Love First - Tribal Art magazine · catalog for the 2002 Wati, les hommes de loi ... recited his...
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Love First Bérengère Primat and Australian Aboriginal Art
Interview by Elena Martínez-Jacquet
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FIG. 1 (above): Ginger Wikilyiri discusses the canvas shown in fi g. 5, realized with Keith Stevens and Bernard Tjalkuri, during the opening of Territoire du rêve.© Fondation Pierre Arnaud, Lens.
Nestled in the high plateau of Crans-Montana in Switzerland, the Pierre Arnaud Foundation in Lens is presenting a magnifi cent exhibition on Australian art called Art aborigène. Territoire du Rêve (Aboriginal Art: Dreaming Territory), which will be on view until May 20, 2018. Bérengère Primat, a woman whose sensibility for the culture is a part of her family’s DNA, is the driving force behind this groundbreaking show. In the fi rst interview she has agreed to give, she told us in her gentle and understated tone about her unusual connection with Australian Aboriginal art. Her story is both fascinating and touching, and it demonstrates that love, humility, and determination can lead to incredible human experiences as well as artistic ones.
Tribal Art Magazine: You are deeply connected to the world of art and culture, but all of your collecting activities have been concentrated on Australian Aboriginal art. Why is that?Bérengère Primat: First of all, it’s important for me to stress that I absolutely do not see myself as being a collector. Amassing, possessing, and systematically acquiring pieces—the qualities that are the hallmarks of the collector—are not at all part of my mindset. I consider myself an afi cionado and a sponsor of Aboriginal art, although my passion for it has led me to buying works of art that speak to me. Since that has been going on for about fi fteen years now, it is true that I have put together a quite substantial ensemble of Aboriginal artworks that I have fi nally come around to seeing as a collection, for lack of any better term to describe the way I live with the art. And why
FIG. 2 (top right): Bérengère Primat with artist Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa, Alice Springs, NT, 2007.© Personal archive of Bérengère Primat.
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FIG. 3 (above): Paddy Bedford, Jawalyi, Mont King, 2006. Natural ochers on linen canvas.© Paddy Bedford Estate.
FIG. 4 (below): Bérengère Primat and one of her children watching Gloria Tamerre Petyarre painting.Alice Springs, NT, 2009.© Personal archive of Bérengère Primat.
FIG. 5 (right): Collaborative painting by Tjungu Palya men, Watiku Tjukurpa, 2017. Synthetic polymer on linen canvas. © 2017 ProLitteris, Zurich.
contacts were very helpful to me, especially since gaining access to the artists was diffi cult fi fteen years ago, particularly for an uninitiated woman. It would have taken months for me to build up a network there.
T. A. M.: It was during those trips that you began to purchase artworks?B. P.: Absolutely—although I now buy mostly at auction. But for several years everything happened in Australia, specifi cally in the Alice Springs area. I went there three or four times a year, often for considerable periods of time. I especially remember one four-month stay during which I left town and went into the desert with my children and our backpacks and sleeping bags. The experience was absolutely incredible.
Just the other day I was looking at photos of these trips to Australia and regretted that I had so few, but I fi nd them very revealing: I was not there just on some kind of mundane reporting assignment. I was concentrating on the moment. I was living. I was there with my family. I was happy, and it was extremely fulfi lling. In some ways, these photographs are my own paintings!
T. A. M.: The way you describe it, it sounds like you have a very emotional connection with Aboriginal art.B. P.: Breton wrote, “love fi rst.”2 That’s exactly how it is for me. My approach is more instinctive than intellectual. At fi rst, I basically bought whatever appealed to me aesthetically.
Aboriginal art? Simply because it enchanted and captivated me!
T. A. M.: Please tell us more!B. P.: Like every beautiful story, this one is made up of coincidences and chances that might not actually have been as random as they appear. The catalyst was the fortuitous discovery of the catalog for the 2002 Wati, les hommes de loi exhibition.1 I found such poetry in the works illustrated in it that I had to learn more about them. I went to see the show in Paris, and the attraction only grew stronger with fi rsthand contact with the paintings. After that, I began to read about Aboriginal art and to learn about this millennia-old culture that is founded on the transmission of essential and universal values such as respect, solidarity, compassion, and beauty. Its relationship to time and to the earth revealed in various forms of expression—painting, sculpture, and chanting—spoke to me with particular strength. In other words, I quickly and completely fell in love with this art!
