This was touted as the first curated commercial showing by urban Indigenous collective ProppaNOW. George Petelin’s Gold Coast gallery was a clever choice of venue, theoretically speaking anyway. Opened last year, it is a stones throw from tourist-driven Surfers Paradise, mecca for Australiana, souvenir didges and ornamental boomerangs. It is this kind of culture-for-the-taking that ProppaNOW artists have reacted against. They have also vocally opposed the labels ascribed to Indigenous art and identity by non-Indigenous people, in particular a belief that the ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art is made in the deserts and remote communities and in the ‘dot’ style so highly publicised and marketed. Whether or not many of the tourists shopping at Cavill Avenue made the short distance to Petelin’s is another story and possibly a large part of the battle.
The exhibition included several works by each artist. While these did not cross into collaborative ventures, there was a sense of the group forum as a means for germinating ideas, in the tradition of Campfire, and more recently NEWflames, both groups having also included ProppaNOW members. The strong public presence of the group and its individual artists in a sector still in many respects unhealthily determined by white values, is the kind of powerful, self-determining force Australia needs—and not least in the arts industry. In this vein, one of ProppaNOW’s aims has been to mentor younger artists, in this case Tony Albert and Andrea Fisher, both of whom are developing into interesting artists in their own right.
One of the key strands running through the show meditated upon identity and a kind of ‘deferral’. To explain this more fully, several artists positioned identity as something still in formation or determined by what it was not. Both states are, of course, definitive of the identity problem but in this exhibition there was a marked sense of it, due in part to a referencing of history and loss but also gain.
Bianca Beetson’s Urban Totem gestured towards a separation from ancestral culture in one of her signature pink pieces—a totem adorned with candy pink fur and floral fabrics. White dots, stuck on to what seemed like generically ‘Aboriginal-style’ designs, appeared to be more about decoration than depicting particular cultural symbols. Beetson’s work has often censured kitsch tourist decoration and the bastardisation of cultural meaning through commodification. However this work also seemed to spell out an apology for a lack of specific cultural knowledge. Text painted around the sides of the totem spelled out this apology, possibly from Beetson to herself and to ancestors: ‘Sorry for not knowing my totem / Sorry for not knowing my songs / Sorry for not knowing my language’. Walking around the totem, the words sometimes did not quite meet up and could be read: ‘Sorry for my totem / Sorry for my language’ in an ironic apology. While possibly unintended, these mismatched phrases sparked with a ferocious back-handed humour, and gave this work a powerful edge.
One of Vernon Ah Kee’s inclusions was a series of three magnificent drawings titled ‘Unwritten’. These are faces, largely featureless and almost foetal in appearance. They relate interestingly to his equally strong series of family portraits, and to the University of Queensland Art Museum’s major painting Self Portrait as a Non Person which features a face morphing out of a grey background. This painting, and the ‘Unwritten’ drawings, describe a coming into, or out of, being. As Ah Kee’s portraits of his family serve to re-image the Aboriginal man free from historical misrepresentations, there is an interesting ambiguity as to whether the ‘Unwritten’ works are also a form of ‘rebirthing’ or whether they instead expose the ‘writing out’ of history.
Tony Albert presented five works from his recent series using found Aboriginal kitsch. Four of these were paintings on original black velvet portraits made around the 1950s by Martinus and others. They show various idyllic and outrageously stereotypical scenes of Aboriginal people at leisure or ‘performing culture’. Over these Albert sprays found slogans from contemporary culture. These slogans include ‘I AM’ (a nod towards the successive use of this phrase by Colin McCahon, Imants Tillers, Gordon Bennett and Michael Parekowhai), Meryl Streep’s famous wail in the wild of ‘A dingo took my BABY’ and ‘Romantic’, evoking the historically exoticised notion of the primitive. Albert’s is an act of reclamation: he proclaims these statements and in doing so negates the power of their original sentiments. However, by juxtaposing these phrases, the ‘I AMs’, with Martinus’ depictions, he also astutely confounds the issue. Reading ‘I AM’ against the portrait of a swarthy ‘noble savage’ character—as if the portrait itself is speaking it—one is forced to respond with the inverse: ‘AM I?’, ‘ARE YOU?’ and then ‘HOW CAN YOU BE?’ There is thus a subtly flickering interplay between identity as re-defined and reclaimed by Albert and the cultural stereotypes that haunt these images. Another point to make is that in re-voicing these phrases and these images, Albert never addresses his own subject position head on but expresses it through the words and pictures of others, an ironic play on just how much the ‘shit can stick’. In a clever sleight of hand Albert’s identity position remains somewhat out of reach to us, in effect an unclassifiable entity.
Richard Bell’s contributions to this show were slightly quieter than usual. His When Is Enough Enough situated this phrase within a Jasper Johns Target, of which it was inferred that Aboriginal culture occupied the bullseye. Bell has a particular knack for flashing out a strong statement and then leaving it to hover in the room and percolate.
Overall, this show did not have quite the aggressive edge that its title, Friendly Fire, suggested, but the irony was not lost on me. It was also a good chance to see a group of artists who are making work about some of the most important issues this country faces.