© Donald Richardson ,January, 2007

In Paris in June, President Jacques Chirac opened a new ethnographic museum, the Musée du Quai Branly, thus achieving one of his hopes for immortality. Built on the banks of the Seine and designed by eminent French architect, Jean Nouvel, the museum collects two separate state holdings of what used to be known as 'primitive art' (l'art primitif) but which the French - mindful of the thousands of former colonials who live in metropolitan France - are now calling 'first art' (l'art premier). Of course, in this century, 'primitive' is a factually questionable - as well as a politically incorrect - term: it is no longer possible to claim that a pre-industrial people is more 'primitive' than one that incinerates millions of its own citizens.

Australian art bureaucrats are making much of the fact that the building features works by eight contemporary Aboriginal artists. The contribution of these artists was funded by the Australian Government and a donation from the Harold Mitchell Foundation. President Chirac personally asked our Prime Minister to commission the works. An integral and permanent part of the building's fabric, the work is painted on walls, ceilings and columns and much of it can be seen from the street through the windows - both by day and night, due to twenty-four-hour illumination.

It certainly is a significant achievement for our indigenous art, but to claim (as some have) that it is 'reverse colonisation' or, even, a vicarious 'sorry' statement, can only be a confirmation of the provincialism of those who make these claims. Actually, French reports of the building hardly mention the murals at all.

Most of the artists are well-known in Australia, but the transformation of their oeuvres from bark or canvas has necessitated some distortions which do not always honour the essence of their traditions. Some are in cramped situations and others are fragmented, being treated as if they were wall-paper. Curiously, most reporting on them treats them as a homogeneous whole, whereas they represent very distinct Aboriginal art traditions; similarly, it fails to identify the work of the individual artists.

On one ceiling, Gulumbu Yunupingu, sister of the rock singer, Mandawuy Yunupingu, of Yothu Yindi fame, has painted Garak - The Universe, a close pattern of thousands of symbolic stars in the form of black crosses and white dots on a red ochre ground. On another, and on a pole in the bookshop, John Mawurndjul, from Maningrida, has created an enlargement of a bark-painting (Mardayin at Milmilngkan), while the pole is a simulation of a hollow-log coffin. Ningura Napurrula has covered the walls and ceiling of a corridor with typical Pintupi concentric circles and hand-drawn lines in thick, black-on-white impasto. Pitjantjatjara artist, Tommy Watson, has scaled up a typical Western Desert acrylic of his grandfather's country, derived from the ground-drawing tradition.

All are striking surfaces - some overpoweringly so - but the gross enlargement from what are essentially small, portable forms has distorted them somewhat: the dots of the central desert works have had to be rendered centimetres across and the cross-hatched rarrk has acquired an uncharacteristic mechanical precision.

Judy Watson's foyer ceiling is based on her painting, Two Halves with Bailer Shell, which is in the National Gallery in Canberra, and her images engraved into the glass of the façade of one of the buildings are derived from Aboriginal objects made from human hair and bone that are in the British Museum.

Lina Nyadbi's grossly over-scale pattern of simple strokes, derived from body scarification, is etched with a simple, basic light-dark interaction on to the massive concrete western end of the façade. Some of the late Michael Riley's photographs, exhibited in the book-shop area, also are visible from the street.

As the work covers 2500 square metres of wall and ceiling, the curators - Brenda Croft, of the National Gallery in Canberra, and Hetti Perkins, of the Art Gallery of NSW, themselves Aborigines - had difficulty finding artists capable of working to this scale. As it turned out, the bark-painter, Mawurndjul, was the only artist to work personally on the massive pieces: the others were all executed by artisans under the direction of the artists. All were created face-up on huge pieces of canvas on the floor then turned over and stuck to the ceilings or walls. Tommy Watson's contribution was transferred to baked enamel on stainless-steel tiles in Australia and freighted to Paris. Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford's minimalist sculptural installation was also translated in Australia.

This use of Aboriginal artists' work in the decoration of the building was the idea of the architect, who - apparently - wanted colour and pattern to enrich the simple surfaces of his building.

The dilemma
Europe values indigenous Australian painting and sculpture as an expression of a living ethnic culture, rather than as art per se: it is, after all, from the oldest continuing culture in the world - a fact that was not lost on Jean Nouvel. This dichotomy is discussed openly and rationally in Europe - as it was at the prestigious Cologne Art Fair a few years ago when the organisers were labelled 'nazis' by some for refusing Aboriginal works on the grounds that they were 'folk art', not real art in the contemporary Western sense. However, in Australia, the matter is rarely discussed; instead commentators - both black and white - tend to adopt the politically-correct attitude of 'see no evil, speak no evil'. Thus, a coherent theoretical construction of Aboriginal work has never been developed. This is a matter that must be addressed because Aboriginal works are being judged in competitions alongside those by white artists and government funding does not discriminate between the two.

Given the theoretical vacuum, the solution of the French in this instance - to treat it as architectural decoration - is certainly one way to go. But it has been criticised locally, the point being raised that its quality as pattern is only the superficial aspect of what is a deep, cultural expression. Yet, our cultural bureaucrats have accepted Nouvel's usage without demur. We are justified in asking why.