted the destructive historical conditions that produce the need for salvaging that Clifford (1989) speaks of on two levels: they portrayed the former colonies as inherently dangerous places by highlighting their political instability; and they reframed postcolonial alterations to the houses as threats to their material integrity and as signs of the local population's inability to care for and appreciation the buildings. This way the collectors presented themselves as (intellectually) superior to local inhabitants reminiscent of colonial logics (Diakhaté 2011: 190). Rausch (2011: 123) appropriately argued that “the valorization of the houses” as modernist masterpieces is made further problematic by their framing as “a noble gift of modernity” that was ungratefully “spurned” by the Africans. In line with justifications for colonial intervention, Rubin, Touchaleaume, and reporters have framed the “repatriation” of the houses as a necessary action—even a benevolent one.

Authenticity and Preservation

Among these orphans of architecture, the Tropical House of Brazzaville (1951), recently exported from the Congo and restored in France, has recovered its original identity as an industrial object. (Rubin 2005: 31)

[After removal] the house would be restored to its moment of greatest promise: its pre-African configuration. (Rubin 2009: 119)

Rubin and Touchaleaume did not understand the local changes to the buildings, such as installations of air conditioning or creating additional rooms, as “pragmatic alterations” (Rausch 2011: 123) to shortcomings of Prouvé's designs and as part of their multifaceted history but viewed them as signs of dilapidation. Thereby, Rubin and Touchaleaume have denied local inhabitants’ agency and portrayed them as threats to the aesthetic and historical integrity of the houses. The moment of collection, then, was the moment in which Rubin and Touchaleaume assumed the right to define the buildings’ authentic identity, which they constructed in terms of cultural purity, inviolacy, and lacking signs of their postcolonial—or even their colonial—lives in Africa.9

This mirrors early anthropological conceptions of authentic Native culture as in isolation, timeless, static, and untouched by non-Native ways of life, denying local agency in responding to changing historical conditions. Clifford (1989) has demonstrated how salvage collecting was, and still is, linked to specific understandings of history and authenticity based on static dichotomies such as primitive/modern, pure/acculturated, and art/culture (see also Parezo 1985). These conceptualizations of authenticity did not allow for innovation, adaptation, or any type of change of a community's lifeways and material production. Such developments were constructed as signs of decay and decline, in turn justifying the “rescue” of authentic material for purposes of future study. Anthropologists’ perceptions have since changed, and such adaptations are now being reconsidered as expressions of Indigenous agency and strategies to deal with contact and pressure put on them by colonizing and missionizing forces. The discipline is still grappling with its historical methods and theories and their lasting impacts as expressions of colonial power relations.

Rubin and Touchaleaume explicitly justified their restoration strategy (and project at large) with educational reasons rather than economic ones. Rubin (2009: 119), for instance, wrote: “There exists a strong pedagogic rationale to present unadulterated Prouvé architecture.” Rubin and Touchaleaume understood the process of restoration as integral to the Maisons’ identity as design historical “documents.” Gentleman (2004) quoted Rubin: “I restored it as a document, not as a house.” As such, Rubin (2005: 31) argued elsewhere, “the house's travel to various sites of architectural learning—this time as a historiographic ‘demonstrator’—is meant to situate Jean Prouvé within the history of prefabricated design.” Touchaleaume “intends to eventually turn his remaining maisons tropicale … into a Prouvé documentation center. He told The Guardian that his ‘main passion is to be a kind of private curator, to make my contribution to save the heritage of the twentieth century’” (cited in Rausch 2011: 121). Like early anthropologists, Rubin and Touchaleaume consider their collecting and preservation practices as contributions to (in this case design and art-historical) scholarship and teaching.

Interestingly, however, the items of Rubin's and Touchaleaume's concern are “Western” and were “indigenized,” effectively resulting in “hybrid” objects that they chose to restore to their culturally pure “original identity,” only leaving those traces of their African lives that supported the collectors’ narratives of saving the houses. Clearly, both actors responsible for “salvaging” interpret the Maisons as documents of French design history—framing them as patrimony not commodity—rather than as items of colonial ideology and encounter, even though the two histories are deeply entangled.

