Paula Latos-Valier is the Art Director for the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation and chairs the Gallery Advisory Committee for the SH Ervin Gallery. She serves as Vice President of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, and is a consultant for the Biennale of Sydney’s Archive Project. Her former positions include VP of the OAS, Managing Director of the Biennale of Sydney, Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia and past Board Member of the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council. She was awarded a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2005 and an Honorary AM in 2018 for service to the arts and academic exchange. Paula spoke to Jim Elmslie about her life and her long association with Aboriginal and Oceanic art.
JE Paula, you are an American who has lived in Australia for many years and held many senior positions in the Arts here. When did you first come in contact with Oceanic art?
PLV I really did not plan to come live in Australia – I came for two years and thought it would be a terrific adventure. I’d been working as an artist and art teacher in Boston and also made street banners for the City of Boston, which was dressing up its downtown area. A job opportunity for my husband, Biron, came up in the most unlikely place: Prahran College, Melbourne. He brought back a couple of artefacts from his interview trip. He’d stopped off in Sydney and gone to New Guinea Arts, located then on Elizabeth Street. The pieces were like nothing I‘d seen before, powerful and visually exciting. I immediately said: “We should go there and explore that part of the world!” Looking at the world map Melbourne seemed a lot closer to New Guinea and in the 1970s you did that sort of thing – followed your intuition and set your sails for unknown lands.
JE How did you find the art scene in Australia in your early days and how did that differ from what was going on in the US at that time? How do things compare now?
PLV When we set off from Boston to Melbourne we sort of jumped into the deep end of the pool. I had no idea what life would be like in Melbourne or what the art scene was like there. It turned out to be a huge change and a big challenge. I applied unsuccessfully for lots of jobs, some as far way as Adelaide, which was then an amazingly vibrant cultural hub. Melbourne seemed pretty closed and parochial by comparison and focused on local art. The commercial galleries at the time seemed interested only in Australian content. I took note of this and went back to making my own artwork, producing a playful series that offered a foreigner’s perspective on Australian icons, which was shown at the Victorian Ministry for the Arts gallery before going on to tour the Victorian regional galleries. Then out of the blue a job came up in Sydney with the Australian Gallery Directors Council. I was to supervise a major international exhibition from France and I learned later that being fluent in French was the deciding factor in landing the job. The exhibition was French painting (1760-1820), titled The Revolutionary Decades, which required working closely with different departments of the Art Gallery of NSW. By the time the French show finished I knew almost everyone at both the NGV and AGNSW.
JE What is it in Aboriginal and Oceanic art that captured your attention and where do you think it sits within the spectrum of the visual arts today and historically?
PLV In the 1980s Aboriginal Art was entering a renaissance and completely transforming people’s perceptions of indigenous art. Astounding new work was being produced, exhibited and purchased all over the world. Breathtaking works like the Papunya paintings captured a singular essence and spirit of Australia and acted as an international ambassador for Australian art in general, something that would have been inconceivable a decade earlier. International curators visiting the Biennale of Sydney continued to question whether this sort of work was an extension of traditional indigenous art rather than contemporary art per se. Interestingly, during my first Biennale exhibition in 1982 as Assistant Director we commissioned a massive sand painting which was created inside the AGNSW. Truckloads of red earth were delivered and packed down for the Walpiri Sand Painting and performance by a group of artists from the Lajamanu community in the NT. It was the largest sand painting ever produced indoors, filling one entire gallery. Not surprisingly it became one of the iconic works of the Biennale. It was a wonderful project to witness and remains one of the great art moments in Biennale history. Another such moment was in 1988 when the Aboriginal Memorial by Ramingining artists, a staggering 200 burial posts, were installed in the Biennale exhibition at Pier 2/3, with the assistance of Aboriginal curator, John Mundine. This work was commissioned by the Australian National Galley, where the poles remain on permanent display.
JE How do you think Aboriginal and Oceanic art links with other types of art? Have you become caught up in the politics of art, especially where there is a cross over between the historical baggage of the settlement of Australia and the colonial process in the Pacific and artists today? Where do you see this heading?
PLV When I was Director of the Art Gallery of WA in the early 1990s I discovered that the AGWA had one of the richest collections of bark paintings in Australia. WA’s purchase of 1300 paintings from the American private collector, Louis Allen, offered a treasure trove of material to work with and we produced a beautiful exhibition and publication, Keepers of the Secrets. My own collecting came to a halt in the early 1990s while I was in WA, that is until the Alistair McAlpine collection came up for auction in Perth. It went on for 2 long days and I managed to snare a couple of nice shields and a piece from Vanuatu. In 2007 we travelled throughout Malekula with David Baker and that was a revelation.
For me one of the real disappointments is how little our public institutions seem to value the extraordinary collections of Oceanic Art that they own. There is stunning material in our collections but it is not given pride of place as it is at the Met or the Quai Branly or the De Young. When you see museums from New York to Berlin displaying their collections with pride and elegance, and generating enormous public interest, you can’t help but wonder why we are not doing more here in Australia. The quality of our collections begs this question. The words ‘world class’ are bandied about but how many truly world class collections of art are there in Australian museums. One could argue that certainly one of them would be the Oceanic art holdings in the Australian Museum, yet that wealth of material has largely remained in storage over the past few decades. That said the Australian Museum deserves an accolade for bringing some prized pieces out of the vaults in two current displays, Pacific Spirit and 200 Treasures. The material is superb and the installation displays are stunning, yet there is still no museum dedicated to Aboriginal Art, one of the primary institutions you would expect to find in this gateway city.
Oceanic art seems to have fallen between the cracks in Australia in a way that continues to mystify me. Is it due to that old chestnut that these objects belong in museums and not art galleries and need to be contextualised as anthropology and not art? Or does it simply smack too much of an uncomfortable colonial past that sits awkwardly with today’s changing values and politics? Whatever the reasons we need to find a way to bring these marvellous collections out of the shadows and into the light.