Empowering Indigenous artists

27 June 2022

Interview conducted by Martin Staub, Private Banker

Despite having never been comfortable with the term ‘collector’, Bérengère Primat has built an impressive selection of Australian Indigenous art over two decades. In 2018, she took over the Fondation Pierre Arnaud art centre in the Swiss village of Lens. Renaming it Fondation Opale – after the precious stone that plays a prominent role in Australian Aboriginal culture – she wanted to create a space where the public could explore contemporary art concerned with universal themes. The foundation also runs conferences and workshops, and gives visitors the chance to meet some of the artists whose work is displayed.

Bérengère, what was your motivation behind starting Fondation Opale?

Humanity has always attempted to express its place in the universe through the medium of art. This kind of vision, which is still hugely relevant to Indigenous artists – and especially Aboriginal people of Australia – is central to Fondation Opale.

In 2017, when the sheer quantity and quality of the works I had collected became clear to me, I realised that I had to share them with as many people as possible. After part of my collection was exhibited in Fondation Pierre Arnaud the following year, I had the idea of taking over the art centre.

We could say that Fondation Opale was born from the idea of “transmission of knowledge”, which is at the heart of the artistic process of Indigenous people in Australia.

But the artistic direction has evolved. Our core focus is Australian Indigenous art, but we would never consider excluding other contemporary artists from the foundation because that would perpetuate the notion of segregation against which we are fighting.

You’ve previously said that you don’t like being referred to as an ‘art collector’. How exactly would you describe yourself?

I’ve had trouble with this term for a long time. For me, it has something of a negative connotation as it implies there’s some pleasure involved in amassing works of art, but that really doesn’t correspond to what I’m doing.

I bought my first works because I felt deeply moved when looking at them. Then, after meeting some Aboriginal artists and their families, it was a way for me to maintain a link with them, a memory of the unique moments and experiences that we shared together.

But for now, I have to accept this term as a way of describing myself until I can find a better one.

Is the foundation receiving the response you anticipated? What new exhibitions can everyone look forward to?

We opened our doors in December 2018, and after an extremely encouraging first year in which we had 10% more visitors than expected, we were forced to close for several months because of the pandemic.

This year got off to a slow start, but we’re delighted with the excellent feedback we have received from our visitors, art-world professionals, and the artists themselves.

We’re also excited to be running two major exhibitions this year, both of which will include works that have never been previously displayed to the public. The first, Fugitive Present, runs from June to November, and will showcase ceremonial ground paintings – which form the basis of the contemporary art movement in Australia’s central desert – alongside contemporary Australian photography.

The second exhibition runs from December to April 2023 and will be entitled Rêver dans le rêve des autres, which translates to “Dream into other people's dream”. It will introduce visitors to French artist Yves Klein’s interest in Aboriginal culture – something that has never been revealed before.

I’m confident that we’re on the right track to engage with a wide audience that isn’t necessarily accustomed to this particular art movement, as we also strive to ensure the high quality of our exhibitions.

Which Indigenous artists would you recommend exploring and why?

I’ve been lucky enough to meet many of the artists whose works form part of my collection. There are great artists in every region of Australia and it's a matter of personal taste which you like best. For someone who’s completely unfamiliar with Australian Indigenous art, I would recommend finding a work that touches you and seeking to learn more – in fact, that’s how my passion started.

I would point to what André Breton, the co-founder of surrealism, writes in the preface to Dawn of Art, which is a book by Karel Kupka about Australian Aboriginal paintings and sculptures: “Love above all. There will always be time, afterwards, to question yourself about what you love, to the point of not wanting to ignore even a single thing."

What’s your long-term vision for Fondation Opale?

I hope that the foundation will continue to offer remarkable exhibitions and that these can travel to some of the world’s major institutions. I would also like our ‘European platform’ for wonderful Australian Indigenous artists to really take shape. After two years without being able to travel, it’s been a great source of frustration that we haven’t been able to welcome artists to the foundation.

How does Fondation Opale support the artist community?

The foundation provides Aboriginal artists with the opportunity to attract significant attention from an international clientele by having their works featured in a contemporary art centre in Switzerland that is not far from Crans-Montana. What’s more, many of our visitors ask where they can buy Aboriginal art of good origin. This important source of revenue enables these artists to perpetuate their cultures and clan lives.­

There are also benefits for local artists and we regularly give them the floor for concerts, performances and talks as part of our public programme.

What advice would you give to someone who may be thinking of starting an art collection?

Be ready to change your life and those of your loved ones. And think with your heart without ever setting aside your ethical convictions.

And what would you say to someone considering establishing an art foundation?

I’d have to say that having adequate finances is vital to guarantee any foundation’s stability. It also goes without saying that building a motivated, creative and competent team is another prerequisite.

Setting up an art foundation must have been a big step for you. Has it changed you as a person?

It has put a spotlight on me and I do get many more requests to share my experiences than I did previously – in all areas of life, not just artistic. I’ve had to learn to say “no” sometimes without feeling guilty and to manage my time better. But my view on life is unchanged: I remain convinced that the best way to give meaning to your life is through sharing with others.

Photo credit: Yorick Chassigneux

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