The Australian artist has a hard time overseas. Especially in the ‘Mother country’, England. It is OK if s/he actually moves there like Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd or Shaun Gladwell; for then they can be taken for a Brit even if their art is set in the Wimmera, the Shoalhaven or Bondi. But turn up at the Royal Academy with an Australian passport and show off an iconic landscape, and Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times (twice critic of the year in Britain) will thunder, ‘John Olsen’s Sydney Sun, a giant panel of art installed above your head, successfully evokes the sensation of standing under a cascade of diarrhoea’. Clearly our landscape should still treasure its origins in John Glover’s Britain.

Should you see that landscape through Indigenous eyes, then uninformed critics will offer even fainter praise. Back in 1993, the Aratjara show at the Hayward Gallery inspired yawns from Tom Lubbock in the Independent: ‘To be honest, I find them a bit boring—which is the most difficult kind of response to articulate properly. But panning the mind superficially over all the art I’ve ever seen, it strikes me that the art represented in Aratjara is perhaps the most boring art in the world. Well, something has to be’!

And the Indigenous aspect of the Royal Academy’s survey, Australia, enjoyed Brian Sewell’s vituperation in the Evening Standard: ‘These examples of contemporary aboriginal work are so obviously the stale rejiggings of a half-remembered heritage wrecked by the European alcohol, religion and servitude that have rendered purposeless all relics of their ancient and mysterious past. Swamped by Western influences, corrupted by a commercial art market as exploitative as any in Europe and America, all energy, purpose and authenticity [is] lost’.

Clearly, even pre-Brexit, there was a nostalgia for colonialism! Perhaps the Poms could take a lesson from the rather more perceptive Americans, who are embracing our Aboriginal art in exhibitions from Reno, Nevada to Harvard Art Museums via The Metropolitan; which itself has just broken its duck by accepting eight Indigenous canvases into its Contemporary Art holdings—a gift of collectors Margaret Levi and Bob Kaplan. They are also writing about it intelligently.

But Elizabeth Ann Macgregor’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia has a plan to work on British minds. A lengthy period of negotiation with the Tate Gallery in London lead to an announcement that the two institutions were to collaborate on buying significant contemporary Australian artworks for joint ownership and exhibition; and in May 2016, the first tranche of five works by four artists was revealed after three visits by Tate Modern curators. It was also revealed that the Qantas Foundation had made $2.75m available for a five year project that will extend its reach beyond the current selection and add a maximum of fifteen works that can be mutually agreed and afforded.

The Qantas Foundation donation resulted from the successful sale of the significant Qantas art collection, and philanthropist Pat Corrigan’s advice that the money not be squandered on running the airline but used philanthropically to promote the national carrier’s good name. So what art and which artists are mutually approved by the two countries’ leading contemporary art institutions?

It has to be born in mind that there is no plan for the Tate in its Thameside power station (plus its additional sixty percent of space, called The Switch House, designed by architects Herzog & De Meuron) to establish an Australian salle or even a national exhibition. Currently, the Tate Modern only has works by Tracey Moffatt and Simryn Gill; while the Tate as a whole has Nolan, Boyd and Williams, but treats them as British artists, according to Sook-Kyung Lee, the Korean-born Head of the Tate Research Centre for Asia, and the curator involved in this project to whom I was allocated to talk. While Frances Morris, the newish Director of Tate Modern, heads up the Tate team, it is interesting that we may be considered worth collecting at least in part because we are part of Asia.

Was this factor important in the selection of Susan Norrie’s film, Transit (2011)? For it is made in Japan and takes an outsider’s view of that country’s tensions between humanity and the environment. Perhaps not, if you consider that the other three artists were all Indigenous Queenslanders. The late Gordon Bennett is there with two heterogeneous paintings, Possession Island (Abstraction) (1991) and Number Nine (2008); Judy Watson for her NATSIAA prize-winning work on paper, a preponderance of aboriginal blood (2005); and Vernon Ah Kee for his documentary film, tall man (2010).

