Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition

If we place the beginning of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement at Papunya in 1971, one remarkable fact is that for almost half the time since then, women artists were largely absent from representation in galleries and museums. There are some simple and well-known reasons for that fact. Until 1984, “Aboriginal art ” largely meant acrylic painting from Papunya Tula and bark painting from Arnhem Land. The culturally conservative Pintupi men segregated their art from women entirely at first, and for over twenty years largely confined their participation to subordinate roles in completing dotted infilling. In the case of Arnhem Land work, given the medium (bark, not exactly the stuff of fine art) and the early date of first marketing (the 1930s, when commercial sales began in earnest), there was no real acceptance of the work as art rather than artifact. In both cases, mediation between artists and markets was the work of mostly male anthropologists and missionaries, which tended to obscure the role of women in producing art even further. 

Such work as women produced was treated as craftwork, in traditional media like weaving and carving. In the Western Desert, women did not begin painting on canvas for the market until 1984 in Yuendumu, 1986 in Balgo and in Alice Springs where Jukurrpa Artists was founded, and 1988 in Utopia. And while women had been important participants in Koori Art ’84, these urban artists fought not only for recognition as women artists but as Aboriginal artists as well, given that many of them worked in non-traditional media and had scant direct connection to traditionally-oriented communities. It is all the more remarkable, then, that once women began to paint, the work quickly became as strong and as strongly recognized as that of men. In her introductory essay to the catalog for the Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition, Hetti Perkins notes that at the time of the exhibition, women accounted for “an estimated fifty-six per cent of art production in remote area communities.”

Next year will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition, held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales September 10 – November 10, 1991 and curated by Perkins. I wasn’t there to see it, of course, and doubt I would have appreciated it had I been able to. But looking over the catalog for the past few days, I’m rather bowled over by the whole experience. Although I expect that Dreaming Their Way, the exhibition that opens next June at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC (see the previous entry) will look quite different, I find one of the most surprising features of the 1991 exhibition is how up-to-date it feels. A second impression is that the work in the exhibition was extraordinary, given that women’s art had been given almost no prominence a scant five years before. 

Let me begin with some numbers to grossly characterize the 1991 show. The exhibition featured 107 works by 80 artists. The catalog reproduces about 70 of these works, 30 in color, in 56 pages that also contain a complete checklist of the exhibition, brief biographies of the artists, and essays by Henrietta Fourmile and Hetti Perkins.

The variety of work is equally astounding as its abundance, and again let me resort to some numbers. There are 38 paintings, including ten on paper and six on bark. Among three-dimensional works there are 23 woven works, 20 carvings or sculptures, and a ceramic piece. There are eleven examples of graphic arts, including screen prints, linocuts, etchings, and silkscreens. Five photographs, four drawings, three examples of batik, and a work in “mixed media” by Bronwyn Bancroft round out the catalog. And there’s a video, too, by the Manungka Manungka Women’s Association, featuring women artists from Balgo such as Susie Bootja Bootja and Milllie Skeen who are otherwise unrepresented in the show.

And I foolishly thought 2005 held some significance because this year, for the first time, all the winners at the NATSIAA were women.

Looking back, and comparing now and then, there are, of course, obvious differences. Perhaps the greatest is that this exhibition predates the beginning of significant painting activity by the women of Papunya Tula and Ikuntji at Haasts Bluff, which began in 1994 with the Minyma Tjuta painting project. Indeed, in the 1980s, only Pansy Napangardi, who is represented in the show by an enormous (182×139 cm) canvas, and Narpula Scobie Napurrula were painting for Papunya Tula. Although the women of Utopia are here, it is carving that dominates their contribution to the show; even Ada Bird Petyarre’s “painting” appears on the back of a coolamon. Of the great women painters from Warmun, only Queenie McKenzie was active at the time. And Karen Casey’s digital art today has come a long distance from her powerful “Got The Bastard,” seven feet of threatening yobbo rendered in oil and clothing.

