Culture Warriors at the National Gallery of Australia

For roughly the first ten years that I was aware of, interested in, and collecting Aboriginal art, I survived on a steady diet of the Central Desert painters. The color, the abstract quality of the imagery, the energy all appealed to a taste in art that was bred by New York painting in the 60s and 70s. When I began to appreciate another school of work, it was to the Kimberley I turned, first to Balgo, and then on to Turkey Creek and the works of the Warmun painters.

All that changed for me when, on a trip back to Australia in 2001, I came across the catalog from the Adelaide Biennial of the previous year, Beyond the Pale. The Biennial was curated by Brenda L. Croft with the backing of then director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Ron Radford. Of course, I had seen bark paintings before, and Yvonne Koolmatrie’s majestic woven works, and art created by people of Aboriginal descent who had grown up in Perth or who worked with cameras and chemicals. But I hadn’t paid it much attention until I discovered the catalog (too late to see the show itself).

Writing in Artlink magazine, John Kean offered this description of the show.

Making exhibitions is all about creating a series of dramatic spatial experiences. In Beyond the Pale, Brenda L. Croft did this with resolute purpose in a carefully staged sequence of rooms, each with a clearly conceived idea and mood and each which prepared the ground for the next experience. She has assembled some of the sharpest works currently being created by Indigenous artists in Australia. While she lets those works speak for themselves, she also weaves them together as a cumulative expression of connection, dispossession, recollection and resistance (Artlink 20, no. 1, p. 68).

Putting aside the political implications for a moment, the show certainly did create startling connections. The photographs of Darren Siwes and Michael Riley were both soaked in colors that verged on the monochromatic; they both invoked Christianity in an Aboriginal context; they both were iconographically mysterious, suggesting multiple interpretations but disallowing any single explanation. Weavings by Lennah Newson and Joyce Winslett both evoked traditional cultural practices, but Newson’s basketry contrasted starkly with Winslett’s “Baby” in its sculptured coolamon. Connections were highlighted by the inclusion of pairs of husband and wife (Long Tom Tjapanangka and Mitjili Napurrula), father and son (Jimmy Njiminjuma and Abraham Mongkorrerre), and brother and sister (Clinton Nain and Destiny Deacon) as well as mentor and protege (Kitty Kantilla and Pedro Wonaemirri).

Fast forward seven years: Radford is now at the National Gallery of Australia, as is Brenda Croft, who has curated the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial, Culture Warriors, in Canberra. The show opened on October 12, and runs through February 10. It will travel to Adelaide, Perth, and Brisbane. And miracle of miracles, the NGA has signed a deal with the Corcoran Gallery to bring the show to Washington DC in 2009, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald (“Mr. Yalandja’s traditional sculptures go to Washington“). So I may have to wait a while to experience the exhibition in person, but in the meantime the sumptuous catalog affords a first look.

In addition to the catalog, Croft and the NGA have continued the excellent tradition begun with the Michael Riley retrospective by building a website for the exhibition that may be the next best thing to being there. This time, in addition to reproducing 143 works by the thirty artists selected for inclusion in the Triennial, they have supplemented the visual experience by including an online “audio tour ” consisting of 90 second commentaries on thirty works (one for each artist).

While it may just be a matter of Croft’s particular style of curating, I sense that there is a considered effort on her part to reach across the years and make connections between the 2000 Adelaide show (the first of its biennials to be devoted entirely to Indigenous art) and Culture Warriors.

First of all, there are the political echoes. In 2000, Australia was awaiting the arrival of the Olympic hordes, to whom they offered a proud display of Aboriginal heritage, not only at the ceremonies in Sydney, but via exhibitions like Beyond the Pale and the AGNSW’s Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius. In 2007, the fortieth anniversary of the referendum that was the most important symbolic recognition of a spirit of inclusiveness for Indigenous Australians in the country’s history likewise drew international attention.