It should be apparent from that list that political subject-matter is the strongest unifying factor in the selection, while Indigeneity and Queensland would seem to play entirely random roles. But as a majority of urban Aboriginal artists were picked—the selectors have not yet visited the remote North or the Deserts to consider that contemporary art, but say they will get North in coming years—one might conclude that the artists’ politics and their exoticism were points of difference in international eyes.

For Sook-Kyung Lee, they are a group very aware of global developments whilst also having a uniquely Aboriginal outlook, which she further defined as ‘unintentional political interests’—a strange assessment, if I heard correctly. Ah Kee would certainly embrace the political whole-heartedly. ‘All seem to have an art historical mark’, Lee continued, ‘which is an issue shared with other international artists. They’ll be understood in diverse global communities’.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Ann Macgregor’s absolute imperative in this whole project is that the works selected would not sit in store rooms at either institution, but ‘need to be curated into future Tate (and MCA) shows’. The works have been on show at the MCA. Significantly, Macgregor had met Bennett in London before she came to Australia, and was moved by the experience.

Ms Lee’s recognition is that, especially in the vastly expanded space at the Tate, her priorities lie with ‘currently marginalised areas—photography and video, gender, performance and live art. Our dynamics are changing. We don’t show “Chinese art” or “German art” [though I do recall a pan-South American art show in recent years], rather we’re re-balancing to make a point of showing how artists work, how they relate their subject to their material, and the role of the artist in society. And as far as films are concerned, we have a great conservation team for time-based media’.

So, how stand the individual works? The earliest is Gordon Bennett’s parody of James Cook taking possession of Australia via a flag-raising on the remote Torres Strait Possession Island. Possession Island (Abstraction) (1991) shows the Captain erecting the White Ensign to claim the eastern coast of Australia for the British Crown in 1770, based upon Samuel Calvert’s etching, Captain Cook Taking Possession of the Australian Continent on Behalf of the British Crown AD 1770, itself a copy of John Alexander Gilfillan’s earlier, now lost, painting of the same title. Those artworks would surely be the subject for some satire even if they had not had an Aboriginal (or possibly even a Torres Strait Islander?) boy holding out drinks on a silver salver to celebrate the glorious moment. Bennett enjoyed it sufficiently to commence three parodies following Australia’s bicentennial celebrations in 1988—of which the Tate now has the first.

And perhaps it was always destined to have it, given that the canvas was rolled in a tube and only discovered by Bennett’s widow, Leanne months after his death in 2014. Bennett also did a dotted and Pollock-streaked version. In the Tate’s, though, he has replaced the Indigenous boy with an appropriation of Malevich’s single-coloured rectangles—black, yellow and red—the Aboriginal flag’s colours. Only the silver salver remains in desert dots. And that dotting allows Cook to fade and the once-dominant Union Jack to virtually disappear, especially beside the vibrant Malevich tones. The only things comparable to them in clarity are the black footprints of the boy, walking out of the picture.

At this time, Bennett was an ‘Aboriginal artist’. By the time he painted Number Nine—a pair of concentric diamonds, still employing the Aboriginal trio of colours—in 2008, he had moved on to a greater interest in the different languages and reception of art. In conversation with Bill Wright, Bennett commented on his transition from figurative paintings to abstraction: ‘It was a way forward for me. Another reason was to make people aware that I am an artist first and not a professional ‘Aborigine’. I found people were always confusing me as a person with the content of my work. … I needed to change direction … at least for a while. Art about art seems appropriate for the time being. The Stripe series of abstract paintings represents a kind of freedom for me as an artist.’

