Aborigines, Art, France: History in Review (Part 4)

Back to Part 3 

The Genesis of the Musee du Quai Branly

Sarah Amato does an excellent job of delineating the role of public museums in representing “the ideologies of a colonial state, and how these ideologies may be manifested in the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘ethnographic’ collections (Amato, p. 49) She also does a fine job of detailing the political and aesthetic battles that were waged in Paris over the proper placement and presentation of materials from non-Western culture–the tensions between the “natural history” viewpoint of the Musee de l’Homme, the “history of civilization” as presented by the MNAAO, and the conservative traditions of the Louvre, which only reluctantly acceded to Chirac’s demand for the placement of cultural objects from those under-visited ethnographic collections in its Salle des Sessions within Paris’s defining museum of civilized culture. I have alluded in passing to these issues throughout these posts, and in earlier discussion of the MQB. Here, I simply want to present a brief timeline of the MQB’s history, in keeping with my intent to review the history of Aboriginal art as received in Paris.

The formal genesis of the MQB came about as the result of a 1996 report from a commission “set up to study the most appropriate means for giving primitive art its rightful place in French museums” (Amato, p. 56). The report recommended the creation of a new institution with a tripartite mission: conservation, research, and education. It is interesting to note that at this point, the art is still described as “primitive,” and the political element of recognizing the cultural equivalence in value of these collections that Chirac would come to foreground, is here absent. However, in discussing the “verbal acrobatics concerning the naming of the museum,” Amato notes that “removing the termprimitif from common vocabulary seems to be one of the principal educative objectives of the project” (Amato, p. 58).

In 1999, a competition was held to select the architectural design of the new museum. According to Amato, Jean Nouvel’s winning entry “was heralded for its integration of urban concerns and the requirements of the collections in a design that ‘will evoke other worlds'” (Amato, p. 60). The notion of incorporating Aboriginal art into the design of the building was already in Nouvel’s mind at that time, according to Stephane Martin, Director of the Musee du Quai Branly (Australian Indigenous Art Commission, p. 7.) He envisioned deploying the vibrant, stimulating energy of Aboriginal painting on the ceilings of the curatorial building, visible from the street through long windows, thus effecting an architectural marriage of the Parisian tradition of ceiling decoration with the imagery of one of the cultures celebrated in the museum’s collections. 

It was not until 2003, however, that the Australian Indigenous Art Commission was created to attend to the particulars. The final selection of the eight artists included in the Commission was announced by Brenda Croft and Hetti Perkins in October of 2004 (Neill, p. 14). In an interesting footnote to the art/ethnography “dilemma,” Jeremy Eccles, reporting in The Financial Times, states that John Mawurndjul found it difficult to decide which of his styles to choose–the traditional paintings of the Rainbow Serpent or the more abstract mardayin designs–for inclusion in the project.

Before returning to a final consideration of the Aboriginal Indigenous Art Commission and its place in the history of Aboriginal art on display in Paris, however, I want to turn to two other exhibitions that occurred in Europe between the announcement of Nouvel’s design in 1999 and its eventual “unveiling” at the opening ceremonies of the MQB in 2006.

The Continuing Presence of Karel Kupka

The next major exhibition of Aboriginal art in France (at least that I am aware of) was Au Centre de la Terre d’Arnhem: entre mythes et realites art aborigene d’Australie (In the Heart of Arnhem Land: myth and the making of contemporary Aboriginal art) held in the latter half of 2001 at the Musee de l’Hotel-Dieu in Mantes-la-Jolie, which lies just northwest of Paris. The exhibition was a joint endeavor by the Musee and Maningrida Arts and Culture; the work on display came from the Kupka collection at the MNAAO, private collectors in France and Switzerland, the Djomi Museum in Maningrida, and the inventories of Maningrida Arts and Culture itself. The work of fifty-six artists was presented, including bark paintings, carved and woven sculptures, and prints.

In the Preface to the catalog for the exhibition co-curators Anne Claire Ducreux (from Mantes-la-Jolie) and Fiona Salmon (from Maningrida) note that “the exhibition and the accompanying catalog seek to illuminate the opposing notions of continuity and change, key concepts in the appreciation of Maningrida art.” (Au Centre, p. 8). The title of the first essay in the catalog indicates this concept of progress as well: “At the Forefront: art from Maningrida and beyond.” 