Sadly, the anniversary was marked more by a tone of disappointed hopes than one of celebration, and many of the works selected for this exhibition seem to echo dispossession even when they remind the spectator of connections. Ricky Maynard’s bleak black-and-white portraits of his Tasmanian homeland are filled with loneliness, while Christopher Pease’s appropriations of nineteenth-century lithographs document the beginnings of European dominance even as they portray Indigenous occupation of the country. Vernon Ah Kee’s text panels (“Strange Fruit,” “Hang Ten”) elicit the failures of the reforms promised by the inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody while Judy Watson, Richard Bell, and Gordon Hookey all make explicit reference to the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004.

Although Croft has selected only four artists for inclusion this time who were also represented in Beyond the Pale (along with Watson and Hookey, Destiny Deacon and Julie Dowling), she has made other choices that demonstrate the continuities she sees among styles and concerns across time. Elaine Russell’s naive landscapes of river life, especially “Catching Yabbies” recall Adelaide’s inclusion of Ian Abdulla. Treanha Hamm’s woven “Yabbie” echoes not only Russell’s stories, but the sculptural forms of Yvonne Koolmatrie. Like Koolmatrie, Hamm is concerned with resurrecting endangered (if not extinguished) techniques, and her possum skin cloaks are modern realizations of a long-dormant traditional expertise; like Koolmatrie she attempts not simply reconstructions, but renewals of these forms in ways her ancestors never imagined.

Similarly, Arthur Pambegan’s massive Flying Fox sculptures, born out of Wik ceremonial dances, recall Ken Thaiday’s equally massive if stylistically quite different Torres Strait Islander dance headdresses from 2000. Family connections extend from one show to the other as well, with John Mawurndjul taking up the baton from his elder brother Njiminjuma.

In a different way, the sensibility of the two shows is evident in an absence. Perhaps I found Beyond the Pale to be such a revelation because there was little of the desert tradition to steal my attention from less familiar but equally expressive works. Although there is new work in Culture Warriors from the APY lands by Jimmy Baker and Maringka Baker, and Doreen Reid Nakamarra is the sole representative of the desert regions of the Territory, the Kimberley is a blank space of the map of the exhibition, unless one counts Jan Billycan from Bidyadanga. (The catalog actually includes a map indicating the traditional homeland and current residence–critical given the number of urban artists in the show–of each of the thirty representatives.)

And while I’m charting the geographical distribution, I will recall that on reviewing Hetti Perkins’ One Sun One Moon: Aboriginal Art in Australia from the AGNSW a couple of months ago, I asked where all the artists from Queensland were, for they surely weren’t in Sydney. The answer is now clear: fully a third of the population of Culture Warriorshails from the Sunshine State. In appreciating the talents coming from this part of the Eastern seaboard, Croft shows herself to be at least somewhat in sync with this year’s judges at the NATSIAA, despite the frequently discussed differences between the curated sensibility of the Triennial and the free-for-all spirit of the Darwin award show.

But I want to return to my theme of absence for a moment, for there is one place in this show that I feel the loss acutely.

According to the review of the show by Sebastian Smee that appeared in The Australian on November 3 (which in its headline, “Beyond the Frame ,” if nowhere else acknowledges a connection to the Adelaide Biennial), the first room of the exhibition in Canberra is given over to what the show’s website refers to as “the big guns”: Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, Philip Gudthaykudthay, John Mawurndjul, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamarrek, and Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan, Jnr. These artists are clearly meant to represent the great “traditional” centers of Indigenous art production and the elder masters of Aboriginal painting and sculpture, the link between ceremonial visual traditions and the modern marketplace.

It is in this selection (and what review of a biennial or triennial doesn’t contain at least one complaint about the selection of artists?) that I fault the absence of the Desert tradition. Three of the five “big guns” represent Arnhem Land, and while no one can argue that Mawurndjul is a premier exponent of Central Arnhem Land painting and the most celebrated Aboriginal artist in the world right now, he is of a different generation than the other four. Surely Makinti Napanangka, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, or Eubena Nampitjin would belong comfortably in this group and give the Desert its due. I appreciate the exposure to lesser-known artists (given my personal epiphanies as a result of Beyond the Pale I could not feel otherwise), but in a show which is meant to remind us of 1967, some nod should be given to the communities that revolutionized Aboriginal participation in the broader streams of Australian culture.

