Tres bien, Barramundi scales the heights of art in the City of Light

This week I have been in Paris and it reminded me of my first visit. As I jumped into the taxi at the airport on my first trip to Paris in 1972 I was busting to try out my schoolboy French.

This week I have been in Paris and it reminded me of my first visit. As I jumped into the taxi at the airport on my first trip to Paris in 1972 I was busting to try out my schoolboy French.

All that went out the window the moment I got in. In the front passenger seat, its back to the windscreen, its eyes locked on mine, was a huge, black German shepherd. I hadn't planned on sharing, but I decided on this occasion I might.

"Argent, argent," said le cabbie.

The dog's ears twitched, but its deadly stare didn't move from my face.

"Ah Jean," I said. "Nice Jean. There's a boy." And then, with recovering confidence, I said, "Tres bon, Jean."

The female taxi driver seemed a little perplexed but overall quite happy for a Parisian in a service industry.

The trip was spent in unblinking silence - me and dog staring at each other as the Citroen honked its way around boulevards and backstreets at hair-raising speed.

It was only when I tried to hand over my Amex card outside my Left Bank digs and le cabbie started shouting "argent" again, that I realised that she was asking for cash (argent), not reintroducing her dog, whose name I never got in the end.

Taxi drivers cop a fair bit of criticism all over the world and more than their share of abuse. My cabbie in Paris sure had come up with effective protection from any out-of-control, claret-filled conventioneers who were flooding the City of Light.

But the occasion of my most recent arrival in Paris was far more enlightened and expansive than the 1972 conference of media buyers. It was the unveiling of the largest Australian indigenous public artwork in the world on the roof of the Musee du quai Branly, which stands beside the River Seine in the seventh arrondissement, slap bang in the middle of the city.

Warmun woman Lena Nyadbi had already changed the streetscape of Paris with her embossed-style footprints over the east story wall of the museum, which president Chirac commissioned to celebrate the world's first peoples and personally opened in 2006.

Seven years and 9.3 million visitors later, the director of the museum, Stephane Martin, wanted to make one more huge statement to the world about the artistic genius of indigenous peoples and Australian Aborigines in particular.

With the support of private patrons and the Australian government, he commissioned Lena to create a new work stretching across almost 700 square metres to cover the roof of the museum so that the 8 million people who visit the Eiffel Tower each year will cop an eyeful of staggeringly huge and beautiful art.

Lena's picture is called Barramundi Scales and was presented to the French people last week by its Australian patron and sponsor, your humble columnist.

I have no doubt that it will become as famous as Blue Poles, but far more accessible, as it is a permanent feature of one of Paris' most prestigious modern public buildings, and will be viewed by tourists from all over the world.

Our indigenous people have suffered much hardship in their history but their contemporary art is a resurgence of spirit that has won international interest and respect.

Australia can be easily forgotten in the northern hemisphere but moves such as this with the Musee du quai Branly will do much to keep us front and centre.

Barramundi Scales will become one of the most famous paintings in the world and it will be there as long as Paris stands.

As Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, "We will always have Paris."

And I am pleased to add that Paris will always have the big barramundi.

Harold Mitchell is an executive director of Aegis.

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