Their restoration strategy reveals incoherent definitions of “original state” and “document,” as well as a political move in which the African period of the Maisons’ lives is presented as dangerous, thereby, reinforcing the perceived need to “salvage” and “repatriate” the buildings. The bullet holes—preserved as reminders of the “destructive historical condition”—served as signs for the continued need for salvaging even after repatriation. Thus, their preservation strategy functioned as a material bridge between the otherwise incongruous discourses of salvaging and repatriation by upending the usual temporal order: salvage collecting predating repatriation. Here, Rubin and Touchaleaume created a circular argument where salvaging becomes repatriation becomes salvaging.

This move was further amplified in the descriptions of the process of discovering and removing the houses from Brazzaville and Niamey, which emphasized good intentions (preserving heritage and contributing to design history) behind it. In the context of African art trade, Christopher B. Steiner (1995: 152–153) observed how (the illusion of) “discovery” has played an essential role in value creation: “The more difficult the search the more authentic the find.” Most writers focused on Touchaleaume, who was physically in Africa to initiate the removal. In tone, the narratives mirror heroic adventure stories of colonial expeditions. The website of Touchaleaume's Parisian Galerie 54, for example, features an article by Simon Hewitt suggestively titled “Out of Africa,” a clear reference to the novel and film. Hewitt (2008) described Touchaleaume's acquisition process:

Locating the houses proved to be the easiest part. “People were incredibly suspicious,” [Touchaleaume] says. “No one could believe we had come for ‘old scrap iron.’ We were followed permanently.” The most dramatic of his encounters occurred on a trip to the nearby Congo rapids. After he snapped a few innocent photos, “50 soldiers with machine guns suddenly appeared and took us in,” he recalls. “It was terrifying. They thought we were mercenaries planning an invasion from Zaire, across the river.” … After several trips back to Africa and, says Touchaleaume, “six months of betrayals and dirty tricks” by local officials and the two families who disputed ownership, he finally clinched the deal for the houses … With roads in a catastrophic state and no planes available, rail and sea were the only options. The 320-mile Congo-Ocean railroad—constructed between 1921 and 1934 at a cost of 17,000 lives—ran through tropical forest and mountainous terrain, including the Massif du Mayombe area. This was a rebel stronghold, and Touchaleaume had to hire an escort of 20 armed guards. Even so, the train was halted for three days in Dolisie until the dealer gained its release by greasing rebel palms.

In The Guardian, Rose (2008b) quoted Touchaleaume: “We packed the pieces in banana leaves, in 15 shipping containers, and took them by rail to the port with armed guards. At the last minute, the government stopped us for one more ‘petit cadeau.’ This little gift was £23,000.” In the Congo, “Touchaleaume located the two in Brazzaville fairly quickly—they were damaged by bullet holes, corrosion and various architectural meddlings—but it took six months to get them out. Congo had been through civil war and a succession of governments; negotiations ensued between ministers, tribal factions and two families that both claimed to own the houses … Using a combination of charm, diplomacy, whisky and cash, he eventually spirited the whole lot back to France” (Rose 2008a).

In these accounts, the authors frequently refer to Touchaleaume as the “Indiana Jones” of furniture collecting creating a certain aura of adventure around the art dealer while disengaging with the practices of collecting glorified in the films. “Like Indiana, he has spent the past decade scouring remote, often lawless regions in search for valuable relics, often at considerable personal risk,” Rose (2008a) reported:

The Maisons Tropicales became to Touchaleaume what the Ark of the Covenant was to Indiana Jones: he had seen them in books, dreamed of searching for them, but thought they were a myth. It was only when Touchaleaume held a Prouvé exhibition in 1987 that he discovered they still existed … Twelve years later, the Prouvé market booming, an expedition became viable.