Perhaps it was a matter of scale, as most of the selected works by these senior artists exceed five feet in at least one dimension, and the senior Desert artists I’ve mentioned rarely make works of that size these days. (All the works in the show date from 2004 onwards.) I hope that is not the case, although there certainly seems to be a growing tendency for “museum quality” to equate to “extremely large” in the market of late, and the Sydney Morning Herald story noted that the NGA acquired three-quarters of the work from the exhibition for their permanent collection.

And how does this grandeur and the selection of artists play out in the political themes that the exhibition’s title announce? I have to say I’m a bit lost here as well. In her introductory catalog essay, Croft makes the point that the show celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, and also takes up the theme of the “history wars” that have been fought in academic circles since the late 90s and which were in turn engendered, or at least encouraged, by the “culture wars” in the United States.

The connection seems too tenuous to me to support the weight it is meant to bear. The American culture wars also grew out of social turmoil in the 60s, and the inevitable, media-manipulated backlash against the vocal demands for a fair go for racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and the various immigrant populations that have repeatedly been absorbed into the American melting pot. The Australian history wars are far more narrowly focused on representations of events on the historical frontiers and the debate over both the accuracy and the intentions of settler’s accounts.

The 1967 referendum, as Murray Goot and Tim Rowse have recently argued in Divided Nation?: indigenous affairs and the imagined public (Melbourne University Press, 2007), was an altogether vaguer affair in the minds of most Australians, concerned more with a sense of the fair go than with any real political agenda. And what to make of the assertion that 21 of the 30 artists included here were not citizens until 1967? In the first place, it is not true: Aboriginal people became Australian citizens in 1948 along with everyone else in the country (all of whom had until that moment been British subjects); the referendum rather allowed the Commonwealth to make uniform laws affecting its indigenous citizens, and to count those of Aboriginal descent in the census. In any case, it seems hard to relate this perception to much of the art on view here or to distinguish one group from the other except by dates of birth.

I wish that Croft had used her essay to investigate these political and cultural concerns from a broader perspective. Instead, after a few paragraphs, she turns her attention to a series of brief profiles of the artists at hand, illustrating how each of them expresses their particular slice of Indigenous culture. Given that each artist is the subject of a brief essay that accompanies the illustrations of their work in the catalog, this effort seems somewhat redundant.

Admittedly, the focus of most of the individual essays is appropriately on the art works themselves. The result, then, is to separate the cultural critique from the artistic, often by dozens of pages, and although there are cross-references from the opening essay to those later pages, the need to flip back and forth dulls the reader’s ability to comprehend the connections between the two. If Croft had chosen to integrate her cultural observations with the other material devoted to the individual artists and taken her curatorial prerogative as an opportunity to address the “cumulative expression of connection, dispossession, recollection and resistance” that Kean noted as the endpoint of Beyond the Pale, her mission might have been better served. (Incidentally, the general device of an introductory curatorial essay followed by dedicated short analyses of the artists and their work by a variety of scholars and members of the artistic community is another way in which Culture Warriors resonates with the earlier exhibition catalog.)

The catalog for Culture Warriors contains the broad range of documentation and supporting information about the art and the artists that has become the hallmark of these major publications of late. There are artist biographies, contributor notes, a glossary, chronology, and map, along with two bibliographies or recommendations for “further reading.” One of these is devoted to general works, important exhibition catalogs, and historical and anthropological texts; the other provides source materials on the individual artists in the exhibition.

Here, too, though there is a maddening fragmentation of information. The section on each artist opens with facing pages. On the left a large, striking portrait of the artist is surrounded by, on average, half a dozen small photographs that range from candid shots to group portraits posed at exhibitions, or family photographs that provide connections to generations past. The page to the right affords each artist the chance to make a brief, personal statement. Infelicitously, the captions for the photographs do not appear until the third page of each section. There they appear in tiny print crushed into the gutter of the page, with information about the subject and date of the images and the photo credits run together into a single long paragraph peppered with semi-colons.

