12 July 2006

Quai to the Kingdom

TEARS flowed freely at last week’s press preview of the landmark Aboriginal art commission at the Musée du Quai Branly, the new museum in the heart of Paris dedicated to non-western art. Surrounded by the media and basking under the artwork that has colonised the ceiling of one wing of the complex, East Arnhem Land artist Gulumbu Yunupingu broke down as she contemplated the moment. “I can’t believe I am here in Paris, underneath this, my gift to you. My painting brings us together and brings us healing; I am proud that you people here in Paris recognise my painting ... We standing here together. We are standing here strong.”

It was a cathartic moment at the end of a four-year journey that began when French President Jacques Chirac personally petitioned Prime Minister John Howard to join in his pet project on the Seine: a museum, a paean to the diversity and creativity of the world’s people, a project that could not be complete, implored Chirac, without a cultural contribution from Australia’s first people.

The $398m project, the first major museum to open in Paris since the Musée d’Orsay in 1986, attracted controversy from the outset. First due to its origins in two vast state collections of art and artefacts (some 350,000 objects) pillaged primarily from France’s former colonies, and secondly for its self-serving function as Chirac’s bricks-and-mortar legacy in the city where it all began for the former mayor.

In a multicultural nation recently racked by a rioting immigrant population drawn from former colonies, Chirac said the museum was an homage “to peoples who have suffered conquest, violence and humiliation”. Curiously, no solidarity with such black-armband sentiments was forthcoming from the large Australian contingent of benefactors, bureaucrats, curators, artists and their representatives in Paris to celebrate the product at hand, the $1.4m Australian Indigenous Art Commission at MQB.

There was much talk about this being the largest ever Aboriginal art commission, about the respect in Europe for Aboriginal painting, that it was finally being recognised in the cradle of modern art as one of the great movements of the 20th century. All of which is true, but the tone was hollow. As one local dealer in Aboriginal art complained, it was a story not underpinned by cultural cringe but overlaid with “cultural arrogance”. Another local said it had been “a difficult collaboration from the French side. The Australians seemed to think because they were paying for it, they could dictate to us.”

Official claims from both camps that the project puts “Australian indigenous art at the heart of the architectural project” are overstated if not inaccurate. The Australian artists’ efforts augment not the museum proper but its administration block: an ancillary, conventional modern office building which bears no immediately apparent relationship to the striking, unique structure housing the main collection. Putting architect Jean Nouvel’s protean reputation to one side, rather than a meeting of media, it appears the art has been accommodated into an already designed structure.

This accommodation, overseen by Sydney architects Cracknell & Lonergan, has nevertheless installed a visually stunning result, melding the designs and motifs of the eight artists into what are essentially typical workplaces, and avoiding what could easily have been a lapse into mere décor. The works, by artists of such standing as Yunupingu, Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford, and John Mawurndjul, are elegantly transposed onto the building’s surfaces using the structure as a gigantic framing device. As co-curator Hetti Perkins noted: “It is finished and it is good.” However, while the ceiling designs have been installed to be seen by passers-by from the street, the public will not have unfettered access inside. The permanent exhibition of Australian indigenous works in the MQB suffers for being tucked away and hung in relative obscurity, doing an injustice to the works on display, headed by a selection of barks acquired in the 1950s arranged floor to ceiling as if in a fin-de-siècle salon.

The Australia Council has attracted criticism for jumping at high-profile overseas opportunities which play well at home but leave no lasting footprints. This may be changing, with the announcement of a three-year program to promote indigenous art overseas, of which the MQB is the first project.

And when arts-loving adman Harold Mitchell was approached by the AC to donate $350,000 to secure the project to completion, he had long-term caveats. “We were excited by the project but suggested they take it a step further. So we pitched in another $150,000 for a publications program for 10 years and set up our young curators’ program.” Each year a young indigenous Australian curator will take up a residency at MQB and develop a project in conjunction with the museum.

Ironically, Mitchell admitted he doesn’t collect Aboriginal art himself. “Bugger me, I just don’t,” he told The Bulletin. “But I will now. I actually just believed in this project – I reckon it will be very good over the long term both for Aboriginal people and Aboriginal art. And we’ll be going up to some of the art communities later this year and we’ll make sure we pick up some pieces then.”.

First published in The Bulletin

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