native title business: contemporary indigenous art

Queensland Museum, Brisbane
I July - I I August 2002

There is no shortage of Indigenous art on the Australian visual art circuit. Its marketplace popularity sees dozens of commercial exhibitions each year, institutions regularly reflect its importance with surveys, or focus on regions or artists. Internationally the stage seems only a little less crowded given a high level of overseas interest. However, the exhibition Native Title Business: Contemporary Indigenous Art stands out from the crowd because its starting point and orientation differ from the majority of other initiatives. For a start it sets out to educate a broad audience about the very complex issue of Native Title-an issue curator Joan G. Winter perceives as widely misrepresented in 150 years of history, the current education system, the media, and through our political leaders. To that end the exhibition's sponsorship from the Bundaberg-based Gurang Land Council is significant.

In this context, the cultural significance of much Indigenous art is instructive in showing how the linkage of individual artworks with the land is integral to and illustrative of the native title business. As Winter acknowledges, 'This is art in the service of art, not art for art's sake, if there is such a thing '. Artistic merit was not the first criteria upon which works were chosen-the cultural , social and historical significance of objects had priority. Winter explained: 'Artworks were chosen for the story they had to tell and some for their aesthetic qualities'. For instance, Fiona Foley's Scar Tree, 2000, relates an incident in which a scar tree (a tree with the bark removed for use as a canoe or shield) was bull-dozed by Hervey Bay City Council. These trees may be used in evidence for native title claims, and possess significant cultural meaning.

As a result of the selection criteria, this exhibition looks very different to most, and its installation at the Queensland Museum emphasised this in a way which may not be as obvious at the venues to follow, most of which are regional art galleries, although there are two other significantly more modern museums included in the itinerary. Hung on beige or grey hessian wall panels, with clunky over-large glass cases used for three dimensional material in two generally overcrowded areas, the exhibition appeared busy, untidy and particularly old-fashioned (the footprints on carpets were particularly distracting in an already busy space), especially compared with the pristine, white-painted environments in which we usually see this type of work in city centres. While it is possible to be too precious about this, it takes away from the work to a significant extent. The contrast between Yvonne Koolmatrie 's Burial Basket, 2000, slung unceremoniously on a white-painted plinth under the one-wattage-fits-all lighting in the Queensland Museum, and the standard displays of Indigenous craft at the Queensland Art Gallery next door (with dramatic lighting, careful hanging and discreet display cabinets) does impact on how one perceives the object.

However, for an exhibition designed for accessibility, the museum context has proven successful, with positive responses recorded from an audience seeing such things and such connections with fresh eyes.

The evolution of native title is outlined , with the landmark Mabo case (1992) described, together with the Wik decision (1997) and individual native title cases from particular communities given context by the artworks used in their presentation. The role that the artwork has in demonstrating ongoing ties to the land is an aspect of Indigenous art often neglected within the non-indigenous community, and its application in proving ownership is ably demonstrated in a significant number of the artworks in this exhibition. The Tasmanian case for native title is particularly interesting, with the requirement for long term connection to place difficult to establish given the dislocation of population which happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a live issue, with a state government requirement to 'prove' Aboriginality which has led to recent DNA testing of some Tasmanians who identify as Aboriginal. Following the death of Truganini in 1876, it was decreed that Tasmanian Aborigines were extinct. Yet an atmospheric portrait of Fanny, Mary and the Cross, 2001 , by her great-great-grandson Joel Birnie explores this history Fanny Cochrane Smith was the first Aboriginal to be granted land by the Tasmanian government (in 1854). She was also the subject of a paper by anthropologist Ling Roth that suggested that, given her facial shape and hair texture, both her parents could not have been Aboriginal, despite birth records which asserted the contrary. There is no shortage of significant artists in the show-Gordon Bennett, Michael Nelson Jagamara, Fiona Foley, Michael Anning, Thancoupie, lan Abdullah, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Julie Dowling, Queenie Mackenzie, Dorothy Napangardi, and a collaborative piece by Tim Johnson and Turkey Tolson. Given the rigours of a three year tour and a selection process which relied, at least to some extent, on artists making expressions of interest, much of the work is by younger and lesser known artists, and some is commissioned specifically for the show. Artistically, it is a real mix, with stand-out pieces being the lively ceramic ute, Hunting Party, 2002, by Cyril James Kerinauia, Queenie MacKenzie's Horseshoe Creek Massacre, Lajibany, 1998, and Michael Anning's Dulgu-rainforest artefacts paddle, shield, sword, 2002.

This is an exhibition with an agenda, its inclusion of land agreements, maps, details of negotiations, coming home stories and more illustrating a firm socio-political focus. Given the success of contemporary Indigenous art since 1972, this exhibition, which takes the art back to its source material and cultural origins is both significant and timely. While it does not push any artistic barriers, this is an important exhibition for broader socio-political reasons and its sought-after status in national venues (Winter suggests that demand was such that the tour could have been over six years instead of three) is testimony to this.