Short memory? Contextualising Aboriginal art at the National Gallery of Australia
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).
5 Responses to “Short memory? Contextualising Aboriginal art at the National Gallery of Australia”
[…] between the treatment of Indigenous art at the NGA and the Musee du quai Branly on her blog Art Matters. There’s a thread in the ArtWranglers archives which discusses similar issues. Print, […]
While it was insulting to the aboriginal artists for Nouvel not to mention them in his account of the Quai Branley museum by name – turning them into mere interior contractors – they might take some comfort knowing that their work is really the Quai Branley building’s one saving grace. As architecture, Nouvel’s museum is an embarrassment. Its hack theme park styling might be appropriate for EuroDisney – except that Nouvel’s incompetent handling of circulation and installation organization, which Disney’s ‘imagineers’ would never countenance. The contributions of the Quai Branley’s ‘Aboriginal Eight” – John Mawurndjul, Paddy Bedford, Ningura Naparrula, Lena Nyadbi, Michael Riley, Judy Watson, Tommy Watson and Gulumbu Yunupingu – may be the saving grace of the Quai Branley – but even the talent of these artists couldn’t provide enough grace to save Nouvel’s tacky postcolonial fun house.
I have yet to visit Quai Branly, but it certainly is high on my list of places to visit when I head over to Europe next year. Your observations about the structural shortcomings of the museum heighten my concerns that, despite the hype, Quai Branly is just a 21st century manifestation of many of the nasty old chestnuts from the ‘Museums of Mankind’ of yore. Given that the collection grew from the ethnographic collection of the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, and was established to display non-Western arts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America, I guess this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. My observations are based on a reading of the museum’s published materials, and should be read with that limitation in mind, but throughout the objects in its collection are described as ‘artefacts’, and consistent with the vernacular audiences expect from ethnographic displays, the permanent collection of 3,500 ‘artefacts’ is displayed according to geographical point of origin. The institute’s research emphasis is on the work of anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists and historians, and the people highlighted in discussions about the museum’s development are the French architect, Jean Nouvel, and important European historians and theoreticians such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Guillaume Apollinaire and André Malraux. The artists from far-flung continents don’t get a look-in.
Have you had a chance to look over the new-and-improved NGA? What do you think about the presentation of the Aboriginal Memorial?
being a canberran who regularly visits the NGA i have concluded that the curators have stuffed up the presentation of the Burial poles big time. For a start the poles are sitting on Road base gravel of blue metal chunks which is a disgusting collision with the natural ochre of the poles. What about the natural earth they sat on before. Secondly the poles are out of the way at the entrance to the gallery and could be missed altogether if not paying attention. The Cloakroom is in a better spot. Got their priorities right I suppose. How any curator can think they look good there is beyond me. They are one of the most important works in the place and are shoved into a very poor space which is a step down from the entrance level. Obviously not able to work out where to put them/ they would be better of up in the new Aboriginal section which is great. Need to petition the gallery to get of their arse and fix the problem
What do you think about the idea that the context in which the burial poles are currently displayed transforms them into ‘art as architectural feature’ rather than presenting them as a stand-alone, significant installation of important works of art? As Greg Castillo expressed it, speaking of the Quai Branly display of Aboriginal art in a comment below, this approach has the potential to turn Aboriginal artists into ‘interior contractors’ and, by extension, their works of art into decorator pieces.