The quai Branly museum is a relative newcomer to the Parisian museum scene. Built by the architect Jean Nouvel, it was inaugurated in 2006, and specializes in the art and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The elongated red “bridge-museum” is built on stilts and hovers above an enormous park. The winding paths and decorative pampas grasses which brush my arms as I’m walking through the park leave me feeling a long way from the busy road alongside the Seine just behind me.
Once inside, the museum is dark and cool. And even though the design and layout already feel dated, the Tiki Pop exhibit is fun and refreshing. Beginning with reference to Gaugin’s paintings of Polynesian women in the 1890s, the exhibit lead me through the post-World War II period, when novels like James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific helped popularize the islands, and then it explained how the Tiki divinity became co-opted by restaurateurs and bar-owners on the West coast and through other parts of the U.S.
You’re probably no stranger to the mid-century aesthetic, which has become popular (again) in the last ten years. When I lived in the U.S., I loved collecting colorful Melmac dishes (which some French friends have refused to eat from, with the exception of during a picnic), Danish coffee tables, or scraps of barkcloth. The Mad Men craze hit France a few years back, and with it a renewed love for all things mid-century. A gallery called Les Modernistes opened in a street near ours a few years ago, mercifully replacing a shop full of glorified phone booths called TaxiPhoneDar. So now instead of hearing people scream into telephones as I walk by the shop, I can regularly ogle Danish desks or even a multi-colored Charlotte Perriand bookshelf.
Modern portrayals of the 1950s show how the era was all about achieving the American dream : job, house in the suburbs, wife, children, and a great car. Think Don Draper - his only jobs once back home after work were to have a(nother) drink, read the paper, and simply put his feet under the dinner table (mettre les pieds sous la table, as the French so aptly put it). Betty Draper’s job was to provide him a stress-free environment far from the crowds, grime, and crime of the city.
Tiki culture took the 1950s American man one step further into relaxation, into the carefree world of the South Pacific islands, represented by the Tiki divinity and the vahiné, or bare-breasted hula girl. The so-called primitive island lifestyle involved palm trees, thatched huts, ukulele music, and of course, cocktails.
Mai tai and bamboo
Back in California, Sugie’s Original “The Tropics” was one of several Tiki-themed establishments that sold many a cocktail while glorifying the island lifestyle. Opened in Beverly Hills in 1936 by an Englishman, Harry “Sugie” Sugarman, the Polynesian-themed restaurant and cocktail lounge featured palm trees and pretty much anything you could possibly fashion out of bamboo. Menu items included a cocktail called Lana Turner’s “Untamed : One drink and you’re tighter - than Lana Turner’s sweater !” The price you paid for getting tight ? A whopping 64 cents.
The quai Branly curators set up a tiny replica of a Mai Tai bar in a cozy room in one corner of the museum, although I was disappointed to discover that they don’t actually serve cocktails. But I slid into a cushioned built-in seating area around a rattan table and looked through the exhibit catalogue, and I admit that those cushions were so comfortable that I closed my eyes for a glorious ten minutes. Where else but Paris could you have a nap in a museum ?
But the exhibit also includes Tiki mugs, menus from other bars like Don the Beachcomber’s in Los Angeles, and even photos and dioramas of the Tiki architectural style that was used for bowling alleys, motels, and restaurants that sprang up in California, Florida, and other areas of the U.S. during the period.
Makin’ Wicky Wacky
Even though the late 1960s saw a fading out of this style, which was deemed to be colonialist, decadent, and old-fashioned by the younger counter-culture generation, the recent craze for all things mid-century has revived the Tiki aesthetic. And once I’d seen the exhibit, I started finding Tiki influence everywhere : while looking through the web site of the amazing German company Wallpapers from the 70s, I ran across the one called Megamba in black/greyor pale green. Even my local cinema’s 1930s architecture (at Gambetta) features spooky-looking faces above the marquee that strangely resemble Tiki.
But if you don’t have a Tiki around, how about just making and serving a Purple breeze ? The cocktail recipe is below, and it was adapted from the recipe provided by the Tiki Lounge in Paris’ 11th district. If you want to put on a few songs from the period, simply click on the quai Branly’s Deezer playlist, and don’t forget Sophie Tucker’s “Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki” ! Put on your favorite muumuu or Hawaiian shirt, sip away, and peruse the immense exhibit catalogue, written by the urban archeologist Sven Kirsten. Aloha ahi ahi... And let me know in the comments section below if Tiki shows up at your door !