Plans of the Musee du quay Branly

The new Musee du Quai Branly (MQB) looks set to open during the third week of June this year, just two months from now. People in France are already protesting against Chirac, so the date must be real. The protests center around the Musee’s “mur vegetal” or vertical garden, as it’s translated into English, rather inadequately. “Wall of plants” doesn’t sound quite as elegant, I guess. From the photos available on the Musee’s website, it looks like a standard ivy-covered bulkhead, but as it contains over 150 species of plants and is claimed to be the result of “numerous observations made in nature over thirty years” by the architect, Patrick Blanc, it must be more than that.

Unfortunately, since the Musee is designed to house the ethnographic collections that formerly comprised the Museum of Mankind and the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts, Chirac is being accused of perpetrating a bad racist joke by hiding all those primitive people behind a jungle wall. Not to mention creating a ghetto for these works rather than integrating them into other, larger collections of art and thus dooming them still under the rubric of “art primitif.” The irony behind this fracas is that Chirac originally wanted the collections to be displayed in the Louvre, but was rebuffed by then director Pierre Rosenberg. 

While I was delighted last year to see paintings by Rover Thomas and Price of Wales hanging in proximity to Brett Whitely and Jeffrey Smart on the main floor of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I have to say that I’m equally delighted that there are spaces like Yirbana or the indigenous galleries of the Ian Potter Centre dedicated to extensive displays of indigenous art. I’m delighted at the prospect of going to Paris and seeing Karel Kupka’s collection of bark paintings well represented in the MQB, an idea that appeals far more than trying to hunt down a handful of works in the Louvre. In fact, the Louvre is contributing pieces of its collection to the MQB.

And the collection of the MQB seems quite staggering: 300,000 objects from across the globe, only 4,000 of which have ever been displayed to the public. Of the total, approximately 1,400 represent works by indigenous Australians made after 1950, including the 250 barks in the Kupka collection and 35 paintings from Central Australia purchased in 1990. Fifteen of those 35 will be on permanent display in the new facility.

The real architectural excitement of the MQB, though, is the incorporation of the works of eight Aboriginal artists into the design of the building–plans are now available on the Musee’s website. The work looks monumental in scale. A design by Lena Nyadbi was originally planned to be sandblasted into three stories of the facade of the building, but the work was found to potentially weaken the structure. Instead, layers of plaster are being used to recreate the Jimbala and Kumerra (Spearheads and Cicatrices) patterns in high relief.

Below the work by Lena, one of Paddy Bedford’s paintings in being reproduced, at ground level, by silkscreening the design onto large plate glass windows. Farther down the same side of the building, images from Judy Watson’s sacred ground beating heart series are engraved on the glass. These will run well over half the length of the building. Both works are stories of human misery, Bedford’s a massacre in Kija country, Watson’s on nuclear testing in the Pacific. On the other side of the building, near as I can tell, and below the vertical garden, Michael Riley’s Cloud series graces a glass wall along a ramp. 

The remaining works, with one exception, cover the ceilings of the four floors of the administrative section of the Museum. That’s the bad news: these areas won’t be open to the public, although the installations are done in a manner that is designed to allow them to be seen from the exterior of the building. 

John Mawurndjul’s work is situated in the bookstore at ground level, so perhaps that will be the most accessible of the painted works. On the ceiling is his 2003 bark paintingMardayin at Milmilngkan; the artist traveled to Paris in January of this year to supervise the reproduction. Photographs and a brief story about the work appeared in the ANKAA publication, The Arts Backbone, vol. 6 no. 2 (March 2006). In the corner of the bookstore, Mawurndjul painted a lorrkon design on a column five meters tall.

Above the staff entrance at the opposite end of the ground floor, and spanning the width of the building, is Judy Watson’s other contribution. Although the website attributes this work also to the sacred ground series, it is actually a reproduction of Two Halves with Bailer Shell from 2002. The medium is listed as “stainless steel with glass veneer.”

The ceilings of the first and second floors are covered with work by Ningura Napurrula and Gulumbu Yunupingu, respectively, and appear to cover much of the extent of the building. The final selection is perched at the end of the third and top floor, and is a reproduction in stainless steel and enamel of a colorful work by Tommy Watson that appears to represent snakes and waterholes in the desert. In one of the odd examples of the marriage of form and function, some of the dots in Tommy Watson’s design will actually be disguised smoke detectors. Altogether, the painted ceilings will cover over 1,000 square meters.

The French have not been popular in the United States since 2003, when France refused to support the war in Iraq. What Aussies call “chips” are known in America as French fries, although the restaurants that serve the US Congress briefly renamed them “freedom fries” in a sophomoric fit of pique. (I’m happy to report that the Congressman who championed this idiocy was the first casualty of the Abramoff scandal in Washington involving influence peddling and campaign finance fraud this year.) But don’t you have to find a warm place in your heart for Presidents who set out to leave museums as their legacy to their country? The Musee du Quai Branly is Chirac’s, as the Musee d’Orsay was Giscard d’Estaing’s, the Grand Louvre Mitterand’s, and the Centre Georges Pompidou…well the name speaks for itself.

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