THE CAIRNS INDIGENOUS ART FAIR 2010

TOWARDS RECOGNITION

This second edition of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF)—the last to have Michael Snelling as artistic director—was marked by impressive efforts to give the fair international appeal and exposure. International curators and art dealers were invited and a program for major national collectors and curators was set up. Events and exhibitions surrounding the art fair, including exhibitions at the Cairns Regional Art Gallery and art spaces around town, helped to position the fair in a broader framework of Queensland art.

Like the 2009 inaugural CIAF, this edition was held at the Tanks Cultural Precinct located in the lush tropical Cairns Botanical Gardens. This location, rich with history (the oil storage tanks date back to the Second World War, but were in use until 1987), indeed provided an extraordinary setting for an art fair and a fairytale-like décor for the opening night. Divided over two tanks (tanks 3 and 4), art centres from Queensland and galleries dealing in Queensland Indigenous art showcased their best artists. While tank 4 hosted art centres, tank 3 tended to show the more established art galleries and the two most successful art centres in North Queensland: Mornington Island Art and the Lockhart River Art Centre. One was struck at the entrance of tank 4 by a pack of carved and painted wooden camp dogs by, amongst others, Craig Koomeeta, Jack Bell and Garry Namponan from Aurukun (Wik and Kugu Arts and Craft Centre), commissioned by Michael Snelling. The dogs, which seemed to welcome the visitors to the art fair in a quieter manner than camp dogs usually would in the community, bear witness to a vibrant and well-developed tradition of woodcarving from the Aurukun region in Cape York Peninsula. As an installation of contemporary art these carvings work very well and reflect and comment upon life at the community.

A similar theme of reflection on present-day community life in relation to maintaining pre-contact cultural traditions is at the core of the work of one of Queensland’s most prominent Indigenous artists of the twentieth century, Goobalathaldin (Dick Roughsey – c.1920–1985). A modest but powerful presentation of his work, sourced from several private collections, was held at Jan Manton Art in conjunction with Griffith Artworks. A Lardil man from Sydney Island, near Mornington Island, Dick Roughsey (the English name echoes the translation of his Indigenous name, ‘rough sea’) enjoyed a career as a visual artist that spanned several decades from the early 1960s, but was also actively involved in Indigenous affairs on a state and national level. In his paintings Goobalathaldin portrays daily life at the mission but also depicts some remarkable traditional scenes, such as the burial scene, which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. This small tribute to this great artist constituted, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of this fair.

In the early 1960s Goobalathaldin, together with his brother Lindsay Roughsey (Burud), were the best known of a group of Lardil, Gangalidda and Yangkall artists and they were at the core of contemporary arts practice on Mornington Island. The Mornington Island art and craft centre, which was built in the 1990s, would become of great importance for the development of contemporary Queensland Indigenous art in the first decade of the twenty-first century with names such as Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Birrmuyingathi Maali Netta Loogatha and Kuruwarriyingathi Bijarrb Paula Paul attached to it. Although originally from Bentinck Island, these senior Kaiadilt women joined the Lardil and Yangkall artists, who included, amongst others, Karen Chong and Gambinya Thelma Burke, at Mornington Island Art in 2006.

Work by all these artists was presented by Alcaston Gallery (Melbourne) and Mornington Arts. Also featuring quite prominently in Alcaston Gallery’s stand was new work by the daughters of Sally Gabori, thus assuring a continuation of the exciting journey of exploration into contemporary painting on Bentinck and Mornington Islands. Sally Gabori’s work has received international exposure with an exhibition in London (2010) and the inclusion of her work in other international exhibitions.1 Samantha Hobson from Lockhart River also had an individual exhibition in the United Kingdom, at October Galleries in 2008. The Lockhart River Art Centre, with star artists Samantha Hobson, Rosella Namok and Fiona Omeenyo, has been going strong for something more than a decade now. The art movement developed in the mid-1990s with a group of young artists known as the ‘Art Gang’. Their art is characterised by dynamic and colourful pictures that are very personal and highly innovative depictions of the landscape and related stories from the Dreaming, or are drawn from daily life at the community.

Mavis Ngallametta’s paintings, at the Wik and Kugu Arts Centre, also make use of a visual language that emerged out of a symbiosis of experiment and tradition. The palette of ochre tones she uses is similar to that employed in the decoration of wood carvings. Experimental painting completes the sculptural body of work from the Aurukun community.

The strength of the Torres Strait Islander artists lies obviously in printmaking. Dennis Nona won the 2010 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award for best work on paper with an astounding and complex representation of a narrative of migrating turtles and seabirds, entitled Saulal. Nona, together with fellow-artists Alick Tipoti and Billy Missi, has slowly but surely helped establish a school of printmaking with Torres Strait artists. During his keynote presentation at the CIAF symposium, organised in conjunction with James Cook University, Alick Tipoti enlightened the audience about the sources of his work. Tipoti revealed himself in his working practice to be as much a scientific researcher as a visual artist, travelling to the United Kingdom, as his fellow-printmaker Dennis Nona did, to research the archives of the Haddon Collection of Cambridge University (London). Retrieving details of traditional stories and imagery that had largely been lost to the people as a result of colonisation and missionary zeal, informs the basis of this artist’s work, indeed of an entire school of printmaking in the Torres Strait. His artistic practice was further informed by an education at the Australian National University, but also by younger people in the community.

