Reflecting on European Collections

Australian Aboriginal art is making increasingly regular forays into the European art scene. This was most notably the case with work by Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Gordon Bennett and Warwick Thornton being included in the latest dOCUMENTA 13 (2012). The optically mesmerising large-scale canvases of Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri were placed prominently in the main exhibition building, the Fridericianum, in what is arguably the most important contemporary art event in the world. Less than a month after the closure of the Documenta, in October 2012, the exhibition Tjukurrtjanu: aux sources de la peinture aborigène (Tjukurrtjanu: The Sources of Aboriginal Painting) opened its doors to a French and international public at the Musée du Quai Branly. Although this exhibition was toured from the National Gallery of Victoria, a museum which is usually associated with art, its Parisian venue is rather perceived as an ethnographic museum associated with material culture in a broader sense than solely art. It is between those two, often opposed, poles that exhibitions dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art in Europe mainly operate.

Three major exhibitions that recently took place in the cities of Bordeaux, Rome and Lugano (Switzerland) took varying positions in this bipolar field. While one exhibition concentrated on Indigenous Australian art from remote communities, the two others endeavoured to break through the delimitations often placed on Aboriginal art, consciously seeking connection with the wider art world and engagement with the ‘contemporary’. The three exhibitions thus reflect the current state of reception of Indigenous Australian art and its relationship to non-Indigenous art on the European continent.

The first exhibition, ‘Mémoires Vives: Une Histoire d’Art Aborigène’ (‘Vivid Memories: An Aboriginal Art History’), took place at the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux.1 The Musée d’Aquitaine is a regional museum with collections which range from archaeological finds of the Aquitaine region (of which Bordeaux is the capital), to medieval and other historical objects, and ethnographic material from Africa and Oceania. 

The poster, flyer and other promotional material for ‘Mémoires Vives’ features the cartoon-esque black figure of an Aboriginal man hanging upside down, boomerangs in both hands and one leg crossed against the other. Behind it are black constructivist elements on a green background. This image, of course, is a detail of Gordon Bennett’s Notes to Basquiat (In the future art will not be boring) (1999), in which the artist appropriates elements of the formal language of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kazimir Malevich. It was a daring choice to use this image to entice a public in France, as it uses a strongly exaggerated stereotype which at the same time it clearly criticises, very much of course as Gordon Bennett intended it. That this particular image was being used to attract a French public to the exhibition is revealing of how the exhibition was conceived. In the same vein, the cover of the richly illustrated 264 page catalogue (with essays by Marcia Langton, Ian McLean and Philip Batty, to name but a few), which was published by the prestigious Éditions de La Martinière, features a photograph of Mount Olga by Baldwin Spencer superimposed with a red target, which seems to be distilled from Tony Albert’s Brothers series.2 

‘Vivid Memories: An Aboriginal Art History’ was an ambitious exhibition. ‘Une histoire d’art aborigène’ (An Aboriginal Art History) implies that there is more than one Aboriginal art history. It also suggests that this exhibition is just one possible model out of many for presenting Aboriginal art and its history. The curators of the exhibition, Arnaud Morvan and Paul Matharan, took a non-linear approach to present their art history. Next to Baldwin Spencer photographs and other 19th and early 20th century photographs, documents and objects, mostly sourced from the collection of Museum Victoria (Melbourne), recent Aboriginal artworks featured alongside work by non-Indigenous and non-Australian artists.

Thus, in the ‘Artefacts’ room, for instance, Garry Jones’s polyester sculpted shields (A Work in Progress, 2013) hung adjacent to a selection of antique parrying shields, Danie Mellor’s ceramic works inspired by Queensland rainforest shields, and Christian Thompson’s Emotional Striptease (2003) series, in which Aboriginal models hold shields, boomerangs and other objects as scenographic accessories.

In the ‘Influences’ section artworks by John Wolseley and Tim Johnson were included as examples of cross-cultural exchanges. The presence of their work was testimony to a strategy of reverse inclusive curating, in which art from the former Western cultural hegemony is included in an exhibition of artefacts and art of a culture which until recently received little or no acknowledgement in established art circles. Inclusion as a curatorial practice has in recent years seen work by Aboriginal artists from remote communities in ‘high’ art events such as recent editions of the Venice Biennale, the Moscow Biennale and, indeed, the last Documenta. By integrating non-Indigenous artists in an exhibition primarily dedicated to Aboriginal art and culture, this inter-cultural dialogue is expanded. 

This exhibition developed a cross-cultural dialogue between and around the paintings, with respect to all art traditions, because it did not treat one art tradition as a mere reference or influence on another. In this symbiosis between the peripheral and the metropolitan, these distinctions are perhaps reversed, certainly blurred.

