Art and Ethnography in France

The phrase “aboriginal art” in itself sums up a great twentieth-century debate in its two words: is it “aboriginal” or is it “art”?  Are we in the realm of ethnography or aesthetics when we visit the assembled masterpieces of Arnhem Land and the Great Sandy Desert?  In a museum of natural history or a gallery of fine art?

To do some degree, the answer to these questions (and indeed whether the questions have already been answered) depends on geography.  In Australia itself, the debate has long been over and the decision made in favor of aesthetics.  Aboriginal art has found its home in the gallery.  The new exhibition in Cologne, Remembering Forward, shows that the Germans are inclined to agree.  Elsewhere in the Anglophone world (Britain and the United States), there is so rarely the chance to even ask the question that the whispered reply of “art” seems hardly to matter.

The one place where the debate still rages healthily (or unhealthily, depending on your point of view) is in France.  I’ve recently begun reading Sally Price’s excellent history of the Musée du quai Branly, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s museum on the Quai Branly (University of Chicago Press, 2007).  In its early chapters, Price lays out the debates about art and museums that shaped a decade’s controversy over the place of objects created by the three-quarters of humanity that had found no home in the Louvre, the “world’s greatest museum” in a country that prides itself on taking culture as a serious affair of state.

While the Louvre and its curators may reflect the most conservative strains in French museology and art history, there has been a long and worthy history of embracing the arts of Africa, Oceania (including Australia) and the Americas in the complex bureaucracy of French museums and cultural institutions.  The inclusion of arts nègres (specifically African) has been argued if for no other reason than the inspiration they provided to Picasso, and thus to modernism and all of twentieth century art.  More catholic impulses have attempted to legitimize the arts premières as part of the indivisible history of mankind and civilization.  Thus the arts primitifs have a place in the halls and histories of French museums.  As you can tell by the varieties of terms the French employ, even the nomenclature is the subject of fierce debate.

The excitement about the Australian Indigenous Art Commission for the administrative building of the quai Branly museum quickly gave way to disappointment at the representation and the presentation of Australian Aboriginal art within the museum itself.  And since 2006, the Musée has dropped off the Indigenous Australian art radar.  But the celebration of Aboriginal art in France continues, and the Musée des Confluences in Lyon has been a prime exponent.

musee-des-confluencesThe Musée des Confluences is itself a work in progress: there is a fantastical new building under construction, slated to open in 2013.  Very much in the French style, the museum promises to bridge the scientific and the aesthetic, discarding the art and ethnography controversy in favor of an approach which sees them not even as complementary aspects of human endeavor, but rather as essential constitutory elements of culture.  While the new building is under construction, the museum itself continues to contribute to the presentation of Aboriginal art in France.

Earlier this year, the exhibition Grand Nord Grand Sud: artistes inuit et aborigènes at the Abbaye de Daoulas in Bretagne presented a look at the complexities of artistic creation at “polar” opposites: indigenous creativity in the Inuit lands of the far north juxtaposed against the antipodean arts of Australia, with a  sidelong glance to the threatened indigenous Breton language and culture.  The art works included in the exhibition were drawn from both private collections and those of the Musée des Confluences, and the exhibition pointed me to an excellent publication that documents the latter.

Aborigènes: collections australiennes contemporaines du musée des Confluences (Département du Rhône/FAGE Éditions, 2008) is an excellent general introduction to Aboriginal art for the francophone reader as well as a beautifully constructed portal into the collections of the museum.

The first half of the volume offers four essays.  Chief among them is Barbara Glowczewski and Jessica de Largy Healy’s extensive “Aux sources de la création” (The sources of creation).  In it the authors provide an introduction to the Dreaming and explore how cosmology, ritual, and history shape artistic expression in desert, Arnhem Land, and Kimberley art.

Aborigenes Musee des ConfluencesIn the first of these three explorations, Glowczewski and de Largy Healy use the vehicle of a ceremonial gathering of Warlpiri people in Lajamanu to look at the role of ritual in binding culture and at the ways in which modernity is interlaced with tradition in the community.  They compare, for instance, the separation of young men during initiation ceremonies with laments of longing for absent lovers in the songs of the North Tanami Band.  In the following section of the essay, a funeral ceremony at Mata Mata on Arnhem Bay becomes the organizing narrative for a look at life in the Top End.  And finally the rituals of the Kimberley, from Rover Thomas’s revealed Gurirr Gurirr to the joonba known as Marnem Marnem that recounts the Bedford Downs Massacre, demonstrate the blending of history and aesthetic expression in the northwest.

