Recently, Andy meets Warhol visited Fondation OPALE, the only foundation dedicated to Aboriginal Art in Europe, located in Lens, Valais Switzerland. The current show Resonances, as well as an interview with founder Bérengère Primat aim to shed more light on the topic of Aboriginal Art and founding and running an art foundation.
Tell me about Fondation OPALE, how did you start the foundation, why Lens and Valais? Why did you choose this location and building?
In 2018, the previous foundation located in our spectacular building encountered financial difficulties and had to close. Their last exhibition Country of the Dreaming already showed a selection of my contemporary Australian Indigenous art collection.
Eventually, and after talking to friends who are Aboriginal artists and my children, who all supported the idea, I decided to take over the place and created Fondation Opale to show the best of their art in Europe.
What is your earliest memory of art? How did you come across Aboriginal Art? What was the first Aboriginal artwork you bought?
I was very lucky to be raised in a family of art lovers. Not only the art created by humans but also the one created by nature.
My first encounter with Australian Indigenous art was in Paris in 2002, in a gallery where my « future ex husband » showed art realised by Aboriginal men in an exhibition named Wati, the Law men. A couple of months later, I was in Alice Springs, sitting with and listening to the artists and their families.
My first purchase was a work on bark from Arnhem Land by Jack Larrangai and a Rainbow Snake by Mick Namarari (Central desert)
Do you have a specific inspiring moment or meeting with Aboriginal artists you could share? Have you visited any ceremonies or performances or artist working in their studio? Is there something as Aboriginal performance art?
Every moment spent in remote Indigenous communities is inspiring… Very different from my speedy and stressful European life…! As in most desert regions, everything is quite slow, time has a different dimension. Every sentence or gesture, another meaning.
Aboriginal Art could also be seen as a performance, every painting is sung and danced either during its creation or once finished. Paintings are visual representation of poems sung and transmitted for thousands of years.
There are also remarkable young artists such as the Bangarra Dance Theatre, performing dance technique forged from over 65,000 years of culture, embodied with contemporary movement.
How does Fondation Opale aim to interact with the local community in Lens; how you think the works on display can relate and communicate with local Swiss customs and art?
The Fondation has an important role to play in the cultural diversity offered to the residents and visitors of the Valais region, and beyond. To our local community, we offer not only a public program made of creative workshops, themed visits, artist talks, concerts, etc., but also a friendly environment to meet up and have a taste of local food and wines.
There is a similitude in the way Indigenous peoples and the local population relate themselves to their territory: with respect and pride. These values, inherent in Australian Indigenous art, resonate in striking relevance with today’s questioning about mitigation and adaptation to climate change, particularly important in the Alpine region we live in.
How do you find new artists, galleries or dealers dealing with Aboriginal Art? How about buying directly from artists? How do you ensure that fair trade and ethical principles are at work, especially benefitting the artist?
I travel to Australia at least once a year to meet with the artists and their families in their communities. As I have a long lasting relationship with many art centres, I usually buy directly from them. Those art centres, situated in remote Indigenous communities, are Aboriginal owned and operated not-for-profit corporations; their general purpose is to build and promote artistic endeavour, support cultural practices and work towards the economic advancement of Aboriginal people through the production, preservation, promotion and sale of their artworks.
It is very important, or even essential, to check that the artwork you want to acquire has a certificate from one of those art centres. It’s a real guarantee of ethical principles as the provenance of the work is still a big concern today.
“Aboriginal art could also be seen as a performance, every painting is sung and danced either during its creation or once finished. Paintings are visual representation of poems sung and transmitted for thousands of years.” – Bérengère Primat
How important is it for you to meet the artist behind the artwork?
I always try to meet the artist if possible. I also commission works and the relationship, mutual respect and understanding of their stories (Dreamings) is necessary.
Has digitalisation changed the way you collect art?
Not really. Digitalisation was already common when I started the collection. I do sometimes buy works I have only seen on pictures but only if I know the artist.
Name three art institutions with or without Aboriginal Art you enjoy going back to.
Amongst my favourite art institutions, I can place the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, where they exhibited Mapa Wiya, your map is not needed last year. Fondation Beyeler in Basel (built by Renzo Piano, same as the Menil) and the Barbier-Mueller museum in the old town of Geneva.
What are you currently working on and what would you like to implement in the near future in regard to the Foundation; do you offer an artist-in-residence programme?
While we are working on our next exhibitions in situ and also in other venues (Brussels, Marrakech…), we’re also working with architects on a new building to host a media library, an auditorium and the recently received archives of Mr Bernhard Lüthi, a Swiss artist, activist and curator (a selection of these documents is currently exhibited at the 2020 Sydney Biennale).
We had our first artist in residence last winter, Walala Tjapaltjarri, who spent 3 weeks with us.
What is the meaning of life? Is there an artwork in the Fondation which especially reflects your meaning of life?
A rather simple way to answer this, is to talk about circularity, transmission and cycles. In Resonances, there is an artwork from Mick Kubarkku named Dird Djang (Moon Dreaming), 2000, which is related to this subject. In local mythology, the moon is associated with the concept of mortality, rebirth as demonstrated by the waxing and waning of the moon each lunar month.
What advice can you give to someone wanting to collect Aboriginal Art?
Please make sure that your artwork comes with a certificate of authenticity by one of the art centres. Otherwise you cannot be sure that the artist has not been pressured, in any way, to create or sell the artwork through questionable channels that are, unfortunately, still existing today. Moreover, this will guarantee that your purchase is not a fake.
What advice can you give to someone wanting to establish a foundation?
When you establish a foundation you have to think long-term. It’s not a “selfish” desire, it is unavoidably time-consuming and the biggest challenge is to ensure the financial revenue for several decades to keep it alive.
Georges Petitjean, your restaurateur and consultant: where did you two meet and how did the cooperation begin?
We first met in 2005, at the Tinguely Museum in Basel, during a retrospective exhibition named Rarrk where John Mawurndjul was celebrated for his mastery of said rarrk (fine-painted cross-hatching).
From 2005 to 2017, Georges Petitjean was curator of the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht (AAMU) in the Netherlands, and he often asked me to lend works from my collection for his exhibitions. In 2017, we began our current collaboration with the exhibition Country of the Dreaming.
If you could commission an Aboriginal artist to create a monument to sit in some Swiss landmark, what artist would you commission and who would or what would you commission them to sculpt?
Good question… Unlike painting, sculpture is not a prominent means of expression in the contemporary Aboriginal art scene (except for younger „urban artists “, who use all sorts of media and new media). Rather than a commission, I would say that an iteration of Gulumbu Yunupingu’s memorial poles, which in our current exhibition echo the Red Lights by American artist Kiki Smith, would be a great symbol. In her works, the late artist and women’s leader from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land expresses the unity in the diversity of humankind, which she beautifully compares to the stars.
What is your vision for the Fondation Opale?
As mentioned earlier, it is a long-term one. Fondation Opale is a platform, or springboard for Australian Indigenous artists in Europe. I truly believe in the mutual benefits of this exchange, as it enables local and European audiences to discover and engage with a contemporary art movement rooted in the oldest continuous culture on the planet, which is not only visually exquisite, but also carries essential messages. Art is a powerful catalyst for dialogue between people and cultures.
Highlights from Fondation OPALE
Pictures by Andy Hermann.
Thanks for reading!
RESONANCES runs from June 14, 2020 to April 4, 2021.
Route de Crans 1
1978 Lens, Switzerland