July is the time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and an opportunity to recognise the contributions of Indigenous Australians in various fields. The second week of July is indeed NAIDOC week, originally standing for National Aboriginal & Islander Day Observance Committee, and this year’s theme commemorates the 50th anniversary of the presentation of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions to the Federal Parliament (1963).
In parallel a number of major exhibitions and the publication of Artlink’s Indigenous issue Re-visions, invite to acknowledge and reflect on the increasingly powerful voice of urban-based Indigenous artists.
IDAIA’s contribution to NAIDOC Week is an educative program offering an in-depth exploration of the history and the traditional and contemporary art forms of Indigenous Australia’s Top North, for the insatiable French-speaking Aboriginal art audiences in Sydney.
A focus on the Top North, where the 60,000 years old continuous rock art tradition can be found, allows to appreciate and (re)discover the ochre-based art forms.
From the Kimberley to Cape York, via the Tiwi Island and Arnhem Land, this part of Australia illustrates the incredibly rich diversity and dynamism of the Australian Indigenous artistic creation: sculpture, fibre art, ochres on paper, and of course Arnhem Land’s unique production of bark paintings and hollow-log coffins, and the Kimberley artists’ ochre on canvas painting movement.
To celebrate bark paintings this month, many events are organised throughout Australia. Overseas one of the most brilliant testaments remains the majestic ceiling painting by arguably the most successful Yolngu artist of the last decade, Gulumbu Yunupingu, at the musee du quai Branly in Paris. Mrs Yunupingu painted the infinite stars as a portrait of global humanity. Her bark paintings depict a particular aesthetic vision of the word and deliver a powerful universal message. As she said “we can all look at the stars”… In the United-States spectacular bark paintings part of the Owen-Wagner collection can be admired at the Toledo Museum of art, and at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, also presenting a series of educational events for NAIDOC week.
Interestingly, Arnhem Land’s art has influenced the works of a number of urban-based Indigenous artists.
Recently the presence and voice of urban-based artists have been quite strong, interrogating and challenging the established history of Australia, like in My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, or at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney encouraging young contemporary Indigenous artists such as Christian Thompson and Tony Albert. Overseas the impact of urban-based artists is also powerful and continues to animate debates. After the launch of Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art by the National Gallery of Canada in May, the Museum of contemporary Aboriginal art in Utrecht makes an explosive impression with the exhibition BOMB. These artists invest the international artistic scene with a critical eye to challenge notions of Aboriginal identity and perturb international audiences. They push our reflexion further by questioning the notion of art and our perception of Indigenous arts.
Supporting this movement, the latest issue of Artlink magazine dedicated to Indigenous art, Re-visions, focuses on the criticism of Aboriginal art, its history and place in Australian art.
Urban-based Indigenous art is however not just about controversies. Artists also reflect on the symbiosis of two cultures, taking inspiration in both traditional Aboriginal heritage and urban society. This appears clearly in the exquisite shell work of Aunty Esme Timery Russel and her daughter Marylin Russel from La Perouse (NSW), which is a continuation of Bijigal artistic practice and a very important healing practice. Similarly, the hand-made paper art works by Northern NSW’s Kamilaroi artist Aunty May Hinch, mix a healing nature of art and European papermaking methods, classic Aboriginal iconographic codes with a distinctive and original art approach.
Alexiane Henry and Solenne Ducos-Lamotte