This morning, June 23 2006, the Musee du Quai Branly opened to the public. To mark the occasion, and to recognize the gift from Australia’s indigenous people to the Musee of the great paintings that adorn the administrative building (aka the Australian Indigenous Art Commission), a smoking ceremony was held in the amphitheatre of the Museum. It was a remarkable hour of dancing, singing, and speaking, with presentation of gifts from the Aboriginal people to officials of the Museum, including a wandurk figure from the Kunwinjiku, a wunda shield from the Pitjantjatjara, and dhari headresses from the Torres Strait Islanders.
A group of Yolngu dancers and songmen opened the ceremony, followed by musicians and dancers from the Torres Strait. Emma Councillor, a Gumbangirrir woman from New South Wales sang a contemporary version of a traditional song acknowledging the creator spirits. More dancing ensued, gifts were presented, and each of the artists or their representatives, the curators, and officials of the MQB spoke, often quite emotionally.
The farewell dances, performed amidst clouds of smoke from eucalyptus leaves, were especially astonishing. The Torres Strait Islanders performed with stunning hand-held dance machines that made the crowd gasp when they were opened up. When the Yolngu songman started the rhythms of their clapsticks, Merrki Ganambarr, who is married to Will Stubbs, jumped up from her seat and joined the group. She later told me that when the clapsticks start in the village, anyone will rise up and join. The joy in her movements and the smooth manner in which she spontaneously became part of the choreographed movements of the troupe were the highlight of the entire ceremony for me. I know intellectually that these stories and movements are shared among the people of the communities, but somehow at that moment I appreciated it in my gut and not in my head. In the final moments of the performance, when one of the Torres Strait Islanders reached out a hand to pull me out of my seat, along with other members of the audience, I joined the dance myself with a grin as big as I’ve ever worn.
During most of the ceremony, I was able to record events with the video feature of my new digital camera, so most of the photographs that follow are from the final moments of the speeches by the artists or from the concluding exchange of dances between the Yolngu and the Torres Strait Islanders.
The dancers and songmen after the first round of performances.
The entire ensemble, including TSI musicians.
At the conclusion of the speeches. I believe the gentleman on the left is Stephane Martin, director of the MQB. Along with him,left to right, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Hetti Perkins, Judy Watson, Brenda Croft, Paul Sweeney, John Mawurndjul mostly hidden (except for his sneakered feet) behind Philippe Peltier (liaison between the MQB and the Australian mob), Mary Knights from Irrunytju (Nyakul Dawson retreated to his seat in the audience after speaking to the crowd), and Linda Burney,representing the estate of Michael Riley. Down in front, the next generation, Gulmbu’s granddaughter Siena (Will and Merrki’s child) and Judy Watson’s daughter, who enjoyed themselves no end.
Gulumbu, Hetti, Judy, and Paul with the girls. Over Judy’s shoulder you can see a reflection of Brenda Croft taking a photo of this scene as well.
The TSI dancers about to present dhari to Stephane Martin and Philippe Peltier.
The TSI musicians.
Notice the closed dance machines in the dancers’ hands as they begin their steps.
The TSI dancers with their dance machines opened up and presented to the crowd.
Merrki (right, in purple) joins the Yolngu dancers and songmen.
The rhythm, the grace, the flight; and the Torres Strait Islanders join in.
The farewell dance continues.
The entire ensemble bids the crowd adieu.