At the Australian Embassy

I’ve not yet mentioned the Australian Embassy in my posts from Paris this week, and recognition of their efforts is now overdue. We are most grateful to Harriet O’Malley, the Cultural Attache here in Paris, for her wamrth and hospitality, and for helping us in every way she could. She provided us with invitations, smoothed our way through security at the Embassy when we came to visit the exhibition there, took time from her busy schedule to chat on the phone for a few minutes, and generally did everything she could to make us feel welcome in Paris and at the Embassy. Our hats are off to her. In the crush of the evening’s crowd, I never did manage to get introduced to her, though I did have the opportunity to chat briefly with her boss, Jeff Roach, who was equally charming and welcoming.

The Embassy is hosting two exhibitions in conjunction with the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly, exhibitions which will remain in place for the next six months. The major draw is the personal collection of Gabrielle Pizzi (the same show that was presented at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne in October of 2004). The works are beautifully presented here, and we had the place to ourselves (thanks in part to Harriet) for a couple of hours on Wednesday morning. Here are a couple of photos to give you a feel for the installation, which is much more extensive than presented here.

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The other exhibition at the Embassy offers details of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission’s development and construction. One of the fascinating maquettes included is a very early plan for the Commission which featured art solely on the ceilings, with two works from the Kimberley on the third floor ceilings, two from Arnhem Land on the second, two from the central desert on the first, and Michael Riley’s cloud series on the ground floor. There is also a showing of a film featuring each of the eight artists and offering short vignettes of their participation in the planning of the works in the Commission.

On Friday evening, June 23, the Embassy hosted a large reception (700 people by one count) for the Australian and French communities. Apart from copious food and drink, the evening featured another set of performances by the Yolngu and Torres Strait Islander dancers, as well as songs by Emma Councillor. 

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Gulumbu Yunupingu led the company onto the dance floor and stage.

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The Yolngu dancers led off the evening’s performance again.

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The Torres Strait Islanders presented two very vigorous, foot-stomping, sweat-breaking performances. The men led off and later on the women (standing in the background on the left) gave a dazzling workout as well.

After the dances, there were a series of speeches. First, Penelope Wensley, the Australian Ambassador to France made quite a nice bi-lingual presentation thanking all who had contributed to the success of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission. What was interesting about her format was that she spoke French when acknowledging the contributions of the host country and English when thanking her compatriots, but didn’t repeat anything she said in one language in the other. She spoke movingly of the contributions of the artists to the rapprochement of cultures between the two countries. She concluded by introducing the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Alexander Downer who had the politician’s good sense to keep his remarks extremely brief.

Chris Sarra, Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council, spoke next and brought down the house several times. He pulled no punches as he spoke of Aboriginal pride and of how the events of these week,and the whole work of the AIAC was just a single instance of what indigenous Australians are capable of. He blasted the media stories of late that have tried to paint Aboriginal culture as problematic and debased, and told white Australia that its indigenous people are waiting to welcome them whenever they are ready. In a week when many Aboriginal people made emotional and moving speeches, the fire on this speech was a fitting conclusion.

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Chris Sarra addresses the Embassy’s guests.

When all the speeches were over, Djakapurra Munyarryan took command of the stage for an impromptu speech and presentation of his own.
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He presented the Ambassador and Rhoda Roberts, the ceremonies’ artistic director,with feathered string that he detached from the dilly bag that he had worn about his neck during the evening performances.

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I don’t think that either woman knew this was going to happen; it certainly felt spontaneous. It was another of those incredible moments that happened throughout the day, one more example of the warmth and embrace of a broader world from within indigenous culture.

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As he turned back to the crowd, Djakapurra took the string back from the Ambassador for a moment to explain its meaning to the people in attendance. He spoke of how the decorations showed the mingling of fresh water and salt water that is a central metaphor in Yolngu thought, and the string as the encoding of his knowledge. Holding the string aloft, he announced, “This is my computer!”

The rest of the evening passed all too quickly visiting with old friends, having further conversations with folks I’d met earlier in the day, and being introduced to still more people. One special highlight of the evening for me was having Samantha Pizzi dash off to bring Brooke Andrew back for an introduction. I suspect I made a bit of a fool of myself in the excitement of the moment, but that’s part of what made it wonderful. When the party was finally over at ten o’clock, we headed back to our hotel, making a slight detour for one last look at the Australian Commission works at MQB in their nighttime illumination.

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