Reflections on the Australian Indigenous Art Commission

I. The Press

More than two weeks have passed since French President Jacques Chirac formally opened the Musee du Quai Branly along with the deputation of Australian artists and advisors, curators, diplomats, and friends on June 20. News reports continue to appear, often in the most unusual places. On our way out of Paris, in the Charles de Gaulle airport, I was killing some time and picked up a copy of Paris Aeroports magazine (no 11, juin/June 2006) and was surprised while flipping the pages to see a photograph of John Mawurndjul’s painting from the ceiling of the bookshop. According to the magazine’s website, there was also a short television spot about the opening of MQB on the airport news channel, but we missed that. Throughout the summer, 252 copies of a large (4×3 meter) poster, one half of which features a shot of the atelier’s facade including Lena Nyadbi, Ningura Napurrula and Gulumbu Yunupingu’s contributions will adorn the ten terminals of Paris’s two major airports as well. With an estimated 20,000 passengers moving through the terminals between now and the end of August, that’s a lot of publicity.

Yesterday I received an email message from Michael Hutak, who writes for the Bulletin, with a link to his article “Quai to the kingdom,” an interesting pieces that summarizes and suggests some of the controversy that has attended the unveiling of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission in conjunction with the Musee’s opening. John McDonald’s Saturday (July 1) article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section has taken the Australia Council to task for “spinning” and “hyping” the Australian contribution to the MQB, rather unfairly, I thought, for if a major international public art commission isn’t something to trumpet, I don’t know what is. (Someday, if I ever catch up with my Google Alerts, I may try to put together a bibliography of the press reports from the last month. It’s an astonishing mixture of reviews, including stories out of the BangladeshIndependent and Cairo’s Al -Ahram among the most unexpected sources.) But while events are still somewhat fresh in my mind, I’m going to try to sort out what I heard and saw, and add some commentary to the photographs and descriptions I published during my week in Paris.

II. Australia v. France

It’s certainly true that press reports concerning the Musee du Quai Branly varied greatly in France and in Australia, but I think that was only to be expected. In the French context, MQB is another grand Presidential monument to culture and history. Chirac has been an enthusiast of the ethnographic since his teens, so his interest in creating this museum and monument to himself (he’s admitted that he would like the innocuous and politically correct/expedient name of the MQB to be replaced someday in the near future with his own). His tenure as President has been seen by many as undistinguished, and in particular his second term has been plagued by problems that MQB, begun ten years ago, has perhaps only served to highlight. There is no denying and no sweeping-under-the-carpet the resonances of colonial empire that account for the presence of many of the Museum’s collections in Paris. The unrest of the Muslim community in France and the riots that took place there earlier this year show that France, despite its official distance from US policy and its opposition to the war in Iraq, has not escaped the global problems of ethnic identity and its discontents that have bedeviled western governments in the early years of this century. The Musee du Quai Branly, with its artifacts drawn from the cultures of the conquered and dispossessed, has been a magnet for controversy of a political nature in Paris. 

Has Chirac hurt his own cause by drawing attention to these conflicts while doing little of practical import to resolve them? Or is he truly standing up for the preservation and celebration of diversity in the face of his critics on both sides of the political spectrum? Here are some excerpts (with thanks to Will Stubbs for sharing his copy with me) from the “Allocution de Monsieur Jacques Chirac President de la Republique a l’occasion de l’inauguration du Musee du quai Branly” (“Address … at the Opening of the Musee du Quai Branly”):

Central to our idea is the rejection of ethnocentrism and of the indefensible pretension of the West that it alone bears the destiny of humanity, and the rejection of false evolutionism, which purports that some peoples remain immutably at an earlier stage of human evolution, and that their cultures, termed “primitive”, only have value as objects of study for anthropologists or, at best, as sources of inspiration for Western artists.