But the continuity is striking as well: Emily Kngwarreye and Queenie McKenzie; Judy Watson and Yvonne Koolmatrie; Galuma Wirrpanda and Banduk Marika; the Petyarre sisters, Gloria, Ada Bird, and Violet; Daisy Mamybunharrawuy and Dorothy Djukulul; Nada Rawlins and Cory Surprise; Destiny Deacon, Brenda Croft, and Fiona Foley; Eubena Nampitjin, Maggie Watson Napangardi, Maria Josette Orsto, Gabriella Wallace, Lena Yarinkura. While I don’t know that all of these artists will be represented next year in Washington, they are all still forces to be reckoned with in Aboriginal art today. I wonder if two exhibitions of women artists in New York City fifteen years apart could produce so many painters in common. In fact, I wonder if two exhibitions in New York City would produce so many women painters of such renown at all.

As an American, I find the story of the comparative success of women in the arts among Aboriginal people in contrast to those in Western countries (including even non-indigenous Australia) fascinating, almost irresistible. Why have indigenous women artists gained such prominence? 

One significant point to note is that male control of religious tradition, even in places like Kintore or Maningrida, has never meant exclusion of women from ritual activity. Men and women have their separate spheres and their separate knowledge, although contemporary anthropological research has shown that there is a great deal of interpenetration, particularly by women of the men’s scope of sacred knowledge. (See, for example, Francoise Dussart’s study of Warlpiri women in Yuendumu, The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement: kinship, gender, and the currency of knowledge, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.) Once women began painting, the sense of competition or comparison between the sexes that exists in New York City was never an issue. To paraphrase the remarks by Amanda Vanstone I quoted last week, there were good painters and not so good painters of both sexes, and no one seemed to think it terribly important to wonder whether Eubena Nampitjin’s paintings were as good as her husband Wimmitji Tjpangarti’s. 

There were good economic reasons to bolster women’s art as well. Early artistic production by women (and to some extent this pattern continues today) did not generate the income that men’s painting did, particularly in communities where women’s production focused on weaving and carving. But in addition to their own activities, women contributed significant labor to men’s work, even in Pintupi communities. When the production of art became the major source of income other than welfare payments, it is not surprising that producers became prominent.

In Arnhem Land, especially in the Yirrkala area, politics mixed into the equation with economics. As Yolngu lands came under threat from the Nabalco mine, men like Narritjin Maymuru took their families back to their traditional countries to prevent further seizure of territory. In these small communities–at Djarrakpi, the community was essentially Narritjin’s immediate family–the production of art had a dual focus. First of all, the act of painting was a form of instruction, not just in technique, but in the stories of the Manggalili clan at Cape Shield that helped to secure the transmission of knowledge essential to stewardship of the land. Secondly, the sale of the paintings and carvings made at Djarrakpi supported the family’s financial needs at the outstation, primarily for maintenance on their vehicles and for communications equipment. Both by occupying the land and by painting it, Narritjin’s family were enforcing their claim to ownership, and it was under these conditions that Narritjin bean to teach his daughters to paint.

Dussart’s book brings out another surprising reason for the success of women in the field of acrylic painting early on at Yuendumu: they were in possession of a greater number of “public” dreamings than men. During the 1970s, when the Warlpiri were forced to deal with uranium prospectors, and when the era of Land Rights began to unfold, the public enactment of Dreaming stories, in both ritual performance and in acrylic painting, became key to black/white negotiations. Although Dussart avoids claims of causality, she notes that after thirty years of sedentary living at Yuendumu, shifts in public ritual from men’s to women’s performances, increased interaction with white Australians, and the rise of women artists all occurred at about the same time.

Today the equality of women among Aboriginal artists seems almost unremarkable. In making their choice to represent Aboriginal painting in the structure of the new Musee du Quai Branly, the French curators clearly had a pan-Australian strategy in mind, choosing two artists–male and female–from each of the four great centers of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art: the Western Desert, Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, and the urban coasts. As long as the Musee stands, the works of Ningura Napurrula, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Lena Nyadbi, and Judy Watson will represent Aboriginal art alongside those of Tommy Watson, John Mawurndjul, Paddy Bedford, and Michael Riley.

Would it be too much to hope that when Dreaming Their Way opens next June at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (and better yet, when it travels to Dartmouth College, whose museum is now headed by none other than Brian Kennedy), it will inspire American audiences with the achievements not just of indigenous artists from Australia but of women artists as well?

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