Gentleman (2004) reported that Brazzaville “with its shattered skyscrapers and bombed center, named by one survey as the world's worst city in 2000, did not attract [Rubin] as a destination. Instead he employed a treasure-hunter [Touchaleaume] to seek out the building and bring it back.”

Scholars and descendant communities have frequently critiqued salvage collecting practices for unethical methods, like putting pressure on individuals, playing into addiction by using means such as alcohol, purchasing items belonging to the community from individuals who did not have the rights to sell things, and looting graves or ceremonial sites without community permission (e.g., DeBlock 2017; Jenkins 1994: 252; Kramer 2006: 130; Parezo 1985: 769–770). Touchaleaume's collection narratives suggest pressure, illegal deals, and unethical methods resembling earlier salvage approaches. Repatriation claims frequently address these historical practices arguing for the illicit acquisition of material culture and human remains and the subsequent necessity for their return. However, in this case, reasoning in a strange circular argument, Rubin and Touchaleaume portrayed their very own dubious acquisition practices to be proof of the claimed necessity of their so-called “repatriation” of the Maisons.

Repatriation (Is Not Collecting)

In the introductory quote to this article, Touchaleaume spoke of bringing the Maisons Tropicales “home.” This is a common trope in the language around returning artifacts to their places and communities of origin. Rubin explicitly employed the language of repatriation to describe the houses’ relocation in several different contexts suggesting this to be a conscious choice of words. Repatriation is not collecting. Despite this fact, it becomes clear that Rubin has been invoking the language of repatriation to speak of a particular mode of acquisition. But why?

Aaron Glass (2004: 118) studied how two influential repatriation discourses in relation to Indigenous communities and descendants of victims of the Holocaust developed and have been framed:

Repatriation initially referred to the return of people (refugees or prisoners) to their home following warfare. Its current usage invokes original, national, or state identification as well as the violent nature of displacement. The British Government, for instance, defines repatriation as “the return of an object of cultural patrimony from a museum collection, to a party found to be the true owner or traditional guardian, or their heirs and descendants.”

Dispossessing peoples of their belongings and heritage items has been a strategy of subjugation and control in many different contexts. The term repatriation is usually employed in debates of returning objects of cultural patrimony or human remains and typically indicates the physical return to their place of origin, their rightful owners, or their descendants, thereby, suggesting that the methods of acquisition would from today's perspective be “sanctioned morally” (Green and Gordon 2010: 257) and expressing “the hope of complete restoration” through such returns (Kramer 2004: 163).

Requests for the return of material culture often openly address histories of displacement and dispossession exemplified in collecting histories and methods. In repatriation, not only the moment of dispossession but also its continuing effects are highlighted. Thereby, ongoing legacies of, for instance, colonial power relations are made visible. Repatriation cases seek to address past wrongdoings by reuniting people and their belongings (Glass 2004: 123), by allowing claimants to present themselves as the rightful owners. Claims for restitution then “reflect the need for cultural sensitivity, social justice, and political redress for historical violence” (117).

In repatriation claims, descendant communities show that, despite beliefs in their vanishing and active efforts to eradicate their communities, they are present and alive and demand to oversee their cultural heritage. This is especially visible in claims by Indigenous communities, who, by making these assertions, expose the flaws and biases in the salvage anthropological paradigm that dictated how their materials were collected. Repatriation can, thereby, present an alternative discourse to how history and heritage have been displayed in Western institutions, allowing dispossessed communities to not only reclaim their right to possess the material culture of their ancestors but also assert their right to self-determination and self-representation. Repatriation claims can reveal the underlying logics of how heritage and the accompanying practices of preservation and management of items have been constructed in Western institutions.

