Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre

Manggan – gather, gathers, gathering
Cairns Art Gallery
2 March – 15 April 2018

Manggan is an exhibition of cultural objects made by Indigenous artists from Far North Queensland’s rainforest regions, specifically the nine Traditional Owner tribal groups represented by Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre (GAAC).1 Contemporary artworks by nineteen2 artists are being shown alongside historical objects from the South Australian Museum (SAM). Photographs and two short documentaries by Debra Murray provide geographical and cultural context. The project has brought traditional owners into contact with objects created by their ancestors, freeing the objects from museum storage to tour fourteen venues across Australia, including their Far North Queensland home. 

The origins of Manggan, the exhibition as it exists today, is part of a larger project that began eight years ago. In 2010 Girramay traditional owner and acknowledged weaver Abe Muriata visited SAM to view artefacts. This trip opened up the possibility of further exploration of the collection to identify the number and nature of objects from Girringun country. In 2012 Dr Valérie Boll, who was then a SAM Honorary Research Associate and a volunteer artsworker at GAAC, visited SAM and saw an exhibition space she thought would work for a show by the Girringun artists. Three years and three grant applications later, a group of artists from GAAC travelled to SAM to find out how much of their material culture was kept there and to choose some pieces to be included in the Manggan exhibition. Manggan opened at SAM in November 2016 and ran for three months to a very enthusiastic audience. 

SAM Director at the time, Professor John Carty, had by then formed strong links with the Girringun artists and art centre manager Dr Valerie Keenan. The connection was formed during the planning of Girringun’s participation in the exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation (2015) at the British Museum, one of the several institutions holding artefacts collected from the North Queensland rainforest. Professor Carty has visited the region several times to speak with Elders, developing strategies for increased access to SAM’s collection for both traditional owners and audiences. Professor Carty appreciates the value of the partnership, 

The Manggan exhibition was a real watershed in the history of our museum. It wasn’t a case of a museum ‘showing’ Aboriginal culture, but of a museum acting more as a stage on which Aboriginal artists explored their own material history and their own creative traditions. It was an exhibition initiated by the artists themselves – because they wanted to use the museum’s collections and audience to express and explore their own dynamic cultural traditions. Manggan set the tone for the bigger collaborative exhibitions we’ve done in the last couple of years, Yidaki and Ngurra, which have had a huge impact.3 

You could find no warmer welcome to the Cairns Art Gallery iteration of Manggan than the two huge Bagu that greeted you upon entering the exhibition space. Standing at almost two metres high, they are oversized representations of the decorated fire-boards used by Aborigines in the rainforest regions of Far North Queensland. The anthropomorphic shape represents a spirit figure, the details of which vary between groups. Made from Milky Pine and decorated with ochre, these boards had small hollows for eyes into which a stick (Jiman) was rapidly rotated between open palms to make heat resulting in a fire-igniting spark. Clarence Kinjun and Judith Henry created these figures using the same materials their ancestors used centuries ago. As enlarged, accurate replicas of the original tool, the viewer could closely examine the chalkiness of the soft timber and velvety grain of the ochre. These objects exude warmth and life, but also command a degree of respect and caution. 

Manggan, more than any other exhibition by GAAC to date, illustrates both how close the contemporary Bagu have stayed to the working (utilitarian and ceremonial) versions, and how diverse their form has become. Ninney Murray’s ceramic Bagu, decorated with a traditional pattern in ochre tones and encased in lawyer cane, sits with two baskets and a Bagu and Jiman from SAM. The contemporary Bagu does not betray its youth. Furthermore, being tightly encased in lawyer cane, it appears to have the status of a ceremonial rather than utilitarian object. 

This fluid connection of present and past objects is consistent throughout Manggan. It is difficult to believe Ninney Murray’s fish hooks, made from Fish Hook Vine (Hugonia Jenkinsii) were made in 2016. The line is red bush string made from the bark of the Red-leaf Fig tree (Ficus congesta). Fastening of the hook to the string is so delicately executed that the finished product could be mistaken for body adornment. A group of fourteen baskets, suspended from the ceiling with transparent lines, levitate above low hung eel traps. Seamlessly combined in a familial group, they speak the same language, despite great variation in materials. Lawyer cane, lomandra grass, copper and aluminium wire, plastic coated wire, they remain a close, albeit blended, family. 

