Just read a fascinating analysis by Nigel Lendon via Iconophilia about the National Gallery of Australia’s use of images depicting the Aboriginal Memorial (pictured at left) as part of its extensive re-branding. Nigel also expresses serious concerns about the presentation of the burial poles, which were commissioned by the NGA and made by the Ramingining Artists as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people who died at the hands of European settlers. The collection of 200 burial poles, one for each year between settlement and the Bicentenary in 1988, have been a centrepiece of the gallery’s collection since its installation in 1988.
Reading these concerns, it brought to mind some of the things I encountered when researching the commissioning of works of art by eight Aboriginal artists, John Mawurndjul, Paddy Bedford, Ningura Naparrula, Lena Nyadbi, Michael Riley, Judy Watson, Tommy Watson and Gulumbu Yunupingu, for the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. In an article by John McDonald, the president of the museum, Stephane Martin, explained why Aboriginal art was chosen as an element to incorporate into the structure of the building, saying: “to be absolutely sincere, it was just a question of colour. He [architect Jean Nouvel] wanted colour.” When speaking of the reasons behind his selection of Aboriginal art as a design feature, Nouvel himself said that he saw it as having “architectural possibilities” and as a means of providing the building with “texture”. Is the use of Aboriginal art in this context problematic? Well, for one thing, it certainly is difficult to imagine that the commission of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing or a fluorescent light installation by Dan Flavin by an institution would ever be described as a means of providing a project with ‘texture’ or ‘colour’. Compounding these concerns – in his book about the design and construction of the Musée du Quai Branly, Nouvel does not mention any of the Aboriginal artists by name.
(image: Ramingining Artists, The Aboriginal Memorial, 1987-88; via http://www.nga.gov.au).