Bertrand : The exhibition you curated in Monaco embraces a large spectrum of Aboriginal art from classical bark paintings to modern sculptures and also photography. What is the redline and messages you would like to stress within the exhibition?
Erica : We aimed to compare Indigenous and Western knowledge systems of the ecologies of water, and to demonstrate various convergences and conversations between them in contemporary art practices. Art was an ideal means of achieving this, because of its powers of communication and affect and also because it is the main repository of Indigenous art and a principal investigatory practice of early Western science.
The Prince Albert Hall in the Oceanographic Museum at Monaco was an ideal site for this exhibition as its collections of Prince Albert’s expeditions document –in the form of drawings and collection practices that appeal to contemporary artists – the objectifying methodologies of the most advanced Western marine science at the turn of the twentieth century. Indigenous science has a different set of categories that, in emphasising relatedness and holistic systems, enhance the importance of place, identity, sustainability and reciprocity.
Bertrand : You have traveled with the Aboriginal artists, as one producing a work just before the exhibition. What was the challenge and the idea of this performance?
Erica : For Barayuwa Munungurr’s totemic designs that covered the permanent life-size model of a sperm whale in the Prince Albert Hall, the first challenge was gaining permission for this artistic intervention especially given the size of the whale and the logistics, costs and health and safety issues of implementation the art work, as well as overcoming the museum’s reluctance to interfere with one of its feature exhibit.
Because the whale dominated the hall, the installation became the main feature of the exhibition. The museum Director agreed that it was a dramatic way for the museum to engage with contemporary art and the theme of this exhibition (which was dialogues between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems about the oceans).
The idea of the installation was to combine Indigenous and Western systems of representation by incorporating Yolngu totemic designs that signify the ancestral spirit of the whale, with the exacting representations of Western empiricism that, for Barayuwa, reference the physical whale. In simultaneously showing the sacred ‘inside’ and secular ‘outside’ nature of the whale in the one artwork, Barayuwa reminds us of the limits of Western science and that there is more to the world than its physical appearances.
Bertrand : You and your husband are advising collectors of Aboriginal art in their process of acquisition. What would be the best advice you would like to share with collectors in Europe?
Erica : While collectors seek advice from various sources they will always follow their own inclinations. Most collectors are deeply interested in what they collect and so are already very knowledgeable.
Most European collectors have mainly been interested in Aboriginal art from a primitivism and conventional ethnographic perspective. By contrast our collectors were from the beginning interested in its contemporary art context, which is why we have worked with them. We have sought to enhance their approach by widening the scope of their collection by bringing it into dialogue with art outside their main interest, which initially was, and still largely is, Western Desert painting.
We have encouraged their burgeoning interest in urban artists, new media artwork, and also towards collaborative works between Indigenous and Western contemporary artists.