A Season in Heaven: Art Catalogs for Christmas

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while are no doubt familiar with my rants about the sorry state of documentation for current exhibitions of Aboriginal art, directly mainly at Telstra for failing to fund decent and regular catalogs of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. I’m not ready to let them off the hook yet. But on returning home after a brief vacation, I found much Christmas joy awaiting me in the form of five superb catalogs, not all of them new, but all of them worth celebrating. Two feature recent group shows, two recent solo shows, and one is an artist monograph unconnected to any particular exhibition. First, let’s have a look at the group shows.

I spoke briefly about Mumeka to Milmilngkan: Innovation in Kurulk Art at the ANU’s Drill Hall Gallery in a post a few weeks ago. The catalog is available from Maningrida Arts and Culture. There was also an excellent review of the show by Cath Bowdler in the December 2006 issue of Art Monthly Australia. The real strength of the catalog lies in the essays by Jon Altman, Luke Taylor, and Apolline Kohen. Altman’s “The Invention of Kurulk Art” focuses on cultural and economic issues at play among the Kurulk, as exemplified in the artistic history of the sons of Anchor Kulunba, Njiminjuma, Mawurndjul, and Iyuna and their families. (The family tree outlining the relationships among all the painters in the show is a real bonus.) The relationships of the Kurulk to their land are of critical importance here. The art is a means of strengthening that relationship, not just in the spiritual sense that we often read about, but as one important way of providing the means to continue to occupy the land and to negotiate that occupation amongst themselves.

The removal of Njiminjuma and Mawurndjul from Mumeka for these socioeconomic reasons led in turn to the stylistic individuation among the three brothers. Luke Taylor takes on this aesthetic history in his essay, “Negotiating Form Among Kuninjku Bark Painters.” He traces the influence of Yirawala and Marralwanga on the trio and looks at the divergence of styles that has resulted from the moves, initially of all three to Mumeka, and then of the elder brothers to Kurrurldul and Milmilngkan. Taylor’s analysis is a welcome update to that found in Seeing the Inside: bark painting in western Arnhem Land (Clarendon Press, 1996), which was published before this younger generation became the leaders of Kuninjku painting and achieved national and international recognition.

Finally, Apolline Kohen’s contribution, “A New Generation of Artists and the Freedom to Paint,” does much to document the emergence of the rest of the artists represented in this show, including wives Kay Lindjuwanga and Melba Gunjarrwanga and seven artists of the descending generation.

Rather than focusing closely on a particular community or school of art, the year end show, Australian Aboriginal Art 2006/2007 at John Gordon Gallery in Coffs Harbour is a first-rate survey, curated by Nicholas Kachel, of art from the Northern Territory (Tiwi Islands south to Alice Springs) and Western Australian Kimberley and desert communities. Thirty-two artists as diverse as Prince of Wales, Roy Underwood from Spinifex Arts, Jimmy Nerrimah, and Billy Benn make the show a visual delight. The catalog is a fine example of what documentation for contemporary Aboriginal art exhibitions ought to be. It includes full details on each of the paintings, a biographical notation on each the artists, and an appendix listing exhibitions, awards, and collections. Every painting in the show is illustrated, with detail and installation shots enhancing the presentation.

Eubena Nampitjin: Art and Life (Warlayirti Artists, 2005) was assembled by Stephen Williamson and Samantha Togni before their departure from Balgo a year ago. Eubena’s daughter, Jane Gimme, assisted Samantha in preparing a biographical sketch of the great artist’s life so far. A trip out bush to Witji, in the country of Kinyu the dingo ancestor where Eubena was born, is the occasion for a remembrance of Eubena’s childhood and sets the stage for telling the story of her early years. She was married young to Purungu Tjakata Tjapaltjarri Gimme, and had three daughters with him. A fourth daughter, fathered by a white drover, was taken away.

After Gimme’s death in 1979, Eubena married Wimmitji Tjapangati, who was one of the first men to take up painting at Balgo. Although at first she contented herself with watching him paint, she took up the brush early enough to be included in the first major exhibition of Balgo painting in 1986, Art from the Great Sandy Desert, held at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Wimmitji’s career as a painter was short if spectacular; he produced only about fifty paintings, just a few more than those by Eubena that have been selected to illustrate this book. Judith Ryan’s essay charts the development of Eubena’s style through nearly twenty years of painting. If I have a complaint about this volume at all, it is that the arrangement of the major plates doesn’t seem to follow any particular logic, and a reader who hopes to discern the artist’s development must construct an index of one’s own. The last pages of the book provide annotations of the paintings from the Warlayirti Artists catalog, along with a list of exhibitions and a selected list of collections in which the artist’s work is held.