As such, the term repatriation is value-laden and imbued with political and cultural capital as well as moral weight. Rubin clearly tried to co-opt this discourse to emphasize the assumed moral value of his undertaking, even if it misconstrues the history of the Maisons as well as the meaning of repatriation. Moreover, this appropriation of the term for its moral value signals a disregard for the ongoing impacts of dispossession for claimant individuals and communities. Interestingly, Glass (2004: 133) observed that in the case of the repatriation of several artworks to their rightful owners, who were dispossessed in the context of the Holocaust, the “issue of return tends to increase (at least the perception of) object scarcity and thus market value.” This conflation or, in this case confusion, of moral and market value is likely why Rubin and Touchaleaume appropriated this discourse to describe the Maisons’ removal.

There are many reasons why the use of “repatriation” is not appropriate for the Maisons Tropicales. No involuntary displacement or dispossession took place either when the houses left France for Africa or when political decolonization happened—that is, when France left the colonies, leaving the houses there. The buildings were specifically designed for the contexts of French colonies, where they were transported to and erected by the French (to contribute to the colonial enterprise). When the former colonies gained political independence, no one took the buildings hostage or acquired them through illegal means from the former colonial owners. The buildings were simply abandoned and forgotten about in France.10 By invoking the Maisons Tropicales as “orphans,” Rubin (2005: 31) attempted to signal a tragic family history—a classic trope of the repatriation discourse (Glass 2004: 125)—highlighting the moral weight of bringing the houses “home,” while positioning himself as a type of father figure who can care for and protect them. Furthermore, repatriation signifies a final homecoming. Rose (2008b) “welcome[d] home” one of the Maisons on display in front of the Tate Modern in London. But what is home to the Maisons? France? The West? The market? Rubin framed the Maisons as placeless objects that are characterized by their “nomadic” character (Columbia University 2002), which in itself then contradicts the narrative of “homecoming.”

The appropriation of a repatriation discourse then embodies dispossession on two levels: the physical removal of the Maisons Tropicales from their locations in the former colonies, and the flattening of the historical and symbolic significance of such returns for historically dispossessed communities and individuals. Invoking ongoing colonial hierarchies (in the art world and art market), the discourse imagines the West as home for the Arts, enabling Western actors to mis-appropriate material (and concepts) for their own ends.

While I have not found any instances of Touchaleaume or Rubin referring to the Maisons as trophies, they were frequently described as such in the news media (e.g., Gordon 2004; Rawsthorn 2007). This use of the term likely stems from the way the buildings were displayed and interpreted for the public. “Trophy” has connotations of warfare and victory: winners taking their defeated counterparts’ material culture as a sign of superiority, or someone winning a contest and being rewarded. This, again, reveals contradictions in the portrayal of the removal by Touchaleaume and Rubin, whose stories on the one hand highlight repatriation and the moral value of their efforts in the sense of the term, while simultaneously focusing on the creation of heroic collecting narratives that show parallels to colonial collecting practices highlighting the collectors’ superiority (Diakhaté 2011: 190).

Rubin (2009: 117) described his efforts of “repatriating the houses themselves … [as] a daunting prospect for both political and financial reasons,” but did not elaborate further. I have found only one instance in which Touchaleaume discussed power relations in his endeavors. In The Guardian, Rose (2008a) asked several questions about the ethics of his collecting practices:

Isn't there something unsavory about all this? Isn't Touchaleaume a mere looter, plundering impoverished countries just like his colonial forebears? “Don't imagine that I cheat stupid African people,” he retorts. “People there are the same as in France, America, everywhere. I've found things others thought were garbage. Sure, I make a good deal, but people who bought pieces from me for €10,000 have sold them for €200,000. I don't say, ‘You cheated me.’ That's the game. It's stupid, this reaction. In a perfect world, we would keep the Maisons Tropicales in situ. But in Congo, they can't afford to maintain or restore them and they would be lost. The important thing is to protect the artwork.”

Here Touchaleaume highlights a perceived need for relocation, or salvaging, to ensure the continued preservation of the Maisons as items of architectural and design history. He also argues that they should have ideally been preserved in situ. How does this fit with a narrative of repatriation and homecoming?

