Paris March Mélange, Part 3 of 3: Ngala Wongga (Come Talk), a vital slice of Australian culture in Paris

Whether in the Western Australia outback or the Paris city centre, language, culture, identity and landscape – or cityscape – are inextricably intertwined.

Following Part 1 and Part 2 of our March mélange (medley), this final post in the series may, I hope, inspire a visit to Ngala Wongga (Come Talk). This free exhibit is running at the Australian Embassy in Paris from 30 January – 06 September 2019.

The Aussie Embassy in Paris

Eiffel Tower on the left, Aussie Embassy on the right (taken from Bir-Hakeim bridge)

Located in the 15th arrondissment in western Paris, the Australian Embassy has a superb location just steps away from the Seine and the Eiffel Tower.

The building was designed by Australian architect Harry Seidler, in the ‘Brutalist’ style of simple, concrete forms used in 1970s modernist architecture. Its large, curving structure gives the upper-floor terrace magnificent views across the city.

Australian Embassy with its curving terrace (also taken from Bir-Hakeim bridge)

Clive and I have enjoyed previous visits to the Embassy, first at an Aussie barbecue and pub quiz night in the Matilda (as in ‘Waltzing’) Bar. Last September, we toured Ambassador Brendan Berne’s private residence when the Embassy participated for the first time in les Journées du Patrimoine, European Heritage Days.

Street view and back of the Australian Embassy with its regularly-changing poster

Once through the Embassy’s front entrance Security screening, visitors proceed directly into the large ground-floor exhibition space.

Ngala Wongga (Come Talk): Cultural Significance of Language in the Goldfields of Western Australia

Ngala Wongga exhibit, Australian Embassy, Paris

Ngala Wongga is the creation of Australian artist and photojournalist Martine Perret, who was born in Paris and raised in Bordeaux. She moved to Sydney in 1997, worked as a photographer there and then for ten years with United Nations peacekeeping missions in global conflict zones. In 2013, she returned to Australia and settled in the Margaret River region of Western Australia.

Perret’s interest in indigenous communities and languages led her in 2015 to research communities of the Western Australia Goldfields, an ancient landscape where people have lived for tens of thousands of years. Here she began meeting with Aboriginal elders who became part of Ngala Wongga.

Perret also created Gungurrunga Ngawa (Look Above), a series of aerial photographs over the Goldfields salt lakes, capturing the landscape’s mesmerising shapes, colours and textures. These images also form part of Ngala Wongga.

Clive in his (Aussie Billabong) jacket viewing an aerial landscape of Western Australia

In recent years, this exhibit has been viewed in multiple locations around Australia. At the beginning of 2019, the United Nations declared an International Year of Indigenous Languages. As part of this worldwide initiative, Mme Perret was asked to exhibit Ngala Wongga at the Embassy in Paris.

Language and Culture Intertwined

Entry to Ngala Wongga exhibit, Paris

The small map in the above photo shows Australia’s indigenous regions and languages. About 120 indigenous languages are still spoken in the country, though according to the exhibit, only 13 are considered ‘strong’ while around 100 are ‘critically endangered’.

Some progress has been achieved: as a result of renewed commitment to language programs, around 30 endangered languages have seen a significant increase.

The exhibit is relatively small in size, but rich in content. It comprises eight portraits of Aboriginal elders, eight aerial landscape photographs from Gungurrunga Ngawa, a 12-minute video with one elder’s story, a rolling projection, a soundtrack which runs in the background so you feel immersed in different indigenous languages, and a free booklet, published in English and French.

The booklet is a treasure. It contains the elders’ portraits and stories, selected photographs, background on the exhibit and the projection ‘script’ so you know which language you’re hearing (and the English or French translation of each individual’s song or story). It’s an extraordinary experience to hear each speaker’s own voice in his or her own language.

Booklet for Ngala Wongga exhibit

Inside is the statement: Ngala Wongga is a collaborative project with the indigenous participants of the Goldfields. The subjects in the exhibit and their families have played an intrinsic role in the selection of material for Ngala Wongga. Each participant has authorised the use of their narratives and their photographs, for this project.

We especially enjoyed the exhibition video, Margillee, with its stunning photography and the haunting, heartfelt story of elder Doreen Harris’s life journey, her connection to the land and the significance of her endangered language.

Perret writes for the exhibit, ‘All over the world, language has played its part in defining specific cultural groups. Language and culture are so interwoven it is hard to imagine one surviving without the other. If you lose your language, you risk losing your culture, your oral history, your identity.’

A compelling collaboration

Australian landscape and elder’s portrait, Ngala Wongga

We feel this exhibit fully succeeds in intertwining the stories of Australia’s indigenous people and the significance of their language, landscape and culture. It’s very low-key (we wished each portrait included a label with the individual’s name, though their names are included with their stories in the booklet) and on the day we visited, we had it to ourselves.

Each element – the portraits, the aerial photographs, the video, soundtrack and booklet — is compelling in its own right. Combined, the whole feels much greater than the sum of the parts. The exhibit may be small in physical size but it’s large in importance and impact.

Ngala Wongga seems truly to be a labour of love, created with great care, respect and quality. We’re not surprised Mme Perret’s project is being showcased at the Embassy in Paris.

A fond farewell for this trip

I’ll end this three-part series with one of the most enduring aspects of life in Paris and France: the local café.

Despite the lovely, accurate image of customers taking time to relax and appreciate life on a sun-drenched café terrace, what really puts a lump in my throat is seeing a well-lit café in the hours before dawn or after dusk. Something about the twinkling interior, the movement of a waiter going about his work or a patron nattering at the bar or a simple row of tables and chairs, all facing outward on the footpath, gets me every time.

Farewell for this trip, our little café. Until we meet again.

Cheers and merci for reading. À bientôt, see you soon.

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