… That diversity is a treasure that we must preserve now more than ever. In globalisation, humanity is glimpsing the possibility of unity, that age-old dream of the Utopians, which has become the promise of our destiny. At the same time, however, standardisation is gaining ground, with the worldwide expansion of the law of the market. But who can fail to understand that when globalisation brings uniformisation it can only exacerbate tensions between different identities, at the risk of igniting murderous violence? Who does not feel a new ethical imperative, faced with the confusing questions thrown up by the rapid development of scientific knowledge and our technological achievements? As we search falteringly for a development model that would conserve our environment, who does not seek out another way of looking at man and nature?

That is also the idea behind this museum. To hold up the infinite diversity of peoples and arts against the bland, looming grip of uniformity. To offer imagination, inspiration and dreaming against the temptation of disenchantment. To show the interaction and collaborations between cultures, described by Claude Levi-Strauss, which never cease to intertwine the threads of human adventure. To promote the importance of breaking down barriers, of openness and mutual understanding against the clash of identities and the mentality of closure and segregation. To gather all people, who, throughout the world, strive to promote dialogue between cultures and civilisations.

These are the issues that Chirac has presented to the French people along with the Musee du Quai Branly. And let us not forget that this is a French museum, a Parisian museum, a newcomer of sorts in a capital that prides itself on being in some ways the cultural capital of the world. There have been many debates in France, practically settled by the opening of MQB, but some of the participants are still smarting. Chirac battled with the Louvre over the proper display of art work from non-Western peoples; the Musee de l’Homme, which was largely absorbed into MQB, still looks upon the whole proposition as pillage.

Understandably, the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly played quite differently in the Australian media. Curatorial squabbles are of little interest to those directly unaffected by them; Australian interest in French colonialism hasn’t been very high since LaPerouse sailed out of Botany Bay in 1788. But a million-dollar commission to create a monumental public art work in the City of Light? As a headline in the Australian Financial Review put it recently (Katrina Strickland, June 30), “there’s no doubt that aboriginal art is now the international face of Australian art.” Even Richard Bell agrees in a new work that rings changes on his Telstra-award winner: “Australian art, it’s an Aborginal thing.” I don’t blame the Australia Council one bit for being proud of this achievement. No, Australia was not the focal point of the week’s activities, and yes, it was maybe only “a tiny piece of the jigsaw” as McDonald put it. But it was not an insignificant contribution either.

III. Misadventures in Wonderland

I think that a great deal of the disappointment and discontent that’s been expressed over the opening of the MQB actually is the result not so much of “spin” but rather of the maelstrom of confusion engendered by the frantic race to have the museum presentable to the public by opening day. 

After talking with many of the Australians and others interested in the project–both those who traveled to Pairs and some who did not–our own experience with the events of opening week seems to have been fairly typical. Even Parisians were at a loss to know what was happening and when. The Museum was a bit of a madhouse, and no one really seemed to know what was going on. Construction workers were everywhere; we got on a elevator and descended to what we thought was the ground floor but retreated back the way we came when the doors opened on a symphony of saws and hammers. On opening day, movers were carting plastic crates full of files and office supplies in through the service elevator that faced the Paddy Bedford installation. (Couldn’t they have waited until Monday when the festivities were concluded and the visitors dispersed?) Staff couldn’t answer questions, and were trying vainly to communicate with one another via radiophones that weren’t working very well or at all. Everyone made the entirely reasonable assumption that the MQB was in charge and that staff from the museum would be coordinating events and providing information and invitations. When this proved to be decidedly not the case, the Embassy was overwhelmed by requests for help, and to their credit they worked overtime (in some cases quite literally) to make arrangements for visitors to the events, but inevitably they were unable to answer all inquiries. (I’ll repeat that they did a damn fine job by us, though.) 