In other essays, Pierre Grundmann provides a historical overview of colonial contact through the present and the Intervention in his introductory essay “Tragédies et résistance,” with an uncommon emphasis, naturally, on early French exploration of the Australian continent.  Parisian dealer Stéphane Jacob, whose hand in the building of the Confluences collection is evident, offers “Une fenêtre sur le rêve: l’art aborigène contemporaine” (A Window on the Dreaming) and the essays conclude with a translation of a piece  by Wally Caruana, “L’art aborigène a l’époque contemporaine” (Aboriginal Art in Modern Times).

The remaining two-thirds of the book is given over to the presentation of works from the collection, divided into four sections: Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands; Central and Western Deserts; Kimberley; and Torres Strait.  The last of these is represented almost entirely by the prints of Dennis Nona and offers a minor retrospective of the artist’s career and accomplishments.  Also included is a large bronze by Nona, Apu Kaz, a mother-and-child pair of dugongs, and a smallish but impressive Hammerhead Shark Headdress by Ken Thaiday.

The most impressive group of works is the first, that from the Top End, opening with a stunning 1985 bark painting by the often overlooked master Jack Kala Kala, Balangu the Ancestral Shark.   The tremendous sweep of the shark’s body against a background of contrasting rarrk patterns and the manner in which the shark’s extremities pierce the black border around the edges of the bark convey the power of the beast’s struggle against its trap with a vigor that is exceptional in Western Arnhem Land painting.  There is plenty of power, too, in a 1991 depiction of the Rainbow Serpent attributed to Jimmy Njiminjuma, while from the Tiwi Islands Bernadette Mungatopi’s Barramundi radiate an almost cosmic energy.  There are numerous exceptional three-dimensional works as well: a gorgeously painted pukumani pole by Leon Puruntatameri; first-rate Yolngu lorrkons by Waturr Gumana, Wukun Wanambi, Djambawa Marawili, and Naminapu Maymuru-White; and a host of fiber works from Maningrida’s premier practitioners.

I’m less taken with the selection of works from the desert regions, which is dominated by fine quality canvases from Utopia (including the beautiful Bush Leaf Dreaming by Abie Loy Kemarre that is featured on the book’s cover) and an exceptional Seed Dreaming by Greeny Purvis Petyarre.  The standout desert painting, however, is a six-by-four foot women’s collaborative canvas out of Balgo from the hands of Tjemma Napanangka, Mati Mudjidell, Bai Bai Napangardi, and Rosie Nanyuma in which deep brown and black vegetal forms trace paths amidst explosions of primary color.

The Kimberley section is the smallest of the lot, but represents the varied genres of the region ably, with Wandjinas on bark, an acrylic by Mangkaja’s Wakartu Cory Surprise, and ochre paintings from Warmun and Kununurra.  There is a lovely, soft, simple landscape by one of my favorite Warmun painters, Mark Nodea.  There are also a pair of ilmas by Bardi artist Roy Wiggan, beautifully photographed against black to give the viewer a sense of the intensely sensual appearance of these ritual objects glowing in firelight against the black ocean night.

The illustrations are followed by a brief bibliography, which has the virtue of including a good selection of the literature on Aboriginal art written in France over the last two decades, and to which Aborigènes itself is a worthy addition.  (The book is written in clear, jargon-free prose that allowed access via my somewhat rusty high-school French with only the occasional recourse to Google Translate.)

What I enjoyed most about Aborigènes was the fact that it presents the work in the inclusive spirit of culture and civilization broadly defined that some champions in the French museological establishment have argued for, and at which neither the Louvre nor the Musée du quai Branly have succeeded.  I’ve written elsewhere that I find the dichotomy between ethnography and fine art to be a false opposition: all art carries ethnographic information.  We simply too often believe that art that emerges from our own ethnographic traditions needs no interpretation and is thus somehow superior by virtue of its transparent accessibility and adherence to our internalized and unquestioned norms.