Brook Andrew entered into a direct dialogue with the Museum, its collections and its past, by creating an intervention in the Museum spaces with the Museum’s own collection. Particularly enticing was one of his installations, in a glass exhibition case, of a plaster cast of a classical statue’s head which was smudged with black paint during the student revolts of May 1968. Andrew scrapes away the veneer of a tidy museum collection, by re-presenting objects from the collection in a way which brings them into the context of fairly recent political and sociological events. 

As an exhibition commissioned by a major museum, ‘Vivid Memories’ was the largest and most complete of the three exhibition projects. It is particularly interesting to note that the exhibition drew significantly on loans from several European institutional and private collections, thus consolidating a network of European collectors of contemporary Indigenous Australian art. The two other exhibitions both focussed on individual European private collections.

‘Dreamings. L’Arte Aborigena Australiana incontra de Chirico’ (‘Australian Aboriginal Art Meets de Chirico’) was shown at the Museo Carlo Bilotti, housed in the former orangery of the Villa Borghese in Rome.3 The exhibition, curated by Ian McLean and Erica Izett, featured the collection of Aboriginal art of French collectors Francis Missana and Marc Sordello (Collection Sordello Missana). As the title implies, works by Giorgio de Chirico in the collection of the museum were shown in adjacent rooms to the exhibition. A number of earlier and recent works by Imants Tillers, who in his art practice cites both Aboriginal art and de Chirico, constituted a bridge between two seemingly very different artworlds, that of de Chirico and that of the Aboriginal artists. Considering the academic background of McLean and Izett, it may therefore not come as a surprise that this exhibition had a strong art critical/art historical basis.

One of the key works in the show was Antipodean Manifesto by Imants Tillers (1986). The painting features Tillers’s trademark use of small panels and contains references to de Chirico. More importantly, Tillers has rendered a painting by Michael Nelson Jagamarra in this work. Hence, all three elements of ‘Dreamings’ come together in this picture: Tillers’s art, de Chirico and Aboriginal art. It is then perhaps the more surprising that the title of this rather unconventional exhibition is a rather conservative ‘Dreamings’.

‘Dreamings’, in this case, was a compromise. The organisers of the show preferred a predictable ‘Dreamtime: Aboriginal art’. The curators instead wanted to go for ‘House of Dreams’ which bears also a reference to de Chirico’s subjects and titles.4 ‘House of Dreams’, apparently, went too far for the organisers. Even more telling is the subtitle (‘Australian Aboriginal Art Meets de Chirico’), which was questioned by the organisers, reflecting their concerns to keep Aboriginal art apart, away from the canonised names in modern art. Initially, the organisers did not like the idea that Aboriginal art and de Chirico would be featuring together in the same title and the same exhibition.5

This is illustrative of how, in some quarters, Aboriginal art is still preferred to be viewed in its cultural isolation. The show instead endeavoured to break through that cultural isolation and through the spectre of the exoticised. The concerns of the organisers were overturned by the exhibition layout. Moreover, given the considerable body of works by Imants Tillers (who also had a collaborative work with Michael Nelson Jagamarra included in the Bordeaux exhibition), this exhibition was as much a small but interesting retrospective of Tillers’s work, as the presentation of a private collection of Aboriginal art.

Although a majority of the collection consisted of Western Desert paintings on canvas, a mixed-media work by Judy Watson and a video work by Christian Thompson were also included. Since the exhibition, work by Imants Tillers was acquired for the Collection Sordello Missana, opening up that collection to non-Indigenous art that has links with Aboriginal art.

Two days after ‘Dreamings’, another exhibition based on a European private collection of Indigenous Australian art, that of the Sydney-based Swiss-Australian businessman Beat Knoblauch and his brother Andreas Knoblauch, opened at the Museo delle Culture in Lugano (Switzerland). ‘Dhukarr Arte Aborigena Contemporanea. La Collezione Knoblauch’, gave an overview of Aboriginal art from remote parts of Australia.6 Through sculptures, paintings on canvas and prints, the most recent developments of Aboriginal art from remote communities were explored.

The idea behind Dhukarr, meaning ‘route’ or ‘path’ in the Yolngu language, was to trace back not only the itinerary of Aboriginal art from ethnographic to contemporary, but also to illustrate the personal journey of appreciation of the collector. 

The curatorship was entrusted to two scientific researchers (Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone and Paolo Maiullari) who adopted a scholarly approach to the organisation of the exhibition. In preparation for Dhukarr a seminar was held at the Heleneum (26 April 2013) and a substantial 336 page bi-lingual catalogue was prepared, which includes essays by academics.7

The exhibition was initially programmed to take place at the Villa Ciani close to the city centre of Lugano. This venue has had contemporary art exhibitions in the past and hosted, as recently as 2012, a large Tony Cragg exhibition. Instead, the exhibition was shown at the Museo delle Culture which focusses more on ‘ethnic’ art and explores anthropological themes. Although a pleasant space, this museum has not gone through the modernisation process that many ethnographic museums in Europe went through, re-interpreting their role as showcases of the ‘other’, their dedication to national pride and supremacy of one country over another, and questioning past practices.

