Exhibitions Museums France

See Australia from the rooftops of Paris

Musée du Quai Branly puts indigenous art above all

Lena Nyadbi with Harold Mitchell, whose foundation has made the Paris commission happen

An indigenous Australian painting representing the shimmering scales of the barramundi fish is being transferred on to the 700 sq. m rooftop of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The seven million people who every year ascend the nearby Eiffel Tower will be able to see the work, which is due to be unveiled on 6 June.

The original painting, Dayiwul Lirlmim (barramundi scales), was painted last year by Lena Nyadbi, a Gija woman whose ancestral country extends in a 100km radius from the tiny Western Australian settlement of Warmun. “It’s the first time a museum has commissioned a piece that will not be visible from the museum,” said Stéphane Martin, the president of Musée du Quai Branly, on 29 April, when the project was formally announced at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. “You have to be outside the museum to appreciate it,” he said.

The Paris museum dispatched senior staff to Warmun to work with Nyadbi on selecting a section of Dayiwul Lirlmim to be transferred to the rooftop with the use of digitised stencils.

The original painting was done with natural ochres and charcoal, but rubberised paints are being used on the rooftop version. The painting will be a permanent fixture and will be repainted as often as necessary, probably every 15 years, Martin said. Those not fortunate enough to be in Paris will be able to see the work via a webcam on the Eiffel Tower, or on Google Earth, he added.

The A$500,000 ($489,000) project was paid for by the Harold Mitchell Foundation, founded by Harold Mitchell, the media buyer and former chairman of the National Gallery of Australia.

Mitchell says he suggested the rooftop project to Stephane Martin last year, after Martin told Mitchell he had a “maintenance budget” for the roof of the museum and that the building’s architect, Jean Nouvel, was not happy with the roof the way it was. “It was either going to be painted Paris light grey, Paris middle grey, or Paris dark grey,” Mitchell says. He suggested the painting of an indigenous work on the roof, and put the foundation’s executive director Stephanie Copus-Campbell in charge of pulling the project together.

The Australia Council for the Arts and the National Gallery of Australia have also been important players, Mitchell says. He and Martin became friends before the Musée du Quai Branly opened in 2006. The Australian played a leading role in getting the work of eight indigenous Australian artists, including Nyadbi, built into the interior and exterior of the museum.

“She [Nyadbi] has transformed the way Aboriginal people see themselves contributing to the global art community,” says Lee-Ann Buckskin, the chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts board of the Australia Council for the Arts. Buckskin believes the rooftop painting “will change the Paris landscape forever”.

The commission is not the only good news for the Warmun com­munity. Jonathan Kimberley, the manager of its local arts centre, says that when the party returns to Warmun from Paris after Nyadbi’s work is ­unveiled, it will celebrate the end of successful conservation work on around 400 Warmun paint­ings damaged by flooding in 2011. It is hoped that Nyadbi, who was born around 1937, will be well enough to attend the Paris unveiling.

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