An Indigene in Paris

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Art & Australia catalogue

Despite the usual controversies, I was looking forward to the opening, in June, of Paris’s latest museum: Le Musée du Quai Branly (nicknamed MKB).

I must admit my own slight reticence, here, in that filling the new museum not only entailed emptying the old Musée de l’Homme with its colonial tradition and its anthropological and ethnological orientation it also meant that the ‘old’ anthropological discourse was replaced by the loud voices of art collectors.

Designed by the famous architect Jean Nouvel (who also designed the acclaimed Fondation Cartier and the Institut du Monde Arabe) and commissioned by the French Government, notably President Jacques Chirac, the MKB was supposed to be a breakthrough not only in architecture but also in its vision of what a museum/exhibition space could be.

Originally named ‘Le Musée des Arts Premiers’ this was rejected for being too ‘art oriented,’ but what can we say about the blandness of the final name? the new museum generated a lot of publicity. There were positive articles in newspapers and magazines, together with excellent programs on France-Culture, the national radio network, that focussed on Australian Aboriginal art and culture especially the key role of eight Aboriginal artists commissioned to paint in situ.

All this contributed to the general excitement. So it seemed that the French, despite their colonialist culture, were understanding the value of the new museum not only artistically but culturally and politically as well. They were opening their doors to the indigenous cultures of the world, among which Aboriginal artists were to be central.

I heard that the excitement was growing among artists and curators in Australia too. One has only to look at the magnificent bilingual catalogue published by the magazine Art and Australia widely promoted by the Australian Embassy in Paris with its enthusiastic foreword by John Howard, who praises the new museum as ‘enhancing the already close commercial and cultural ties between France and Australia,’ and as a ‘showcase for Australian Indigenous art in the heart of Europe,’ to see that the new museum was to be a political and cultural statement as well as a bridge between cultures, and a generous opening for indigenous art.

So, with great expectations, I visited the MKB a few days after its official opening.

From the outside, Nouvel’s building is pleasant enough, with its long, low, sinuous shape like a snake following the river Seine built on huge pylons that allow people to walk around under it, in the garden created by Gilles Clément (which is still a bit new and will grow no doubt in the coming years).

But as soon as I got inside, a feeling of uneasiness overcame and never left me.

Details showing the work of (clockwise from top left) John Mawurndjul; Ningura Napurrula;
Lena Nyadbi; Gulumbu Yunupingu. Photographs courtesy Alastair Miller and Cracknell
and Lonergan Architects, Sydney

From the vast, white, empty hall, where a high wooden totem looks totally lost, and then along an interminable ramp where nothing is shown except a few cheap videos, I was finally thrown into a dark, low, narrow gallery. At first, I thought this may be another conduit to the exhibition. But, in fact, this dark corridor is the exhibition gallery!

I squinted, tripped over treacherous floorboards, went around in circles looking for the way out. When, after passing through the Pacific, African, American and Asian sections, I finally got to the Australian section, I hit a wall of Arnhem Land bark paintings a beautiful idea in itself but alas, I couldn’t see much, not only because of the darkness, but also because of the lack of perspective. A series of bulky brown benches, where visitors can sit and watch videos in little niches, prevented any movement and blocked circulation, so visitors constantly bump into each other and are forced to look at everything from close up, as if seen by a myopic, old librarian.

Even the Papunya paintings, with their vibrant colours, looked dimmed and forlorn in a dark corner. There were admittedly some temporary technical problems (just a few days after the opening!) but there were also annoying reflections and fingerprints on the showcases probably because the public, blinded like me, had to bend so close to the objects that they leaned on the glass panes.

After an hour of groping around in the semi darkness, trying to read unreadable explanations on minuscule panels and bumping into mothers with prams, I finally got out into the bright emptiness of the hall.

I asked for what was supposed to be the highlight of the new museum the famous ceilings and walls painted by Aboriginal artists and was sent back to the main entrance, only to discover that the majority of the ceilings could only be seen partially from the street. Why? Because they are in the administration and research building, which is not opened to the public.

And although one of these works, John Mawurndjul‘s, can be seen in the museum shop, the artist’s name is barely visible (while the sponsors’ are clear) and nobody is looking up to the beautiful ceiling with Mawurndjul’s signature style of fine criss-crossing lines, because they are so busy buying ‘ethnic’ knick-knacks.

John Mawurndjul

After trying in vain to get into the administration and research building, a guard told me to move on. I left, choking with rage and disappointment. These wonderful works of art were supposed to showcase Indigenous Australian art in Europe and pay tribute to some of the most remarkable artists of the world but not only are they not in the main building, where they might have given life to the dead white hall and brought light to the dark galleries, they will remain hidden from the general public, on view permanently only for the ‘happy few.’

‘This is my gift to you, the French people, and to the people of the world, this is my heart,’ says Gulumbu Yunupingu, whose starry ceiling can only be glimpsed from the street, through dusty windows.

So despite the huge amount of money, energy and ideology put into the MKB, I can’t help but feel that this is a wasted opportunity, a failure of the political will, a pretentious and egotistic architecture which, in the end, despises the artefacts, the cultures, the artists and the public.

The MKB was supposed to give life, air and light to cultures and peoples who, as we know, if they are not already wiped out, are fragile and endangered. Instead, this museum entombs these cultures and people for good, showing only in a last glow of afterlife what’s left of their beauty and their mystery.

If the French had had the humility and respect to work for and with the indigenous peoples seeking advice in countries like Canada, Australia or New Zealand where any small gallery shows such works with more decency, where the reflection is serious and the cooperation with the local indigenous people is, if not alw
ays easy, at least active and dynamic they could have avoided this miserable failure. The MKB makes one regret the open, if dusty and old-fashioned, spaces of the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, where at least the works were shown and not hidden away in the dark, where the space was generous and a whole room was dedicated to Aboriginal art and culture.

Not only is the Musée du Quai Branly very far from any anthropological discourse, it’s also a tomb for the last remaining indigenous cultures they will have to seek elsewhere for revival and recognition.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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