“Aboriginal occupation of Europe!”

This month, the Royal Academy of Arts in London announced the colonisation of its collections by the most extensive exhibition of Australian works ever shown in the United Kingdom, while across the Channel the rooftop of the quai Branly museum in Paris is being taken over by a giant artwork by Lena Nyadbi.

There tends to be a common misconception in Australia about Aboriginal art and the international audience. Most Australians either underestimate or are unaware of the huge promotion of Indigenous Australian art and culture that has occurred in all parts of the globe through non-commercial visual arts exhibitions in the last 25 years or so. These have significantly increased the international audience’s awareness of Australian Indigenous art and recognition of Indigenous culture as a key part of Australia’s national identity.

Since 1988 there have been more than 100 Australian Indigenous art exhibitions staged around the world from New York to China and from New Zealand to Finland.

In Europe, we must remember the dedication of Bernard Luthi (a German artist, academic and curator) to presenting Australian Indigenous art, which contributed to lead to the first Aboriginal art shows in Europe: Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1989, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists from around the world created artworks expressing their links with land and exploring concepts of mysticism.
The second exhibition dedicated completely to the art of Indigenous Australians was the outstanding Aratjara (the messenger) that opened in Germany at the Kunstsammlung Norhrheinwestphalien in Dusseldorf in 1993 then travelled to England and Denmark.

Today, Europe is still asking with fervour to extend its knowledge about Indigenous Australian art. Initiatives supported by the Australian government, art museums and cultural organisations continue to take Aboriginal art to “the Old continent”.

Striving to shift the debate from an ethnographical approach – still present in a number of European countries – to a constructive artistic approach, IDAIA is applauding two upcoming important events: the exhibition called simply Australia to be staged at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 21 September to 8 December 2013; and the launch of a unique public art project that sees a giant work of art by Australian Aboriginal artist Lena Nyadbi installed on the rooftop of the musée du quai Branly in Paris.

Australia is the most extensive exhibition of Australian works ever shown in the United Kingdom. Including Indigenous and non-Indigenous art from 1800 to the present day, it focuses on the influence of landscape and was several years in the making.

There have been few big Australian art shows in the past. These include Aratjara at the Hayward Museum in London in 1993 and a show of contemporary Australian painting at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1961. The last time the Royal Academy of Arts looked meaningfully at Australian art was in 1923.

“I think British audiences might be a little shocked and agreeably surprised at the high quality of the works,” said Ron Radford, Director of the National Gallery of Australia. British eyes would also be opened with the Aboriginal art in the show. Radford said that, “Britain has been less responsive than Europe, the US or Canada has been to Australian Aboriginal art, I don’t quite know why. But people might be pleasantly surprised and I think Britain is very ready for it.”

29 April 2013 also marked an important day for the Aboriginal art sector, with the Australian launch of a spectacular public art project that sees a giant work of art by Australian Aboriginal artist Lena Nyadbi reproduced on the rooftop of the musée du Quai Branly in Paris. To be officially revealed on June 6, this is one of the largest artworks made by an Australian artist and an important new addition to the world renowned museum dedicated to the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. At a time when on one side contemporary artists are using new media technologies, including digital art, computer animation, virtual art, etc., to reflect their vision of the world, while on the other side, culture professionals are looking to extend the right and the access to culture to everyone, this groundbreaking project combines both: the 700 square-metre installation is viewable from the Eiffel Tower by the seven million visitors a year and accessible by innumerable Google Earth users!

The artwork Dayiwul Lirlmim (Barramundi Scales) is an extraordinary black and white painting inspired by the artist’s mother’s land in Dayiwul Country, Western Australia. According to the legend, three women were fishing for barramundi when one fish eluded the net and escaped through a gap in the rock. It shed its scales in the process, which over time became glittering diamonds. Dayiwul Lirlmim is a traditional story of the area now known as Lissadell Station, which is home to the largest diamond mine in the world.

“This powerful new work by Lena Nyadbi is an historic opportunity to highlight and promote Indigenous Australian art and cultures to a global audience in Paris”, says Australian Council Chair Mr Rupert Myer AM. Harold Mitchell AC, Chairman of the Harold Mitchell Foundation adds,“Presented in the heart of European civilisation this project both raises the profile of Indigenous art and expands the ways we think about the possibilities o Aboriginal art in a global context”.

While the “Old continent” is trying to include Indigenous artists in its cultural temples, Canada is excluding Western artists of its museums’ collections! The National Gallery of Canada just opened Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art on the 17th of May, which is the first in an ongoing series of surveys of Indigenous art. Bringing together works of recent Indigenous art by over 80 artists from 16 countries, including Australian Aboriginal artists, the exhibition explores diverse responses to what it means to be Indigenous today. The National Gallery of Canada is staging one of the most ambitious contemporary art exhibitions, which should inspire the entire art scene.

Alexiane Henry and Solenne Ducos-Lamotte


‘Leading Australian artist unveils large scale rooftop installation for major museum in Paris’. Media Release. Australian Council for the Arts, Monday 29 April 2013.
‘Royal Academy of Arts to stage landmark Australian art exhibition in London’. Media Release. National gallery of Australia, 25 November 2011.
WRIGHT, Felicity. ‘Passion, Rich Collectors and the Export Dollar: The Selling of Aboriginal Art Overseas’, Artlink, Vol. 18 No. 4, 1998