More Art in America / More Videos

As surprising as it may sound, yet another exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art opened this week at a major museum in America. Contemporary Aboriginal Painting from Australia, curated by Eric Kjellgren at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is drawn from a private collection here in the United States and features fourteen works on canvas. Artists represented in the current exhibition include Anatjari Tjakamarra (at right, Sons and Orphans near Kurlkurta, 1984), George Tjungurrayi, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Elizabeth Nyumi, Paddy Bedford, and Daniel Walbidi. In its short review of the opening, the Wall Street Journal noted how appropriately the show was situated, in a small space between the Oceanic Galleries in the Rockefeller Wing and the Modern Art galleries.

Over at Aboriginal Art News, Jeremy Eccles chides the Met for taken so long to recognize Aboriginal art. In the institution’s defense, I remember that it was the first major museum outside Australia to acquire a work of contemporary Aboriginal painting, Anatjari Tjakamarra’s Tingari Dreaming Cycle, in 1989, the year after the seminal Dreamings show at the Asia Society. I do wish that the Met had chosen to put the Tjakamarra on display after the Oceanic Galleries were renovated and reopened in 2007, and perhaps this exhibition will spur them to do so.

Eccles is also critical of American museums for mounting shows of private collections this year. The uncredited display of this small group of works follows Icons of the Desertand Lands of Enchantment as single-collection exhibitions. (Dreaming Their Way in 2006 was drawn largely from multiple private collections from both America and Australia.) However, given the usually prohibitive expense involved in bringing work from Australian museums to our shores and the admittedly still small audience for Aboriginal art in America, museums find it extremely difficult to present the art otherwise. Plans to mount a new show in honor of the fifteenth anniversary of Dreamings were scuttled for economic reasons; the Asia Society brought over The Native Born in 2002, and it sank almost without notice. There seems little alternative these days but to rely on private domestic collections, and I remain glad to see these exhibitions drawing crowds.

Contemporary Aboriginal Painting from Australia will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum through June 13, 2010.

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Although it’s winter (and snowing!) here in North Carolina this weekend, it’s summer in Australia and that means that Message Stick’s Summer Series is once again making available the best of its video programming from the past two years. This is an excellent opportunity to revisit old favorites and perhaps catch some of the programming that you missed the first time around.

At the top of my list to watch was the April broadcast featuring Vernon Ah Kee called, appropriately enough, Born in This Skin. As you might expect from an artist who has for many years made art out of words, Ah Kee is extraordinarily articulate when it comes to describing his background, motivations, and hopes as well as the personal stories embedded in his artworks. Plus, I think this is the first time I’ve heard an artist admit that Spiderman was his initial source of inspiration. (“When I was a kid I didn’t have any teachers who could actually teach me how to draw and I never did. But I has Spiderman comics and Spriderman comics, more than anything else, taught me how to draw.”)

The show draws on extensive interviews with Ah Kee along with commentary from fellow Queensland artists and members of the proppaNOW! collective Richard Bell, Laurie Nilsen, and Andrea Fisher, along with gallerist Josh Milani, all of whom testify to Ah Kee’s extraordinary skill and seriousness. 

There is also some remarkable footage of Ah Kee’s 2008 enormous wall installation at the Queensland Art Gallery, Who Let the Dogs Out? The title refers to the song that Cameron Doomadgee was singing when the police arrested him in 2004, an hour before he was found dead in the watch house of massive internal injuries. Built on the image of a stick figure called “Red Hat” (which Ah Kee’s text turns into an anagram of “hatred”), it melds Ned Kelly with quotations from Shakespeare and Ah Kee’s family history. The large-scale drawings that have distinguished Ah Kee’s exhibitions in recent years had their genesis in archival photographs taken of his grandparents on Palm Island in 1938. Originally intended as documentation of the dying race, these photographs have launched Ah Kee into a project of creating portraits of his family that he expects will occupy him for years to come.

The artist documentaries from Message Stick are uniformly excellent and not to be missed. Sights Unseen (parts one and two) profiles the late Michael Riley through extensive footage of the National Gallery’s retrospective of that name, adding moving interviews with family, friends, and curators, including Linda Burney, Hetti Perkins, Brenda Croft, Ace Bourke, and Jonathan Jones. Riley is shown to be an intensely shy individual whose personal dreams and family connections became the substance of a brilliant career, cut short by renal failure.

Even better, for it gives deep insight and broad exposure to an Indigenous artist and a slice of history deserving of wider understanding, is Portrait of a Distant Land (again, in two parts ), the story of photographer Ricky Maynard’s chronicles of his Tasmanian ancestors and their exile to the desolate islands of the Bass Strait. If you have seen Maynard’s photograph, Broken Heart (left), in which the artist stands knee-deep in the waters of Bass Strait gazing at an unseeable homeland, or Custodians, a double portrait of Brendan Buck Brown and Terry Maynard, you will see them with new eyes and a sadder and more profound understanding of Tasmanian history and the survival of its indigenous heritage after watching Maynard create those photographs in this film.

Also available now on the website is Bangarra Fire. The documentary follows the company’s creation of their twenty-year retrospective, which opened this year in Wollongong and has since toured internationally. 
The genius of the Page brothers is documented, from glimpses of Russell in rehearsal in the company’s early years to conversations with David about creating the scores for Stephen’s choreography. The film ends with Stephen’s emotional speech on the opening night of Fire and his reflections on the possibility of handing off artistic direction of the company sometime in the future. The film helps us to realize what an enormous achievement Bangarra is in its fusion of traditional performance and modern dance. The idea seems an obvious one in retrospect, but the odds against it succeeding were monumental. That Bangarra has endured and flourished for two decades, and has even spread to collaborations with the Australian Ballet, is nothing less than marvelous, as every moment of choreography captured here demonstrates. 

There’s lots more on offer at Message Stick now, from the Emily Kngwarreye retrospective in Japan to chronicles of the Maralinga land rights case to the history of Aboriginal people in Australian circus entertainment. So if the weather outside is frightful (whether it’s forty degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit), relax inside with the best of Indigenous entertainment from Message Stick.

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