White walls, neon writing, clean lines: the MEG’s new exhibition «The Boomerang Effect. The Aboriginal Arts of Australia» welcomes its visitors in a space evocative of a contemporary art gallery. Here the MEG unveils one of its finest collections and reveals the wealth of indigenous Australia's cultural heritage. Visiting this exhibition, we understand how attempts to suppress Aboriginal culture since the 18th century have ended up having the opposite of their desired effect.
When James Cook landed in Australia, in 1770, he declared the country to be «no one’s land» (terra nullius), as he recognized no state authority there. This justified the island's colonization and the limitless spoliation of its inhabitants, a medley of peoples who had lived there for 60,000 years, societies which up until today have maintained a visible and invisible link with the land through a vision of the world known as the Dreaming or Dreamtime. These mythological tales recount the creation of the universe as well as the balanced and harmonious relation between all the beings inhabiting it.
It is told that, in ancestral times, the Djan’kawu sisters peopled the land by naming the beings and places and then lying down near the roots of a pandanus tree to give birth to sacred objects. It is related that the Dätiwuy clan and its land was made by a shark called Mäna. It is said that the mouth of the Wandjina, rainmakers whose lips were sealed by the Rainbow Snake, must not be painted, for if this were done, it would rain continuously. It is recounted that the same snake lives in waterholes and watches over the most precious source of life.
Alongside utilitarian objects and weapons (boomerangs, throwing sticks, clubs, spears, shields) and artefacts used in exchanges between communities (engraved pearl shells, message sticks), the MEG's exhibition «The Boomerang Effect. The Aboriginal Arts of Australia» displays works illustrating these mythological tales. Among the objects presented, two carved trees, markers of sepulchres and ceremonial spaces, stand imposingly. Displaying such pieces, whose presence is extremely rare in museums, is not obvious: these ritual monuments torn out of the landscape by the Australians recall the history of the planned destruction of Aboriginal culture. The exhibition then retraces the history which made the MEG the depository of extremely important Australian collections.
In 1963, the Yolngu from Arnhem Land in northern Australia addressed to the Australian parliament a petition written on a piece of bark, on which were both the text and traditional paintings, in the aim of regaining their land rights. This gesture marked a turning point in the process leading to the recovery of the Aborigines' first political and territorial rights.
In the 1970s, Aboriginal artists began to use acrylic paint in the famous dot painting patterns. They painted symbolically in order to conceal the sacred signs. The patterns, mostly nonrepresentational, recount episodes of their mythological tales. These works, which swiftly found an international audience, are highly political and indissociable from the Aborigines' struggle for the recognition of their culture and rights.
In towns, in the late 1980s, a form of art sometimes called «urban Aboriginal art» developed. Most of the artists belonging to this movement consider themselves to be simply contemporary artists loudly proclaiming their Aboriginal identity. The artist Brook Andrew is part of this movement and has been invited by the MEG to do a residency in the context of this exhibition. His participation and work have made it possible to create a strong dialogue between the MEG and certain indigenous communities in a collaborative anthropology approach.
How do Aboriginal artists see the museological practices involving their culture ? Brook Andrew responds by focusing his own gaze on the culture and history of Australia's first inhabitants and his reflection, by allowing indigenous personalities to express themselves, concerns, amongst other things, the question of sacred and secret objects. Michael Cook also responds by evoking the suffering of his people, particularly those of the stolen generations, the Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their familes and put in centres where they were stripped of all their traditional culture.
With the GhostNets project, presented on a monumental scale in the MEG exhibition, Torres Strait Islanders make marine animals out of bits of fishing nets lost at sea. A scourge for the marine ecosystem, the «ghost nets» are salvaged on the Australian coast by indigenous artists. They recycle them to make impressive brightly coloured sculptures which alert the public to the threat caused by this waste. Art thus becomes a tool for denouncing ecological issues.
The work undertaken by the MEG in dialoguing with indigenous populations in order to produce this exhibition attests to the museum's willingness to take into account the demands of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders with regard to the question of presenting their culture outside their land. In the exhibition «The Boomerang Effect. The Aboriginal Arts of Australia», speech returns to the indigenous peoples, as in the trajectory of a boomerang which goes back to its point of departure, connecting the objects, their histories and the source communities.
Since the second half of the 20th century, art has become a tool for protest and an instrument of political struggle. In a real boomerang effect, the attempts at acculturation and integration into neo-Australian culture, the destruction of intergenerational ties and the generalized denigration affecting Aborigines, have led them to strengthen their identity and demands and to display unprecedented creativity. Aboriginal artists in particular, far from conforming to an imposed creative model, have managed to find their own way of using the new plastic media of expression in order to further their cause.