Indigenous Art and Criticism

In May 2015, The Weekend Australian’s ‘Review’ headlined a thought-provoking essay by Nicolas Rothwell challenging the ‘reluctance to criticise and evaluate’ Indigenous art, resulting in a ‘crisis of authenticity’ in both the artform and the market. Intriguingly with Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art bringing out the Turner Prize-winning artist (and columnist) Grayson Perry last summer, I was reminded that Perry raised similar doubts in The Times regarding a 2008 Maningrida art show in London. This is how I described his colourful argument then: ‘For his mob, neither spirituality nor hidden meaning can actually take Aboriginal artists past the key gate-keeping tests of “aesthetic and intellectual complexity” which they have established. Consequently, any collective and historical standards of legitimacy in Indigenous art are well below “the authenticity bestowed by connoisseurs” in his tribe!’

However, within the Rothwell essay was a clear understanding of the problems involved in establishing the sort of ‘aesthetic and intellectual complexity’ that Perry would appreciate. Rothwell cites the Spinifex artist, Carlene West, showing at Raft Gallery in Alice Springs, as having ‘an exhibition of outstanding significance’. But he goes on to reveal why criticism of it in Western art terms is so hard: ‘Because the sense of desert law was so strong in the works, because the traditional symbols conveyed a sense of solemnity and calm, because the scale of the colour fields gave so clear a sense of the still, austere spinifex world’.

Rothwell can intuit all that after years of exposure to the Indigenous. But it has to be asked, could any purely Western-trained art observer critique that? For, as the insulting level of ‘criticism’ of Aboriginal art by a posse of London’s leading writers commenting on the ‘Australia’ show at the Royal Academy in 2013 revealed, if you are not prepared to make an effort towards an understanding of the background culture and its complexity before sounding off about the art’s perceived failings, then your opinions are valueless.

But The Australian newspaper’s own effort to respond to Rothwell’s challenge at last year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (the NATSIAAs, aka the Telstras, after their long term sponsor) was fascinating. Four of their writers were in Darwin—one resident and three visitors. It was a major investment which produced four articles during August. An overnight news report on the ‘Big Telstra’ win by (the now-late) Kimberley painter Jukuja Dolly Snell with no attempt at ‘criticism’ was followed by a commentary from Rothwell himself. He used the occasion to reiterate his long-held thesis that far too much governmental patronage is needed to prop up an ecosystem which he decried as ‘a pure product of public funding, a vast and serried GONGO, or government-organised non-government organisation’, which he believes must inevitably diminish the purity of the unique art product of Indigenous Australia. The art itself got short shrift.

A third piece by The Australian’s national arts writer, Michaela Boland was linked to her recent visit to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of South Australia (SA) in preparation for last October’s Tarnanthi Festival in Adelaide, and concentrated on the business of the art centres there rather than their product. In the background were both Rothwell’s GONGO theory and the SA State government’s concerns about corrupted governance in those remote communities. Aboriginal art has rarely been without its controversies. But Boland left unchallenged APY artist and 2015 NATSIAA prize-winner, Robert Fielding’s comment: ‘We as Western Desert (artists) are very strong; we have a reputation that our works are highly regarded. There’s a lot of good things happening in the APY Lands’. With fourteen APY works selected out of sixty-five finalists in the NATSIAAs, this was a not unreasonable claim.

But that was before the same newspaper’s national art critic, Christopher Allen got to work. Allen has a pedagogic attitude to his work—often spending half of his allocated space each week backgrounding his subject deeply and then applying that learning to the art under consideration. It works well for his areas of undoubted expertise—Western art and many of Asia’s cultures. But he is walking on eggshells when he steps outside his comfort area—as Rothwell’s original ‘Review’ piece seems to have encouraged him to do, commenting for the first time about Indigenous art in May 2015.

Allen had seized upon that original essay to publish some superficial comments about ‘piety or sentimentality and monetary greed coinciding’ in the buying of Aboriginal art, and to sweepingly conclude that ‘it is only the cultural meanings that give the works substance and authority’. He also invented a couple of phrases that he enjoyed so much, they turn up again in his major piece about the NATSIAAs, published in The Weekend Australian ‘Review’ section on 29 August: ‘primitivist authenticity’ and ‘decorative abstractions’.

Allen’s basic problem is that he thinks that just because Indigenous artists may choose to paint on canvas with acrylic paint they have been ‘assimilated to the Western idea of art’. And that is his standard for judging them so harshly. For under a sub-editor’s headline, ‘Farewell to Country’—suggesting insultingly that the land/Country was no longer the impelling force behind the art he saw at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin—he somehow had the courage to go well beyond his art remit and conclude that ‘real belief’ was no longer the basis for their work.

