Aborigines, Art, France: History in Review (Part 2)

Back to Part 1 A Decade of Exhibitions, 1983-1993

Within a decade of Kupka’s collection at the MNAAO establishing “the basis of Europe’s most significant collection of Australian Aboriginal barks” (Myers, p. 15), immense changes in the status of Aboriginal art were underway in Australia itself with the blossoming of the acrylic painting movement at Papunya. As Myers has documented elsewhere (Painting Culturepassim.), the Australian government approached the notion of providing support for the acrylic painting movement first from the perspective of preserving what remained of indigenous culture. As interest grew, and as acrylic painting was adopted in other communities in the early 1980s, Aboriginal art came to be viewed as one aspect ofAustralian artistic creativity. The validation of this work as “art” came at first with the acquisition of paintings from the Western Desert by the National Gallery in 1981 and the inclusion of Aboriginal artists in the Perspecta 81 exhibition in Sydney the same year (Myers, p. 21). While these events certainly did not remove the work entirely from the sphere of the ethnographic, they did signal an important change in how Australia viewed–and wanted others to view–the works of these indigenous artists.

The Aborigine as primitif contemporain and the export of indigenous art as part of the Australian national “imaginary” were both evident in Paris during the 1983 Autumn Festival,D’un autre continent: l’Australie la reve et le reel (From another continent: Australia, dream and reality). That exhibition had included a twelve square meter ground painting constructed by Warlpiri men from Lajamanu at the Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris.

Myers provides a lucid and lovely analysis of this exposition in his article, noting how the ephemeral quality of the Warlpiri painting played into the theme of “dream and reality,” echoing the Surrealist perspective that Breton had posited two decades earlier. At the same time, the fact that the ground painting was created specifically for the exhibition, and that the Warlpiri men were emphatic that it be destroyed afterwards, would, to the “untutored eye,” to borrow Breton’s phrase, make its presentation align with what Myers describes as the “artworld movement for dematerializing the art object” (Myers, pp. 20-22). 

Toward the end of the 1980s, government support for indigenous art in Australia was yielding to a new dynamic in the marketplace, with government galleries being superseded in large part by privately owned enterprises that presented the work in the context of contemporary art, that is, in white-walled galleries where the scent of the ethnographic was becoming harder to detect. In Paris, two major exhibitions located Aboriginal art in the modernist sphere, one in the context of global art movements, the other in a specifically Australian setting.

Held at the Musee National d’Art Moderne (familiarly known as the Pompidou Centre) in 1989, Magiciens de la terre (Wizards of the earth) was a global survey that brought works from French Africa, India, China , and Australia together with Western artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Anselm Kiefer and Richard Long. Long’s contribution, a large “mud painting,” was created on a wall directly above another Warlpiri ground painting. Other indigenous Australian artists in the exhibition included John Marwundjul, Jack Wunuwun, and Jimmy Wululu, and in this selection we can no doubt see the continuing influence of Kupka’s work. However, Myers describes Magiciens as “typically Modernist in its formal sensibilities–with each object’s meaning absolutely defined by visuality. No explanation or information was provided other than a plaque with the name, birth date, place of birth, place of residence of the artist, and title” (Myers, p. 23). 

The following year, L’ete australien a Montpellier (The Australian summer in Montpellier) offered indigenous artists including Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, Donkeyman Lee Tjupurrula, and George Milpurrurru in company with Arthur Streeton, Sidney Nolan, Tony Tuckson, Margaret Preston, and Tim Maguire. To quote Myers again,

This exhibition was similar both to the Festival of Autumn [D’un autre continent] and Magiciens de la Terre in including Aboriginal art and artists with other Australians and/or contemporary artists. Montpellier emphasized representations of the Australian landscape by traditional Aboriginals, Australian “impressionists,” “moderns,” and finally “contemporary” painters, a category which meaningfully included urban Aboriginal artists along with white Australian artists. (Myers, p. 24)

The exhibition was conceived as a retrospective of all Australian painting, “from the oldest to the youngest painting in the world,” as the headline of the catalog’s introductory essay boldly proclaimed. There is little doubt that the indigenous art was the star attraction. Aboriginal artists outnumbered their fellow Australians by a margin of two to one. Half of the catalog’s pages are given over to paintings from the desert, the Kimberley, and Arnhem Land created in the twenty years prior to the exhibition. The other half of the catalog covers the century prior, beginning with Australian Impressionism (subtly noting its derivation from French painting). And, as Myers points out, Robert Campbell Jr, Fiona Foley, Trevor Nickolls, and Lin Onus were counted among the “contemporary” painters in the exhibition’s categories. Indigenous painting thus becomes part of both the oldest and the newest tradition. 

The authors of the catalog’s essays (“not an anthropologist among them” notes Myers, p. 25) stress the artistic elements of the work. And the seemingly inescapable ghost of Andre Breton returns once again from the Preface of Dawn of Art to proclaim the proper approach: “Aimez d’abord!” (This is an awkward instruction to translate, and perhaps the reason the Preface was printed in both languages, but the sense of it roughly is, “First, you must love (these paintings)…later you can appreciate them intellectually.”) 

So the thrust of the presentation of L’ete australian is to treat the works as art, and to approach their creation from an art historical perspective, rather than an anthropological one. Myers points out that at the very last page of the catalog there is an interview with Jean-Hubert Martin, the Director of the Musee National d’Art Moderne and the man responsible for Magiciens de la terre the preceding year. In it Martin refers to a petition that he signed calling for the opening of a new section of the Louvre dedicated to the “so-called primitive arts.” Here is Myers’ summary:

The catalog ends with a short interview with Martin on the ‘globalization of cultures’ in which he argues for the concept of l’art premier to replace l’art primitif…. For museums to become places in which one looks for humanitarian and ethical values, Martin argues, it is necessary to place objects (or performances) from other societies on an equal footing, to have an exchange. These categories are part of the governmental script later proposed by Chirac to reorganize the museum structure in which non-Western art is displayed (Myers, p. 26).

The “Musee des arts premiers” was, of course, one of the proposed names for what is now the Musee du Quai Branly. Lurking within the concept of arts premiers is the sense that these are traditions that are in some way ongoing, native to cultures that survive today and that continue to produce these objects in a more or less traditional vein. The key, again, is “more or less,” and we have seen how, for Kupka, the art of Arnhem Land represented to purer exemplar of the “first arts” than the traditions of, for example, sub-Saharan Africa, which had been degraded by extensive contact with Western civilizations.

More importantly, as Myers notes, the concept of arts premiers was meant to place these aesthetic traditions on an equal footing with Western art, and to promote a genuine intercultural exploration. This indeed is precisely the chord struck by Chirac in his dedicatory address at the Musee du Quai Branly in June. (I posted some relevant sections and a link to the whole speech on July 8.) But how does one achieve the understanding implied by such an exchange if the art is presented, as it was in these exhibitions, in the manner of the Western art gallery–with minimal information about the work beyond the details of its creator?

The final exhibition to be mounted in this ten-year span was to some extent an attempt to answer that question. The story of La Peinture des Aborigenes d’Australie, the result of a collaboration between the anthropologist Francoise Dussart and the MNAAO curator Roger Boulay and held at the MNAAO in the latter half of 1993, is a story unto itself. It marked an attempt to present the art in its ethnographic context, if not as ethnographic in and of itself, and it generated a controversy that was still in play over a decade later when the Musee du Quai Branly opened its doors.

(A complete list of bibliographical references will be published with Part 4)

Continue to Part 3 

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