August and September have been quite a roller coaster ride for Australian Indigenous art, having seen anniversaries and firsts, celebrations and disappointments, polemic issues and positive reinforcements. All in all incredibly reinvigorating!
The most delightful surprise remains the exhilarating number of highly sophisticated, beautiful museum shows in Australia – as attested by the long list of selected institutional exhibitions in the October newsletter. Also of interest is the effusion of old and new issues around Aboriginal art that have been debated: the contemporaneity of Australian Indigenous art, the authenticity of contemporary Indigenous art, the Indigenous identity or Indigeneity, the curatorial compatibility of remote community art and urban–based art…
And of course one of the most talked about events is the exhibition Australia at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (opened on 21 September). It has been highly criticised, positively and negatively, as is to be expected for a show presenting the first survey of Australian art in the UK in over 50 years.
In Australia, the recent exhibitions and awards which either generated or provided answers to the above polemical issues include the annual landmark events, notably the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) in Darwin. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, and challenged for the first time by a (privately-held) salon des refusés[i], the artworks of this year’s selected finalists and winners are really worth the visit. Of course the other event is Desert Mob in Alice Springs, the annual exhibition of artworks from the central deserts art centres: as usual a feast for the eyes in terms of paintings and a particularly impressive selection of alternatively intricate, delicate, innovative and quirky 3-D artworks, from fibre and wood art to ceramics and light boxes! Of great interest is this year’s Desert Mob Symposium during which the artists’ interventions and presented projects are a testimony of the sector’s vitality, and the fantastic use of the new media and digital tools to share, connect, create and innovate.
It seems that all across Australia, sophisticated museum shows have opened one after the other, some brilliantly curated, some avant-garde and some extraordinary. Following Heartland – Contemporary Art from South Australia at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, and My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, there is now – to name but a few:
– String theory: Focus on contemporary Australian art, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney: a spectacular group exhibition exploring innovative approaches to fibre and art in a contemporary context;
– Visual Music: Indigenous Masters of Light and Colour, focusing on 8 leading female Indigenous Australian artists, whose works resonate with those of Monet and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot also on display at the National Gallery of Victoria International in Melbourne;
– First Peoples, at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the Melbourne Museum, offering visitors the first major “opportunity to learn about the richness, diversity and sophistication of Victorian Aboriginal people” as per curator Genevieve Grieves[ii], and told through the voices of Victoria’s First Peoples.
To complete this series of exhibitions and awards is a new annual festival of Indigenous arts in Sydney, Corroboree, to take place on 14th-24th November (and another one in the making in Adelaide planned for 2015).
On the industry side, a fresh new start has been taken with the appointment of 5 new Indigenous Leaders as Board Directors at the Indigenous Art Code, as part of the transition towards an Indigenous majority governed organisation and of the new direction in seeking to implement a mandatory Indigenous Art Code under federal law.
Confirming their “strong ethical position in regards to the Indigenous art market and collecting”[iii], magazine Art Collector is releasing their 2013 Guide to Indigenous Art Centres. This 4th edition includes guidelines and a comprehensive list of the Indigenous artist-owned, community-based art centres across Australia.
It seems the question whether “the shared dream of a thriving, sustainable Aboriginal art sector has survived” – as raised in an article about Philip Watkins, Desart’s Chief Executive Officer, in April[iv] –, is definitely answered!
In the United-Stated, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia continues its great work, currently showing Ngau Gidthal (My Stories) by resident artist David Bosun, printmaker and woodcarver from Mua Island in the Torres Strait. Sadly, exhibition Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art has ended its touring and its brilliant educational program.
The public events presented for the exhibition, their attendance and the reactions, are an interesting indication of the American audience’s open-minded acceptance and their connecting with Australian Aboriginal art, very different from that of the European audiences. Exhibition curator Stephen Gilchrist’s genius and the generous, enlightened vision of passionate collector Will Owen, have of course a lot to do with it as well.
