Dictionary of Australian Artists Online

I learned yesterday that the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online is up and running. It is still a work in progress, containing as of November 15, 2007 7,000 entries on Australian artists, ranging from major painters and sculptors to cartoonists and illustrators, and including, of course, indigenous artists. The website is a project of the University of New South Wales Library and is supported by the Australian Research Council. Access is free of charge: bravo to all who make that so. Too often such scholarly endeavors are backed by commercial enterprises that limits their availability to those (like universities) you can fork over annual subscription fees.

Potential users should note–again–that this is a work in progress and many artists that will ultimately be included are currently absent from the database, including luminaries like Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri and Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula. Vivien Johnson is one of the project’s board members and her seminal Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: a biographical dictionary (Craftsman House, 1994) is being used as source material for the biographies being built, so we can be assured that such artists will be included in the future. (This incompleteness reflects no slight to Indigenous artists: there are no entries yet for Jeffrey Smart or Rosalie Gascoigne, either.) 

The database focuses on art history, not criticism, and the editorial policy directs contributors not to indulge in reviews, partisanship, or promotion. The aim is to provide factual information, and to rely upon original scholarship in the creation of biographical material. All submission are reviewed (anonymously) by an editorial board. 

Each entry includes a brief biographical sketch (often admittedly a stub, with an invitation to contribute further information), along with a significant assortment of indexed–that is searchable by keywords–data fields. These include dates (birth, death, active), names of artworks, exhibitions, collections, associates and organizations including galleries, published references, and URLs. In the case of Indigenous artists, data also includes language group, Dreamings, family members, and heritage country.

A lovely idea incorporated into each entry is built in search links to PictureAustralia, the National Library of Australia’s image database, and to Google Images. There is a link at the bottom of each entry that searches the artist in these sources; additionally, each entry for an individually listed artwork contains a pre-built search. Understandably, Google Images is more often successful, and the artist search is more useful that the artwork search. 

The results of these searches are often occasions of wonderful serendipity: the link from Arthur Pambegan Jnr led me to a media release on Traditional Knowledge Recording Project in the Western Cape York Peninsula. They are also sometimes a bit over-determined: the link from Pambegan’s “Flying Fox Story Place” is unnecessarily restricted to .gov.au sites. But the idea remains a brilliant and useful one.

There is a simple, Google-like search box on the home page that performs a boolean “or” search, meaning that if you enter two words and either of them appears in the entry, the entry will be retrieved. That means that if you want to find “fiona foley” you’ll retrieve 23 results (as of today), 17 of which contain “fiona” and 9 of which contain “foley.” None, however, are entries for the Batjala artist.

You can do a bit better by using the advanced search feature. This allows you to limit the search term to particular fields in the database, for example, “artist’s name” or “Dreaming” or “language” and to combinations of up to three terms. Be careful, though, in searching by artist’s name, as the hands of librarians and the memories of card catalogs are at work here. You must enter the last name first when limiting the search to artist’s name: “arthur boyd” will not yield success, but “boyd arthur” will. The simple search is not so encumbered, but is far less precise. 

Truncation is not supported, so “kam” will not work, but “kame” will, to find the entry on Emily Kame Kngwarreye. There’s no cross-referencing or what we librarians call “authority control” (grouping variant spellings and forms of names under a single heading) so you may need to be persistent and imaginative to capture Tjapangati vs Tjapangarti.

The possibilities for mining this data, as it grows more and more complete, are utterly tantalizing. I could be able to locate the names of indigenous artists whose works are held by the Holmes a Court collection , or look for artists associated with Ilpilli in the Northern Territory, or artists who were included in the QAG’s Story Place exhibition (click on these links to see the search results).

My bookshelves are lined with reference books to support this kind of research, including Johnson’s biographical dictionary, the later and more inclusive but poorly organizedAboriginal Artists Dictionary of Biographies: Western Desert, Central Desert and Kimberley Region (J.B. Publications, 2004), and the indispensable Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2001). They all sit directly behind me within arm’s reach, and I will no doubt continue to consult them regularly as I write. But the convenience of this online resource and the opportunities that a search of the database offers to make connections that just aren’t possible in the print world, or even through Google, means that I plan to spend many hours with the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online.

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