In 1958 Pablo Picasso painted a mural for the UNESCO office, but after its installation he refused to sign it. Is this unfinished, soulless work of art perhaps emblematic for the state the organization is in?
A dissatisfied artist, and a musing anthropologist
Word has it that Picasso, after delivering a 910x1060 centimeters mural in the late 1950s, was unhappy with UNESCO’s appreciation of the work of art. In order to fit the curves of the wall it was supposed to decorate, the painting had to be cut into pieces. What was more, due to the painting’s position in a somewhat awkward corner it was nearly impossible to look at the composition in full view at once. Out of discontent Picasso refused to sign the work once it was fully erected. By doing so, one could argue, he perhaps deprived the mural of its substance and took from it its very right of existence.
Nearly sixty years later I set foot in the UNESCO office myself. After a day wandering around the building I can’t help but musing that perhaps Picasso, already at an early stage, sensed the ironic contrast between on the one hand the organization’s objectives and its occupation with exquisite and extraordinary heritage sites and, on the other, its own rather mundane and eroding circumstances.
How I ended up at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre
In September 2010 I started working on my current PhD project, which has Mt. Kenya and the area’s UNESCO World Heritage status at its core. Now, almost three years later, I am the proud owner of a laptop saturated with Mt. Kenya-related information, which is perhaps best described as a schizophrenic medley of fieldwork notes and interviews, management plans and reports, all kinds of documentation and statistics, newspaper items, tourist brochures, a whole series of maps, youtube movies and documentaries, and much more. I spend almost a year in Kenya, having a permanent base just outside a town on the mountain’s Western outskirts. But as soon as I realized that what concerns and affects Mt. Kenya is not necessarily to be found in its geographical vicinity, I started to de devote a fair share of my time to other places.
And so my days unfolded in all sorts of unexpected places encompassing the properties of large-scale Laikipian landowners, regional NGO offices, and headquarters of a range of nature conservation organizations, heritage institutions and ministerial offices in Nairobi. Yet, one of the settings I until recently failed to address was the UNESCO office in Paris, which hosts the World Heritage Centre. In a way it seemed inevitable that a research, which had come to include so many institutions that somehow relate to Mt. Kenya’s World Heritage status, was bound to end up at the UNESCO headquarters. The only sensible thing to do after I returned from Kenya therefore, it seemed, was to try my luck at getting into contact with some of the Centre’s key figures.
Great expectations, and unavoidable disappointments
Before departure I envisioned the upcoming trip as a somewhat sound closing of previous fieldwork efforts, as if it all culminated into this last visit. By all means, I secretly desired redemption of pending research conundrums, and one can perhaps imagine that my excitement was therefore lavishing. After years of directing my attention to World Heritage, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre had taken on somewhat grandeur proportions in my imagination. Of course when at last booking my train ticket, packing my bags and setting out to finally confront UNESCO myself in the most physical way possible I was bound to be disappointed. How could the organization ever live up to the chimera I had created for it?
Coming from the direction of Paris’s Quartier Latin, I follow the Rue d’Estrées into the Centre’s main gate. A somewhat grim-looking office building comes into view. Slightly disappointed I realize I have arrived. Whereas passing through security checks in Nairobi had often resulted in serious delays, passing the detection gate here is hardly challenging. With the inelegant visitor’s card dangling around my neck I am kindly directed to where I am expected. While strolling the place I can’t help but discerning what feels like an ultimate irony: the World Heritage guide is filled with the most dainty and exceptional of places but the institution that has taken up the task to safeguard these places is located in what I, embarrassingly aware of the unkindness of such thought, consider one of the least stimulating, disheartened and crestfallen workspaces I have seen in a long time.
Is UNESCO standing on its last legs?
It was not only the building that left me with the impression that UNESCO has perhaps worn out the enthusiasm of its initial years. Once I stepped into the office of my host I was apologetically informed on the inefficiencies of his workroom: his computer was too slow to be effective, the pile of documents on his desk waiting to be processed nearly endless, and all kinds of technical and practical inconveniences abounded. Also, UNESCO’s financial troubles after the withdrawal of USA funding in 2011 (a consequence of welcoming Palestine as member into the organization) and the forthcoming dismissal of a few hundred employees seemed inevitable topics of conversation. Indeed, the illusion of UNESCO as the all-powerful heritage organization (an image many an academic work reiterates) evaporated by the minute.
Leaving the building towards the end of the afternoon, my notebook full of scribbles and descriptions of the cheerless place I had just abandoned, one irrevocable question lurks at the edges of my mind: is this how faded glory comes to express itself? And I remember Picasso’s unsigned and somewhat displaced work of art. Perhaps the artist was already on to something years ago, when he withdrew the soul of his work from these surroundings. Perhaps his was more than just an artistic statement.