Institutions that hold items of material culture subject to repatriation claims and that have resisted returning the items to their places and owners of origin have frequently based their claims in universalist arguments for the preservation of cultural heritage of all humanity (Cuno 2009; “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” 2004; for critical engagement with and analysis of the Universal Museums’ arguments, see Abungu 2008; Curtis 2006; O'Neill 2004). In a somewhat parallel logic to Touchaleaume's argument, such institutions have contended that they should keep items based on claimants’ perceived inability to preserve heritage locally. This argument is often used to counter repatriation claims and to justify the continued presence of material outside of its place of origin. Consider, for instance, requests for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles, the bust of Nefertiti, and the Benin Bronzes. This reflects ongoing colonial relations of power in which Euro-American cultural institutions present themselves as superior in their ability to preserve the world's heritage and unwilling to address historical injustices (Abungu 2008). Huppatz (2010: 44) has argued that “the contemporary rescue, resuscitation, and reframing of the Maisons Tropicales as a modernist icons confirms European cultural superiority, as the mid-twentieth century engine of modernization and as the twenty-first century guardian of cultural heritage.” Touchaleaume's use of this common argument against repatriation reveals the deep-seated contradictory logic of his and Rubin's depictions: in this case, they construct the alleged local inability to preserve and value heritage items as the reason for repatriation, rather than against it. Rubin and Touchaleaume have employed two related, but opposing, anthropological discourses, molding them into one narrative, disregarding their contradictions and historical contexts to exploit them for their moral and political weight and capacity to increase the symbolic and market value of the houses. That they could do this without being critically questioned or even sanctioned by cultural institutions and news media reveals a disheartening lack of reflection on ongoing colonial power relations operating in the Western art market and parts of the cultural sector.

Conclusion

The Maisons Tropicales were constructed as trophies of distinctly French modern architectural design not only by the commercial art world actors such as collectors and dealers but also by cultural institutions and the news media. The narratives, which selectively referred to their lives in Africa, emphasize the poor conditions in which they were found by Western art and heritage professionals, which required them to save and preserve them. Thereby, they indirectly justified the exclusion of African voices from the discourse by re-presenting Africa as a dangerous, lawless place that is incapable of governing itself and protecting its heritage. This construction is reminiscent of colonial tales justifying the intervention of the West as necessary, sometimes even benevolent (Diakhaté 2011: 11).

A private collector and art dealer had the power—using the local circumstances and absence of heritage legislation for their own benefit—to transform the Maisons into collectible, and thus extractable, items and consequently removed them from Niger and the Republic of Congo. The salvage narrative employed by these actors also translated into the politics of preserving the houses’ materiality. Rubin and Touchaleaume restored the buildings to recover their “original identity,” their interpretation of which required the removal of almost all traces of the African chapters in their lives except for preserving a few signs of “age (including bullet holes, testifying to its hard life in the thick of the Congo's endless civil war)” (Rubin 2005: 35). This allowed Rubin, Touchaleaume, exhibiting institutions, and reporters to narrate the removal simultaneously as effort of salvaging and repatriation not only linguistically but also materially.

As buildings designed to be prefabricated and easily (dis)assembled, the Maisons materially and conceptually lend themselves to interpretations that highlight their engineering ingenuity and allowed Rubin and Touchaleaume to present their efforts as a means of returning them to their original identity—that of nomadic houses even though Prouvé had not intended for them to be disassembled and relocated after their initial construction. By stripping them of most of their local and temporal context (except for the bullet holes) they were transformed, just like works of Indigenous art, into aesthetic masterpieces to be appreciated for their appearance and to be consumed by the Western art-loving public without having to also confront their deeply colonial history.

