Contemporary Territory

Curators: Dawn Mendham and Margie West
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin

CONTEMPORARY TERRITORY was an important and ambitious exhibition bringing together the work of seventeen visual artists. Although not all of these can claim to have been born in the Northern Territory, all have spent some time living and working throughout the Territory.1 As the first in what will be a biennial event and with plans for touring interstate, CONTEMPORARY TERRITORY is a relatively safe exhibition serving more as a tribute to established visual artists in the Territory, than as a springboard for new and emerging talent. However this exhibition is not without a certain dynamic edge which is largely to be found in the relationship between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art.

Before touching on the complexities of this relationship we might consider the exhibition's aim of rescuing the Territory's well known non-Aboriginal artists from what the curator perceives to be an 'invisibility' not only brought about by distance from metropolitan centres but "as a result of a general identification of Territory visual culture as Aboriginal". 2 Exactly what comprises the very broad category of "Territory visual culture" is beyond the scope of this review as indeed it is Mendham's catalogue introduction. The international success of Aboriginal art has certainly made it more 'desirable' as inspiration for recent designs such as the New Darwin Cubs soccer jersey or the coat of arms for the Northern Territory Government's soon to be opened State Square indulgence. Clearly the idea that Aboriginal artists are not always the benefactors of this proliferation of their imagery and of the prestige and income associated with it is not a consideration in the curatorial agenda of this exhibition.

What is also quite clear is that many of the non-Aboriginal artists in this exhibition are attempting to deal with and to incorporate aspects of Aboriginal culture in their work. A reciprocal 'transfusion' of Western concepts and practices is evident in some works from the Aboriginal artists, most notably in Tjungkya Wukula (Linda Syddick) Napaltjarri's synthesis of Christian and Pintupi mythology where even the cult status of Spielberg';; ET reverberates with new meaning and form in the work ET Returning Home. Despite technical and conceptual innovations which cannot be fully appreciated by one foreign to the cultural traditions they maintain, the Aboriginal artists do not show the same need for expressing relationships to 'the Other' as do the non-Aboriginal artists with Aboriginal culture. Indeed this term and concept 'the Other' goes against the whole cross-cultural strength of the exhibition. 'Post-colonial' art practice in the Territory is about collapsing the ways in which we have objectified the land and its indigenous cultures. In line with this, the works of Pamela Lofts, Anne Mosey and Rod Moss are born out of a more collaborative experience with Aboriginal people.

Rod Moss's classically composed life-size narratives undergo some degree of authorisation from the eastern Arrernte people who populate them. Anne Mosey revitalizes the journey of an ancestor-explorer with her own exploration and documentation of Aboriginal readings of the same coun try. Similarly, Pam Lofts' installation, Memories from the Desert, details and abstracts time spent in an Aboriginal community. None of these works are truly collaborative in the sense that their Aboriginal subjects share in the actual or final execution. One wonders what their reaction to the finished product would be. The direct social commentary and conventional pictorial illusion of Moss's paintings are strengthened by the knowledge of his ongoing creative cooperation with the people in them. Any apparent power for Mosey or Lofts is undercut by the stylistic fragmentation of the works as well as by a sense that Aboriginal culture is being used to punctuate more abstract and personal quests.

Three of Robert Kleinboonschate's large-scale landscape studies based on the Larapinta Valley in Central Australia attest to the endurability of the Romantic landscape tradition in the Territory. Kleinboonschate's scoured and grubby sketchings evoke more of a late 19th century Europe than the luminous red earth expanses we normally associate with the Centre. Admittedly these landscapes achieve an intensely dramatic and almost haunting beauty despite their 'imported' look. According to the catalogue Kleinboonschate aspires 'to know' the wilderness of his paintings in the same way that he believes Aboriginal people know and internalise their country. Living in the Territory gives him the necessary access to remote wilderness that he could not dream of having in his Dutch homeland. While Rod Moss will only paint country that the eastern Arrernte people have walked him through, Kleinboonschate chooses to go it alone. Ultimately the integrity of either approach lives through to the final image.

Christian Clare Robertson's two Antarctic landscapes which form part of her ambitious Extreme Landforms project are imbued with the same 'pioneering' spirit evident in Kleinboonschate's work. Robertson however is motivated more by geological science than salvation in the wilderness. It is difficult to imagine how her paintings ''will disclose new readings of earth-shaping forces" other than as patiently and beautifully rendered testaments to Nature's force and infinite variety.3 The same may be said of her four smaller works in black conte which are inspired by volcanic geography.

Marie McMahon's series of Birds in the Rum Jungle terrain near her home in Batchelor is more modest and lyrical in its study of land and place. There is a refreshing naivety about these works which is offset by McMahon's exposure of the legacy of uranium mining in the landscape. The peculiar contrast of the softly sketched graphite birds against a richly coloured and confused background likens it, at least stylistically, to Moss's much larger work, History Rolling 11, in which his Aboriginal subjects are similarly though more tonally delineated among their colourful, pointillist surround. Some of McMahon's background layering includes crosshatching and dots, perhaps an allusion to the ingrained Aboriginal history and reality of her location. Indeed the placement of her work directly opposite the work of Tiwi artist Kuturwalumi (Kitty Kantilla) is a suitable pairing given McMahon's history of involvement with Tiwi culture and its influence on her understanding of the land and nature.

For an exhibition without any conceptually binding theme other than the desire to represent a selection of better known artists whose work draws from and is committed to the particular inspirations of the Territory, it is interesting to observe the themes that do emerge. Obviously Aboriginal culture is a great source of inspiration for Territory artists and a good number of the non-Aboriginal artists in the show have spent some time in remote Aboriginal communities either as Arts and Crafts advisers or with specific arts collaborative projects in mind. The dialogue created by exhibiting Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists together tends to obscure the concerns of artists such as Geoff Sharples, Geoff Todd, Judith Christian Miller or Mark Elliot-Ranken who remain more caught up in Western art theoretical debate.

While proximity to Asia is a source of inspiration for Marie McMahon's Bunch of Tamarinds and Geoff Todd's figurative studies it is disappointing that no Territory artists of Asian backgrounds were represented. I wonder how their inclusion in the future of this biennial project will add to the dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art? It is the very complex and problematic nature of this dialogue that lies at the heart of this exhibition. By what criteria do we determine an Aboriginal 'masterpiece'? How do we compare Abie Jangala's serenely 'minimalist' Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming) with Kuturwalumi's equally striking Waterhole, let alone begin to struggle to make comparisons with non-Aboriginal artists?

Margie West does a commendable job in the catalogue by balancing anthropological and art historical approaches in discussing the individual achievement of the Aboriginal artists within their varying cultural contexts. Just as with non-Aboriginal art, it is not necessary to anthropologise the Aboriginal art in order to appreciate it (however it would be a welcome change to have the reverse; an Aboriginal personanthropologising non-Aboriginal art). As Paddy Fordham observes, "You know different tribes all over the world, really from the same people" reminding us that there is a universality about Aboriginal art which allows it to transcend its own specific cultural truth. Similarly artists like Marie McMahon, Rod Moss and Robert Kleinboonschate, benefiting from a level of deference to both Aboriginal culture and Western art traditions, also reveal a potential universality – "potential", because it is yet to be tested by a reception into non-Western critique.

notes: 

1 . All "for more than five years" according to the Museum Director's "Foreword" in the formidable eighty page catalogue, Contemporary Territory.

2. Dawn Mendham, "Introduction", Contemporary Territory, catalogue, p. 5

3. Contemporary Territory, catalogue, p. 64

4. Contemporary Territory, catalogue, p. 74