Georges Petitjean in-conversation with Laura Thompson - Michael Reid

Georges Petitjean in-conversation with Laura Thompson

‘Highlights from Sammlung Klein’
08.01 – 30.01.2021
at Michael Reid Berlin

In August, 2020 the Michael Reid Berlin team had the pleasure of meeting Peter Klein and viewing his extensive private collection in Eberdingen, Baden- Württemberg, Germany. Peter and his wife Alison have been collecting art since the 1980’s and, alongside many international artists, their collection includes a significant number of works of contemporary Aboriginal Art. We collaborated for our debut 2021 exhibition, sharing pieces from PAPUNYA TULA ARTISTS from their collection in Berlin.

This exhibition serves to shed light on contemporary Aboriginal Art in the international realm. And furthermore, the important role of the collector.

Ahead of the exhibition, Gallery Director Laura Thompson spoke to Georges Petitjean (the curator of Fondation Opale, Switzerland and former head of the Aboriginal Contemporary Art Museum, Utrecht) for an insightful conversation and information on the exhibiting artists George Tjungurrayi, George Ward Tjungarrayi, Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri and Yukultji Napangati.

We invite you to discover more about contemporary art from across Australia and its rightful place in the global art market.

Georges Petitjean in-conversation with Laura Thompson

Laura Thompson (LT): Georges Petitjean it is an absolute honour to speak with you about Australian Indigenous art being shown in Europe. We have previously been in touch about exhibitions of Australian art at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève and during your time at the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht (AAMU). We meet again (virtually) ahead of an exhibition of key works from Sammlung Klein that will be held at Michael Reid Berlin in January 2021. Alongside your significant study and work in the field, and now as Curator of Fondation Opale in Switzerland, you have gathered a wealth of experience and knowledge in exhibiting Australian Indigenous art in the international realm. As Eurocentric narratives and art histories have traditionally reigned supreme, I am interested to know if the position of contemporary Australian Indigenous art has changed over recent years?

Georges Petitjean (GP): Thanks, Laura, for starting this conversation with this very important question. In the thirty years that I’ve been involved in contemporary Indigenous Australian art, on the surface at least the position of the art has indeed drastically changed. It is a paradox that the contemporary art world, which professes to be an arena for openness, was until very recently a bulwark of Eurocentric narratives. Aboriginal art was often considered folk art at the best. Many of the established art gallery curators in the nineties wouldn’t touch it and the art was even banned from Art Cologne in 1994. Much had to do with an intellectual laziness towards an art that did’t fit the European paradigm. Since the 2000s, however, Aboriginal art has been included in basically every major art event in the world and its admittance in preeminent art fairs, including Art Basel, is no longer an issue. We witnessed Aboriginal art in Venice Biennale and at Documenta in Kassel, Germany which is probably one of the world’s most important art events. This is very different from some decades ago. In addition, in the last few years we have seen an upsurge of interest in the United States, largely spurred by high-end collectors, with amongst others a show at the Menil Collection in Houston and Gagosian organising three shows to date. This illustrates a long-due appreciation of the art.

LT: I was listening to a presentation you gave in 2017 where you explained that even to commence your PhD in Australia on Aboriginal Art in 1997 proved difficult. And the university asked you to undertake your studies through the anthropology and sociology department. This also speaks volumes to the changes in the art scene within Australia itself.

GP: This anecdote is indeed telling about how much changed in the perception of Indigenous Australian art in the last two decades. Around the year 2000 things started to change dramatically. Of course there have been events including Aboriginal art as contemporary art before 2000 – for instance Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and 1997 respectively or the Aratjara exhibition which I talk about in my essay – but it’s really only at the start of the 21st Century that things started to change with the consequent inclusion of Indigenous Australian art and non-Western art in general in mainstream art events.

LT: I want to ask you to speak about how those working in the arts – curators, institutions and artists – have done and can continue to shift the ways Indigenous art is consumed. That is, to deflect it being pigeonholed and categorised, and instead enable it to be viewed as art in a global context.

GP: I think it’s very important to practice inclusive curating. Whilst I have curated many exhibitions of Indigenous Australian art in Europe, I believe it is necessary to involve an Indigenous voice through working directly with Indigenous artists, curators and communities. At the same time it is essential to show the art on equal terms to any other art in the world. After all, contemporary Aboriginal art it is not an art that came about in ‘splendid isolation’.
The fact that there have been major exhibitions of Indigenous Australian art in consecrated ‘temples’ of high art, for instance at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne or more recently at the Menil Collection in Houston, points to a changing mentality and unprecedented recognition of Aboriginal art as Art. This is also reflected in the art market with Gagosian having organised three exhibitions so far (in New York, Beverly Hills and Hong Kong). Who would have dared to conceive this back in 1994? These were all very important exhibitions that contributed to the acceptance of the art in a broader global art narrative.

LT: And finally, I am interested to know about the role of the private collector. Particularly when it comes to Australian Indigenous art, the private collector has played a key role in bringing this to European audiences. The AAMU was established by private collectors in Utrecht. You are now curator of the Fondation Opale also a private initiative. And we are loaning works from leading Papunya Tula artists from the Peter and Alison Klein collection. How do collectors play a role in positioning Indigenous Australian art in the global art market?

GP: I refer also to Steve Martin, the famous Hollywood actor, who as an avid collector of Aboriginal art, was pivotal for the Gagosian exhibitions. Curators and art professionals were not that quick in taking up Aboriginal art. It was in first instance artists and collectors that sparked an interest and also opened the paths for many institutions to show the art. One only has to think of Sol LeWitt who saw the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye at the Venice Biennale in 1997. His subsequent collection of Indigenous Australian art lay at the basis of the Remembering Forward exhibition at the Ludwig Museum.

Just as artists are at the cutting edge of things, so are sometimes collectors before the art is actually being taken up by the established art world. This definitely happened with Indigenous Australian art. Collectors were among the first to appreciate it, to see the relevance and give it a place in their collections. They could also promote the art in their networks. Collectors often have access to a large network of art galleries, curators, museums and so on. It is quite often the case that through their endeavours Indigenous Australian art found its way into many major art galleries and museums in Europe and continues to do so. Examples are manifold.

Back in Australia for instance, Colin and Elizabeth Laverty have played an influential role. Museum directors were looking at what they were doing, rather than the other way around. Bérengère Primat, who is one of Europe’s most important private collectors of Aboriginal art, founded the Fondation Opale. Thanks to her efforts and access to an extensive network in the museum world, people who before wouldn’t have bothered have started to very seriously look at Aboriginal art.

LT: Thank you for your time Georges Petitjean.


Thank you to Peter and Alison Klein for generously loaning works for this exhibition.
Thank you to Valeria Waibel and Georges Petitjean for your time and assistance.
And thank you to the exhibiting artists and Paul Sweeney at Papunya Tula Artists.

Moving On Up

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