The third page contains the critical essay on the artist. In the case of the “big guns,” there are two or three contributions for each, resulting in a longer, fuller profile. The remainder of each section is given over to stunning full-page illustrations of selected works. But here again, frustration sets in. Only the title of the work and the date of its composition are provided with the illustration, at the bottom of each page, again in tiny print. In order to find information on dimensions or medium and ownership of the work, the reader must once more flip pages to find the checklist at the back of the catalog.

For the reader who is wiling to work at synthesizing all of this, the website devoted to the exhibition offers even more treasures. There are illustrations of 143 works to be found there, more than could be included in the monograph. These images can be sorted by “work date” or by medium, although the default order by date is not apparent. For example, several works from the same series by Christian Thompson interspersed with paintings by Elaine Russell, Judy Watson, and Lofty Bardayal.

Another page provides a list of all the participating artists. Clicking on any name allows you to see thumbnails of all the works by that artist alongside the artist’s statement. Each thumbnail gives access to a larger image, which can be further enlarged, or sometimes in the case of three-dimensional works, to a different view of object. Another link from list of artists takes you to the audio tour that highlights a single work by each of the thirty participants (thoughtfully offered at both dial-up and broadband speeds).

Other pages on the website provide photographs and speeches from the Triennial’s launch back in April 2007–the launch being the announcement of the Triennial’s inception and not to be confused with the opening of the first instance of the Triennial a month ago. The artists’ biographies are also available. A search page provides access to information by “artist first and last names, titles and title descriptions, place made, provenance, catalogue raisonné, medium, technique, date, accession number and internal record number.”

I am almost done with my carping, although before I let everyone off the hook, what is going on with the cover illustration for this catalog? Is there some irony that I am missing in “culture warriors” being represented by a faceless individual–the back of John Harding’s head? Harding is Destiny Deacon’s brother, and the cover is cropped from one of her photos in the exhibition. And while we’re at it, where is Destiny’s other brother, Clinton Nain, whose political high-jinks and devastating bitumen canvases have made him a cultural warrior of the first degree over the last fifteen years? Nain’s work in Beyond the Pale certainly evoked the American culture wars better than anything in Culture Warriors, and his recent series of targets, nooses, and reflections on deaths in custody are spot on in the realm of the history wars, too.

Complaints aside, the Triennial, this exhibition, its catalog, and its website are a most welcome addition to the history of Indigenous art and to the astonishing run of exhibitions that have graced the first years of this new century. Croft intends to turn over the mounting of future triennials to rising Indigenous curators, an act in itself that nourishes the growth and transmission of Aboriginal culture and its interaction with mainstream Australia. By the time this first Triennial returns from its international tour, we will all be eagerly anticipating the opening of the next installment.

Postscript: In his review of Culture Warriors (cited above), Sebastian Smee opens with a long digression on another exhibition in Canberra which visualizes the Aboriginal imprint on the continent, and its residue in the wake of encroaching colonizers. Cage of Ghosts: photographs by Jon Rhodes at the National Library of Australia explores the Indigenous landscape as it has been literally captured and confined by “combinations of boardwalks, railings, cages, gates and grilles; large wooden constructions, fences, chains and posts; steel viewing platforms, mesh, pespex, signs, bars and locks” designed to protect these remnants from vandals and casual destruction. For now, the NLA’s website offers a glimpse of Rhodes’s evocative photographs. A book based on the exhibition is scheduled for publication in 2008. Rhodes’s previous work, Whichaway? Photographs from Kiwirrkura 1974-1996, is a classic study of life in the Western Desert, widely available in Australian libraries.


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1 Response to Culture Warriors at the National Gallery of Australia

  1. Pingback: unDisclosed: the Triennial returns | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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