The advance publicity that the Museum did provide about what was happening was either wrong, preliminary, or subject to change at a moment’s notice. Chirac’s opening was originally scheduled for Tuesday afternoon; it happened on Tuesday morning. I don’t know why or when the change occurred (I doubt it was for George Bush-like reasons of security and disinformation). Nor do I understand why I received an invitation to the Monday afternoon press conference, which was supposed to have a very restricted invitation list; indeed, anyone who happened to be at the Embassy that afternoon was allowed in, invitation or no. (We were still unfortunately en route from the airport to our Paris hotel at the time and so missed it altogether.) There were multiple previews for Friends of the Museum, art dealers, collectors, and who knows what other groups, and the distribution of invitations remained mysterious throughout the week. (We went on Wednesday afternoon, and saw no one we knew in the rather small crowd in our time slot. Friends went on Tuesday afternoon or Thursday evening, and there seemed to be no logic to the timing.)

And then, of course, there was the matter of gaining admission to the administrative/conservatorial atelier where that AIAC is housed. I think no other single issue raised such a furor among the Australian contingent that week. Indeed, in most of the critical reports I read in the press, the denial of access to the curatorial building was frequently advanced as the most damning evidence of what a boondoggle the whole affair had turned out to be. I’ve done my own share of complaining in previous posts about the inaccessibility or invisibility of some of the artworks that comprise the Commission.

But there was a sense that we were being denied access to the proper view of these artworks that we had all traveled so far to see. Shut out for the almost the entire week, we started wondering how seriously the French took this art, and whether indeed, it was merely to be, literally, window-dressing, decor and not art. Offense was in the air. Accusations of arrogance flew both ways: the French didn’t understand the importance of this art; the Australians overestimated that importance in the grand scheme of the Museum. (To some extent, maybe both judgments were correct, but that, I think, turned out to be beside the point.) It didn’t help that the locals still spoke of the round-the-clock presentation of the artwork: lit up at night, with the grandeur of the sparkling Eiffel Tower in the near distance, it presented indigenous Australian art in a dramatic fashion for all to see, twenty-four hours a day. Our sense of grievance wasn’t alleviated when, upon visiting the Commission at night, we discovered that half the lights were turned off, perhaps by an environmentally zealous Parisian public servant.

IV. Success at Last

But by the official opening day for the public, Friday June 23, much of the anxiety and apprehension faded away. The morning’s dedication and symbolic handover of the Commission from the artists and the Australian contingent was a rousing success, and as far as I am aware, the only major event of the opening week apart from Chirac’s address on Tuesday. And that event was uniquely Australian and indigenous. If the Commission was about an exchange of cultural information, the ceremony could not have been more appropriate. 

As I later watched the video I took of the opening dances I realized that the performance was quintessentially Aboriginal. First the Yolngu men danced. Then the Torres Strait Islanders performed. Then the fire that had been quietly smoking throughout the morning was stoked with eucalyptus leaves and the smell of Australia permeated the Parisquartier. And then–and this is what I realized only later–the Torres Strait Islanders joined in the swaying dances of the Yolngu, to be followed by the Yolngu taking part in the foot-stomping steps of the Islanders. This was an exchange of ceremony and culture, and the presentation of wandurk and wunda and dhari to the French saw it through to its appropriate conclusion. This was indeed Australia’s gift to the world, as Gulumbu Yunupingu said many times that week.

Following the ceremonies, the chance came at last to enter the curatorial building and get a good close look at the installations. And that was indeed the moment of revelation when everything snapped into place for me.

First of all, it was obvious once you got into the hallways and the rooms of the upper floors that these are not “artworks” in the way we’re accustomed to thinking of them when we prepare ourselves to encounter a painting by Gulumbu or Ningura or Tommy. By and large, they don’t work that way, especially in the long hallways with their mirrors and windows. The designs are necessarily fragmented, chopped up, and lacking in the structural coherence we expect from paintings. Things work a bit better in the large rooms at the end of the building, perhaps because the more rectangular surface to which the designs have been applied more nearly approximates a conventional canvas or bark shape.