The instrumentalization of salvage and repatriation discourses could be maintained by Rubin and Touchaleaume due to the flexibility of heritage constructions and inherent neocolonial power relations in the commercial art world. This case reveals the effects of unnuanced, self-interested uses of the term repatriation to describe a basic process of transfer and the collectors’ ignorance of the political complexity and gravity of actual processes of repatriation. While the case of the Maisons Tropicales cannot be described as repatriation, it highlights the importance of nuance and attention to complexity in the description of processes of return and reappropriation more broadly.11

The ownership of the Maisons Tropicales served as a means of legitimating self-interested interpretation of the past and acquisition processes. Rubin and Touchaleaume appropriated the language of repatriation, since its moral and political evocations served their ends: creating symbolic and economic value. This appropriation of the term repatriation symbolizes a twofold dispossession: the physical removal of the Maisons Tropicales from their long-term homes in former colonies and the deflation of the meaning of the return of material belongings for historically dispossessed communities.

Acknowledgments

I would like to express my gratitude to Christoph Rausch on multiple levels: I am indebted to him for first introducing me to the world of thinking about museums critically and anthropologically; I must also thank him for introducing me to the case study of the Maisons Tropicales. His work on the houses has profoundly influenced my thinking. Furthermore, I would like to thank him, Helen Polson, Amanda Thompson, Laura Allen, Aaron Glass, and two anonymous peer reviewers for their thoughtful comments on this article.

Notes

1

Preceding the removal of the Maisons, attention was paid internationally to issues around repatriation and restitution in the 1990s bringing these questions to public attention. To name a few: the US, for instance, passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990; in 1995, member states signed the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects; in 1998, the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art were published.

2

There have been efforts to critique their project and its presentation, by, for instance, artist Ângela Ferreira and filmmaker Manthia Diawara and scholars of design history and heritage studies. Diakathé (2011: 181) contends that while Ferreira's critique is poignant, her installation has unwittingly contributed to further the Maisons’ popularity and status as artworks.

3

Fred Myers (1995) discusses how art world actors appropriated his work on Aboriginal Australian acrylic paintings in discourses around art. See also the other contributions in the volume (Marcus and Myers 1995).

4

For future research, it could be interesting to review French sources to understand if and how the discourses of salvaging and repatriation were taken up and portrayed across French media. This may also reveal different meanings of the concepts across different languages and in different cultural contexts.

5

Guilloux (2008) described Prouvé's previous involvement in the movement for prefabricated housing solutions in France itself to address housing shortages and how these efforts were then transposed to colonies.

6

For further information on the relation between Prouvé, his workshop, and Aluminium Français including how their increasing involvement in his workshop resulted in his resignation in 1953, see Guilloux (2008).

7

In Prouvé's archival material, he notes that “the bed is very important to the daily rest cycle. Women, for instance, generally wake up at only about ten in the morning. Their sleeping quarters must be connected with the bathroom or with the children's bedroom without having to run across the ‘boy’ who is cleaning the living room or the annexes” (cited in Guilloux 2008: 17).

8

Interestingly, Rose here described the Tate Modern, London as “home” to the Maisons Tropicales signaling that Europe and its art world are home to the buildings, rather than the African continent.

9

Phillips and Steiner (1999: 19) remind us that “the solution to defining the authenticity of an object circulating in the networks of world art exchange lies not in the properties of the object itself but in the very process of collection, which inscribes, at the moment of acquisition, the character and qualities that are associated with the object in both individual and collective memories.”

10

Diakathé (2011: 188) argues that “according to the rules of territoriality, the colonial houses belonged to the country in which they were erected. As cultural patrimony, the houses participated in and contributed to the construction of the identity of the territory where they were originally located.”

11

Discussions on the appropriateness of the term visual repatriation to describe the sharing of archival resources with home communities, for instance, provide an interesting engagement with the complexity and nuance of the term itself and the differences between various processes involving museums, archives, and descendant communities (e.g., Brown and Peers 2006; Dudding 2005; Lydon 2010; Morton and Oteyo 2015). As one of my anonymous peer reviewers pointed out, questions of terminology, ownership, and belonging in processes of repatriation can reveal further complexity when considering the social life and histories of mobility of cultural belongings, requiring a highly nuanced use of the term for processes of return and reappropriation (e.g., Kaeppler 2005).

