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07 November 2011
"We have eaten the forest", Georges Condominas in Sar Luk
" We have eaten the forest", Georges Condominas in Sar Luk


Christine Hemmet (curator in the musée du quai Branly),  Vo Thi Thuong and Nguyen Van Huy (curators in the Vietnam museum of Ethnology) have created this exhibition which has been presented in Paris from 23 June to 15 December 2006 and in Hanoi from 12 December 2007 to 16 March 2008.


We have eaten the forest is located in Sar Luk and dated 1948-1949, a place and time in which the lived experience of a young ethnographer became inextricably bound up with a moment in the history of a society, and which also became a significant entry in the history of ethnology.

When, at the age of twenty-seven, Georges Condominas came to live in Sar Luk, a Mong Gar village on the Darlac Plateau (present-day Dac Lac province) in central Vietnam , it was with a desire for total immersion. He intended to go beyond what existed of Indochinese ethnography – the work of missionaries and administrators, sometimes of considerable quality, but lacking the experience of close contact and professional methodology. In his eyes, sharing the villager’s daily life was a requisite condition, and his goal was to analyze all the many aspects of their social life as accurately as possible with the help of tried and tested investigative techniques. It was a matter of “participating in the life of a village for at least a year, so as to be able to witness an agrarian cycle from beginning to end”.

Another “tribal” monograph might have been expected to result from this, with such section headings as ‘technology’, ‘social organization’, ‘religious life’ and ‘village economy’. But, in place of this academic approach, Condominas preferred a “dynamic monograph”, an attempt to document life in Sar Luk as it progressed from one day to the next. Any hope of reconstructing its entirety would have been in vain – ethnography must, after all, be selective – but the mass of phenomena observed by Georges Condominas, down to their last detail, remains prodigious, contained in innumerable notes, drawings, lexicons, recordings and photos. With so much “raw” material at hand, he turned to narrative in order to give it shape, producing a first-person account of the events of everyday social life – an “altogether new genre”, as Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote. Swimming against the tide of many of the theoretical preoccupations of the time, then heralded as a pioneer by post-modernism, because he highlighted the subjectivity of ethnology and rescued the villagers from anonymity, he was received as an equal by the literary establishment and was read alongside Henri Michaux and Georges Perec.


Map published in L'exotique est quotidien, Sar Luk, Vietam, Paris, Plon, 1965

 “Where the track runs alongside the river, there suddenly appears on the opposite bank, which up until now has been nothing but forest, a Mnong Gar     village, its longhouses standing parallel to the water’s edge, seemingly crushed beneath their immense roofs, from which rise wisps of smoke. A few trees, giant   poles rustling their fronds, grow between the longhouses. Dogs bark in the dirty-looking beaten earth yards, and men – naked except for a G-string with a short apron swinging in front of their legs – gesticulate and shout.”


History was in the making. Sar Luk existed under a dwindling colonial presence; the Indochina War was spreading and the Vietnam War smoldering. Some villagers were infantrymen in the French army, others worked in the plantations. Georges Condominas shared intimately in this history. Born in Vietnam , the son of a non-commissioned officer in the Indochinese Guard and a half-caste mother, he denounced the narrow-mindedness of so many French colonials, and took a stand against the post-colonial wars. He was a signatory of the Manifesto of the 121 during the Algerian War, and censured the American “green berets” in a memorable speech at the American Anthropological Association. The lot of the inhabitants of Sar Luk, caught up in the violence of contemporary history, led him to coin the now classic term “ethnocide”.

Georges Condominas is emblematic of a generation and of a school of thought, that of André Leroi-Gourhan, for whom the “field” came first. He became a pupil of the latter in Paris between 1946-1947, enrolling in the first class of the Centre de formation aux recherches ethnologiques (CFRE), which combined initiation into museography – with a training period in the reserves of the Musée de l’Homme – with learning investigative methodology, a discipline which included the two major aids of thorough language acquisition (here he took full advantage of the friendly advice given him by the linguist André-Georges Haudricourt) and study of material culture. Foregoing an interpreter, he learnt the Mnong language by noting down names of objects and techniques.

He collected over five hundred artifacts for the Musée de l’Homme, meticulously entering each item’s origin, manufacture, and functional, economic, social and symbolic uses in his field notebooks. The drawings depicting them and the ways they were used are by a former pupil of the Beaux-Arts in Hanoi who saw himself as a painter. Artifacts are therefore astonishingly well documented, along with their history. For each one, we know who owned it previously, and what the ethnologist exchanged for it. These notebooks and the invaluable information they contain have become exhibition items in their own right, as much as the artifacts they help place in their original contexts, bestowing upon them a kind of social life of their own, independent of the way in which they are viewed.

This social life is not that of a vanished or fossil culture. Despite profound and irreversible changes, Sar Luk still exists, and its inhabitants continue to feel the emotive power of these artifacts, whose memory they keep safe, just as their oral tradition keeps alive the image of the foreigner who came to live among them almost fifty years ago.


Yves Goudineau
Director of studies
École française d’Extrême-Orient

Christine Hemmet
Exhibition commissioner
musée du quai Branly

Preface, extract from the catalogue “We have eaten the forest…” Georges Condominas in Vietnam, edited by Christine Hemmet, 2006, musée du quai Branly - Actes Sud co-publication

<< Read more about the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology>>

<< Read more about the musée du quai Branly >>

"We have eaten the forest"
Aim of the exhibition
The purpose of ethnography
Biography of Georges Condominas
Main publications 



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