ABC Radio has made available on their website the program Weaver Jack: “this is me… the whole lot is me'” which aired last Friday (March 31). Host Daniel Browning interviewed Emily Rohr of Short Street Gallery, who submitted the work, and Imants Tillers, who was one of this year’s judges and the original champion for the inclusion of the painting, “Weaver Jack in Lungara” among this year’s finalists for the Archibald Prize.
The painting is the first work by an Aboriginal artist to be short-listed for the prize; it may even be the first submitted. Predictably, journalists has field day, one fellow claiming that a warning sign should be hung next to the painting: “Controversial.” Sort of shows you how smart that guy is if he thinks a sign is needed.
Tillers defended the judges decision on several grounds: that part of their work is to extend the boundaries of the Archibald itself; that it’s important to understand and be grateful for the fact that only in Australia does a contemporary art stream progress side by side with a powerful indigenous art movement. He noted that he had not heard of Weaver Jack nor seen her work before viewing it in the initial review of the over 700 entrants, but that he was struck by the notion that it represented a notion of portraiture from a profoundly different cultural context. Although it might seem “unidentifiable” as a self-portrait, he reminded listeners that it took years for people to learn to read the early Papunya works as representations of specific places.
Rohr, in addition to supplying some historical background on Weaver Jack and the Yulparitja, stressed the identification of self and country in the artist’s mind. She said that when she first questioned Weaver about the cross-shaped mark that represent her in the painting, the artist was insistent that it was not a signature, or a mark, but “This is me, this is me… me standing up in country.”
One artist who didn’t make the final cut is considering suing the Art Gallery of New South Wales over the inclusion of Weaver Jack’s portrait. He claims that the painting is more of a landscape than a portrait. This evoked what was, for me, the best line of the program. Apparently Marcus Wills, this year’s winner of the Prize expressed surprise when he was notified of his success. He said he thought his winning work was more of a landscape than a portrait.
I have to say I love the fact that people get so worked up about this prize, and that the show is the biggest draw in the AGNSW’s calendar. I find it hard to imagine this level of excitement about anything in the visual arts in America.
And thanks to Mary for tipping me off to the interview’s presence on the ABC website; my email subscription to Message Stick seems to have gone into limbo in the past couple of weeks and I would have missed this were it not for her kindness in dropping me a line.