But you simply cannot judge the remote art of the APY Lands, the Central and Western Deserts, The Kimberley or Arnhem Land on an assumption of assimilation. For it was their resistance to not just artistic but total cultural assimilation that first drove the elders of Papunya in 1971 to pick up Western artists’ tools and set out to reveal the complexity of their pre-Western culture in ways that would communicate with their planned assimilators. That culture had always involved strong visual elements—but not the permanence that the West took to be the norm in ‘art’. They soon discovered limits to what their peers outside Papunya would allow them to tell of that complexity, and became ‘artists’ in ways they had to invent to continue to portray their foundation myths, the laws that underpinned their ecological survival in harsh conditions, food and water cartography and ceremonial mnemonics.

But they never went to the National Art School to learn how to do this and only later went to art galleries to see how others did it. Even then, Rover Thomas was famously quoted as commenting about a Rothko canvas: ‘Who’s this fellar that paints like me?’ Hardly the mind-set of someone who has ‘assimilated to the Western idea of art’!

Of course, many critics and viewers who have not assimilated to the Indigenous idea of art tend to use words like abstraction and expressionism—the Japanese even saw a quasi-Buddhist Nirvana in Emily Kngwarreye’s late paintings—to explain what they cannot read (and are often not intended to read) into the ways remote artists respond to the demands of the white market place. For, though they may have an intention of sharing secret/sacred material with appropriate initiates and educating their off-spring, their art is made for sale exclusively to non-Indigenous buyers.

So, when Christopher Allen condemns Barbara Mbitjana Moore’s Highly Commended canvas in the NATSIAAs for its ‘broad and crude brushstrokes’ which he assumes the judges ‘accepted as expressive’, he completely misses the reading that she has taken the classic APY Lands’ iconography and deliberately set it alight with her idiosyncratic choice of colours and the freedom of her dynamic brushwork. But then, what would Allen know about the history of APY art? Arguably, he should have researched it before putting fingers to type-writer. And he should have known that his unfavourable comparison made with Kathleen Petyarre’s 1996 ‘Big Telstra’ winner, noting it had been ‘painted with great care’ and ‘the kind of attention that is the mark of real belief’, is seriously undermined by the work’s near-rejection at the NATSIAAs that year on the basis of (unproven) claims by Petyarre’s partner that he had put down many of its careful dots.

And then there was poor old Bob Gibson. Allen barely looks at his painting but condemns his story on a wall label as ‘beyond the bounds of plausibility with a picture that allegedly illustrates a(n)…anticlimactic tale of two snakes and two men’. Did the story matter to the judges who selected Gibson to hang with sixty-four others from two hundred and ninety entries this year? Or did they simply appreciate this post-dotting Ngaanyatjarra version of mythology-mapping as an aesthetic advance on the community norm?

And, as for its plausibility, did the judges—unlike Allen—have in their minds the plausibility of all those Renaissance paintings with dotted lines between a hovering angel and the book-bound figure of the Virgin Mary to indicate her highly implausible Annunciation? Talking of the Renaissance, I am reminded of the surprising wisdom of David Walsh, MONA’s art collector and founder, who has proven resistant to the appeal of Aboriginal art: ‘The basic building block in Aboriginal art is the sentence, using a commonly referenced series of symbols. We haven’t had that in the West since the Renaissance. There are three ways of making a written language—using an alphabet, using syllables, with a symbol for each, and using pictograms or logograms like Chinese. The symbolic level in Aboriginal art is more at the level of the first two, while Western art today uses logograms. In other words, Aboriginal art is more sophisticated—and I just need to know more to understand it’.

Fortunately, the judges of last year’s Telstra Prizes were a balanced triumvirate. Urbane and smooth National Gallery of Victoria Director, Tony Ellwood also happens to have made a start to his career by working at an Aboriginal community art centre in the East Kimberley. Cara Pinchbeck is the Indigenous curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales—a young Kamilaroi woman who might be expected to have a particular understanding of urban/Blak art, but has curated mostly remote art shows at the Gallery since 2007. And, for the first time since the early days of the National Aboriginal Art Award (as it was then called) when the likes of artist and elder Wandjuk Marika was a judge, Daniel Walbidi, a Yulparitja-man from the deserts via Bidyadanga on the Kimberley coast, was the third. He had won the General Painting Prize in the 2014 NATSIAAs.

I suspect that it was Walbidi’s presence that ensured there was unanimous agreement about Mrs Snell’s selection as the ‘Big Telstra’ winner. Oddly, Allen fails to mention her work at all. And Walbidi was absent from the NATSIAA opening, detained by ‘Sorry business’ in his community. So I chased him up when that was over to find out how he had played the judging process. He had found it ‘very interesting—seeing the other side of the fence’. And, though he might have argued that the Kimberley has long been discriminated against in the prize-giving since Snell’s fellow Fitzroy Crossing-based artist, the late Daisy Andrews won in 1994, Daniel insisted that he ‘embraced all Aboriginal artists who have a story—urban or traditional’. And though he did admit to connections of ‘kinship, not blood’ with Snell’s husband Spider, it was more important that ‘you knew where she had come from’. Her artwork, Kurtal (both waterhole and rain-making serpent) has direct parallels with Walbidi’s Winpa, the subject of his 2014 painting—both transporting the artists back to their desert origins from the places they have taken refuge in to escape drought and isolation.

