A Year of Anniversaries and Politics

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award; Desert Mob
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin; Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs

2016 shaped as a year of anniversaries in Indigenous art. Not strictly linked, you might think; but wherever I went I was reminded that it was fifty years since the Wave Hill Walk Off, forty years since the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, twenty-five years since Telstra started supporting the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (the NATSIAAs), helping the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) to build an Indigenous art collection, and, in Darwin in 2016, they saw the settlement of the longest-running Aboriginal land claim at Kenbi.

One of the judges of the NATSIAAs, Brisbane artist Vernon Ah Kee, seemed not to have noticed the political nature of all this. While MAGNT Aboriginal Art Curator, Luke Scholes was writing in the Award’s catalogue, ‘The themes inherent in these landmark events: connection and belonging to land, resilience and survival, are uniquely expressed in this NATSIAA exhibition’, Ah Kee was opining, ‘Aboriginal art is so often relegated to the decorative arts or the primitive, and with good reason: because it’s been consistently described like that for decades. … I want us all to be politically aware of how we’re positioned in society. We have no choice as Aboriginal people. But a lot of Aboriginal artists, they don’t want to be seen as political, and they go out of their way to declare that. There’s lots of reasons for that—mostly it’s because they want to eat. [But their art] makes people who spend money on it feel good about themselves, without having to think about the reality of those people’s lives’ (The Guardian, 6 August 2016).

There may be naïve artists who paint scenes from their Aboriginal lives—ranging from episodes of police harassment to happy memories of fishing by night in the Murray. But, faced by a Spinifex collaborative work like Pukara which was a NATSIAA entry—mighty, strongly coloured and dealing openly with Water Serpents and ceremony—surely Ah Kee might have recognised that it was painted by a group of highly political men in Ilkurlka, Western Australia, who would be on the Country in South Australia they painted but for another anniversary—the 60th anniversary of the start of nuclear testing at Maralinga.

That innate level of politicisation seems invisible to those who see remote art like that as ‘tourist tat’. Interestingly, academic and artist, Adam Geczy, in a sideshow to the NATSIAAs with Adam Hill, at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, implicitly corrected some urban artists tendency to verbalise their politics on gallery walls with his comment that ‘Text on a wall is bad political art; it’s measurable and art needs to be unmeasurable’. That Spinifex canvas was indubitably unmeasurable. While the winning artwork in the Telstras—though visually much more powerful than a text on a wall—did, perhaps tell a measurable story.

Harold ‘Bundoo’ Thomas’s Tribal Abduction certainly took the eye, as a babe is torn from its mother’s breast by two surly policemen, while a nun enters from stage left to cover the child’s nakedness with a white cloth; a hint of history, but set in the timeless Central Deserts. Thomas is best known in both politics and art history for having designed the iconic Aboriginal flag, after pioneering as the first Aboriginal student to attend art school, some time in the 1960s. Progenitors such as Caravaggio and Géricault shape his brush-strokes, rather than Possum or Namatjira. And his message is shaped by two Stolen Generations—his own and his mother’s. Thomas’s response to his big win is to stay as political as this after many years of painting Kakadu lilies on the floodplains of the Top End, where he lives, which Monet might have been proud of.

When I look back over recent years’ winners, I note the Tjanpi Grass Toyota, Jenni Kemarre Martinello’s glass fish-trap, Richard Bell’s Bell’s Theorem, and Danie Mellor’s great Masonic painting. All eye-catchers that judges found hard to resist. But were they the greatest works of art? And can I add to the list of questionable selections, the last significant works by elderly artists such as Makinti and Mrs Snell, whose reputations deserved a prize slightly more than those particular winning works.

Indeed, this year one might argue that the great John Mawurndjul’s winning bark was nowhere near his finest—but what a joy to see him back at work after the hiatus to art-making at Maningrida caused by the disastrous Intervention. Perhaps less of a joy to see Betty Pumani win the Best Painting Award for the second year in a row—did the judges know that?—with a work that was remarkably similar to the previous year’s, just wider.

Of the paintings I scanned, I am pretty sure that I would have judged any of the following artists’ paintings more interesting, because they were telling important mythic stories in more innovative ways: Alec Baker, Beyula Napanangka, Kaylene Whiskey, Mumu Mike Williams, Tommy May, Rachael Lionel, Simon Hogan and the Spinifex Men’s Collaborative, Tiger Yaltangki, Vincent Namatjira, Winnie Sampi and Yaritji Young.

Actually, I am cheating by including the young Namatjira in that list because there is nothing really mythic about his portrait of The Queen and Prince Philip attend the exhibition. But there are two attenuating factors: firstly, I loved the look on the Queen’s face as she is so knocked out by a Hermannsburg painting she saw at a group show in London, that she has to reach down to hold Philip’s hand for comfort; and secondly, through marriage, Vincent Namatjira has moved from Hermannsburg (and Alice) to live in Indulkana, where he is but one of an amazing bunch of trailblazers at Iwantja Art. Messers Baker, Whiskey and Yaltangi are also in it.

But it took Desert Mob a month after the NATSIAAs for me to really get my head around this phenomenon. There, I added to the list Peter Mungkuri, David Frank and Vicki Cullinan, with works ranging from Whiskey’s Anangu Pop to Mungkuri’s almost Indian traceries in ink that map his memories of the Country he mastered as a stockman, to Yaltangki’s raw Outsider art, Namatjira’s and Frank’s portraiture and Cullinan’s exquisite desert sky intensities. I simply had to talk to art co-ordinator Beth Conway to find out what was in the water at Indulkana that caused such innovation. She has been there four years, which, in my book, suggests a happy art centre and the likelihood that she has built up relationships of trust that can bear artistic fruit. Often, an art centre develops a ‘style’—whereas Iwantja somehow encourages rampant individualism.

