The MEG is dedicating an exhibition to the diversity and wealth of Australia’s arts. “L’Effet boomerang. Les arts aborigènes d’Australie”, thus offers insight into the colonisation of this country, from a political and aesthetic perspective.
It was in 1770 that British explorer James Cook, acting as a representative of King George III, became the first Westerner to set foot on the Terra incognita, today known as Australia. Even if the land was already populated, the explorer still dubbed this territory as Terra nullius – “no man’s land”, an expression that says a great deal about the way indigenous people were long considered as a primitive society.
However, the “material culture” developed by Australia’s 270 or so ethnicities over the 60,000 years in which they had inhabited the territory would whet the interest of Western travellers. Many European goods were exchanged for local fetishes, sometimes painlessly, for the Aborigines had the means to reproduce these artefacts easily.
It was during this period that Australia became a “contact zone” between two worlds, two space-time bodies. In the Second Preface to Bajazet, Racine stated that “spatial distance may compensate for temporal proximity”. By discovering Australia, the West conquered the ends of the Earth, and made the acquaintance of a radical otherness, originally viewed according to an axiology riddled with prejudices pitting the primitive against the civilised or the natural against the social. What remained to be constructed were bridges between two territories but also across the centuries. Not exactly straightforward, as anthropologists Herbert Spencer and Francis James Gillen noted. For the Aborigines, the time of individuals is integrated into the notion of the Dreaming or the Dreamtime, a poetic expression coined by anthropologist Francis James Gillen to describe the pervasive mythology of humans meeting their ancestors during ritual ceremonies. From an aboriginal perspective, this is not a matter of magic or superstition; the reality is physical, not symbolic.
Despite the diversity of aboriginal cultures and the arts that compose them, their relationship to the world can essentially be grasped according to a “totemic” ontology, one of the ontology types described by Philippe Descola in Par delà Nature et Culture. Totemic ontologies are characterised by the establishment of a relationship between every being in the world, human or non-human, with an archetypal figure associated with a certain number of categories of transcendent beings – totems, including the Snake or the Kangaroo – accounting for the diversity of physical beings.
The “boomerang moment”
Over time, the boomerang has become an emblem of Australia, in the same way as the kangaroo or surfing. But we owe this distinctive-looking object to the ingenuity of the Aborigines who used it variously as a hunting instrument, a decorative object, or a fire-making implement. Symbolically, the boomerang, which, when thrown, traces a circular movement back to its initial position, also stands for a return of what has previously been glossed over: colonisation whose violence can sometimes fly back into the face of the aggressor. This “boomerang moment” was perfectly described by Jean-Paul Sartre in his preface to Les Damnés de la Terre (1961), the famous work by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, a major figure in anticolonialist thought. Fanon defended the idea that decolonisation is characterised by a radical opposition to the colonial project of assimilation, radicalising the cultural specificity of the colonised people. In this way, the violence endured is in some way turned back, at least symbolically, but more generally politically, against the coloniser. Sartre described this violence as “splashing back on us in the way that our reflection comes and meets us from the other side of a mirror”. The “boomerang effect” brings us face to face with this reflection.
Aboriginal Art in the White Cube
The scenography of the MEG exhibition is signed by Swiss designers Adrien Rovero and Béatrice Durandard (Adrien Rovero Studio). It is based on a confrontation, almost a collision, between aboriginal cultural, technical, or merely decorative productions – not necessarily sacred ones – and contemporary installations by Brook Andrew, as well as archive documents on colonisation, all this in a sacrosanct Western white cube. How can Australia’s traditional arts be integrated into the uncluttered context of a contemporary art gallery? This is the challenge taken up by the scenography which sets out to reveal these works in their aesthetic dimension without overlooking the singularity of their production conditions and their original significance.
Take the example of the “ghost nets” by Torres Strait artists from the Erub community, produced from the fishing nets that have washed up on their shores. The latter are fashioned into marine figures: sharks, turtles, and various types of fish. These creations show how indigenous artists respond in some way to the ecological disasters affecting their territory, while poetically and critically pointing to the aggression that has turned them into victims.