Mantegna ParnassusHow much our own artistic traditions are enhanced by ethnographic explanation was ironically brought home to me most forcefully in the halls of the Louvre itself when I last visited there in 2006 during the days after the opening of the Musée du quai Branly.  We had met Bill Gregory of Annandale Galleries for lunch at a sidewalk bistro near the École des Beaux-Arts, and afterwards he invited us to join him on a visit to some friends.  Those friends turned out to be a dozen or so masterpieces in the Louvre’s European painting galleries, for which Bill supplied expert and engaging commenary.  One of them was Mantegna’s Parnassus (Mars and Venus).  The scene depicts the Muses clustered on Mount Parnassus, atop which Mars and Venus stand before the bed in which they will cuckold the goddess of love’s husband Vulcan, who can be glimpsed in a cave to the left, preparing a trap for the adulterous couple.  (That’s a fair amount of ethnographic information right there, non?)

But what sealed the interpretive deal for me was Bill’s mischievous detailing of the depiction of the Muses.  Their blushing, flushing faces, he argued, are constructed to display all the varieties of female erotic pleasure.  Thus, even if you don’t know the story of Mars and Venus itself, the iconography provides you with a pretty good clue as to the “moral” of the story.  But a full appreciation of Mantegna’s craft (and craftiness) is certainly enriched by that combination of aesthetic pleasure and informed commentary: art and ethnography.  The modern day Parnassus, the home of the Muses, the museum, is further elevated when both are present and neither is excluded on ideological grounds.

Mantegna Parnassus detail of Muses

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6 Responses to Art and Ethnography in France

  1. Bertrand says:

    Great post Will. Merci pour cette mise en perspective pertinente et pointue de l’art aborigène en France. Bonnes fêtes,


  2. Point well made, but there is more to Fine Art than simply subject matter, which has long been an issue lost in the Aboriginal Art arena, which turned into a circus when those in control stuck their snouts into the Aboriginal Art industry trough where originality and quality no longer matters.

    • Will says:

      Ouch. That’s harsh. I admit I see a lot of bad art these days, and I’m not sure how you define the “Aboriginal Art industry.” But I think you’re going too far to say that quality and originality no longer matter. I’ll give you just one example: take a look at the show “Barrupu Shows Up in the Desert” that was at Raft Artspace during Desert Mob. In fact, a browse through the year’s shows at Raft are a good argument for continued vitality across the continent. Plenty of good stuff elsewhere, but I’ll point to Dallas to showcase real variety under a single roof.

      • Its all very pleasing to the eye, but most verges on the decorative, or is overtly busy without a real focus that one might remember once out of sight. Or put another way, the `profound` in Aboriginal Art seems to have been lost, or as Geoffrey Bardon once said during a personal conversation: “Aboriginal Art has lost its integrity”.

        I don`t mean to be harsh, but this seems to be the reality and much of this has to do with minders and dealers playing too greater role in the art making process, because they want Aboriginal people to create works that readily sell; meaning make art as far removed from the `ethnographical` as possible after witnessing Emily Kngwarreye`s success in the art market. Though even she was initially largely directed by Rodney Gooch.

        If I gave my 84 year old mother a ready mixed palette made up of matching colours and encouraged her just to go for it I trust that her work could also be described as `expressionistic` and would be quite pleasing to the eye, but that would hardly give me license to describe my mother as an `artistic genius`, or put her work in the category of Fine Art, or would it?

        The Aboriginal Art industry is chiefly about using art as an economic vehicle to promote the living standards of indigenous people in remote Australia. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, until money becomes the chief focus and important artists are subjected to being diminished in status to make way for new stars with little to no real talent.

        Authorship too does not seem to matter in this industry, or to those who control it and the 1996 Kathleen Petyarre saga is a perfect example of this. In that, this woman won the 1996 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Art Award for a work that was chiefly created by her `white` partner Ray Beamish, who was the prime painter/creator for all of Kathleen`s works for at least 8 years, yet even today this Aboriginal woman is getting credit for Beamish`s talent.

        The `inner circle` is well aware of this, but uses Aboriginal culture as a justification to this kind of behaviour, which has nothing to do with culture, but rather easy money, which is an insult to Fine Art, as is wall-paper masquerading as Aboriginal Art.

        All this aside, however, I love Aboriginal Art and have devoted the past 20 years of my career to it and I totally trust that it will find its way to all great art institutions worldwide, including the Louvre. But that which will be collected by these institutions will be works that can conform to the criteria associated to all Fine Art, while all else will head to K-Mart.

  3. Pingback: Vivid Histories, Living Memories | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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