Reflections on the Western Australian Indigenous Art Award

Having stayed at home this year, I don’t have much of substance to say about the 26th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. I’ve never been terribly fond of winner Danie Mellor’s style; personally it’s too fuzzy and too cute for my taste. But I don’t have much patience for the protests that break out every time someone like Mellor or Richard Bell wins the award, complete with suggestions that there ought maybe to be two awards so that we can recognize “traditional” artists every year and not lump “urban” artists in with the “Aboriginal” artists. And if you really have problems with a blue-eyed winner, I’m sure you can reach Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun for companionship and commiseration.Plus, I have to admit that my attention was distracted a little by the arrival in the mail of catalogues from the Art Gallery of Western Australia from the 2008 and 2009 Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards.

If NATSIAA began as “a few tinnies and a pissup,” a party for the artists that has grown into an institution, perhaps the WA award had a loftier (if not necessarily worthier) genesis. Writing in the inaugural catalog essay in 2008, Susan Lowish of the University of Melbourne pondered the problem of establishing an Indigenous aesthetic. Echoing Eric Michaels’ question of twenty years earlier, Lowish wonders how we distinguish good Aboriginal art from bad, how we incorporate the meaning invested in these works by the artists themselves into a set of judgements about their quality.

As Lowish points out, it is a vexed question, and never more so than in the context of an awards program, be it WA’s, the NATSIAA, or the now sadly defunct Xstrata Emerging Indigenous Art Award. In the realm of ceremony from which much of this art emerges, anthropologists have frequently documented the exercise of critical judgement by the community directed at proper execution of designs, songs, and dances. The emotional reactions of contemporary artists confronted suddenly with works from past decades testify likewise to the evocative power of acrylic paintings. But what are the criteria by which these works should be judged? How do Indigenous perspectives differ from those schooled in Western aesthetics?

One way in which all the major awards have attempted to deal with this question in the context of determining winners is to invite submissions from artists and communities, so even at the very first pass, there is some assurance that the Aboriginal perspective on what is best in contemporary practice gets taken into account. Beyond that, the selection and judging panels have Indigenous artists and curators as members. 

The WA award, like the Xstrata before it, and perhaps with this question of Indigenous aesthetic in mind, has opted to invite multiple submissions from each artist. In perusing the catalogs for the first two years of the competition, I was struck by how the artists have chosen to work this angle. Generally speaking, the 2008 entries were more consistent for each artist. Several of the urban-identified artists submitted works in series–Fiona Foley’s twin series “Venus” and “Sea of Love,” for instance. “Venus” is a set of photographs of Foley, shown from the knees down in a variety of enticing footwear; these photographs themselves hang on the walls behind the men whose portraits form the content of “Sea of Love.” Shane Pickett’s “Seasons” is a suite of six canvases that assert the ontology of Aboriginal time-keeping over the course of the year.

Even among the bush artists, there was a remarkable consistency, with Naata Nungurrayi and Patrick Tjungurrayi presenting variations on the same compositional themes; Sally Gabori offset her black-and-white constructions with large and simple fields of blue-green or intense pink, which Patrick Mung Mung’s canvases might have been a series of still images extracted from a moving panorama of his country, each linked by color and form to the other.

In the second year, the artists’ selections broadened out somewhat. True, Tony Albert’s photographs are a deliberate series: in each he poses with a bicornual basket hanging down his back; in each the contents of the basket and his clothing change to fit in with a different environment, be that sporting arena, beach resort, fishing boat, or Queensland rainforest. Likewise Brian McKinnon’s suite of graphical political posters gain much of their power when taken as a whole. But while Yinarupa Nangala’s canvases all share a common structural strategy, Doreen Reid Nakamarra has chosen works that display the entire range of compositions she works in. Daniel Walbidi’s paintings are stylistically consistent, but he varies the shapes and sizes of his canvases from near squares to greatly elongated rectangles. He experiments with variations in his palette; he organizes one composition radially, another in long parallel rows; he combines the two patterns in a third.

Dennis Nona went a step further, submitting sculptural work as well as etchings. Shane Pickett, the only repeat finalist in the two years, displayed his virtuosity in variations of color and composition this year. Christopher Pease offered examples of his historical deconstructions alongside his dense, abstract works in resin. In “King George Sound” Pease combined the two styles in one work and added Alice in Wonderland‘s Rabbit to the mix in a line drawing on the resinous background. 

