Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Until 13 Jun 2011
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Senior Curator of Aboriginal Art at the AGNSW, Hetti Perkins wrote and presented the documentaries. As the daughter of well-known Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, she brought to the programme a rare candour and warmth: “My father once said, ‘We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives in us’. art + soul is a journey into the world of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and the cultural heritage we share as Australians.”art + soul, she says, was inspired by the artists themselves, and the rich diversity of work being produced, from desert painting and bark painting from Arnhem Land, to exquisite weavings and photography. Keen to reinforce the contextual shift that has taken place, slowly at first, in the past 50 years, exhibiting Aboriginal works in a Western gallery space, to a new audience, Perkins emphasises the relationship between art and land.
Aboriginal art is almost always about the Land: “This country is a living and breathing land. It is literally the body of our ancestors and we can feel their presence here, and their spirit, all around us.” In his perceptive Letter from Sydney for Studio International (2002) in reference to the 2000 Olympic Games related events, the late Nick Waterlow made a point of singling out the vision of Hetti Perkins: “None were more memorable than the Hetti Perkins curated celebration of 25 years of the art of Papunya Tula though; the movement that put Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists on the world map. It is almost miraculous that this most ancient of all art forms only emerged for broader delectation at a moment when people had become accustomed to looking at non-objective – more commonly called abstract – art. We have, in particular, to thank Jackson Pollock and others of the New York School for preparing our understanding of the work of Indigenous Australian artists. It is their continuing impact, both nationally and internationally, that is such a forceful reminder that proper processes of reconciliation must be enacted for Australia to be whole.”1
Australian Aboriginal culture is the world’s oldest living culture. Recent Aboriginal art has reinvigorated Australian visual culture in a dramatic manner, which has no precedent or parallel anywhere else in the world. Aboriginal art has provided a focal point for the profound changes that have taken place in attitudes and policy in Australia regarding its Indigenous population. The very act of mark-making is one of ritual recreation and renewal; life-giving myths emerge in present-day culture with great dynamism and conceptual complexity. The art of Indigenous Australia has a profound dynamism that has transformed the way the land and the history of the country is viewed.
art + soul at the AGNSW showcases many fine examples of Indigenous art from all over the vast continent. Studio International has published a number of essays and reviews of Aboriginal art over the past five years, including Papunya painting: out of the desert (2008);Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (2008); Aboriginal women as ambassadors of art and culture Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia (2008) Colour Country: Art from the Roper River (2010); and most recently Djalkiri: We are Standing on their names: Blue Mud Bay (2009–2010); and the recent painting of Gordon Bennett (2011).
The role of women has been addressed in art + soul, endowing their position with the respect it deserve, as a driving force in the art production now. It was in fact the introduction of the techniques of batik, which enabled Aboriginal women artists to assume their rightful place within Aboriginal society in relation to culture and ceremony. In turn, it enabled their position to be seen correctly by the wider world. Hitherto, anthropologists and historians had underestimated the role of women in Aboriginal culture. Batik was not commercially viable in itself – indeed, the irony is that only when batik artists, after a decade or so of fastidious work, made the transition to acrylic painting on canvas, that their work achieved recognition. In the case of Emily Kame Kngwarra and others, the success was so staggering that productivity was in turn increased and an industry on a commercial basis was born.
The present show at the AGNSW includes works by Emily Kame Kngwarra. When the gallery organised the first major exhibition of her work there in 1998, it created a tour de force. Working in a remote part of the Simpson Desert, on land annexed by pastoral leases during the 1920s, Kngwarreye became, in the final decade of her life, possibly the most celebrated individual Aboriginal artist. Her productivity alone was spectacular. Kngwarreye was born around 1910 and died on 2 September 1996. Since her death, her status as an artist has been widely recognised and celebrated. It is significant that her work also precipitated debate from a range of curators and art historians, posing her significance, not only within the Indigenous field, but in the broader issues of international art, particularly the significance in relation to modernism. That a woman artist from an isolated desert community, in her 80s, should paint in a similar manner to the Abstract Expressionists has fascinated many commentators.
Senior Curator at the Museum of Australia, Margo Neale, considers that the post Apology era is an ideal time to reappraise issues pertaining to the significance of Kngwarreye’s work and Aboriginal art in general – to “try to resolve the persistent need to reconcile the abstract canvases produced by an elderly black woman from the desert with the Western conception of modernism. Allied to this is the critical issue of how to pluck a single Indigenous artist from a community collective environment and present her work using a European model of the monograph in white spaces – a tradition that is alien to the lineage of the artist whose work is being represented”.2
Her vast canvasses can be seen as profoundly spiritual works, lyrical maps of country, or simply as glorious abstract works of art. Attaining artistic maturity and recognition in her 70s also tipped many assumed notions of artistic career trajectory or maturation on their heads. Kngwarreye’s facility and vision however, came after decades of ceremonial art and involvement and a decade of working with the batik techniques, introduced by astute art workers at the Utopia community.