We don’t kiss ass. We kick ass. (Richard Bell)

The group with potentially the most international appeal is perhaps proppaNOW, an artists collective comprising the artists Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey, Vernon Ah-Kee, Bianca Beetson, Jennifer Herd, Laurie Nilsen, Andrea Fisher and Tony Albert. These artists describe themselves as a group of mates with similar interests. This sense of connectedness certainly underlies the strength of the collective, which has the potential to further the aims of the group as well as develop the art of its individual members. The artists work in a constant dialogue which each other’s work and often curate their own shows. Performing, however, is as much a part of their art practice, if not more, than the production of visual artworks. It is little surprise that the artists regard themselves as performers. This became clear at the premiere of a documentary about the group, produced by Carbon Media, on the last day of the fair. The screening was followed by a panel discussion in which the various proppaNOW members introduced themselves.

proppaNOW is no doubt one of the most critical groups of artists in Australia. It became stringently clear that this Brisbane-based collective does not spare any taboos in art, tackling sensitive issues such as the market-driven repetition in the art production of many Indigenous artists from remote areas. As Vernon Ah-Kee put it during the panel session: ‘Aboriginal art suffers from a lack of criticism. There isn’t any!’ Exhibitions of this group of artists are worth following.

The 2010 CIAF was surrounded by several side-events, as was the first edition. These were headed by the general exhibition of Queensland Indigenous art at the Cairns Regional Gallery. This exhibition offered a comprehensive survey of some of the best recent contemporary Indigenous art in Queensland. Next to established and acclaimed names such as Destiny Deacon, Judy Watson and Ken Thaiday senior, one could discover the work by emerging artists, such as paintings by Mavis Ngallametta from Aurukun, an area which is mainly known for its wooden carvings, and masks by Obery Sambo.

The Cairns-based Mer artist Obery Sambo also featured in a group show at Canopy Artspace. His contemporary interpretations of traditional dancing masks, using felt and other non-traditional materials, to some extent evoke the masks by Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumé whose work was shown at Documenta 12. Sambo’s masks are undoubtedly amongst the most refreshing art to be seen in Cairns.

Canopy Artspace is, together with KickArts, a testimony to a vibrant new art scene in the far North Queensland town, which two decades ago seemed to be the precinct of conservatives and backpackers. Nowadays, public art commissions adorn the esplanade and main streets of Cairns, reflecting the genuine interest and engaged attitude of a progressive Government arts program.

For CIAF 2010 KickArts Contemporary Arts focussed on the etchings from Torres Strait Islander artists Brian Robinson’s and Joel Sam’s recent residencies at Djumbunji Press. Canopy Artspace, partnering with and physically accommodating the Australian Art Print Network (AAPN), NEWflames arts foundation and Editions Tremblay of master printer Theo Tremblay, staged a dazzling opening event of a NEWflames survey show and exhibitions of artists connected to the Australian Art Network Galleries. The art space hosted, in conjunction with NEWflames program-coordinator Michael Eather (founding director of Fire-Works Gallery), a survey exhibition including work by Andrea Fisher, Ken Thaiday senior, Gail Mabo and Ian Waldron. This last artist is perhaps lesser known in other states, but has an impressive record of prizes and awards and recently won the Glover Prize. It was the first time that this coveted Tasmanian landscape art award went to an interstate and Indigenous artist. Although more subtle and meditative than the art from the proppaNOW artists, Waldron’s work tackles similar issues of dispossession and intercultural relationships.

The 2010 CIAF seemed to fit in a ‘grand tour’ of art events around Australia. The interstate or overseas visitor could start this tour of arts in Sydney, absorbing the last days of the Biennale, followed by the Melbourne Art Fair during the first weekend of August, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and the concurrent Darwin Art Fair during the second weekend of August, and finally the CIAF in Cairns (19-22 August). For those not having seen enough art yet, the Desert Mob show in Alice Springs celebrated its twentieth anniversary in September and was tipped to be more important than ever.

The fair and side-events allow a broad public, both local, interstate and from abroad, to discover the art from this part of Australia. The contemporary Indigenous art scene in far North Queensland, with the exception perhaps of Aurukun and Mornington Island arts, however, is relatively new. This can be seen throughout the art fair. For those who attended CIAF in 2009 and 2010, it may have seemed that the art had not developed very much between both fairs. Although sales at the 2010 fair significantly surpassed those of the previous edition, visitors might refrain from coming every year in the future. A biennial event could be the answer to this issue as this would keep the event fresh and promising.

CIAF endeavours to raise serious awareness of the art from Queensland through enhanced national exposure, and in that sense aims at overtaking policies of past governments that showed little support towards the development and promotion of Indigenous arts. This is particularly reflected in the activities of QIAMEA. QIAMEA, the Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency, as a governmental organisation, went to lengths to put art from Queensland on the map, and with success. Compared to other states, contemporary Indigenous art in Queensland was until recently less known and, as a consequence, less appreciated. A platform to show the vast diversity of art forms and styles from the different regions of Queensland was more than needed. With the CIAF this platform has become a reality.

notes: 

1. Mundamurra ngijinda dulk: My Island Home was held at the Gallery in Cork Street from May – June 2010. Her work was also included in the ‘Show your Colours’ exhibition held at AAMU – Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht, The Netherlands in 2009–2010.

Georges Petitjean is Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht, The Netherlands.