Aborigines, Art, France: History in Review (Part 3)

 

Back to Part 2 

Art, Anthropology and a Museum of Civilization

In the mid-80s, Roger Boulay, then the curator of the Oceanic collections at MNAAO, was seeking to add a wing devoted to the Oceanic collections (which include Australia) to the Museum. He was also striving to help create a unique space in the Parisian museum world for his institution, to define it in contradistinction to the Musee de l’Homme and to the Louvre. This became an even more important issue after 1993, when the French Ministry of Culture re-organized the country’s museum administration and required individual museums to “demonstrate their importance and distinction” (Myers, p. 18). One way in which he sought to do this was to emphasize the contemporary nature of the MNAAO’s collections. To this end, the Karel Kupka barks suited his purpose extremely well.

He found an ally in French anthropologist Francoise Dussart, who had introduced acrylic painting in Yuendumu in the mid-80s through her work with the women of that community. Dussart had tried to interest the French Embassy in Australia in purchasing of some of these early Yuendumu acrylics without success, but engaged Boulay’s interest during a research trip to Paris in 1985 (Myers, p. 16). For perhaps differing reasons, both Dussart and Boulay were interested in presenting Australian Aboriginal art in a context that emphasized it as a vital tradition. 

Boulay was working in an environment (the MNAAO) with collections that were primarily drawn from the former French colonies in Africa in a city (Paris) where the sharp distinction between fine art and ethnographic arts was not to be underestimated. The French attitude towards the art of its colonial possession was that such art represented a “decadent” tradition, vitiated by contact with Europe. The Australian traditions, on the other hand, were seen as untainted and authentic, not a surprising view if one takes the Kupka collection as a starting point. These works, collected only two or three decades earlier, were sui generis, and in both style and materials, clearly not marked by European contact. Boulay was interested in that tradition, and felt that it deserved explication to the visitors to his museum. 

Dussart, after years of working with the women at Yuendumu, understood that there existed the deep meaning behind the designs that had been transferred to a new medium, and believed strongly that a full appreciation of the work demanded cognizance of their meanings. Further, Boulay was reacting against the beaux arts point of view in Paris with its emphasis on pure aesthetics and emotional response, a philosophy he found all too reminiscent of the nineteenth century (Myers, p. 17). It doesn’t take too much stretching to translate this into the “New Age” appreciation of Aboriginal art and culture that many of us react against in the popularization of the work over the last decade or so.

There were political issues at work as well. Boulay’s desire to position the MNAAO as an institution unlike both the scientifically oriented Musee de l’Homme and the more purely art historical Louvre spoke to the French discovery “of the formerly non-Western world at its doorstep” (Myers, p. 18) in the form of greatly increased immigration from the former French colonies. (An interesting and unusual aspect of French government is that these territories, collectively known as France d’outre-mer, or “overseas,” have representation in the French parliament and their denizens French citizenship.) The MNAAO was therefore concerned to present itself as not a colonial institution, but rather one that celebrated cultures from around the globe. If the Kupka collection could be, with Dussart’s advocacy, enriched by the acquisition of contemporary acrylic paintings from Australia, the legitimacy of this point of view would be enhanced. And to tangle the skein of Franco-Australian politics just a bit further, Australia had recently spent heavily to acquire French telecommunication satellites in preparation for the deployment of Aussat; French investment in indigenous Australian artistic capital looked like an appropriate quid pro quo of sorts (Myers, p. 19).

But there were aesthetic politics in the mix as well. Elizabeth Churcher, who was Director of the National Gallery of Australia at the time, was not at all pleased with the notion of an exhibition at the MNAAO under the curation of an anthropologist or two–Boulay and Dussart. Churcher wanted this newest exhibition held in a fine arts museum or a contemporary art gallery. In Australia at this time, early in the 1990s, the government was withdrawing from its financial and commercial interest in Aboriginal art as the independent galleries in the capital cities and Alice Springs began to play an increasingly important role in the art market. This shift in the official position from the ethic of preserving Aboriginal culture before it disappeared to encouraging the promotion of Aboriginality in the fine arts marketplace and as a symbol of the uniquely Australian contribution to world culture was at odds with the French continuing interest in the art as a modern-day ethnographic phenomenon, “emphasizing a dynamic art in its sociopolitical context” (Myers, p. 29).

