Book Review: New Views of Indigenous Art

Australian indigenous art has developed dynamically since the modern movement of acrylic painting on canvas began in 1971. Contemporary works are vibrant, rich in colour and pattern and, most intriguingly, illustrative of a different connection to country. This is, arguably, the most powerful artistic movement Australia has yet witnessed. The industry, however, is a largely underground world to which most do not gain entry quickly. Now, everything you need to know (and were perhaps afraid to ask) has been made available by former art critic Susan McCulloch, who is the publisher of McCulloch and McCulloch Australian Art Books. Having traversed Aboriginal art territories for decades, McCulloch, with daughter and fellow publishing director Emily McCulloch Childs, has written and published the 2008 edition of McCulloch’s Contemporary Aboriginal Art, launched in Alice Springs in September 2008.

The enormous variety of lively and poetic work, in increasingly new styles and media, is one aspect of the complex world detailed in Contemporary Aboriginal Art (CAA). The 2001 edition featured three regions and 22 communities—this 2008 edition covers the expansion of the industry to nine regions and over 80 art centres and other places where art is produced. The overwhelming number of artists, Aboriginal names and regions become familiar with repetition and the background provided by CAA.

This book takes head-on the change inherent in such a rapidly developing artistic movement. There are dispassionate accounts of the many scandals and controversies, including the combative story of art centres versus private art studios and dealers (at times referred to disparagingly as ‘carpet baggers’), the edges of which have been the subject of newspaper articles and most recently an ABC Four Corners report. There are maps, and relevant information relating to each art-producing community and art centre, and a history informed by decades of involvement. And, in this new edition, a chapter devoted to city-based and new media art describes the development of another dynamic sector.

CAA sets out to be part art book, part guide book, and in its flexi-bound cover, even at over 300 highly illustrated pages, it remains a size and style which is able to be carried for easy reference. The need to record so much information, and to illustrate it, means there are many disparate threads, but they come together, to be unpicked and explained in Contemporary Aboriginal Art. Its genesis in the McCullochs’ many journeys into the oldest and newest culture in the world provides the basis for the highly readable, broad, and authoritative information. Distilled into words and pictures it conjures the sense of a thrilling journey into a place at once spiritual, visual, many-layered and dauntingly complex. Its grasp of the cultural underpinning of the art, its execution, and its politics is extraordinary. This is the essential guide or starting place to any issue or question relating to Australian Indigenous art.

 Collectors of Aboriginal art are as enthusiastic and proselytising as other recent converts, and two books chronicling private collections of Australian Indigenous art have also been published this year.

Contemporary art and book collector Patrick Corrigan became interested in the Aboriginal art of this century after seeing paintings by Tommy Watson (whose work is used on the cover of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty’s, Beyond Sacred: Recent painting from Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities, 2008). This artist’s work, part of what Corrigan describes as the ‘post dot period’, was the stimulus for him to give away his previous art collection in order to pursue the ‘new energy’ he perceived in Aboriginal art post 2000. The highlights (95 works from the 300 in the collection) are documented in New Beginnings: Classic Paintings from the Corrigan Collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art.

This hard cover, large format book is beautifully illustrated, giving precedence to full bleed images of selected works from the collection. With a preface by Margo Neale and an insightful introduction by Emily McCulloch Childs tracing the many ‘new beginnings’ in process, it also includes an essay by Ross Gibson which examines the way we see Aboriginal art, and proposes this style of aesthetic as a possible new way of fashioning landscape. He is also, I think, seeking to give an insight into the reasons why this art movement has a habit of taking individuals by storm. He notes

... these paintings look backwards, forwards and straight down at present-day country. Marvellous paradoxes, they are great stimulant things that galvanise the mind and the senses so that anyone who engages with them has a chance to feel that an unfashioned reality is close by, that some fresh existence is imminent even if it is not with us yet. The paintings are aesthetic, therefore, but not in a detached or dilettantish manner. They set all the senses ablaze and encourage an embodied, deeply felt involvement with space through time. Moreover, because they are available to accompany communal songs, stories and ceremonies of country and imagination, the paintings are as political as they are personally engaging.1

Within the pages of New Beginnings, the works themselves are curated into groups where this is relevant, or are individually canvassed, and there is discussion of artists such as Makinti Napanangka, Fiona Omeenyo, Jimmy Baker, Yannima Tommy Watson, George Tjungurrayi, and many others. ‘The power of black and white’ traces the impetus in work by Dorothy Napangardi Robinson and Lena Nyadbi while other groupings are tackled under such headings as, for example, ‘The New Pintupi’, ‘Warlpiri Artists of Yuendumu’ and ‘The artists of Irrunytju’.

McCulloch Childs has extensive research materials and personal experience to draw upon and this book adds depth to the discussion of many artists whose work is more often seen in a community context. As such it paves the way for more individualistic treatment of art by Indigenous Australians and promotes the innovation identified by Corrigan that is becoming increasingly apparent in the art of this century.

notes: 

1. Ross Gibson, ‘The Imagining’, in New Beginnings: Classic Paintings from the Corrigan Collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art, McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, Melbourne, 2008, p.12.

McCulloch’s Contemporary Aboriginal Art: the complete guide. Susan McCulloch and Emily McCulloch Childs
McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, Fitzroy, Victoria, 2008
308 pp. $49.95 www.mccullochandmcculloch.com.au

New Beginnings: Classic Paintings from the Corrigan Collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art
Emily McCulloch Childs, Ross Gibson
Preface: Margo Neale
McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, Fitzroy, Victoria, 2008
156 pp. $79.95 www.mccullochandmcculloch.com.au

 

Beyond Sacred: Recent painting from Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities
Editors: Colin and Elizabeth Laverty
Hardie Grant Books, Prahran, Victoria, 22008. 
352 pp. $120

Louise Martin-Chew is a free-lance art writer based in Brisbane.