Some time later, I made a number of visits to Australia and met with artists and their communities. These were family trips with my children, which I took while married to the person who had organized the Wati exhibition. My ex-husband, himself an artist and painter, is a great connoisseur of the continent, having lived most of his life there after the age of nineteen. His
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and father of all living things, the connection between man and nature, and the guardian of the country’s laws. The fi nal part of the exhibition is devoted to the work of the Ghost Net weavers (fi g. 8) and explores environmental preservation. It goes without saying that this is a global issue that has great relevance for twenty-fi rst-century Western societies. It’s unusual that there would be three exhibitions devoted to Aboriginal art happening at the same time in Switzerland—one at the MEG, a second at the university, and the one we’re discussing, the Pierre Arnaud Foundation. Is this the result of a particular infatuation with this art in this country?The concurrence of these three events owes much to chance and has no particular signifi cance in and of itself. Nonetheless, Switzerland has been a pioneer in the appreciation of this art in some respects. This is referenced in the exhibition and extensively discussed in the accompanying book. For example, just over 100 years ago, in December of 1917, Tristan Tzara recited his Chanson du serpent (Serpent’s Song) at the now famous Cabaret Voltaire, thus introducing Australian Aboriginal culture to the world of contemporary Western art. This song, which the Dada artist found in the seven-volume work by Carl Strehlow on the Arrernte and Luritja of Central Australia, refers to one of the most important ways in which the stories that nourish and inspire Australian art, even in its most contemporary manifestations, such as the acrylic-on-canvas paintings that began to appear in the 1970s, were and continue to be transmitted.
Three Questions for Exhibition CuratorGeorges PetitjeanHow would you characterize Bérengère Primat’s collection?In my opinion as an art historian, it’s the most important and engaged private collection in Europe, and although it was built from the heart, it has astonishing coherence and comprehensiveness that I believe it gets from being built on some very sound anchor points. I would note Arnhem Land specifi cally, and the work of artist John Mawurndjul, whose paintings were seen in the notable Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 1989. He is well represented in the collection with works dating from 1980 through 2016. For Kimberley-area works, the core of the collection’s holdings is composed of works by Rover Thomas Joolama, the fi rst Aboriginal artist to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale, in 1991. For the desert region, highlights include the works of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (fi g. 7) and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.
What are the exhibition’s goals and how are they realized?Using the contents of a private collection, the show seeks above all to present Aboriginal art to the general public as a modern artistic phenomenon, despite its being anchored in a millennia-old culture. The sculptural and thematic languages of this art reach much further than just the places that the individual works come from. I wanted to eschew the clichés and especially the fragmentary approach that is often taken to painting, which is too often reduced to just “dot art,” and to emphasize its nuances.
In order to do that, the show is divided into fi ve basic sections. It opens by addressing a notion that is fundamental throughout Aboriginal Australia—the Dream, a dimension that is parallel to the time lived by humans and encompasses not only the past but also the present. The art of Arnhem Land, anchored in millennia-old traditions, is then examined, most notably through the presentation of a selection of bark paintings. The third section is devoted to the art of the Australians of the desert, from which the contemporary art movement emerged in the early 1970s. The art of the Kimberley area is shown through one of its most important designs, the Rainbow Serpent, the mother
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Arnaud Foundation exhibition reveals a collection with a distinct identity, and one that is representative of both the geographical and chronological depths of Aboriginal art. It’s hard to believe that your choices were purely emotive or intuitive.B. P.: I certainly have works that refl ect the arts of the various parts of the Australian territories. The
FIG. 6 (below): Paddy Compass Namatbara, Esprits Mimihs, 1960.Narural ochers on bark.© 2017 ProLitteris, Zurich
reason for that is simple: I have not just visited the desert. I spent time in Arnhem Land as well, for instance—less than I did in Alice Springs, to be sure, but enough to have had some very intense experiences there. An Aboriginal woman painter even gave me a kinship family name. The exception would be the Kimberley area, where I have not spent extended periods of time. On the other hand, I’m well acquainted with artists from the area whom I have met in other contexts.
