Cairns Indigenous Art Fair 2012

In tune with international contemporary art events, Queensland Indigenous art gains momentum at CIAF 2012

Indigenous art from Queensland is rich and diverse, cutting-edge contemporary and drawing on tradition, political and acutely aware of ecological concerns. This is the image that the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) of 2012 wanted to convey to a public of interstate and international art professionals and art lovers. CIAF took place for the fourth time in 2012 and promotes itself as a platform for the art of a region of Australia which until recently has had relatively little exposure.

The fair showcased, through galleries and art centres alike, art in a wide range of media and from all regions of this northern state. Art centres and commercial galleries, often representing the same artists, had stands in the fair. Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre for instance was located next to Suzanne O’Connell Gallery (Brisbane). Both represented artists from Cardwell with the renowned Bagu ceramic figures on their sticks. The Brisbane based FireWorks Gallery showcased new work by Ian Waldron and Laurie Nilsen, amongst others. Baskets and other sculptures made from ghost nets—synthetic woven fishing nets that come adrift from international commercial fishing boats and eventually end up on Queensland beaches—were very popular at a number of galleries and art centres.

A large diversity of use of materials was also tangible in ‘Where the art leads: new explorations by Queensland Indigenous artists’, the selling general exhibition at the Cairns Regional Gallery. This show, curated by Avril Quaill, artistic director of CIAF 2012, brought new work by artists that explored a wide range of media, whether it be fibre art, drawing, printmaking, painting, video, photography, sculpture or performance art. One of the highlights was Destiny Deacon’s video work Contacts (2011). This video, showing images from a black and white nitrate film, originally shot by Henry W. Mobsby at the beginning of the twentieth century, is part of a larger installation (assembling photographs, video and sculpture) commissioned by the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and the Queensland Art Gallery, entitled Going Strait, in which the artist’s Erub/Mer (Torres Strait Islands) ancestors and scenes from her contemporary family life are brought together. The interesting point about this overview exhibition was to see work by long established artists alongside that by emerging artists. Among the latter were some remarkable artworks. Irene Namok, the mother of Rosella Namok (Lockhart River Mob), for instance, had a large intriguing piece (Tree Spirits looking Out For Umi Laka, 2011) in this show. It consists of layers of apparently peeled-off paint revealing other layers beneath that evoke the later colourful abstractions of Gerhard Richter.

The major Torres Strait Islander exhibition held at GOMA, the Queensland Art Gallery and the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane (2011) did much for the understanding and appreciation of Torres Strait Islander art and culture. From pre-colonial times to contemporary art expressions via popular culture (for example the songs of Torres Strait Island legend Seaman Dan who was also present at CIAF), this exhibition gave a very broad and comprehensive overview of the Torres Strait Islands. It had its influence on this edition of CIAF in which many Torres Strait Islander artists were represented.

Next to the work from established art centres and artists, such as Alick Tipoti and Dennis Nona, a number of art centres that very recently opened their doors, like the Ngalmun Lagau Minaral art centre on Moa Island, were able to catch some of the attention. Solomon Booth, an artist from Moa, for instance, had also entered work in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) of last year. One of Booth’s prints in the art fair was of a guitar decorated with ancestral motifs. The artist combined new cultural expressions, such as the guitar in popular music, with the strong graphic elements belonging to the visual illustration of creation stories of the land.

A similar thematic approach of symbiosis and rapprochement, albeit on a different level, is found in Brian Robinson’s linocuts and etchings. Brian Robinson’s individual show at KickArts undoubtedly formed one of the highlights of the side events of CIAF. Robinson’s art refers to his Torres Strait heritage but pairs this to an aesthetic and intellectual exploration of European art and culture. In one series of prints, for instance, he juxtaposes aspects of Torres Strait Islanders’ lifestyle, such as fishing, with motifs and mythology from Renaissance art. In another linocut, Navigating narrative – Nemo’s encounter in the Torres Strait, a visual rendition of Jules Verne’s classic novel Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, and in particular of Captain Nemo’s passage in the Torres Strait, is a masterly interweaving of classical Torres Strait Islander motifs, visual references to both popular and ethnographic literature and Greek antiquity. While the artist draws on the rich and intricate graphic language of forms, his sources are manifold, ranging from comic strips, to Michelangelo, to Escher.

Printing still is the favoured medium of many Torres Strait Islander artists. In printing these artists maintain and renew their tradition of songs and stories. It comes as no surprise that the work of one of the master artists from the Torres Strait Islands, Alick Tipoti, was included in last year’s Sydney Biennale. A print of over eight meters long, entitled Girelal, by Tipoti was chosen for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) venue. Tipoti is the first Torres Strait Islander artist whose work has been shown at a Sydney Biennale.

One overall observation of the 2012 Sydney Biennale was the inclusion of a large number of works on paper or works evoking a similar sensibility, to the point that last year’s biennale could almost be dubbed the ‘paper’ biennale. Along with Alick Tipoti’s print of epic dimensions, a paper installation by the Euraba Artists and Papermakers from the border town of Boggabilla in collaboration with Monika Grzymala also featured in this major art event. Catherine De Zegher’s former position as Director of The Drawing Centre in New York no doubt accounts for this aesthetic. 