Vernon Ah Kee has some of the same dilemmas, though he has not found a solution in abstraction. Ah Kee’s plaint has been that he is not seen as ‘primitive enough’, in the face of the popularity of Desert art—the so-called ‘Ooga Booga Art’ as it is described by fellow proppaNOW artists. There is nothing primitive about the film, tall man, a multi-screen documentary about the role of Lex Wotton following the riots on Palm Island in North Queensland, which began after a brutal death in custody there. But is there anything artistic either? As Tess Allas commented when it was first shown in the 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial, it was ‘such powerful video documentation, it should be seen beyond the confine of gallery walls’. But Sook-Kyung Lee saw a ‘personally emotional’ quality to the work (anger?) that lifted it above the objective. ‘And it will resonate on our walls beside racial works from the 20th Century’.

I am intrigued by both Bennett and Ah Kee’s gallerist, Josh Milani’s assessment of the links between the two artists: ‘Gordon really was the first artist to explore our Indigenous past using conceptual art techniques. To that extent he really kicked the door open for artists who followed in similar territory, such as Brook Andrew, Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Danie Mellor, etcetera’.

By comparison, I saw nothing ‘personally emotional’ in Susan Norrie’s film Transit. That was certainly present in her Indonesian epic, Havoc which captured the unfathomably disastrous effect of an underground mud surge that was unstoppable and wiped out a whole village, thanks to incompetent mining. But, in Japan, she combines a space launch, a volcano erupting and clean-ups from two natural disasters to hit the country, with a demonstration against nukes (after Fukushima) and the discursive commentary (in Japanese) of a futurologist who predicts solar energy being channelled back from space. There are some great images, but no intellectual links to catch the viewer’s mind and challenge it. If I had been the Tate, I would have gone with Havoc.

Which leaves the sixteen panel Judy Watson work, a preponderance of aboriginal blood, which is a devastatingly political work by her aesthetic standards. The panels are all pages from Queensland’s government archives relating to its role as Protector of Aborigines (and Restrictor of the Sale of Opium to Aborigines). We are talking about the years between 1932 and 1949, and the title comes from an enthusiasm by various applicants to get the vote once they had been exempted from the full powers of the Protectorate by being ‘Half Caste’ or ‘Quadroon’. Sadly, the Principal Electoral Officer was quite clear that ‘persons having a preponderance of aboriginal blood are not eligible to vote’.

If that all sounds so racist, bear in mind that in the West Indies they took miscegenation much more seriously, defining people out to ‘Octoroons’ and even ‘Quintroons’. Watson has underlined the historiography bitterly by staining each sheet with the very blood that was such a subject of interest to the colonial power. I hope the Tate comes to see this work as more than an imaginative use of paper or the chine colle technique used to print the works.

After the success Elizabeth Ann Macgregor had in converting the British artist Grayson Perry to the notion that he could take remote Aboriginal art seriously if he tried, it will be interesting to see if she can do the same for the Tate’s people. For Ms Lee admitted that the ‘team was not well-informed enough’ to buy such art at the moment because of problems ‘contextualising it with other contemporary art’. And she recalled the failures of Aratjara and of Australia at the Royal Academy to achieve that. While she hoped that they would be able to ‘make sense of this unusual practice’, she speculated that the British Museum (which already collects remote art) or the Victoria and Albert might be a better place to show it. Not very optimistic!

Perhaps Vernon Ah Kee best summed up the mood in Sydney in May, capturing the Tate’s needs and the chosen artists’ suitability to deliver: ‘You travel around the world and no one talks about Australian art; and there is a reason for that. We give the impression that we’re all falling over each other to be polite! So this is a hell of a change; and it’s exciting to be at the forefront of that’. 

Gordon Bennett, Possession Island (Abstraction), 1991. Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas
Foundation, 2016. Image courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. © Gordon Bennett Estate 2016. Photograph Carl Warner.

Vernon Ah Kee, tall man, 2010. Edition 3/3. Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas Foundation, 2016. Image courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. © The artist. Photograph Carl Warner.

Gordon Bennett, Number Nine, 2008. Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas Foundation 2016. Image courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. © Gordon Bennett Estate 2016. Photograph Carl Warner.

Susan Norrie, Transit, 2011. Edition 2/3 (+ AP). Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas Foundation 2016. Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. © The artist.

Jeremy Eccles is a Sydney-based writer.