Just about five years ago, newspapers and magazines in Australia were beginning to carry regular coverage of the emerging installation of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission that was to adorn the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. The Commission was overseen by curators Brenda L. Croft, then at the National Gallery of Australia, and Hetti Perkins of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The works of eight Indigenous artists, four men and four women from across Australia, were to be incorporated into the architectural fabric of the building (more precisely into the small curatorial and administrative annex on the museum’s south side). The firm of Cracknell and Lonergan was engaged to carry out the translation of designs by John Mawurndjul, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Michael Riley, Judy Watson, Tommy Watson, Ningura Napurrula, Paddy Bedford, and Lena Nyadbi. Mawurndjul himself was making international headlines after traveling to Paris to paint a lorrkon, a ceremonial pole, that stands over ten feet tall in one corner of the museum bookshop. (A set of architectural drawings that outline the proposed installations–for in fact there were some differences in the final realization–can be found on the museum’s website.)
Those of us who followed the unfolding story in anticipation of the museum’s June 2006 opening quite understandably focused on the significance of the Commission and its celebration of the arts of Indigenous Australia. The boost given to the international profile of Aboriginal art was undeniable, although there were concerns that the museum’s focus on France’s colonial ethnographic acquisitions reduced the works of the modern masters to a genre of the primitive. At the other end of the critical spectrum, Sally Butler of the University of Queensland complained that architect Jean Nouvel’s vision treated them as “an interior-design aesthetic rather than works of art” (quoted in Susan Owens, “Paris Dreamtime,” Australian Financial Review, April 27, 2006, p. 43).
After months of such reporting, those of us who traveled to Paris for the museum’s opening were a bit surprised (naively so, no doubt) to discover that the Australian contribution to the fanfare surrounding the museum amounted to a bit of a second feature. There were present in Paris representatives from 130 different countries whose art and artifacts were housed in the new museum. European newspapers were far more concerned with Jacques Chirac’s presidential hubris or the perceived attempts by France to recast its colonial and imperial exploitation as an example of universal respect and good will toward all men. Australia’s role seemed somewhat sadly and unfairly overlooked on the banks of the Seine.
Recently I came across a monograph by Sally Price, who has written extensively on “primitive art in civilized places” (to borrow the title from another of her numerous publications). Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly (University of Chicago Press, 2007) is an absorbing cultural history of the genesis, development, and reception of the Musée du quai Branly. Clearly written, objective in its historiography, and yet informed by Price’s own lifelong personal involvement with arts from outside the canons of the Western European tradition, the book is a delight from beginning to end.
Price begins her story with an intimate account of the friendship between Chirac and Jacques Kerchache, who was in many ways the artistic and intellectual godfather of the quai Branly museum. The two men were friends for decades, sharing a passion for non-Western art and particularly the arts of Africa. Both had longed for recognition of these traditions in French museums, and particularly for their inclusion in the Louvre. This was a desire that offended many guardians of French culture and fine art, who were reluctant to admit the aesthetic merit of les arts primitifs, even, historically, as inspiration for Picasso and the great French modernists. However, the passion of the two Jacques was not to be denied.
After introducing the two men in her opening chapters, Price takes a few pages to outline for the reader the bureaucratic complexities of the French museum bureaucracy, a fairly mind-boggling tale in itself. She culminates her exposition with an examination of the Louvre and its place as the “plus grand musée du monde,” a phrase which can be interpreted to refer to its stature as either the largest or the greatest museum in the world, or both.
She then turns her focus outward to the many other Parisian institutions whose missions, collections, and fates were to become entwined with that of the quai Branly, including especially the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, which gave up significant portions of their collections to Chirac’s enterprise. The Musée Guimet, which housed the important Parisian collection of Asian art, was able to maintain the integrity of its collections; the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires was eventually exiled to Marseilles.