Lorraine Connelly-Northey submitted only one work (right), but its massive scale–nearly eight meters long and over three tall–allowed her to build in whole worlds of imagery: landscapes undulate over memories of desert shields as rainbow serpents transform themselves into rivers and fish traps, all built out of the discards and scraps of colonial fences and corrugated sheds rusting back into the primordial landscape.

But the more I lost myself in the rich displays offered by the two years’ finalists, the farther I seemed to get from any hope of decoding that elusive Indigenous aesthetic. Apart from some vague notion that all of these works comment directly or indirectly on the interface between colonizers and colonized, on the adaptations of Aboriginal people to new economic and social structures, and on the preservation of aspects of traditional culture in the face of an onslaught of alien custom, I found little to ground a new theory on.

What, I wondered, would Timmy Cook make of Tiger Palpatja’s canvases? There are some superficial formal similarities in composition, despite the differences between Cook’s austere palette and Palpatja’s iridescent colorings. How would a Tiwi artist respond to the serpents that dominate these Central Desert paintings? Would Cook read the animal in the upper left corner of Palpatja’s red-and-black “Wanampi Tjukurpa” canvas as a long-necked tortoise?

Perhaps an “Indigenous aesthetic” is rightly a phantom, a figment; what would the word for it sound like in Aboriginese?

Instead, I am reminded of Howard Morphy’s Becoming Art: exploring cross-cultural categories (Berg, 2007). In it he recalls an experience in which he and the great Yolngu painter Narritjin Maymuru tried to interpret Abelam art from New Guinea. In summarizing the story I wrote the following in my review of the book:

The Abelam have little to say about the content of their paintings and do not relate them to mythic stories or cultural histories in a way that corresponds to either Yolngu or Western methods of organizing either the thematic or iconographic elements of their art.

Any treatise that attempts to present an ethnographically alien style of (for instance) art always walks the fine line between the familiar and the strange. Too much of the former risks overemphasizing common humanity, too much of the latter, our diversity; too much of either inevitably does some violence to the complexity and the problems of extending understanding across the cultural divide.

Still, it is clear that the Art Gallery of Western Australia is serious about contributing to a dialogue that advances a broader understanding of what Aboriginal art means to those who make it. In doing so, they are also contributing to a coherent formal aesthetic which can be assimilated into Western modes of thought about the art. The fine catalogs that they have produced for the first two years of the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards are valuable additions to our literature.

So too is the catalog documenting Yirrkala Artists Everywhen: bark paintings from the state art collection, an exhibition which was mounted at the Art Gallery early in 2009. It is a lovely piece of work, with excellent maps (always a plus in my evaluation), detailed illustrations, and most of all, a fine essay by Chad Creighton.

Creighton was the recipient of the Gallery’s first Indigenous Curatorial Internship, a position he held while pursuing a degree at the Curtin Institute of Technology. His essay is a wonderful synthesis of his own research, insights gained from academic studies (Morphy figures prominently in the bibliography along with Stanner and many others), and work with the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala. (Creighton helped to repatriate materials collected by Louis Allen to the community in the course of his work.) 

The exhibition was the culmination of Creighton’s three years at the Gallery, and he was fortunate in having a superb collection of early works to draw upon. Among the highlights presented in the catalog are the last three paintings completed by Mathaman Marika before his death, all documenting the story of Wuyal, the ancestral sugar-bag, and created to protest the development of the bauxite mine at the sacred Rirratjungu site of Nhulun. Creighton has done right by his material, meticulously documenting the works in the exhibition, blending Yolngu voices with those of scholars while developing his own–which may well prove to be an important voice among the next generation of Indigenous curators being launched through laudable efforts like this internship at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Perhaps the most delightful aspect of discovering these fine catalogs is that they are in some ways very modest productions. Although great care and no doubt some expense went into the production of these books, none of the three tops 50 pages. They prove that galleries can produce thoughtful contributions to the interpretation and documentation of Aboriginal art that don’t need to be blockbusters to succeed. AGWA deserve to be commended for mounting such fine shows, and for sharing them with future scholars and art lovers alike.

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