Dateline Bilbao

We’re still a couple of days shy of arrival in Paris, and there’s hasn’t been much to report on in the way of matters Aboriginal from either London or Bilbao. We did stop in Hamilton Galleries in London, where the Papunya Tula show opens in ten days. It’s a wonderful space that should show off the artworks to great effect. It’s in a small,single-floor building in Mayfair, and although taller buildings rise to either side, a series of brilliant skylights provide illumination. We chatted extensively with Dominic du Plooy, the gallery assistant, who was more than congenial and very excited about the upcoming show. Unfortunately for us, the works were off being stretched, so we didn’t have a chance to preview them.

On the Parisian front, there have been a couple of articles lately about the Musee du Quai Branly and its Aboriginal art component. There’s some sense that the importance of the Australian contribution has been over-emphasized: at least the French seem to be taking the line that Australia is but one country among many who have contributed to the making of Chirac’s monument. They are also busy defending the museum as an institution that honors the world’s cultures, rather than one that glorifies France’s colonial empire: the politics look a little different to those in France than they do to proponents of Aboriginal art in other countries. On the Australian side, there seems to be a bit of a letdown. Miriam Cosic’s article in the Weekend Australian notes that some feel the art has been reduced to interior decoration. She also quotes Stephane Jacob, a longtime promoter of Aboriginal art in Paris, as warning that Australia must view the opening of the Musee as a beginning, rather than a culmination, expressing the hope that the Australia Council will assist in mounting exhibitions in Paris in the future.

These sentiments were echoed by Philippe Peltier, Branly’s curator of Pacific and Southeast Asian collections in another piece in the Weekend Australian today. Peltier bemoaned the difficulty of acquiring great examples of contemporary Aboriginal work, and said that it was up to the Australia Council and Australian museums to bring the work to Paris.

Given eighteen months of anticipation, and the sense that a recognition of the vibrancy of the contemporary artistic tradition among the Aboriginal community in Australia, it’s a little hard not to be disappointed that Branly doesn’t reflect more enthusiastic recognition of the art. I will withhold my own judgment until I can see the building and gauge its effect. The simple fact remains that no other European capital will have given Aboriginal art quite the same degree of literal visibility. 

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