It turns out that Conway does spend time with her individual artists showing them art in books and magazines that may stimulate them aesthetically—also work from other APY art centres. ‘That’s the closest they’ll get to an art school’, she argues; ‘it’s not fair to box them into the old mnemonics when their history is so different from previous generations—TV, petrol sniffing and booze. It doesn’t stop them having the same deep reverence for Country, though, with plenty of ceremony throughout the year’.

This openness must be assisted by Indulkana’s position on the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Coober Pedy; artists can always hop on a Greyhound bus to taste the world. And outside influences can come in—like Jackson Lee, filmmaker, who helped the artists put together a delightful film for their Desert Mob Symposium presentation. Conway insists that all was under artist control—Namatjira’s Prime Ministers portrait series animated cartoonishly with the subjects own voices each slipping away into a political ‘Blaaaaaah’! Cullinan’s skies were given 3D depth and movement, and the whole process gave so much pleasure they are aiming to take the camera out to Country next time.

Unlike the NATSIAAs, Desert Mob is exclusively for Desert artists and art centres, and manages both an exhibition (curated by the art centres), an art fair (just three hours of panic buying) and adds the challenge of the Symposium. Old hands report that this was once a tedious event with artists expected to entertain a hall in their third language. Now, the likes of Jackson Lee and Silvano Giordano have spiced the event up with multi-media entertainingly presented. And boy did the ‘youf’ of remote Warburton enjoy dolling up with fashion, make-up, hairdressing and music, posing outrageously for the cameras; ‘lookin’ good’ is half-way to finding self-worth. And Giordano’s six-year contribution to this process as Director of the community’s Wilurarra Creative has resulted in their own glossy magazine and commissions from the community to make alluring ads on health issues such as diet, drink and smoking.

It is hard to get this sort of detail and flavour from such remote communities. The Symposium is a rare opportunity to jump the tyranny of distance and learn about the twenty-four dialysis machines now operating in eleven remote dots on the map, not to mention the Purple Truck that moves around to fill the gaps; about the textiles and fashion that are filling the GFC art gap; about the photography that is encouraging the pre-painting generation to capture their world visually; and about efforts by the descendants of Albert Namatjira to move their watercolour traditions along through a sloganising workshop with Tony Albert.
Interestingly, I got a hint from the excellent gallerists who organise Darwin’s Salon des Refusés—Matt Ward and Paul Johnstone—in order to show the NATSIAA entries which failed to find favour with MAGNT’s judges, that something along the Symposium lines is being discussed with northern art centres for the northern capital.

Much more public in Darwin was the ubiquitous Franchesca Cubillo, on her home Larrakia turf, proud of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair’s 10th anniversary, and enthusiastically plugging the idea that no remote art should be shown without the language of its creator attached. ‘Only such an “inside expert” has the full cultural understanding of the work’, she explained, ‘and he or she needs to be in control of its translation. Both versions should then be displayed with the work. For our stories need interpretation, rather than simply being presented as “contemporary”’.

Hurrah! Not only is the National Gallery’s Senior Adviser on Indigenous art taking on curatorial correctness—which often denies the need for interpretation in our southern institutions; but she also seems prepared to do battle with those who believe that the spiritual and cultural connections of remote Aboriginal art only debases their ‘Aboriginal’ art credentials with its primitivism.

But the politics is not all one-way. You may recall that in the wash-up to the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre scandal which hung over this period of art, the Northern Territory Labor Party won a mighty election victory. One little-known promise they had made was to spend $70m on an ‘Iconic National Indigenous Art Gallery’, and an ‘Iconic National Indigenous Cultural Centre’, both in Alice Springs. The current Araluen Art Complex seems like a pretty adequate basis for showing the art. But the latter has great interest in terms of educating visitors about some of the cultural complexities of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander belief systems, so that they could then go on to read just a little bit more into the art, and lose the uncertainty many have when faced by it.

I have been advocating for just such an institution for many years, and Prime Minister Paul Keating briefly seemed to think it might work in Barangaroo, Sydney; it appears Kevin Rudd was interested in the same thing for Canberra before he was rolled as Prime Minister; and then-Premier Colin Barnett has mentioned the idea in passing for Perth. And now Alice Springs, in the heart of art-making Country has put up its hand! And I am delighted to note that the ALP has already appointed an Assistant Minister, Chansey Paech, with specific responsibility for these election promises. More power to his Aboriginal elbow.

Kaylene Whiskey, So Great, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 89 x 198.5cm. Images courtesy Iwantja Arts and the Araluen Arts Centre.

Tiger Yaltangki, Malpa Wiru (Good Friends), 2016. Acrylic on linen, 167.5 x 244cm. Images courtesy Iwantja Arts and the Araluen Arts Centre.

Peter Mungkari, Ngura (Country), 2016. Ink and gouache on paper, 167 x 153cm. Images courtesy Iwantja Arts and the Araluen Arts Centre.

Harold Joseph Thomas (Bundoo), Tribal Abduction. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 134 x 214cm. Courtesy of MAGNT.