Performance / Art

News and notes from around the web:

Geoffrey Gurrunmul Yunupingu was the star of this week’s Awaye! on ABC Radio National, and his appearance is the occasion of the program’s first vodcast. The eight-minute video is available for downloading now from Awaye’s website and features Gurrumul performing two songs with Michael Hohnen on double-bass, “Djilawurr” (originally recorded on the Saltwater Band’s Djarridjarri – Blue Flag album) and “Djarrimirri” from his new solo album. The quality of the recording is excellent, and the fact that you can download it takes a bit of the sting out of the fact that the radio broadcast is not available this time as a podcast. You can listen to the program for the next few weeks from the website, and I urge you to give it a go. It features recordings from his second solo live performance at the 2006 Darwin Festival, and while the sound quality is a little more uneven, it’s still a pleasure to hear him captured in performance, and to hear the audience’s response. As an incidental bonus, host Daniel Browning notes that the Saltwater Band has just finished recording their third album!

For another video treat, check out two new promos featured by Edwina Circuitt on her blog Thriving in the Desert, “Warakurna Artists: Our Story, Our Art Centre,” with a soundtrack featuring UPK’s “Tilun Tilun ta,” and the new “Thriving in the Desert: Warakurna Artists,” also to the sounds of UPK, “Ulkiyala.” And if you like the music, you can buy UPK’s CDs from the Nganampa Health Council.

While I’m on the subject of performing arts, there was an interesting article, “No More Fading to Black” in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 24 on Wesley Enoch’s proposal to create a National Indigenous Theatre. Predictably, the idea has its supporters and detractors. Those who favor the idea (including some high-powered identities like Deborah Mailman, Rachel Maza, and Stephen Page) see the need for a well-funded entity that can preserve work over time; Enoch points to limited successes of Redfern’s National Aboriginal Black Theatre in the 1970s and the Black Playwrights Workshops of the 1980s as initiatives that could have benefited from the strengths of a national organization. Many of the skeptics include representatives of regional theatre who fear what the competition for funding from such a high-profile establishment might mean for their own chances of success, and point to the regional theatre as the incubator of new ideas and the voice of distinctive local cultures and idioms. Sadly in an era of limited funding, both sides are right.

The issue of regional vs national recently emerged in Nicolas Rothwell’s musings in the aftermath of the theft of several early Papunya boards from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (“Mystery of our art in darkness,” The Australian, April 5, 2008). Rothwell raises an unusually large number of extremely important questions in this short piece, but there is one that I want to address briefly here. Pondering why so few of these surviving masterpieces are on view anywhere in Australia, he reports on one proposal to increase access to those paintings that can be viewed and studied without risk of breaching sensitive cultural protocols.

But the most elegant blueprint is the plan nursed by the foremost scholar of the early boards, Vivien Johnson, who believes there should be a gallery at the centre of Australia, holding all the early Papunya paintings from state museums and galleries in a definitive national collection. Such a museum could be in Papunya or in Alice Springs. It should be a magnificent building, with special provisions made for the most sensitive paintings to be held in secure closed storage and for certain works to be displayed in a separate wing, where indigenous women would be in no danger of seeing forbidden images or designs.

There’s an obvious appeal to this proposal. If Rothwell’s number are correct, such a national gallery of early Papunya painting could contain the 210 boards from MAGNT’s collection, the 96 paintings from the Papunya Tula archive now in the Australian Museum in Sydney, and the holdings (number not specified) of the National Gallery in Canberra. Imagine such a collection! Imagine the wealth of knowledge, the opportunities for scholarship, for comparative analysis. Having just had the chance to see a mere twenty works from the 1970s by half a dozen artists at the Kluge-Ruhe this past weekend, my mouth waters at the thought. I can’t help it.

But looking back at my own experience of visiting museums across Australia, I also can’t help but draw back from endorsing the notion. Long ago, I set up a Google Alert for “Aboriginal art.” The vast majority of the citations I get from that service are from traveler’s accounts of visiting a museum in a single city on their travels and saying something quite simple and unsophisticated: “Saw incredible aboriginal art at the museum.” Now certainly there’s more to be seen, more on display everywhere, than just Papunya painting from the 1970s. But I’d like to think that travelers could have the opportunity, no matter where they go, to experience this incredible chapter in world art. And I’m not just speaking from my international perspective here. My love affair with Australia has taken me to all the capital cities: how many Australians can say that, let alone international visitors?

So for now, I will argue that collections, however small they might be, of these seminal works remain scattered across Australia, so that visitors to the NGA, NGV, AGWA, AGNSW, MAGNT, AGSA, QAG, as well as the Araluen Centre can delight in the serendipity of discovering a national treasure wherever their journeys take them.

And a final note tonight from the recent pages of The Australian. In an article entitled “Forget Me Not ” (April 5, 2008) Sebastian Smee asks “which Australian artists working at their peak today will be the subjects of books and retrospectives at our leading galleries in 20, 30 or 40 years. Who will be given the kind of attention that artists such as Williams, Nolan and Arthur Boyd are given today?”

Smee narrows his criteria somewhat by excluding those artists who have already attained “legendary” status, for example John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart. He also declines to speculate on the rising younger generation, preferring to focus on “artists no longer in their 30s but not yet in their dotage; artists who already have an extensive body of work behind them and who — though they may be well established in the art world — are not so well known to the wider public.”

One Indigenous artist makes the cut of nine: John Mawurndjul. Says Smee: “Mawurndjul’s bark paintings of the rainbow serpent Ngalyod and, more recently, the Mardayin ceremony are impossible to forget. They relate the drama of ritual to visual forms and patterns that seem to squirm across the surface of the already undulating bark he prepares and paints on. The best of them are spellbinding images — sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract — that flicker with light and syncopated visual rhythms.” 

Spot on, so far as it goes. Would anyone like to nominate other “mid-career” artists? Leave a comment with your suggestions and rationales.

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