And you know, the words of Breton that I quoted are followed by a personal addendum: “One should always ask oneself what one loves, until one knows all there is to know.” That is what I wound up doing. It was impossible to be superfi cial in my interest or approach. I read enormous amounts, and that sparked other interests that helped me appreciate new areas. I also was able to establish connections between the arts of different regions like, for example, the representations of the Tingari that are seen in several kinds of works—desert paintings and Kimberley shell objects, among others. The more one learns, the more one wants to know, and the better one understands what there still is to fi nd out!
T. A. M.: You’re known for your discretion, but now with Territoire du Rêve you’re in the limelight and thrust to the forefront of the scene. What made you want to emerge from your private sphere?B. P.: Several friends of mine were always telling me that I had to show my collection. I also started feeling the need to do so myself. Knowing the artists as well as I do, I’m aware how important the notion of transmission is. This instilled a sense of responsibility in me, and I felt I had to assume my own role as a transmitter. It became clear that it was out of the question that I should live surrounded by beautiful works of Aboriginal art just for my own pleasure.
The idea for an exhibition made perfect sense, but I wanted a beautiful venue for it, something with a contemporary feeling. I didn’t want an ethnographic museum, even though the show at the MEG—and especially the installations of Brook Andrew’s work there—demonstrate that it is possible to reveal the modernity in Aboriginal art in a more “classical” environment.
As time passed and as my relationships with artists developed, an interest in people and their individual universes became the determining factors in my acquisition process. When I see a work by an artist with whom I have shared experiences come up for sale at auction, I am immediately tempted to buy it.
T. A. M.: That said, looking at the selection of works that you are presenting at the Pierre
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NOTES1. Wati, les hommes de loi. Collection d’Arnaud Serval,
Paris: Passage de Retz, 2002. 2. Karel Kupka. Un art à l’état brut. Peintures et sculp-
tures des aborigènes d’Australie, Lausanne: Éditions Clairefontaine, 1962. With text by André Breton and a preface by Alfred Bülher.
FIG. 7 (right): Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Cycle de vie du désert, 1995.Acrylic on canvas.© 2017 ProLitteris, Zurich.
FIG. 8 (below): Jimmy Kenny Thaiday, Poisson, 2016.Recycled reclaimed fishnet.© Artist & Erub Arts.
FIG. 9 (bottom): Bérengère Primat and two of her children watching Michael Nelson Jagamarra work. Alice Springs, NT, 2009.© Personal archive of Bérengère Primat.
The opportunity to show at the Pierre Arnaud Foundation came up. The ample galleries made it possible for me to show a substantial part of my collection. It was perfect! The exhibition’s curator, Georges Petitjean, and I quickly developed a concept for the show. We primarily chose works from my painting collection. Sculptures and other kinds of objects, like boomerangs, are not represented.
T. A. M.: How do you see the future for these artworks?B. P.: It’s bright and stimulating, and I have lots of projects in mind! I want to contribute to setting up meaningful dialog by hosting artists Ginger Wikilyiri (fig. 1), Teresa Baker, and Kani Tunkin, all of whom we invited to Switzerland for the opening of the exhibition, and by hosting Aborigine students and interns who might be interested in studying my collection. I also want to produce other exhibitions. Georges and I are already thinking of new projects that could be brought to fruition using the pieces in my collection that might approach the subject of Aboriginal art from angles other than the present one—perhaps focusing on a particular community, artist, or region.
Naturally, I want the collection to continue to live and be vital. Sometimes I like to look for the work of a particular artist or period. I’m also interested in collaborative works. The exhibition includes some of these and I’d like to buy more. It’s fascinating to observe how Aboriginal artists began by working in groups, then moved toward working individually, and are now returning to the idea of painting collectively. The results are often striking, all the more so because the format and the canvas have to be large enough for each artist to paint his territory and his Dreams.
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