Secondly, it’s obvious that this is not art reduced to decor, and if it were the decorators would never get another job. One gets used to anything, I suppose, but I can’t help thinking that the people who work in these spaces will need quite some time to get adjusted to the dazzle of these designs from up close. I heard numerous mentions of “wallpaper,” but even Andy Warhol’s cows and Maos pale in comparison to this installation as wallpaper. It’s just too much, too bright, and too large. Look back at the photosfrom inside these spaces. One of Gulumbu’s stars is four times the size of my head; the small dots in the Tommy Watson are bigger than a man’s fist. The light bouncing off these paintings is almost blinding, even on an overcast day. This is not decor.

After walking through these spaces I finally came to understand what I’d been reading, if not hearing, all along. This is a grand public art work, and it has its own rules and its own way of being seen. The artists’ vision is essential to the experience, of course, but it has been transmuted. I don’t think it’s even fair to say that this is art in service to architecture, a pointless critique I also heard several times during the week. This really is a melding of art and architecture in a fashion that is very European. It takes one aback if approached as “indigenous art” with all the baggage, good and bad, that accompanies that expectation. I was a little stunned at first to read the caption on the photograph of Mawurndjul’s work in Paris Aeroports that said that the work “can be related to the 17th century European tradition of ceiling painting.” Yes, exactly. In fact, as far back as December 20, 2004, Jeremy Eccles wrote the same thing in the Financial Times.

Architect Jean Nouvel developed his ideas for the Aboriginal contribution to Quai Branly from the familiar Parisian experience of looking up through long 19th-century windows to see a house’s decorative ceiling. But he’s taken it further in the museum by adding mirrors that will project the art out through the windows. So Western Desert woman Ningura Napurrula will watch her secret women’s story repainted on to the first floor ceiling, becoming kinetic as it’s reflected into the world. And on the two floors above Irrunytju man Tommy Watson’s work will actually become part of the ceilings on enamelled steel panels that will fit smoke detectors into his irridescent dots.

Once I was able to let go of my expectations, I found I enjoyed the work greatly, especially from the street from where “it is meant to be seen.” And it is, perhaps most importantly, an exchange, an intercultural phenomenon, just as indigenous art is itself. Paris has never seen the like of these painted ceilings, and indigenous Australian art has never been given such an enormous platform for public display. It’s a vast, hybrid work of public art, and taken on its own terms, I think it’s a fabulous success overall. I think it’s no mean feat to employ the work and imagery of invited Aboriginal artists and translate it into a contemporary architectural setting without compromising the integrity of the work. The artisans in Sydney and Paris who created these architectural versions needed to come to an understanding of the artists’ styles and techniques that many afficianados of the “real thing” may not possess, and although I understand that the process of translation was often fraught, in the end, with the notable exception of Paddy Bedford’s design, I think they did justice to the originals.

Nor is the opening of the Musee and the handover of the Commission to the French the end of it. As Hutak reports in the Bulletin, $150,000 of the Harold Mitchell bequest has been designated for the support of curatorships over the next three years that will allow young indigenous curators to travel to Paris to develop new projects in conjunction with the MQB. As a career development opportunity for indigenous curators, this strikes me as a great idea and a wonderful opportunity to build expertise in the curation of indigenous art back in Australia. The Mitchell grant will also support a publications program, and as my last post argued, the more documentation and publication of material about indigenous art can be accomplished, the better for everyone, artists, curators, galleries, historians, and the general public included.

One may wish that the Commission had a more prominent place in the overall plan of the Museum. Alternatively, one may suppose that busloads of tourists on their way to the Eiffel Tower will be disgorged at the main riverside entrance and head straight for the bookstore. They may even proceed in the most direct route from there to the Tower, down the rue de l’Universite, and past the jimbala-emblazoned facade and the panels that explain, in French and English, who were the artists who created these striking visual displays for the building. One could wish that these panels of credits were larger and more noticeable themselves, but the important thing is that they are there and some people will see them and learn from them about a dynamic cultural phenomenon. The acrylic paintings on display inside the Museum remain, to my knowledge, the only contemporary art in the collection. Visitors who see the display of Karel Kupka’s collections of barks may also see the film clip of Mawurndjul preparing and painting his works, and then see the bookstore’s ceiling. 

I think that what we’re getting to see right now is history in the making. 

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