Along the way, Price investigates the political ramifications of the quai Branly project. Obviously, many of the museum’s collections were brought back to France by nineteenth century explorers and colonizers and represented cultures that were decidedly not Gallic in their origins. And yet (and I admit to an exaggeration here) France has never quite seemed to embrace the notion of a “post-colonial” world in the way that most other European states have; “la France outre-mer” or “overseas France” still implies a solidarity that outstrips even the British notion of the Commonwealth. The City of Light remains a beacon towards which a less-illuminated world still turns.
Even the contents of the museum are charged with this political significance and controversy, for the inventories of French museums are by law inalienable property of the French state. Repatriation is not only unthinkable, it is illegal. And thus even modern, recent acquisitions of French museums that arrive with questionable pedigrees and surrounded by a whiff of the black market can be both controversial and incontrovertible.
These matters occupy the first two-thirds of Paris Primitive. In her final section, Price turns her attention to the Musée du quai Branly itself, exploring its architecture and collections, and the relation of each to the other. In her chapter “Glass, Gardens, and Aborigines,” Price examines the Australian Indigenous Art Commission at some length and provides a wealth of information about the history and execution of the Commission. Among the insights she provides is the explanation of how the original plan for the installation of Paddy Bedford’s massacre painting Emu Dreaming went awry. The painting was originally intended to be reproduced as an etched-glass installation on the building’s south facade. Structural concerns forced that plan to be abandoned; instead two other paintings by Bedford were conflated into an abysmal (and far less politically charged) fresco on a wall facing the external entrance to a freight elevator.
Although the discussion of the Australian contribution to the quai Branly occupies relatively few pages of Paris Primitive, it does serve to focus most of the important themes that Price raises throughout the book: the debates about objects as art or artifact; the focus on objects in isolation from the people who created them and the cultures that they represent; the denial of the legacies of colonialism. In this way, Price manages to affirm the centrality of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission to the story of the Musée du quai Branly in a way that I had not anticipated and which was not prominent during the week in which the opening of the museum was celebrated in Paris.
Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I posted a series of reports from Paris between June 20 and June 29, 2006, including a photographic essay on the exhibition of paintings from the collection of Gabrielle Pizzi and a grand reception hosted at the Australian Embassy in Paris to mark the opening. In the weeks that followed, I presented a series of posts dealing with the presentation of Indigenous Australian art in France in the twentieth century. The final section of that extended series contains a list of links and references, including several contemporaneous news articles about the inauguration of the quai Branly.
Reading Paris Primitive gave me the final push I needed to resurrect some video that I shot during the ceremonies that were held on June 23, 2006 in the amphitheatre adjoining the north face of the Musée du quai Branly to celebrate the opening and the Australian Indigenous Art Commission. Rhoda Roberts and Djakapurra Munyarryan directed the presentation of dances from Yolngu and Torres Strait traditions. Emma Councillor sang and a smoking ceremony preceded the presentation of gifts from the Australians to the French.
Following the dances, artists and their representatives gave a series of brief speeches to mark the occasion. John Mawurndjul, Judy Watson, and Gulumbu Yunupingu addressed the audience. Linda Burney spoke movingly on behalf of Michael Riley, who had passed away shortly after agreeing include photographs from his cloud series in the commission. Paul Sweeney represented Ningura Napurrula and Papunya Tula Artists. Mary Knights and Nyakul Dawson represented Irrunytju Arts in the absence of Tommy Watson, who had left the community by June of 2006. Sadly, Mr. Dawson died less than eight months later when the vehicle in which he was crossing the Nullarbor broke down near the dingo fence in Western Australia. The Guardian published an eloquent obituary by Nigel Starck which captured the enthusiasm that Dawson both projected and was greeted with during his visit to Paris.
Below are links to the five short segments of video documenting the ceremonies and speeches. Please be advised that the fourth clip is almost entirely composed of Mr. Dawson’s remarks, in which he tells the stories of some of his paintings.