Daniel Walbidi argued specifically for giving the accolade to an older artist. ‘We are nothing without our old people’, he told me. ‘You have text books for your history—but those people of high degree are our books, our philosophers. And her learning spoke to me through her painting—all the judges heard it. We were all in one accord. When people ask me about my work, I repeat myself like a parrot—better listen to the painting’.

Any listener with a modicum of connoisseurship in Indigenous matters would surely have heard the noises coming from the barks in last year’s NATSIAA selection—a doubling of the number from 2014 and the predominance of one single art centre producing them—Buku Larrnggay Mulka at Yirrkala in Northeast Arnhem Land. Nine works emanated from there and all, in some way, an aesthetic or technical development from the templates established over half a century by the Marika and Yunupingu dynasties, Gawirrin Gumana, Djambawa Marawili, etcetera. Most owed a debt to the absent Gunybi Ganambarr, the young artist who has redefined ‘land’, from which Yolngu lore says all artistic material must come if a sacred story is to be portrayed. So Wukun Wanambi took a perfectly rectangular board discarded by a dance company (and therefore legitimate), covered it in foil and painted his fish story on it, gaining an immeasurable sunlight-on-water glitter from his new material.

Such riches do not emerge from nowhere. The language-group as a whole must be strong, the outstations vibrant, the art centre managed consistently and the business side profitable. Proof of this at Buku lies in manager Will Stubbs’s selection by the Australia Council as 2015 art facilitator of the year, and Djambawa Marawili’s invitation by international art maven, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev into the Istanbul Biennial, along with historic evidence of the Yolngu’s consistent application of their art/culture/ceremony to the politics of their survival in the face of missionaries, miners and distant politicians.

Yet Christopher Allen’s cloth ears heard only ‘impatient carelessness’ in Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s quite deliberately expressionist (and Highly Commended) bark, which for him ‘bears witness to the decadence of a tradition’ rather than being ‘an innovative departure from bark-painting traditions’ as curator Franchesca Cubillo described the artist’s work in the National Gallery’s second National Indigenous Art Triennial. ‘The works [cheekily entitled White Painting #1–6 in a deliberate reference by Stubbs to Robert Rauschenberg] are like random movements of white foam on the shoreline as the ocean tides advance and recede’, she observed poetically.

Of course it is not all innovation and real belief across Indigenous art—there is a mass of tourist art that should never be given the benefit of connoisseurship; and even the great Kngwarreye produced a number of duds that need to be distinguished from her significant canvases. Sadly, the market can be dishearteningly uncritical, as was revealed at the auction last September of part of the important Dutch Thomas Vroom Collection. That pedigree seems to have given quite excessive credibility to a large number of paintings from Kngwarreye’s so-called ‘Colourist’ period—so that panic set in as the supply ran dry towards the end of the auction. ‘Daub-like works’, in Nicolas Rothwell’s words, that had crept into the high teens earlier reached $30,000 in an undiscriminating frenzy.

But even non-connoisseurs with their ears open can hear quite clearly sometimes. New York recently went wild over an exhibition by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri at Salon 94 in September/October. Of course it helped to sell him that Warlimpirrnga was one of the ‘Lost Tribe’ that emerged from the deserts in 1984 when he was in his early 20s. But, while it may have lead both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to cover the show, it was not that that had encouraged Salon 94 gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn to show Aboriginal art for, as far as I know, the first time. Here is the New York Times write-up:


They seem abstract, made from thousands of dots—a signature of much Desert Painting. The dots form tight parallel lines that, when viewed close up, oscillate like those of a Bridget Riley Op Art painting, except more so, a visual equivalent of standing near a speaker that drowns out all the sound around it.


Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn said she first saw Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s work in the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 2012 (Christov-Bakargiev again), and that while she had seen works of Desert Painting before, she was particularly struck by his. ‘I also loved the fact that this abstraction had another kind of abstraction behind it—at least abstraction to us, because we’ll never be able to understand these stories in the way they do,’ she said. ‘And I thought that they looked so contemporary at a time when abstraction is being practiced by so many New York artists.’ Could that add up to ‘authenticity bestowed by connoisseurs’?

Warlimpirrnga Tjampitjinpa, Marawa. Dennis Scholl Collection, USA.

Robert Fielding, Milkali Kutju, 2015. Screenprint on fine art paper, edition of 5.

Jukuja Dolly Snell, Kurtal, 2015. Acrylic on canvas.

Nonggirrnga Marawili, Lightning in the Rock, 2015. Natural ochres on eucalyptus bark.

Jeremy Eccles is a Sydney based writer.