The question of ecology, incidentally, crops up often in this exhibition. Several anthropologists including Daniel S. Davidson, followed by Norman Tindale, have noted how the region’s ecological factors are reflected by a unique “material culture”. Every material culture corresponds to a distinct ecological zone within the vast Australian space. Ecological factors spawn a great variety of practices, forms and procedures, on which the exhibition sets out to offer a panorama that is more representative than exhaustive.
Australian indigenous arts can only be alluded to in the plural, given the diversity of their styles, techniques and forms, which spurn any attempt to classify them. But within them, we can sense something of an identity – a shifting, plural, varying identity – which is all the more singular because it is the fruit of an “island effect”, whose isolation is also synonymous of anchorage.
A Go-between Between Worlds
“L’Effet boomerang. Les arts aborigènes d’Australie” places great emphasis on figures interceding between two worlds. This is firstly the case of German policeman-photographer Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche, who arrived in Australia in 1854 when colonial aggression was at its heights. His testimony is interesting for two aspects. Firstly, it is as a policeman and photographer that he produced his many portraits of Aboriginals – around 95 anthropometric prints, taken between the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, namely intended for the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris – which reveal the context of violence inflicted on certain indigenous peoples. On the other hand, these shots immortalise individuals destined to vanish or to bow to violent acculturation – less than 60 aboriginal languages have survived in Australia, and specialists forecast that no more than about twenty of them will still be around in fifty years’ time, out of the 270 languages that were counted at the start of colonisation.
Amongst the intercessory figures highlighted by the exhibition, there is also Billy Muck. Photographed by Foelsche, this individual originating from the Larrakia people was one of the first aboriginal informers who rose up as a key intermediary between colonists and the indigenous peoples. After learning English quickly, he became an interpreter for the police, the courts and colonial prisons. But Billy Muck followed a far more complex itinerary than that of a mere go-between. He was also an artist whose work would be recognised by Europeans. Thanks to his rare situation, Billy Muck drew creative strength that meant that he was not the symptomatic object of a violent history; he was a protagonist in his own right, rather than a passive subject. Like Jimmy Button, originally from Tierra del Fuego, who discovered England thanks to Captain FitzRoy (with whom a certain Charles Darwin voyaged), Billy Muck was a traveller between two worlds, between two space-time bodies.
For the gap between the two worlds has not been fully absorbed. More than ever, it is necessary to set up a dialogue between these two cultures. This is the ambition of artist Brook Andrew, who draws inspiration from Western culture as well as her natal Wiradjuri culture (from the Australian state of New South Wales). A MEG resident in the context of the exhibition, Brook Andrew is presenting two immersive installations, a work that explores the memory of aboriginal cultures and the impact of colonisation, but which also formulates the hope of survival despite the tragedy that has resulted in the quasi-disappearance of aboriginal cultural wealth and diversity.
“L’Effet boomerang. Les arts aborigènes d’Australie” is an attempt to give indigenous peoples back their voice, to offer an echo for their expressiveness, and to unleash their authentic words. In this way, the exhibition seeks to metaphorically accomplish the trajectory of a boomerang, in other words, return to its starting point (before colonisation), by linking the objects and their stories to the communities from which they hail. An artistic approach but also a political one, which aims to create the indelible print of a culture threatened with extinction. This exhibition seems to be constructed from the conviction that the promotion of certain artistic productions can be a tool and a message of political struggle. It attests to the singular existence of a culture which Western domination has striven to render invisible, if not to wipe out. Granting it a place in Geneva’s ethnography museum is a means to assert its artistic value, and by the same gesture, to endeavour to preserve it from looming destruction. Destruction that would surely be an irreparable loss for the cultural heritage of humanity.
“L’effet boomerang. Les arts aborigènes d’Australie”
Until January 7, 2018. Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, Geneva.
65-67 blvd Carl-Vogt. 1205 Geneva. Switzerland. www.ville-ge.ch/meg/en