The 2012 Sydney Biennale developed around the general theme of ‘all our relations’. Artistic directors Catherine De Zegher and Gerald McMaster navigated this biennale—in line with several other biennales around the globe and also the dOCUMENTA (13)—into a context of global economical changes and social shifts which have resulted partly through changes in climatic and natural conditions. De Zegher pleads for inclusion, not only of artists from outside the European-North American art hegemony, but also of community art and family participation in the artistic production. In the light of Indigenous Australian art, this is a most interesting and timely observation. Many of the artworks presented at CIAF have been produced in a family or community context, such as the ghost net weavings. These social contexts seem no longer to be seen by the art establishment as an obstacle to the creation of ‘high art’.

The themes of global change, international transactions and environmental concerns, albeit in a somewhat indirect manner, were also clearly at hand in the art presented at CIAF. This is particularly the case with the work of the ghost net weavers. The thickly and oddly colourful woven figures or baskets give new life to indestructible fisher nets from international fishing enterprises that reach the Australian coast. How to cope with the sorrow of a natural disaster? This is the question that the ghost net weavers seem to be answering in their works. Using the eco-trash, so devastating for the coastal and marine environments, as a material for creative expression certainly is a refreshing and optimistic way of dealing with these concerns. Different coastal communities of saltwater people have taken up the weaving of the residual synthetic plastic ropes as part of the Ghost Net Art Project, a project started in 2009. The first baskets ever made came from Aurukun and drew a lot of attention at the first Cairns Indigenous Art Fair that same year. From there the project blossomed and spread to other communities. Traditional weaving techniques are applied and the struggle with the new, rough material is sometimes visible. This untidiness or lumpiness, however, is an integral part of these objects. In this awareness of ecological concerns and community art lies a future for Queensland art.

Increasingly, the creations find their way to fine art galleries. Vivien Anderson Gallery, Alcaston Gallery and Suzanne O’Connell all presented ghost net artworks at CIAF. Museums and art galleries nationally and internationally acquire these ‘rubbish’ works for their collections. The British Museum, for instance, recently bought a basket by Angela ‘Mahnah’ Torenbeek.

Bridging Indigenous cultural values and new art forms, exploring both traditional art forms and modern art techniques, drawing on knowledge and awareness of their Indigenous ancestry and simultaneously interacting with recent history and (global) politics, mixing family concerns of country with individual views are features found in the art practice of many artists from North Queensland, such as in the work of Napoleon Oui and Arone Meeks. Both artists had an individual exhibition at KickArts. While Oui’s work focuses on the traditional bold clan designs to be found on rainforest shields, Meeks’s work delivers an individual and highly coloured rendition of the natural world of the rainforest, populated by spirit beings. 

The 2012 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (or Telstra art award as this coveted art prize is commonly known), which was won by Timothy Cook from Melville Island (Tiwi), was last year by all accounts smaller than previous years and had less interstate visitors, this perhaps to the advantage of CIAF which took place one weekend later. The fair could boast a wide range of national and international visitors. An exhibition of Indigenous Australian art, entitled ‘Ancestral Modern’, opened earlier in 2012 at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and it seems only logical that SAM’s curator, Pam McClusky should attend the far North Queensland art fair. Also present was Ulrich Krempel, the director of the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. Dr Krempel has been a long-term supporter of Indigenous Australian art. His interest started when organising the ‘Aratjara’ exhibition that toured several European cities in 1993 and 1994, and he continued promoting the art from Australia during his career as director of the Sprengel Museum. In ‘Aratjara: Art of the First Australians’ art from Queensland, for the first time, found contextualised exposure in Europe. At CIAF Krempel acquired work by some of Queensland’s greatest artists (Destiny Deacon, Judy Watson and Vernon Ah Kee) for the collection of the Sprengel Museum. Work by Vernon Ah Kee and Brian Robinson was also acquired for AAMU—Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in the Netherlands.

As gallerist Michael Reid pointed out during his presentation at the CIAF symposium, it is imperative that Indigenous Australian art gets the best international exposure possible. This will only happen through the presentation of the best art available. In this dealer’s perception, the market for Indigenous Australian art in Australia itself becomes saturated. Inviting international guests to what has been called ‘Australia’s premier art fair’ is undoubtedly one way of gaining international attention. In this globalised world, an art fair that aims at the title of ‘Australia’s premier art fair’ must play the art game on an international level. It is to be hoped that the Queensland state government will take up this challenge. Will it support these exciting developments through ongoing support of CIAF?

Artists of Girringun, Bagu with Jiman. Girringun Aborignal Art Centre. 

Ghost Nets Australia workshop. 

Ian Waldron, Cellarbrations, 2012. Synthetic polymer paint on 3 ply, 209 x 366cm. Photograph Mick Richards. Courtesy FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane. 

Napoleon Oui, Rainforest shield design Wabarr gabay-barra/Hunting for termites (white ants) IV, 2012. Woodblock on bark cloth, 760 x 560mm. Courtesy the artist and Kickarts, Cairns. 


Cairns indigenous Art Fair took place from 17 – 19 August 2012.

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