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Contributor Notes

LEONIE TREIER is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center. Her work focuses on histories of collecting and the representation of Native American material culture in (and beyond) museums. She holds an MPhil in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology from the University of Oxford and has been a predoctoral fellow at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Her doctoral research focuses on the previously neglected ethnographic collection associated with George Catlin's “Indian Gallery.”

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Advances in Research

  • Abungu, George O. 2008. “‘Universal Museums’: New Contestations, New Controversies.” In UTIMUT: Past Heritage—Future Partnerships: Discussions on Repatriation in the 21st Century, ed. Mille Gabriel and Jens Dahl, 4454. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Armstrong, David. 2006. “House Proud.” Forbes, 25 March.

  • Brown, Alison K., and Laura L. Peers. 2006. “Pictures Bring Us Messages”: Sinaakssiiksi Aohtsimaahpihkookiyaawa: Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Christie's, ed. 2007. Jean Prouvé's Prototype Maison Tropicale and Works by Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret from the Collection of Eric Touchaleaume. Catalog. New York: Christie's.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Clifford, James. 1989. “The Others: Beyond the ‘Salvage’ Paradigm.” Third Text 3 (6): 7377. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528828908576217

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Columbia University, ed. 2002. Jean Prouvé: Three Nomadic Structures. 2002. Catalog. New York: Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cuno, James B., ed. 2009. Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Curtis, Neil G. W. 2006. “Universal Museums, Museum Objects and Repatriation: The Tangled Stories of Things.” Museum Management and Curatorship 21 (2): 117127. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647770600402102

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DeBlock, Hugo. 2017. “Property and Ownership in Vanuatu: The Lengnangulong Sacred Stone from North Ambrym at the Pavillon Des Sessions of the Musée Du Louvre.” Museum Anthropology 40 (2): 111127. https://doi.org/10.1111/muan.12138

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.” 2004. ICOM News 1: 4.

  • Diakhaté, Lydie. 2011. “Museum Ethics, Missing Voices and the Case of the Tropical Houses.” Museum Management and Curatorship 26 (2): 177195. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647775.2011.566717

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Diawara, Manthia. 2008. “Architecture as Colonial Discourse: Ângela Ferreira's Maisons Tropicales.” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 22 (1): 2027. https://doi.org/10.1215/10757163-22-23-1-20

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dudding, Jocelyne. 2005. “Visual Repatriation and Photo-Elicitation: Recommendations on Principles and Practices for the Museum Worker.” Journal of Museum Ethnography 17: 218231.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gentleman, Amelia. 2004. “Bullet Holes Extra: A Classic of Modern Design Has Been Saved from Squatters, Snipers and the Congolese Jungle.” Guardian, 31 August.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Glass, Aaron. 2004. “Return to Sender: On the Politics of Cultural Property and the Proper Address of Art.” Journal of Material Culture 9 (2): 115139. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183504044368

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gordon, Alastair. 2004. “Out of Africa, a House Fit for a Kit Bag.” New York Times, 1 July.

  • Green, Michael, and Phil Gordon. 2010. “Repatriation: Australian Perspectives.” In Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology, ed. Jane Lydon and Uzma Z. Rizvi, 257265. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gruber, Jacob W. 1970. “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 72 (6): 12891299. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1970.72.6.02a00040

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Guilloux, Tristan. 2008. “The Maison ‘Tropique’: A Modernist Icon or the Ultimate Colonial Bungalow?Fabrications 18 (2): 625. https://doi.org/10.1080/10331867.2008.10539632

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hamilton, William L. 2006. “From Africa to Queens Waterfront, a Modernist Gem for Sale to the Highest Bidder.” New York Times, 17 May.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hewitt, Simon. 2008. “Out of Africa.” Galerie 54/Eric Touchaleaume, 30 June. https://galerie54.com/en/diaporama/jean-prouve-maison-tropicale-new-york.

    • Search Google Scholar
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