The exhibition presentation followed a classical arrangement of the art of four major cultural ‘blocs’: Arnhem Land, art from the desert, the Kimberley and the Tiwi Islands. The ‘Arnhem Land’ display counted many wooden sculptures and a few barks, of which John Mawurndjul’s representation of Milmilgkan (2009) was the most outstanding. Artworks included in the ‘desert’ section were all from recent dates, thus showing recent developments in desert art rather than providing an historical context. Work by Ngipi Ward, Kuntjil Cooper and Dickie Minyintiri are rarely seen in Europe. Barbara Mbitjana Moore’s exuberant colourful composition, and Roy Underwood’s intrinsic mapping of country, belonged certainly to the highlights of Western Desert art. These were equalled in size and quality by Wirli (2003), a large work by Mawukura Jimmy Nerrimah.

A remarkably strong presence of printed works on paper in this exhibition reflects the initial interest of the collectors who had a predilection for works on paper and Chinese calligraphy. Unsurprisingly, then, some of the most remarkable works in this exhibition were printed works, such as Rover Thomas’s Punmu—The Universe and Durbar Gorge or works by Eubena Nampitjin. A strong graphic element remained very present in most of the works in the exhibition, not least in the canvases and works on paper from the Tiwi Islands. 

There is a thin line between objects being shown as contemporary works of art or primarily as illustrations of the culture itself. Although all three exhibitions were accompanied by comprehensive catalogues in an attempt to engage with contemporary dialogues and debates in art worldwide, the ‘Dhukarr’ exhibition was the most conservative in its presentation. ‘Mémoires Vives’ focused on modernity and the artist as an individual by juxtaposing the art with non-Indigenous artworks. In the same vein, the recently opened Musée des Confluences in Lyon will attempt to abolish segregation between non-Western art and Western art, and to transcend this bipolarity.

Both ‘Mémoires Vives’ and ‘Dreamings’ presented a remarkable development in showing Aboriginal art in Europe. It was presented alongside non-Indigenous Australian art, often for the first time to European audiences.8 In the case of the inclusion of Imants Tillers’s, whose paintings were included in both exhibitions, the work was shown alongside that of one of the artist’s influences, de Chirico. Yet when Aboriginal art is shown alongside those canonised artists in European art history, some barriers or at least tacit opposition, still remain. 

Installation view, 'Mémoires Vives: Une Histoire d'Art Aborigéne' ('Vivid Memories: An Aboriginal Art History'), Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux, 2014. 

Installation view, 'Mémoires Vives: Une Histoire d'Art Aborigéne' ('Vivid Memories: An Aboriginal Art History'), Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux, 2014. 

Installation view, 'Dhukarr, Arte Aborigena Contemporanea: La Collezione Knoblauch' (Dhukarr, Contemporary Aboriginal Art: the Knoblauch Collection'), Museo delle Culture – Heleneum, Lugano, 2014. 

Installation view, 'Dreamings. L'Arte Aborigena Australiana incontra de Chirico' ('Australian Aboriginal Art Meets de Chirico'). Museo Carlo Bilotti, Rome, 2014.  


1. ‘Mémoires Vives: une histoire d’art aborigène’, Musée d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux, 15 October 2013 – 30 March 2014. 

2. Mémoires Vives: une histoire d’art aborigine, ex. cat., Musée d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux, 15 October 2013 – 30 March 2014, Musée d’Aquitaine – Éditions de La Martinière, Bordeaux, Paris, 2013.

3. ‘Dreamings. L’Arte Aborigena Australiana incontra de Chirico’, Museo Carlo Bilotti, Rome, 4 July – 2 November 2014.

4. Dreamings. L’Arte Aborigena Australiana incontra de Chirico, ex. cat., Museo Carlo Bilotti, Rome, 4 July – 2 November 2014, The Bridge Australia, Perth, 2014.

5. Ian McLean, conversation with the author, Rome, 3 July 2014.

6. ‘Dhukarr Arte aborigena contemporanea. La Collezione Knoblauch’, Museo delle Culture – Heleneum, Lugano, 6 July 2014 – 6 January 2015. 

7. Dhukarr Arte aborigena contemporanea. La Collezione Knoblauch, ex. cat., Museo delle Culture – Heleneum, Lugano, 6 July 2014 – 6 January 2015, Silvana Editoriale, Milano, 2014.

8. This was also the case with the exhibition ‘Breaking with Tradition: CoBrA and Aboriginal art’ held at AAMU – Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in Utrecht, the Netherlands (2010). The exhibition included, amongst others, work by CoBrA artists Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinsky and artists David Larwill and Wayne Eager from the ROAR group in Melbourne.

Georges Petitjean is curator at AAMU, Museum of Contemporary, Aboriginal Art, Utrecht.