Three Jawun (a two-cornered or bicornual basket) sit poised in a display case, separated by time, materials and technique. Abe Muriata’s lawyer cane Jawun (2012) and ceramic Jawun (2015) rest either side of an earlier piece from SAM’s collection. As a group they are a study in cultural endurance and dedicated artistry. The two lawyer cane baskets differ in colour and texture. Abe Muriata’s 2016 basket is an ashy straw colour with a slight roughness to the strands. The older Jawun, collected in the 1890s, artist unknown, has a dark tan patina, the strands having hardened over time into a smooth and almost shiny finish. There is an engineering perfection here in the straightness of each cane and solidity in the peaked corners that Abe Muriata strives to refine year after year. Muriata, who has been making baskets for thirty years, has found examining old Jawun in museums instructive. Professor John Carty observes, 

Artists like Abe Muriata, who have long worked with museum collections to energise and inform their creative practice, selected the museum artefacts that were to be displayed with their contemporary works. So Manggan expresses a shift in the trajectory about the South Australian Museum in relation to our Aboriginal collection and Aboriginal communities around the country, because it changes the idea of who museum collections are for. In that sense, Girringun artists are leading the way forward not just in their own culture, but in the culture of museums.4 

A group of twenty-eight ceramic Bagu illustrate the diversity within this art form. Over time some of the artists have ventured beyond the natural ochre palette and clan patterns, decorating their Bagu with materials and motifs reflecting their personal interests. John Murray, also a respected painter, contributed two stunning Bagu to this group. His long slim Bagu, painted a deep-sea blue, the head incised with a diamond fish net pattern, has jewel-coloured reef fish swimming in relief across the body. This piece speaks of his people’s connection with the sea and his own love of fishing and camping. Another of his works, a tiny but outstanding Bagu, is asymmetrical, misshapen in the most beautiful manner, and decorated in a rough, painterly style with soft, matte blues and pinks, a simple strand of bush string tied around its neck. This group boasts the full gamut of innovation the artists have applied to their small ceramic Bagu. 

The comparison created by exhibiting new and old objects made by the Girringun artists and their forebears reveals continuity rather than contrast. Present and past inhabit the same space harmoniously. For the artists, the past is near and the ancestors are ever present. Technical and material innovation are gently guided by hands that continue the work of past generations, exercising individual artistic licence. When the historical objects were collected in the 1890s they were thought to be the last remnants of a fading people and culture. Newly made objects at the time were considered worthless as they were created in the context of post-colonial contact. Today the baskets and Bagu and Jiman created by artists from GAAC are viewed as fine art objects. The art and the artists have attended workshops and exhibitions around Australia and internationally, engaging with other Indigenous peoples, heads of state and European royalty. 

In the time since their highly successful entry into the art world at the inaugural Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in 2009, there has rarely been a time when they are not showing in at least two exhibitions somewhere around the globe. These artists have hit upon a magic formula, aesthetically engaging and truly exciting contemporary art that is directly communicated from cultural objects with both utilitarian and ceremonial use. While in the past, audiences have been informed of this close relationship through literature and oral presentations, this exhibition goes one step further by literally positioning the old and new together to great effect. Instead of being locked away in storerooms, the SAM objects have been granted leave to go back to country, visit family and proudly admire their descendants. 

Abe Muriata, Jawun, 2016. Lawyer Cane, 81 x 39 x 26cm. Courtesy of Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre.

Ninney Murray, Bunyaydinyu Bagu, 2011. Ceramic with Lawyer cane, 53 x 17 x 7.5cm. Courtesy Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre.

Group of Bagu. Installation view, Gympie Regional Gallery. Ceramic, dimensions variable. Photograph Andrea Higgins. Courtesy Museum and Gallery Services Queensland.

Debra Murray, Murray Valley Landscape Series, 2015. Installation view, Gympie Regional Gallery. Digital photograph using archival inks, 77 x 111.8cm each. Photograph Andrea Higgins. Courtesy Museum and Gallery Services Queensland.

notes: 

1. Nywaigi, Gugu Badhun, Warrgamay, Bandjin, Warungnu, Girramay, Gulnay, Jirrbal and Djiru. 

2. The artists are Doris and Clarence Kinjun, Eileen Tep, Abe Muriata, Emily, Ninney, Alison, John, Debra and Sally Murray, Tonya Grant, Maureen, Daniel and Theresa Beeron, George Beeron Senior, Nancy Cowan, Judith Henry, Nephi Denham and Sandra Escott. 

3. Professor John Carty, personal communication, 7 May 2018. 

4. Professor John Carty, ibid. 

Museum and Gallery Services Queensland is touring Manggan  gather, gathers, gathering until early 2021, with support from the Visions of Australia regional touring program. The full tour schedule includes: South Australian Museum 4 November 2016 – 29 January 2017; Museum of Tropical Queensland 9 September 2017 – 11 February 2018; Cairns Art Gallery 2 March – 15 April 2018; Gympie Regional Gallery 23 May – 14 July 2018; Artisan, Brisbane 2 October – 17 November 2018; Caloundra Regional Gallery 12 December 2018 – 3 February 2019; Grafton Regional Gallery 11 February – March 2019; Griffith Regional Art Gallery 26 April – 2 June 2019; Burrinja Cultural Centre, Upwey 15 June – 1 September 2019; Bunjilaka, Melbourne Museum 20 September 2019 – 26 January 2020; Port Pirie Regional Art Gallery 7 February – 15 March 2020; Nautilus Arts Centre, Port Lincoln 23 March – 9 May 2020; Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery 16 October – 29 November 2020; Caboolture Regional Gallery 18 December 2020 – 5 February 2021.