One of the most rewarding things about doing a PhD in two countries is the variety of teaching I get to do alongside it. In Australia, I teach French language, French and francophone culture and, when I’m lucky, my niche field of French cinema. Many of my Melbourne University students remind me eerily of myself only a few years ago, and it’s wonderful to show them what I love about my adoptive country.
But there’s something very special about teaching English to French students. For the most part, I’m allowed to structure my courses the way I like, which means my little Frenchies get a heady dose of Australian culture in their English language classes. I teach them about Australia because it is what I know, because they rarely learn about it elsewhere, and because there’s so very much to show them.
A few weeks ago, I ran a specialised class on Australian art. It was sweet to hear my Parisian dwellers describing their interpretation of artworks by Jeffrey Smart, Tom Roberts and Margaret Olley. Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series was a crowd pleaser. But I was particularly impressed by how admiringly they spoke of Aboriginal art.
Emu Woman, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, 1988-1989
Some liked the warm, earthy tones of the paintings. Others were drawn to the unique, traditional techniques and materials used. Still others admired the stylised, at times abstract way Aboriginal artists depicted imagery from the Australian bush; watering holes, snakes, lizards, rivers. Many were intrigued by the Dreamtime stories some paintings told, the traces of the mythology so precious to native Australian culture.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t pretend to be an expert on Aboriginal art, merely another admirer. So I decided it was time for me to visit a museum I’d been meaning to explore for years: the Quai Branly.
The Quai Branly museum was established in 2006 and is dedicated to exhibiting the art and culture of native peoples from around the world. The building is designed around a central open pathway, nicknamed the rivière, which “flows” through the different regions of the earth. The “river” guides you from the native inhabitants of Alaska to the tribes of South America to cradles of civilisation like Ethiopia. From the South Pacific to Japan to the Middle East, almost every corner of the globe is represented. There are ancient and contemporary materials, high-brow artworks and everyday objects. There are masks, paintings, tapestries, ritual artefacts, ink drawings, sculptures and ceramics. Just as I had suspected, the Australian section was rich and varied too: beautiful contemporary dot paintings, much older artworks on bark, even some sculptures.
The Quai Branly is perhaps best known for its stunning “mur végétal” (“plant wall”) installation on the museum’s exterior (see the image above). Once inside its walls, I had the impression that the museum was a world unto itself, with rambling modern gardens, workshops and a cinema, as well as the centrepiece of the museum itself. The Quai Branly is certainly a very visually striking place. But what I appreciated most about it was its respect for the local, the traditional and the unique that each world culture has to offer. It was that same respect I saw in my students the day we studied Australian art.
Xx la muséophile
Le musée du Quai Branly
37 quai Branly, 75007 Paris, France (métro Alma-Marceau/Bir Hakeim)
Full rate: 8.50 euros
Reduced rate: 6 euros
[See website for multiple free-access options]
Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday: 11am to 7pm
Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 11am to 9pm