Dateline Sydney

I arrived in Sydney a mere three days ago, and America already seems like a dim memory. Trading spring for fall has been lovely and although Sydneysiders seem to think that the weather’s turned awfully chilly, I find the warmth of Sydney–in every way–to be just to my liking.
I’m staying with my friends Jonathan and Penny (see below) in Annandale, and pretending for the most part to be a normal Sydneysider. Which means that I thought my adventures in Aboriginal art might be more limited than usual. But after a morning’s walk from Clovelly to Coogee shortly after I deplaned, there’s been right much excitement.Wednesday night we took in the Lawson-Menzies auction; truth be told that wasn’t terribly exciting. I was surprised that the Emily actually surpassed its high estimate and more at how many of the lots were passed in at prices very close to the low estimates. (Someone later said that over 30% of the lots failed to sell.) By and large, though the atmosphere was very low key and once the media departed in the wake of the $1 million mark being broken, there really wasn’t much to write home about.

Earlier on Wednesday Colin and Liz Laverty were kind enough to invite me for afternoon tea; Jonathan came along, and we were joined by Nana Booker of Houston’s Booker-Lowe Gallery, one of the few American art galleries to specialize in Aboriginal Australian art. Thursday was also a day for catching up with old friends, starting with Ann Lewis, who hosted Nana and me for morning tea. 

The afternoon began with a trip to Danks Street to catch up with Gabriella Roy at Aboriginal and Pacific Art. She had a show of work from the Tjungu Palya cooperative out of the western APY lands. This is a new venture managed by Amanda Dent, who brought the artists of Irrunytju to interantional prominence at the turn of the century and looks poised to unleash another major bloc of talent. The seven large paintings in the Depot II space were among the strongest and boldest I’ve seen out of the western desert in years. 

Coffee followed at the Cafe & Bar in the company of Laura Fisher, who has just begun her Ph.D. thesis at the University ofNew South Wales, and who was unfailingly polite to an over-caffeinated, excitable American collector as we discussed her proposed research on the social relations formed among various participants in the world of Aboriginal art, as very broadly defined. I climbed the stairs afterwards to say hello to Chirs Hodges and to see the show of his own sculptures at Utopia, but my visit was cut short by the arrival of a tour group of seniors who were having a field trip for their “Third University” art class.

Friday’s highlight was a visit with Barrina South, curator of the indigenous collections, at the Australian Museum (AM), where Jonathan and I had the privilege of a private viewing of the Museum’s collection of early Papunya Tula boards. The collection, the largest in Australia (96 works,compared to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which I believe owns 74 comparable boards) was purchased from Papunya Tula artists in 1982 at the request of Clifford Possum. Although two of the boards are currently on display in the AM in conjunction with the Collliding Worlds exhibition and a third, by Clifford Possum and TIm Leura, has been loaned out occasionally, most of them have never been displayed.

Barrina said that despite the encouragement of curators, collectors, scholars and others over the years, the management at the AM has never made exhibiting the boards a priority. (Why they’ve never allowed the AGNSW to do so remains an unanswered question.) Jonathan said that he’d always thought of the AM as “the stuffed animal museum,” so perhaps thet define their mission differently than I would hope. There’s certainly an element of the diorama school of thought in the indigenous exhibtion space: not that there are any full sized models of hunters and gatherers on display, and the recreation of the Freedom Rides bus is certainly worthy, but it seems a terrible shame to have these treasures hidden away from sight.

The positive side of this ultra-conservationist impulse, however, is that the boards (with a single exception) are in absolutely pristine condition. There’s not a nick or a smudge on them that wasn’t there when they left the artist’s hand 35 years ago. They’re housed in the sort of flat, shallow cases used to hold works on paper in a gallery. Two drawers contain paintings that have been determined to include restricted imagery, and so those remained unopened during our visit. But we got to see over 80 works, some of which looked like they might have stepped out of the early pages of Genesis and Genius, others surprising–astounding–in the originality of their desgins and the unexpectednesss of their color. One work was dominated by a series of overlapping arcs (the design in similar to one that was frequently found in paintings by Gloria Petyarre and other Utopia women in the mid-90s) painted in a shimmering seaweed green or the red of liquid gems. Another painting that I would guess was a Wind Dreaming by Mick Namarari Tjpaltjarri stands in my memory as a delicate yellow tracery across a deep purplish wash. I must have looked like a guppy for 45 minutes, my mouth hanging open in the small circular shape that results from saying “oh” under your breath over and over again.

On May 31, Barrina South is offering a public tour of the backrooms of the AM designed to highlight the Papunya boards in the context of Colliding Worlds, so if you’re in Sydney and haven’t phoned ahead for a place on the tour yet, don’t miss it. The exhibition itself is wonderful, from the vast enlargements of photographs of Pintupi people, heavily annotated with genealogies and “totemic” details to the brilliant color photographs made during Donald Thompson’s expeditions in the late 50s to the huge canvases on loan from the AGNSW (Willy Tjungurrayi’s signature Tingari masterpiece, Uta Uta’s renderings of Umari). 

The rest of my stay in Sydney had little of Aboriginal culture to occupy me–Redfern was strangely quiet on Sorry Day afternoon by the time we drove through; the exhibition of photographs at CarriageWorks lonely and undocumented. Instead, I basked in the warmth of autumn and in the friendship Jonathan and Penny offered as effortlessly as the sun baked the sky blue each day. We had a final dinner with their friends Betty and Kate on Saturday night where the hilarity of Kate’s legal adventures on a recent trip to New York City was balanced by Betty’s sobering stories of her work with the Fred Hollows Foundation for the Jawoyn people east of Katherine. Thanks to each of them, I felt the distance of being an American melting away and could easily believe myself a Sydneysider, if only for a lovely evening’s meal on the streets near Rushcutters Bay. 

Jonathan and Penny, with Nessie, at home Jonathan, Penny, Kate, and Betty (and Walala)

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