BY Wally Caruana in Reviews | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Culture Warriors

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

BY Wally Caruana in Reviews | 06 JUN 08

Richard Bell, Australian Art It's an Aboriginal Thing (2006)

As Indigenous art continues to grow in popularity in Australia and abroad, new art centres are established in communities and new artists emerge, it now seems a good moment to take stock of its recent developments. In this respect ‘Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial ‘07’ is an appropriate vehicle for such reflection.

This inaugural show was scheduled to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the opening of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) to the public. At its inception in October 1982 the first gallery featured masterworks from each of the collection areas: from Gianbattista Tiepolo to Fred Williams, from Buddhist sculpture to New Guinea figures and Mayan ceramics. At the entrance to the room, however, hung bark paintings by George Garrawun and Jimmy Njiminjuma, to announce the fact that the artistic traditions unique to this country have their place within the great art traditions of the world.

Six years later, on the occasion of the bi-centenary of European settlement in Australia, the NGA acquired the monumental installation The Aboriginal Memorial (1988), by artists from central Arnhem Land. The memorial celebrates cultural survival, but its power lies in its anticipation of a transition on the national scale – from an unjust society to an equitable one. By 1991 the gallery had replaced the Postmodernist hang in the first room of the building – a clear statement of the NGA’s attitude to the significance of Indigenous art in the modern era. The exhibition, then, is a timely landmark in the NGA’s history.

The intention is to invite different curators to direct each triennial: for this one the 30 artists in the show were selected by Brenda L. Croft (Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the NGA), and each artist is represented by work from the last three years. The title, ‘Culture Warriors’, reflects the place of Indigenous artists in current debates about Australian history and questions of identity, colonization, cultural dispossession and social diaspora, and their opposites: cultural affirmation, continuity and the reclamation of history. Last year also marked the 40th anniversary of the federal referendum, which, inter alia, counted Indigenous people as citizens of Australia. As Croft notes in the introduction to the catalogue, 21 of the artists in the exhibition were at one time not listed as Australians.

The show opens with Danie Mellor’s installation The Contrivance of a Vintage Wonderland (2007), which re-orientates evolutionist paradigms within past museological practice where Aboriginal people were classified among the flora and fauna of the country. Dennis Nona’s life-size bronzes of ancestral dugong and a crocodile, together with Vernon Ah Kee’s text piece not an animal or a plant (2006), set the broader themes of the exhibition.

The first rooms focus on modern developments of ancient traditions. Jean Baptiste Apuatimi’s bold gestural canvases of conventional Tiwi body-painting designs find resonance in the audaciously chromatic landscapes of Maringka Baker and Jan Billycan, who, despite their advanced age, only started exhibiting in the public domain in recent years, although their work is evidence of decades of experience in making art in ceremonial, and hence, private circumstances. More recognizable styles of desert painting can be seen in Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s exquisitely vibrant canvases.

The work of Gulumbu Yunupingu and John Mawurndjul (Njiminjuma’s younger brother) take the tradition of painting on bark to new heights, exploring conventional clan designs and iconography to create sensory images that can only be described as contemporary breakthroughs in this ancient tradition of painting. Both produce images of light, respectively the sparkle of the constellations and the sunlight reflecting off the surface of bodies of water: visual metaphors for the ancestral energies that vivify the universe.

The inventive sculptures of Yawkyawk ancestral woman/fish beings made from natural fibres and dyes by Anniebell Marrngamarrnga from West Arnhem Land take the art of weaving, commonly practised by women, in new directions in terms of scope and scale. Possum-skin cloaks, a type of decorated clothing once common in the south-eastern part of the continent, form the canvas for pictorial narratives in Treahna Hamm’s work.

Identity, history and the spaces between black and white societies are potent themes for several artists in the show. Julie Dowling’s evocative depictions of resistance to cultural and environmental oppression are juxtaposed with Christopher Pease’s reinterpretations of colonialist images, which belie benign representations of settlement. The dignity of the individual, so often negated in history, is celebrated in the drawings of Kee and the photographs of Ricky Maynard. Judy Watson’s luscious surfaces of pigment washed into canvas embody emotion as they relate stories of oppression and personal histories. Watson’s series of etchings based on her grandmother’s official permit to marry a white person, ‘under the act’ (2007), is a major statement on colonization.

From the subtlety of Watson’s paintings the exhibition moves towards a brash climax in the provocative political and social commentaries of Gordon Hookey and Richard Bell. Hookey’s is an art of protest, based on poster art and comic books, rendered in a visual argot at once confronting and humorous. The exhibition ends with Bell’s critique of the domination of the modern Western tradition in Australian art, as symbolized by the Roy Lichtenstein parody in Big Brush Stroke (2005) and Jackson Pollock-like drips in Australian Art It’s an Aboriginal Thing (2006). The latter work, in turn, neatly poses the question of identity in Australian art. Bell’s satirical video Uz vs Them (2006) finally sets the arena of debate in a boxing ring – as befits a warrior.