In his essay on Kupka, Philippe Peltier (who succeeded Boulay as curator of the Oceanic collections at the MNAAO and who now occupies that position at the MQB) also stresses the concept of change brought on by contact with Europeans. He notes that one of Kupka’s achievements and a central focus of the Sorbonne thesis was the identification of individual artists and their styles. Such an approach is essential, in Western eyes, to the identification of cultural objects as art. In the context of Au Centre’s emphasis on change as well as continuity, this is a critical difference. (It is ironic, however, that it undermines Kupka’s fervent wish to see the preservation of traditional painting’s primitive or brut character.)

The notion of change introduced by contact with Westerners is alluded to as well in Apolline Kohen’s interview with John Mawurndjul. To be balanced in the presentation here, Mawurndjul attributes the greatest share of change in contemporary Maningrida art to his own creativity and influence; but then, doesn’t such a boast by an indigenous artist fly in the face of received wisdom about the importance of following up the Dreaming in a precise manner? Again, to be fair, Mawurndjul’s remarks focused far more on continuity than on change, and he is adamant in his insistence on adhering to traditional principles and practices in regard to the sacred dimension of his and others’ work.

As the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly approached in the years following Au Centre de la Terre d’Arnhem, Mawurndjul was often center stage in media coverage of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission. As the work progressed from planning to execution in 2005, Mawurndjul was preparing for the opening of his massive retrospective,<<rarrk>> in Basel, Switzerland, and in September, he traveled to Paris on his way to Basel to paint the large wooden column that now dominates the street-side corner of the Musee’s bookshop. In an article by Emma-Kate Symons published in The Australian on September 9, 2005, Apolline Kohen was quoted: “His level of involvement is quite different from [that of] the other artists. … He said, ‘I really want to see the building before I make any decision about it.’ [He is] one artist who was basically doing something that was not just a reproduction….” (Another article, by James Button, featuring a full-color photograph of Mawurndjul with the Eiffel Tower in the background appeared the following day in the Sydney Morning Herald.) Inside the Musee, next to the display of Kupka’s barks is hung a large painting of a horned incarnation of the Rainbow Serpent by Mawurndjul; the portion of interactive video displays in the Musee that deal with Australia include a filmed interview with Mawurndjul as well. 

Naturally, <<rarrk>> included, as part of the historical context for Mawurndjul’s work, a selection from Kupka’s collection in Basel. As referred to above, the catalog devoted an essay to Kupka and his career as well. And I suspect that the ultimate placement of Mawurndjul’s work in the prominent ground floor location of the bookstore–the only interior space of the Commission that is open and accessible to the public, was influenced by the Parisian connection to Kupka. (It had originally been intended for display on the second floor ceiling, as shown in the plans that were on display during the opening week exhibition at the Embassy of Australia in Paris). Over forty years after Kupka presented the results of his collecting enterprises to the MNAAO, his influence in Paris remains undiminished and perhaps even enhanced.

The Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, 2006

The issues of art and ethnography continue to be contentious in the new Museum, at least from the Australian perspective. I didn’t have a great deal of time to explore all of the Museum’s exhibits, but in what I saw, I found no other contemporary works, artifacts, or art. Thus while it is thrilling to see contemporary acrylic painting included in the Museum’s collection of arts premiers, the entirely ethnographic context tends to draw the work out of the realm of art and back into that of cultural curiosity.

On the other hand, it is hard to see the works of the AIAC as anything other than art. The question remains, will anyone associate those works with the Australian tradition inside the Museum’s walls? Indeed, will anyone realize that the stunning designs on display in the architecture of the curatorial building represent a dynamic contemporary artistic movement? And an indigenous Australian one at that?

Perhaps in this respect, it truly will be important that the Mitchell Foundation’s support for indigenous curatorships in Paris be used to build on what was begun by Kupka, enhanced by Boulay, and magnified by the AIAC. There is a long history here, as I hope I have shown; now it’s time to start working on the future. Contemporary Aborginal art is doubtless fine art; it is also a magnificent contemporary expression of a culture that most people have yet to be seriously introduced to. A little ethnography never hurt anyone. But perhaps the inquisitive, scientific gaze can shift its focus away from Karel Kupka’s barks a bit in the next few years.

For the French, happily or unhappily, the tensions among the Musee de l’Homme, the MNAAO, and the Louvre have been resolved. The collections of the first two have a new home, new visibility, and better conservatorial oversight. Whether the new Museum can live up to Chirac’s dream of promoting intercultural respect and harmony remains to be seen. 

