Power and Beauty: Indigenous Art Now

Although the attention of exhibition reviewers has been focused on Canberra lately, it would be a shame not to have a look at the superb presentation now on display (through March 10) at the Heide Museum in Melbourne, Power & Beauty: Indigneous art now. Like Culture Warriors at the NGA, Power & Beauty seeks to recognize its eponymous qualities in the art of urban Australia as well as in the remote communities.

The show’s roster led me to woolgathering about the current state of exhibiting Indigenous artists. There are eighteen “artists” overall if you will allow the conceit of letting the collectives from Kayili Arts in Patjarr and Warakurna Artists be considered as two “artists” for the purposes of enumeration. There is one other representative from the Central Desert and two individual artists from Arnhem Land. These five, along with one of two artists from the Torres Strait (or three if you include Clinton Nain as representing TSI artists) constitute the “traditional” face of the art included in this show. There are a dozen artists, then, out of eighteen, who represent artistic techniques more closely associated with tertiary education than with ceremony and ritual of an Indigenous flavor.

This sort of redressing of the balance with two thirds being urban is probably long overdue everywhere outside of Boomali’s exhibition space in Leichhardt. The inclusion of Richard Bell, Ricky Maynard, Gordon Hookey, and Vernon Ah Kee in both this show and Culture Warriors does remind me how few artists outside of the community art centres have achieved a degree of recognition in the past two decades. Put the two shows together, and you will have pretty well explored the catalog of “urban artists.”

From the opposite perspective, the choice to include collaborative canvases from two of the Desert centres, along with the inclusion of both Gulumbu Yunupingu and Philip Gudthaykudthay in both shows, also reminds me how few artists have emerged from the penumbra of the communities to achieve individual recognition. The solo exhibition in commercial gallery space for artists from the remote lands is still a relative rarity. Even the most prominent Melbourne galleries schedule group shows much of the time. 

There are certainly good reasons for these observations to be true. Urban artists, who do achieve solo exhibitions in gallery spaces, face the same competitive rigors their non-Indigenous counterparts are up against. Marketing can be problematic when labels become slippery: is it accidental that Indigenous artists who have achieved significant commercial success are often no longer considered “Indigenous”? Artists from community art centres lack the exclusivity of artist-gallery relationships that characterize commercial art world activities outside the Indigenous Australian sphere. And partly for that reason there is rarely a sufficient body of work available to a single gallery to present a solo show for any but the most prolific and most highly desirable community artists. 

I do not intent to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with this state of affairs, or that it ought to be otherwise. Nor do I imply that these thoughts crossed the minds of the curators of the two shows, Brenda Croft in Canberra, or Judith Ryan in the current instance in Melbourne. Croft, of course, has always championed the artist from the city. I welcome the opportunity to see Ryan undertake the challenge of approaching urban art here: I can’t remember an emphasis on it in the exhibition program of the NGV and a quick glance through the Land Marks catalog reveals no extensive strengths among the holdings represented therein.

However, all this is somewhat beside the point of Power & Beauty, which from my examination of the catalog, certainly lives up to its double-barreled claim for the works in it.

The catalog of the show (available form the Heide Store, $29.95) provides excellent illustrations of most of the works in the show. Ryan’s brief introductory essay, “Politics, Truth and Blood: Indigenous Art Matters,” offers snippets of commentary on each artist that complement the artists’ own remarks on their work in the body of the catalog. But it is in the selection of works on display, and in its invitation to ponder the themes that pervade them, that the exhibition makes its mark.

I may be revealing a certain personal prejudice here, but I do feel that the works from Patjarr, Warakurna, and Yirrkala embody both aspects–power and beauty–more strongly than most other works in the show. Among the urbanistas, Ricky Maynard’s photographs and Vernon Ah Kee’s drawings also manage in their idiosyncratic and disturbing ways to balance the two qualities extraordinarily well. So does Samantha Hobson, the greatest (to my eyes) of that most hybrid school of Lockhart River. In a strange reversal of expectations, Nici Cumpston’s photographic watercolors are so visually luscious that it was hard to recognize the power of the political statement about environmental degradation that resides in them. 

Many of the other works in the show are extremely affecting. In their very different ways, Clinton Nain and Ray Thomas both foreground the unbreakable links among religion, incarceration, and death in a shockingly direct manner. Nain’s work , a e i o u — put a dress on you (2006) may offer a grim intellectual satisfaction; if I am hard pressed to otherwise call it beautiful, I cannot deny its power. Nain manages to compact the history of missions, the threat of the rope, and the breakdown of culture and the loss of language that precede the loss of hope into a few scraps of paint-daubed hessian on a clothesline. 

Philip Gudthaykudthay’s Installation of Warrala Warrala Figures (2003) bears a spooky kinship to Fiona Foley’s Annihilation of the Blacks (1986). Both pieces consist of sculpted humanoid figures suspended on a crossbar between two vertical uprights. Both are indebted to the bonefish and flying fox ceremonial sculptures from Aurukun, now being reproduced in a fine-arts context by Arthur Pambegan Jnr. The juxtaposition makes me wonder whether Gudthaykudthay was influenced at all by Foley’s work, whether his depiction of the figures suspended from supports is unique to him in Eastern Arnhem Land, and how these warrala warrala beings related to the wurum and wandark of Central Arnhem Land. All these elements together in turn evoke similar imagery in Nain and Thomas’s work through the trope of hanging, and further relate to Maynard’s Urban Diary and his portraits of prisoners, and hark back to the violence embedded in Julie Gough’s flight through the Tasmanian forests.

In looking at the catalog, however, I can not pass by the egregious design and typography that mars what content is on offer here. The pages devoted to each artist’s remarks are unnecessarily busy, divided into nine shaded blocks. This is almost helpful if there are three works, perhaps. If the number of works presented does not equal three, all this not very careful design becomes distracting and visually frustrating, cleverness for its own sake.

I could forgive that much cleverness. I might even forgive the decision to put the artist’s name, and the name of the artwork in illegible day-glo orange, even if I will never understand that decision. It is bad book design, however to use that day-glo hue for the punctuation and note-numbers; I could hardly parse the sentences, as I could not distinguish the punctiation. Putting the notes in the gutters of the pages might have been helpful if the text of the notes had not been rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise, thus requiring the reader to rotate either book or neck, neither option being useful or comfortable. Heide should think again before letting those designers loose on the art public.

In the end, what truly matters is Ryan’s selection of work, and here congratulations are indeed in order. Reviewing this catalog for the last month has provided an extensive opportunity to ponder the connections between widely divergent styles of indigenous art and to wonder at how artists from very different backgrounds respond to the conditions of contemporary indigeneity. That, to me, is the mark of a successful exhibition; that is the Power & Beauty of this show.

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