Exposition Coloniale Internationale 1931 | International Colonial Exhibition 1931 | Paris - Advertising a
Exposition Coloniale Internationale 1931 | International Colonial Exhibition 1931 | Paris - Advertising b
Exposition Coloniale Internationale 1931 | International Colonial Exhibition 1931 | Paris - Dutch Pavilion Interior a
Exposition Coloniale Internationale 1931 | International Colonial Exhibition 1931 | Paris - Dutch Pavilion Interior b

Exposition Coloniale Internationale

The Exposition

The exposition will have achieved its goal if, as a result of it, many young people develop a desire for a career in the colonies!
– Paul Reynaud, France’s Minister of the Colonies (1931 – 1932) / Prime Minister (1940)

Following World War I, France boasted the world’s largest colonial empire, encompassing 47 nations under its influence. The 1931 International Colonial Exposition in Paris aimed to unite these diverse peoples in the French capital. The primary goal? To educate the French public about the significance of their colonies.

However, the exposition harboured an underlying philosophy – the “mission civilisatrice,” a century-old belief justifying French colonialism. As Le Maréchal Hubert Lyautey, the Exposition’s Commissioner General, wrote, colonisation wasn’t just about infrastructure. It was about “instilling a humane gentleness” in the “wild hearts” of the colonised. The exposition, then, aimed to demonstrate the success of this mission, showcasing how colonial industries, though “primitive” compared to the “civilised” world, were progressing from savagery to civilisation.

Held from in Paris from 6 May to 15 November, 1931, the exposition drew a staggering 8-9 million visitors. This logistical marvel required 25 years of planning, over 1,000 days of construction, and the transformation of over 110 hectares in the Bois de Vincennes, including the zoo, a metro line extension, and a redesigned Porte-Dorée station.

However, modern critics have dubbed the Exposition a “human zoo” due to the presence of colonised people brought in to represent their homelands. These individuals lived in constructed pavilions throughout the event, donning traditional attire, and selling local crafts during the day, and performing cultural dances during the night for Parisian elites.

Major European powers like the Great Britain, Germany, and Spain declined the invitation to join the exposition. Ultimately, only five European states (Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, and Portugal) built pavilions alongside France.

The United States was the only non-European country exhibiting itself as a colonial power. The American building at the exposition was a replica of George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon, complete with the bedroom set aside for Lafayette. The inherent irony of the American exhibit – that it was housed in a building of the man who led the fight against colonial tyranny in the United States was evidently completely lost on both the French and the Americans.

The Dutch Pavilion

It (the Dutch pavilion) must express the exhibit’s bold and self-assured character. The following requirements are therefore paramount: the building must be original, and must preferably radiate an East Indies ambience. It may not, therefore, be a copy of an existing building, nor must it be designed in the ‘conventional exhibition style’.
– Program of requirements for the Dutch Pavilion. 1931

The Dutch Pavilion, situated in what is now the Paris Zoological Park, drew inspiration from various buildings and monuments across the Indonesian archipelago. Architects P.A.J. Moojen and W.J.G. Zweedijk designed the pavilion in sections, aiming to represent both the grandeur and the artistic heritage of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). The main pavilion, with its imposing 110-meter facade, covered a vast area of over 6,000 square metres.

While the architecture drew heavily on indigenous styles, the architects incorporated a modern twist, embracing Art Deco for the interior. This showcased products from the colony and emphasised the Dutch role as a facilitator of progress in the East Indies.

A “Balinese wall” connected the main pavilion to a smaller building housing representatives of Dutch companies. This wall featured a replica of a Candi Bentar, the traditional split gateway of Balinese temples. Entering through this portal, visitors found themselves in a recreated Balinese temple courtyard, complete with altars, towers, and decorated walls – a space dubbed the “Indigenous Square.”

A column by Gérard Houville in Le Figaro captured the pavilion’s mystique: “Bali, the island of Bali, baptised or not by this legendary character, is one of the beautiful possessions of Holland in the great Asian archipelago, and at the Vincennes Exhibition, it built its charming theatre in a place which, in the evening, seems slightly displaced and, under the dim lights, a little mysterious.

However, the Javanese anti-colonial newspaper Timboel offered a different perspective, criticising the aesthetics: “Who cares? Bourgeois Paris is flabbergasted because it doesn’t know any better!” They had previously warned against expositions becoming “a parade of eccentricities” that trivialised cultures.

Disaster struck on the night of 28 June. The Dutch Pavilion burned down when Princess Juliana of the Netherlands visiting Paris. This accident dominated French newspapers, with photos of the burning pavilion, firefighters battling the blaze, and Princess Juliana at the scene gracing the front pages. Even publications opposed to the exposition, like L’Humanité, covered the news.

The cause of the fire remained undetermined – theories ranged from a short circuit to flammable materials, even arson. The estimated material and cultural losses were staggering, reaching nearly 80 million francs. The French government reportedly compensated the Dutch East Indies for these losses, with the funds used to expand the Bataviaasch Genootschap museum.

The collections lost were irreplaceable. Priceless artefacts dating back centuries were destroyed. Just two years before his death, and still participating in gamelan rehearsals in Peliatan, the only memories that Anak Agung Mandera had of the exposition related to the accident were the fear of the fire as their “house” burned down.

As the fire did not reach the theatre, the Balinese shows were re-launched on 30 June, though without the matinée, and continued to be presented during the reconstruction work. The number of spectators at the Balinese shows increased considerably after the fire. 