I’d like to close with two views of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission, 2006, drawn from the commemorative volume published on the occasion of the Museum’s opening:

The Musee du quai Branly represents a major advance in the presentation of Australian culture abroad. … The Australian Indigenous Art Commission at the Musee du quai Branly presents the world with an exciting expression of the culture of Australia’s first peoples. Strikingly beautiful and evocative, and sweeping in their scope and significance, the works will serve as a permanent reminder of the vitality of the culture and of its evolving, yet enduring, nature. Embedded in the very structure of the new museum, the Commission will transmit a powerful message about Australia to the millions of visitors who view it each year, and about the way in which Indigenous art has itself become embedded in our national identity and consciousness.

Penelope Wensley AO Ambassador of Australia to France

These contemporary artists are the heirs of the Aboriginal painters from the 1970s. By transposing their ancient culture into a contemporary artistic vocabulary, thereby creating one of the most important art movements of recent times, there artists have both preserved their traditions and rendered them accessible to today’s audiences. They have also drawn the world’s attention to the contours of their cultural identity. The Australian Indigenous Art Commission at the Musee du quai Branly is the most important permanent installation of contemporary Australian Indigenous art outside Australia. Located in the heart of Paris, the museum is testimony to the enormous vitality of Australian Indigenous art, and is destined to become one of the most emblematic expression of Australian Indigenous culture abroad.

Stephane Martin Director, Musee du quai Branly

Both statements are appropriately laudatory, but interestingly, the first speaks more of the statement that the AIAC will make about Australia while the second stresses the impact of the indigenous tradition. This is not so far removed from the Australian and French perspectives, respectively, that became caught up in the MNAAO exhibition La Peinture des Aborgienes d’Australie in 1993. One represents a celebration Australian identity on the international stage. The other focuses our gaze on the preservation and presentation of indigenous culture in the cultural capital of the Western world. Both perspectives are valid, and perhaps even appropriate, and they remind us that in today’s world, aesthetic and cultural objects carry an inescapable political connotation.

In the end, I think I prefer the simpler and undeniably more romantic perspective expressed at the launch of the AIAC in Sydney in 2004:

This is my gift to you, to the French people, and to the people of the world, this is my heart.

Gulumbu Yunupingu


Amato, Sarah. ”Quai Branly museum: representing France after empire.” Race & Class, v.47, no 4, 2006, pp. 46-65.

Au Centre de la Terre d’Arnhem: entre mythes et realites art aborigene d’Australie. Mantes-la-Jolie: Musee de l’Hotel-Dieu, 2001.

Australian Indigenous Art Commision: Musee du Quai Branly. Sydney: Art & Australia, 2006.

Button, James. “Artists’ stories will live on forever in Paris museum.” Sydney Morning Herald, September 10, 2005.

Crossman, Sylvie, and Jean-Pierre Barrou, eds. L’ete australien a Montpellier: 100 chef-d’oeuvres de la peinture australienne. Montpellier: Musee Fabre Galerie Saint Ravy, 1990.

Crow, Thomas. “A Forest of Symbols in Wartime New York,” in The Intelligence of Art. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

D’un autre continent: l’Australie la reve et le reel. Paris: ARC/Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1983.

Dussart, Francoise. La Peinture des aborigenes d’Australie. Paris: Editions Parentheses, 1993.

Eccles, Jeremy. “Aboriginal originals woo French.” Financial Times, December 20, 2004, p. 15.

Kauffman, Christian, and John Mawurndjul. <<rarrk>> John Mawurndjul: journey through time in northern Australia . Basel: Schwabe, 2005.

Kupka, Karel. Dawn of Art: painting and sculpture of Australian Aborigines. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

—. Peintres aborigenes d’Australie. Paris: Musee de l’Homme, 1972 (Publications de la Societe des Oceanistes, no. 24).

Martin, Jean-Hubert. Magiciens de la terre. Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1989.

McMillan, Richard. “Karel Kupka in Australia: artist, collector, writer, anthropologist,” in Kauffman, Christian, and John Mawurndjul, <<rarrk>> John Mawurndjul: journey through time in northern Australia. Basel: Schwabe, 2005.

Myers, Fred. Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

—. “Uncertain Regard: an exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art in France.” Ethnos, v. 63, no 1, 1998, pp. 7-47.

Neill, Rosemary. “Culture reigns on the Seine.” The Australian, October 12, 2004, p. 14.

Symons, Emma-Kate. “View on the Seine is Aboriginal.” The Australian, September 9, 2005.

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