Privatmuseum Opale
What does Aboriginal art do in the Swiss Alps?

The Fondation Opale, a museum of Australian Aboriginal art in the middle of the Swiss Alps. Photo: Sabine Glaubitz / dpa

© dpa-infocom GmbH

Mountains that rise up to 3,000 meters. In between chalets, lakes – and a museum for Aboriginal art. A more than unusual place for an art that comes from the red desert of Australia.

About 140 kilometers of ski slopes that stretch up to the Plaine Morte Glacier at over 2,600 meters. And in between lens. The town with around 4,000 inhabitants is located in the French-speaking part of the canton of Valais in Switzerland.

A typical ski resort with its chalets – almost. Because in the historic center with its church from 1843, a highly modern building has its address: the Fondation Opale, a museum for art of the indigenous people of Australia.

The glass architecture in the chalet landscape looks as unusual as its content. With around 19,000 photovoltaic modules, the facade forms a huge mirror that reflects the Valais peaks and Lake Louché, on whose banks the Fondation stands. Aboriginal art has been on the building, which costs around 17 million, for two years. How does art come from the marshlands and the Simpson desert from Northern Territory to the snow region of Crans-Montana?

Bérengère Primat opened the foundation two years ago. She is one of the heirs of the global oil giant Schlumberger, the cornerstone of which was laid by the Alsatian brothers Marcel and Conrad Schlumberger at the beginning of the 20th century. The 47-year-old has been living in Switzerland for years and owns a chalet just a few kilometers from the foundation. With more than 1000 works, it has one of the most extensive and renowned collections of contemporary Aboriginal art in Europe.

Her passion for ocher-colored polka dot paintings with concentric circles, depictions of distorted mythical beings, but also for contemporary works began 18 years ago. Random. In the temporary exhibition center Passage de Retz in the Parisian Marais district, she came across an Aboriginal show – with a lasting effect.

“I was immediately impressed by the perception of the world and the deep universality that emerged from these works,” she told the German Press Agency. She started to look more closely at the topic. In doing so, she met the collector and gallery owner Arnaud Serval, her future husband.

Together, they lived in several Native American communities, including Alice Springs in Central Australia. «I have very few photos from these trips, but I still have the work I bought from the artists I met. When I walk through the corridors of the foundation today, I sometimes feel like turning the pages of a souvenir album, »she says.

When the couple separated in 2012, they did not turn away from the Aboriginal culture. On the contrary. In May 2018, she took over the financially troubled art center Pierre Arnaud in Lens. It gave the establishment the name Fondation Opale – referring to the name of a mythological stone in the culture of the Australian Aborigines.

Settling art between ski slopes and golf courses is no easy task. The heiress is realistic: she hopes for 30,000 visitors a year and relies on exhibitions with accessible topics.

For example, the exhibition called “Résonances”, which opened in mid-June: in the show, which runs until April 4, 2021, it contrasts the work of the Australian Aborigines with works of internationally known names such as Anselm Kiefer, Kiki Smith and Anish Kapoor. In addition to the pine painting “The Snake”, the works of Jean-Marie Appriou and John Mawurndjul can be seen, each depicting the reptile as a cast aluminum sculpture and in the form of a paper work made from countless small, colorful polka dots. Romuald Hazoumè presents a female wooden sculpture with a skirt made of old plastic sandals, in the background a tree sculpture by the Belgian Kris Martin.