Indigenous art makes mark in city of light
Emma-Kate Symons

HE is one of Australia's most acclaimed Aboriginal artists, and in Paris yesterday, John Mawurndjul became the toast of the French artistic establishment.

Selected to paint one of the ceilings of Jacques Chirac's new Quai Branly museum of indigenous art on the banks of the Seine, the award-winning Arnhem Land bark painter and sculptor wore his modern-day Michelangelo mantle with characteristic grace and no sense of false modesty.

Despite being feted by the media and fussed over by art curators, architects, critics and diplomats at the E216million ($350million) four-building museum under construction in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Mawurndjul said "I'm just here to work".

He did have his hair dyed deeper black for the occasion. But work he did, carefully cross-etching ochre on to a specially commissioned column before he turned to the task of directing a small team of artists on his ceiling before the museum's scheduled opening in June next year.

"I feel my heart is in a lot of it," he said of the painting inspired by his ancestral land of Dilebang.

At the residence of Australia's ambassador to France, Penny Wensley, Mawurndjul was guest of honour at a lunch hosted by the Quai Branly's president, Stephane Martin.

The Quai Branly is dedicated to primitive art from Oceania, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, it will include an entire building decorated by the work of eight specially chosen Australian artists in a project that is set to put Aboriginal art on the map as never before. Ceilings, facades and painted columns are among the contributions of the Australian artists.

The Australian project, with a budget of more than 1million euros, is the fruit of an unprecedented global collaboration between the French and Australian governments, the National Gallery of Australia, the Quai Branly, the Art Gallery of NSW and The Australian Council.

Mr Chirac wrote to John Howard requesting his support for the project and now the Australian wing has become so significant to the museum, it could enjoy its own special opening during the inaugural celebrations.

The Australian