The accident generated deep turmoil and compassion in the press, and the rapid reconstruction of the pavilion aroused general admiration. With a collection of pieces borrowed from the Trocadéro and Guimet museums, the Amsterdam Colonial Institute, wealthy collectors, and even from Queen Wilhelmina’s private collection, the new pavilion was reconstructed and reopened on 18 August.

Balinese Dance Troupes & Performances

From June to September 1931, a troupe of 51 Balinese performers (14 women and 37 men) captivated audiences at the Dutch Pavilion. Their stay, and the buzz it generated, extended well beyond their scheduled time. Initial press announcements in late June even confused them with a “Javanese” group, highlighting the geographical confusion prevalent at the time.

The Balinese truly stole the show on 18 June when L’Intransigeant splashed a photo and an intriguing headline: “Who would not be curious to see these women whose type of beauty is the pure Aryan race from which we come from: Do Balinese women deserve their reputation as the prettiest women in the world?La Liberté further fueled the exoticism with a front-page photo titled “Les Mille et Une Nuits Coloniales” (The Colonial One Thousand and One Nights), featuring dancers in Janger and Legong costumes.

The group presented at least three different dance programs throughout the exposition. The Participation Néerlandaise, l’Exposition Coloniale: Programme de la Musique et Des Danses offered a permanent schedule, while the Programme Officiel des Fêtes included additional dances and musical interludes during a specific week in July. Finally, the Gala Balinais on 4 September introduced the “mask dance” or Topeng.

Tjokorda Gde Raka Sukawati directed all three programs, but only a few performers were named. These included I Dewa Gede Raka (King Erlangga), Jero Djandra (Patih), Tjokorda Gede Rai Sajan (Pandoeng), and Ni Rimpeg (Laroeng). The gamelan conductor was I Dewa Gede Mandra, while Tjokorda Agung and Tjokorda Oka Tublen handled stage design.

The photo of Gala Balinais suggests a group of 45 performers (13 women and 32 men). Sources identify some dancers, like I Nyoman Kakul and Anak Agung Gede Mandera, as established artists. Others may have been from the circle of foreigners residing in or visiting Bali at that time, such as Walter Spies and Miguel Covarrubias.

The immense media attention surrounding the Balinese dances propelled Bali onto the international stage. These performances likely sparked awareness about the commercial potential of Balinese art forms among both locals and foreigners. Beyond its role in anthropological and exploratory pursuits, Bali was poised to become a destination for wealthy tourists.

Tjokorda Gde Raka Sukawati

During his time at the exposition, Tjokorda Gde Raka Sukawati, a member of Ubud’s royal house, emerged as the sole spokesperson for the Balinese group, readily interacting with journalists despite his limited French. A Paris-Soir reporter inquired about the group’s European experience. Tjokorda enthusiastically responded, “They are enchanted! Their trip was perfect. They had superb weather. The sea is divinity for us, so a bad trip would be considered a bad omen.” He further described their initial disorientation at the exposition, which they had quickly overcome.

Tjokorda Gde Raka Sukawati wasn’t just the group’s leader; he held significant political influence. He served as the first Balinese member of the Volksraad (People’s Council) in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), a position with symbolic and advisory power. He cultivated rapport with other royal families of the archipelago and Dutch administrators. His involvement with the Dutch East Indies Committee secured the Balinese performers’ participation in the exposition in France and the Netherlands.

Beyond his artistic vision and expertise, Tjokorda functioned as a privileged mediator and translator between the Balinese and the press, even when another translator was present. After the exposition, he continued his European sojourn, attending an agricultural course in the Netherlands. In 1932, he returned to France and married Gilberte Vincent, a French woman.

Following the Japanese occupation, he was appointed President of Negara Indonesia Timur or the State of Eastern Indonesia, a state that had a very short life, by the Dutch. After Indonesia gained independence, Tjokorda Gde Raka Sukawati permanently retired from politics.


There were dissenting voices surrounding the exposition, even in France. Leading left-wing Parisian newspapers like L’Humanité and Le Populaire dubbed the exposition “The Imperialist Fair of Vincennes,” exposing the supposed civilising mission as a cover for exploitative conquest.

Surrealists joined the fray. They distributed tracts urging people not to visit the exposition (“Ne Visitez Pas L’exposition Coloniale“). A leading figure, Aragon, even orchestrated a “counter-exposition” within a leftover pavilion from a previous fair. Here, using his friends’ personal collections, he showcased sculptures from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The aim? To show these artworks on their own terms, free from the imperialist atmosphere of the official “Permanent Museum of the Colonies.”

Socialist leader Léon Blum offered a scathing critique of the French Pavilion’s replica of the Angkor Wat. He pointed out the hypocrisy of celebrating exotic cultures while simultaneously repressing them in Indochina. “Here we have rebuilt the marvellous stairway of the temple of Angkor Wat, and we watch enthralled the sacred dancers; but, in Indochina, we are shooting, we are deporting, we are imprisoning these people,” he declared.

Many critics argued that the colonies were not simply the homes of exotic peoples and strange customs: they were the source of vital resources contributing to the health of the French economy. The relationship of France towards her colonies, as argued in all the official documents for the exposition, was one of reciprocity: in exchange for the benefits of French civilisation, the colonies would provide material goods to France.