The last event is a panel discussion between Will Owen and Henry Skerritt (History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh), on What Is It That Makes Australian Aboriginal Art So Appealing, So Contemporary?. Although addressing the general public, it shed a new light on the contemporaneity of Aboriginal art and the representation of the landscape in Aboriginal art paintings. Here is a quote of Henry Skerritt:
“these works have to be stunningly beautiful because of what they’re trying to do … to enact all of the power of the landscape, and it’s a power that they see in the shifting of the light, in the blossoming of the desert blooms, in the movement of the sand dunes; all of these things are enactments of this spiritual power of the landscape. It has to be beautiful because what it’s trying to do is occupy you…. These are not sentinels standing guard to protect their culture against the onslaught of colonialism. These are not defensive paintings, these are actually occupying forces and the point of them is to travel out into the world … to impress upon you with this purely affective visual power, to realize how powerful this landscape is.”[v]
In the UK the Royal Academy of Arts celebrates Australian art for the first time in over 50 years, and chooses to explore the influence of the landscape to span two centuries. Looking at the exhibited works by Indigenous artists, a number of masterpieces and spectacular works are made accessible to antipodean audiences, many for the very first time in Europe: iconic, powerful pieces like Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s eight meter-long Big Yam Dreaming (1995) and Rover Thomas’s Cyclone Tracy (1991), a mesmerising horizontally-presented 183 x 244 cm painting (2007) by D.R. Nakamarra – whose work inspired Henry Skerritt’s words above –, or the 3 x 5 m collaborative piece by twelve Martumili Artists’ Ngayarta Kujarra (2009), possibly the most extraordinary, beautifully evocative rendering of Lake Dora (Western Australia) and the stories, dances and songs embedded in this landscape – impossible not to be absorbed and transported by the blinding iridescent whiteness of the salt lake and by the delicate jewel-like, colourful elements dancing around.
Strong works by urban-based Indigenous artists cover a variety of media other than painting. The exhibition is not exhaustive, but it certainly allows visitors to experience the “vastness, the colour palette, the light [of the Australian landscape, which is] such a profound and powerful force”[vi] as per artist Christian Thompson, included in the exhibition. Art lovers and connoisseurs in Europe will make the trip.
Looking at the very near future, France is hosting two more shows, completing an impressive series for 2013 after Lena Nyadbi’s Dayiwul Lirlmim rooftop installation at the musée du quai Branly in Paris (inaugurated on 6 June) and the exhibition Gija Manambarram Jimerrawoon at the Embassy of Australia in Paris (closing on 30 October):
Curated by IDAIA and opening in Versailles (Paris) on 10 October, the first exhibition of Waringarri Artists in Europe presents the North Kimberley Mirriwoong people’s Raison d’être and offers another perspective on the Australian landscape and a different type of vibrant, contemporary ochre painting.
Vivid Memories: An Aboriginal Art History at the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux opens on 16 October and breaks with previous approaches in France: by combining old objects and recent works of art, remote community artists and urban-based artists, Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. The 150-piece exhibition “investigates the central issue of authenticity which affects most post-contact Aboriginal artworks and aims to demonstrate that tradition and modernity have always been simultaneously active in Australian artistic expression. Many Indigenous artists, with various intercultural influences, are today redefining their material culture in creative ways, conferring upon it a multiplicity of meanings. The exhibition intends to reveal this movement as the renaissance of an ancient culture by linking contemporary works to their traditional sources.”[vii]
A few more words as a conclusion to this newsletter:
There are passionate, constructive people and organisations leading the way, achieving or helping others achieve major steps, allowing that positive progress is made for the recognition, visibility and appreciation of Australian Indigenous art in all its forms and expressions.
Lydia Miller, the Executive Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts at the Australia Council for the Arts, who is one of them, recently expressed a powerful message in her informative lecture ‘Art connects and creates our culture into the 21st century’:
“In this second decade of the 21st century, we are witnessing a convergence so profound where our artistic and cultural expression, with the mediums of film, television, radio and the digital platforms, transport the cultural expressions of the world’s oldest living cultures – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – to a national and international audience, to open up a global community of understanding. In the 21st century, artists are creating the present in recognition of the past and imagining a future of endless possibilities that will shape and breathe life in to the 22nd and the 23rd centuries.”[viii]
IDAIA’s Founder and Director
[i] French term for “exhibition of rejects”, generally an exhibition of works rejected by official juries, also referring to the Salon des Refusés of 1863 sponsored by the French government.
[ii] Zeccola, Carlo, ‘Indigenous voices take centre stage at First Peoples exhibition’, ABC Arts, 6 Sep. 2013.
[iii] McKissock-Davis, Hannah, ‘Letter from the editor’, 2013 Art Collector Guide to Indigenous Art Centres, 1 Oct. 2013
[iv] Rothwell, Nicolas, ‘A closer look at the desert art landscape reveals threats to its sustainability’, The Australian, 20 April 2013.
[v] Owen, Will, ‘Make it New / Make it Now’, Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, 4 August 2013.
[vi] Miller, Barbara, ‘Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Rover Thomas, Emily Kngwarreye headline Australian art show in London’, ABC News, 18 Sep 2013.
[vii] Musée d’Aquitaine, Information Sheet ‘Vivid Memories: An Aboriginal Art History’, 10 Feb. 2013.
[viii] Miller, Lydia, ‘Art connects and creates our culture into the 21st century’, Awaye! second anniversary lecture, ABC Radio National, 17 August 2013.
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