In the documentary, Hetti Perkins visited Judy Watson in her studio in Brisbane, presenting an example of urban Aboriginal art practice. Watson also travels to the country and works extensively in areas that have deep significance for her people. An Aboriginal descendant of the Waanyi people of northeast Queensland, Watson is an artist of international stature. She was born in Mundubbera, Queensland in 1959, a member of the Waanyi Aboriginal language group. She co-represented Australia with Kngwarreye at the Venice Biennale in 1997. Her haunting and beautiful works incorporate a celebration of 21st-century Aboriginality – reclamation and revival – as well as being infused with mourning. Her art works in a range of media allude to past and present, remembrance and forgetting.
Footage of Watson, as she pours pigment from buckets on to the canvas on the floor, enables one to understand how her ponderous and delicate works are created. Using pools of Ultramarine and Prussian Blue, Watson scrubs and pushes the colour on the surface. She finds a deep inner light, using pigment in this manner; while shapes are sometimes applied they do not denote a single object but have multiple associations. She explains, that unlike a poster with a specific message, her work does not enable the viewer to know its form or identity “until it is inside you”.
art + soul includes recent bark paintings that reveal the manner in which Indigenous Australians are allowing their traditional practice to be informed with methods learned using introduced materials. Kaninjka bark painting from Arhnem Land, for example, has been transformed by John Mawurndjl into an art of exquisite reflections and shadows. His work invokes the spiritual power of Ancestral Beings who are manifest in the land. Mawurndjl has infused traditional bark painting methods with fine cross-hatching, that allude to the significance of social change, ongoing interaction and an awareness of western art techniques. He has created a visual poetry that defies precise definition. Mawurndjl’s bark painting has its roots in traditional religious ceremony and it continues to be a container of knowledge, much of which is sacred. Made up of grid-like structures, his images depart from the work of his father and brother by employing elaborate cross-hatched designs known as “rarrk”: “I always think of new ways to paint, I always look for something different. My work is changing. I have my own style.”3
Mawurndjl has developed a language of drawn marks that resonate with past ritual, present dichotomies and a possible future path. He has been receptive to changes in society, and the organisation of life as traditional life in the country is balanced against the demands of an artist of national and international stature. His constant re-definition of the vocabulary of bark painting has enabled more viewers to feel included in the experience of interpretation.
The tide of history can never take away our connection to land, because it is a spiritual connection and at a higher level. [...] Our law and spirituality is intertwined with the land, the people and creation and this forms our culture and our sovereignty.
(Wadjularbinna, Gungalidda Elder (Gulf of Carpentaria)4
The photography of Ricky Maynard in art + soul, is a percipient testament to the injustices meted out by white settlers since 1788. The most important aspect of his work is, he states, storytelling. Whilst he enjoys the craft of photography, it was his foray into documentary photography in Tasmania in the 1980s that he found his true voice. He has since made images of urban Aborigines in groups in parks, invariably “talking about culture and other things and drinking wine”, images he believed were a natural part of Aboriginal life, “to meet and to exchange”.5
Of desultory dismissal or being relegated by white Australians as “blackfellas under a tree with wine”, Maynard was shocked by the fact that the images that ironically represented 20 years of his life were swiftly condemned. The root of the prejudice against Aboriginal presence, he claims, and with it acute social issues (alcohol abuse and poverty), always refers to the wrongs of history. White Australia, he says, has misrepresented the history of its Indigenous population, and played down the atrocities of whites against the Indigenous population (ethnic cleansing and massacre), and that history must be re-written. With nonetheless damaging ramifications for the future of the education of indigenous Australians, Maynard uses his photography to highlight the issues of concealment in society, referring to the history books as representing, “One history that suits [white Australians] – Aborigines cannot allow that set of myths to continue. We cannot live under a false history. The acknowledgement of our Land Rights is the most important issue of all”.6
Large scale documentary portraits that highlight intense struggle, faces that bear the scars of injustice and of a spiritual identity robbed, they are Hetti Perkins suggests, “like landscapes, with history written on their faces”.7 Maynard describes his working process, of the building up of trust that is involved with working with members of a community, which takes weeks. Just five images from the weeks spent there were exhibited. The portraits, he says, bear the scars of decades of struggle for Land Rights in Western Cape York, the Gulf of Carpentaria, in Queensland. The final images on show, he describes as representing “the moment one is allowed in”. Largely self-taught as a photographer, Maynard received the Australian Human Rights Award for Photography in 1997. Referring to his work then he stated, “This body of work embraces all of what the endeavour of photography is. In giving compassionate understanding for black deaths in custody it required a truthful accuracy with insight. They carry messages of our survival, not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but a feeling of what it’s like to be born black. These pictures will live on in history, showing the moment to itself, showing what needs to be changed and hoping some day we can look back and see how far we have progressed as a society”.8