Parisians, on the other hand, were offended that Churcher presumed to dictate to them how to organize culture in their capital, and “irritated that she didn’t realize that getting any space in Paris–including MNAAO–would be a coup” (Myers, p. 28). Churcher’s attitude implied that while Australia had moved beyond regarding Aboriginal art as a celebration of the primitive, the French hadn’t quite caught up to the Antipodean Enlightenment yet. Each party ended feeling misunderstood and unappreciated and ultimately aggrieved. (This should sound familiar to anyone who was in Paris in June 2006 for the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly, non?)

When the exhibition, La Peinture des Aborgienes d’Australie, finally opened in May of 1993 at the MNAAO, it seems that all the players had thoroughly misunderstood one another and that no common ground might be found among the MNAAO, the NGA, and the Australian Embassy. The exhibition itself was divided into two main parts: the barks collected by Kupka, and the acrylic paintings acquired by Boulay in 1991. The original documentation by Kupka for his works, along with historical records of early French exploration of Australia, however, were located among the acrylic paintings. Finally, outside the perimeter of the space devoted to these artworks, a selection of photographs by John Lewis, entitled “First Peoples” and depicting scenes of contemporary Aboriginal life in the early 1990s, was installed. Myers reports that the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was unhappy about this addition to the exhibition, presenting as it did the “hard situation, less than glamorous” of contemporary Aboriginal living conditions (Myers, pp 29-30). It seems as if the show struggled to present the work as fine art, and yet was unable to provide the explanatory background required to inform viewers of the cultural significance of the work.

Dussart’s catalog for the exhibition attempted to provide the necessary balance, although as Myers notes, one of the persistent problems of contemporary art exhibitions is 

not that information is withheld, as it is often claimed to be for modern art, but that it is provided somewhere other than next to the work of art–at another place, at some other time, in another medium. Rather, one is supposed to compartmentalize the experience with the work from information and critical discussion of it, which should not ‘come between’ one and the work at the moment one is having an ‘experience.’ (Myers, p. 33)

The catalog opens with an avant-propos that pays homage to Kupka, as it understandably should. The essays that follow attempt to place Aboriginal art in context, and to describe the slow penetration of its appreciation by non-indigenous people, a process, in France at least, in which Kupka plays an almost heroic role. Dussart offers fine reproductions of many of the works, complete with brief expositions of the stories behind most them. She also sketches out the place and importance of “art” in Aboriginal culture. My favorite anecdote from these pages, which appears early in the catalog, tells the story of Dussart and the Yuendumu artist Dolly Nampijinpa in the presence of Degas paintings in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Dolly asks if the scenes in the paintings represent religious ceremonies, and Dussart explains that no, these dancers are preparing to perform for people who have come to the theater for amusement. Dolly responds, “Well, then, these aren’t important paintings.”

In many ways, the experience of the MNAAO in presenting this exhibition draws together all the contentious threads of the Parisian experience of indigenous arts, Australian and otherwise. The politics of competition among the three primary institutions with a stake in the subject–the MNAAO, the Musee de l’Homme and the Louvre certainly influenced curatorial decisions. The MNAAO sought to distinguish itself, to find its unique place in presenting cultural material in Paris, and in doing so grappled with the perennial issues of art vs. ethnography. No one seems able to hold these two contradictory viewpoints in mind at once and consider the objects on display as both, perhaps, as Myers points out, because current perceptions of art objects and experiences in France (and elsewhere, for certain) demand that the artistic experience of the viewer in necessarily unmediated; ethnography is a mediating discipline almost by definition. 

And finally, the differences of opinion among potential participants, French and Australian, museological and governmental, point up the other inescapable fact. The presentation of art works in any culture is intimately and often unconsciously bound up in cultural–and in this case national–agendas. The French concept of “the other” and their search for universal essentials born of a long philosophical tradition in French thought result in a certain approach to the understanding and hence the presentation of cultural material. The Australian imagination, on the other hand, places value on the notion of Aboriginal art as both ancient (“the world’s oldest continuing culture”), which gives a certain legitimacy to a young nation, and at the same time modern, showing that that ancient culture is a vibrant and dynamic part of the Australian identity on the world stage today. Given these disparate approaches, conflict seems inevitable. The conflict would emerge again a scant three years later as Chirac began the planning for his new museum.

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

Continue to Part 4

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