The second monograph is Tracey Moffatt: Between Dreams and Reality (Skira, 2006), published on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective at Milan’s Spazio Oberdan, 28 June – 1 October 2006. The introductory essay by Filippo Maggia is too sketchy to be very useful. It provides the barest details about the genesis of each of the major series documented in the exhibition. However, I’m willing to overlook that fact given the extraordinary selection of works that are reproduced to the high standards of a major art publisher. Extensive selections (in reverse chronological order) from the nine major works are included: Under the Sign of ScorpioAdventure SeriesFourthScarred for Life II;LaudanumUp in the SkyGuapa (Good Looking); Scarred for Life; and Something More.

The absence of substantial critical commentary in this major retrospective catalog is compensated to a degree by the extensive bibliography of catalogs and articles that is appended. International in scope, it covers the years 1984 to 2006. The extensive “biography” documents exhibitions and includes in a listing of Moffatt’s film and video credits a couple of surprises: her role as director for music videos by Christine Anu (My Island Home) and Ruby Hunter (Let My Children Be).

The grandest of the individual artist monographs to appear this year must, of course, be Paddy Bedford (Museum of Contemporary Art, 2006). Actually, while that’s true, it also strikes me as something of an understatement. This monograph should become the gold standard of scholarship on Aboriginal art. I say this admitting that there is so much packed into this book that in a week’s time I’ve only read a few pages here, paragraphs there. It took me a couple of hours just to come to terms with the table of contents.

I’m a sucker for encyclopedic works. There’s no way I wouldn’t fall in love with this book. The major essays by Michiel Dolk and Marcia Langton provide the sort of critical aesthetic analysis backed up by art historical scholarship, cultural information, history, and personal notes that would make the text alone of Paddy Bedford a landmark publication. Combined with the stunning, full-page reproductions of works from the exhibition, they are, however, just the core, the nucleus of what we’re given here.

The essays are followed by an extended section assembled by the linguist Frances Kofod, who presents Bedford’s stories in parallel Gija and English texts. These texts are interspersed among the plates of the paintings and allow the reader to move from verbal to visual and back again in absorbing the artist’s work. A large geophysical map of Bedford’s country is marked with the key places in his life and paintings and cross-indexed to both the Gija and gardiya place-names. Kofod also contributes a Gija glossary anda pronunciation guide for the language. These are followed by the list of Bedford’s exhibitions and a selected bibliography of publications about him, Jirrawun Arts, and the art of the East Kimberley.

And it is only then, after all these riches, that the catalog raisonne begins. In some ways this is the most astonishing feature of the book. It is, to my knowledge, the first catalog raisonne to be produced for an Aboriginal artist. It covers over 600 works from 1998 to 2006: paintings on composition board and linen, “custom boards” (80×100 cm composition board) and gouaches. Almost every work is documented with a photograph. It is the sole (and seriously criminal) flaw in this monograph that the research and scholarship that went into producing this catalog is uncredited. I know from personal communications that Kofod and Clare Lewis of the MCA (and formerly of GrantPirrie) both had a hand in assembling the catalog; if others were involved they surely deserve recognition as well.

The reproductions in the section are small: sixteen to a page, thirty-two in a double-page spread. In looking at any pair of pages I am most astounded by the variety, the inventiveness, and the experimentation in the work. Even in the early years when his palette was restricted largely to black, white, and red, the diversity of design, the heterogeneity of compositional strategies is amazing. I’m stretching for words to describe the surprise, the innovation, the complexity of the works. While I’ve been fortunate enough to see a dozen paintings in a show, or four or five on a wall in the Ian Potter Centre, I can’t fail but to be impressed by the mastery of the painting as presented here. Given a chance to survey dozens at a glance, well, frankly, words fail me. The exhibition must be a marvel to behold in person and together with this premier publication it provides unarguable proof of Bedford’s mastery and his place among the greatest of contemporary painters.

Each of these volumes represents an important contribution to the literature on Aboriginal art and those involved deserve an ovation for the work that lies behind the publication. I also must thank Apolline Kohen, Nicholas Kachel and James Steele for enriching my library. Despite my carping, there is indeed a long and often sumptuous record of major exhibitions of Aboriginal art. (I just searched the bibliography of my own collection and came up with over 150 titles dating back as far as 1965.) These five publications are not only a worthy addition to the tradition, they also help to set new standards for the future.

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