A World of Animals

I don’t know whether Sydneysiders would agree that Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design is a well-kept secret. Even though it is located not far off Oxford Street, on Bourke Street in Surry Hills, close to many other galleries that I frequented for years, I didn’t discover its delights until almost five years ago, and then in a most indirect manner. In fact, I was on Melville Island visiting Jilamara Arts. I had the good fortune to number among my traveling companions that day Brian Parkes, Object’s Associate Director. He was touring the Tiwi Islands as part of his preparations for the exhibition that year of Woven Forms: contemporary basket making in Australia. Woven Forms (Object, 2005) was the Centre’s second foray into mounting a show featuring Indigenous objects, the first being the lovely and legendary Art on a String: Aboriginal threaded objects from the Central Desert and Arnhem Land (Object/Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, 2001, edited by Louise Hamby and Diana Young).A friendship blossomed that day in Milikapiti, one that was renewed when we met Brian again in Darwin at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) in 2008. And now that connection has brought to me the catalog for Object’s finest exhibition of Aboriginal art to date, developed in conjunction with the Australian Museum. Menagerie: Contemporary Indigenous Sculpture was on display across the two Sydney venues during September-November 2009 and is now on a national tour that will last into 2012. It’s a show that shouldn’t be missed. (It’s currently at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Culture Centre in the Melbourne Museum through February 21; see below for a complete list of venues and dates.) Assembled by Parkes and Indigenous Curator Nicole Foreshaw, Menagerie offers 52 works by 33 Indigenous artists in a stunning survey of traditional and modern work in three dimensions drawn from all the states and territories. 

The artists represented include international superstars like Yvonne Koolmatrie, Djambawa Marawili, and Lena Yarinkura. Koolmatrie’s Murray River Cod (2009) and Yarinkura’sCamp Dogs (2008) will be instantly familiar to viewers; Marawili’s life-size sculpture Baru (2007) may shock with its startling representation of the ancestral hero’s metamorphosis, man and crocodile at the same time. Dennis Nona is represented by Gubuka (Stingrays) (2008), a work that is at once familiar in its use of Nona’s trademark lithographic style and utterly fresh in its form. The two marine monsters, one in bronze, the other in aluminum, are frozen in mid-leap, soaring off the support, balanced on the barbs of their tails and tilting against one another like a Richard Serra sculpture transformed into a vision of elegance and grace.

Laurie Nilsen’s barbed-wire emus and Dannie Mellor’s spodeware kangaroos reiterate their makers’ prize-winning constructions from NATSIAA’s past. There are young artists working in familiar forms, like Patrick Kunoth Pwerle, whose painted bird sculptures from Utopia recall the prize-winning works of his parents, Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and Josie Kunoth Petyarre. Craig Koomeeta’s aluminum crocodile and carved wooden camp dog epitomize divergent aspects of the sculptural tradition at Aurukun, but the lesser known Leigh Nampoman contributes one of the show’s most captivating pieces. His small (39 cm) sculpture, Waath (Crow) from 2008 embodies simplicity, suppleness, and poise. With a simple white circle for an eye, scooped into the otherwise smooth blackness of the bird’s body perched atop a bulky but gently curved red ochre base that merely suggests a tree branch, this is one of my favorite pieces in the entire show.

There are more surprises. Rahel Kngwarria Ungwanaka takes the Hermmansburg potters’ traditions in a new direction with her 2008 Sgraffito Owl. The conventional painted pot with totemic lid here is decorated not with the customary multi-colored landscapes of Hermannsburg, but with white englobe incised to create designs that emerge from the underlying red clay. Representing Warmun Arts, Shirley Purdie, long renowned for her dense ochred canvases, brings birds of the Ngarrangkarni to life in jarlarlu (coolamon tree) wood. In Warrarnany du Wanggarnal Ngarrangkarni (2009), the eponymous Eagle and Crow face each other atop a base adorned with characteristic Gija representations of the hill country around Warmun. What delights me about this work is the way Purdie has chosen to carve the Eagle’s claws into the scultpure’s base (detail at right), using negative space rather than the expected low relief.

And then there are artists new to me, making surprising sculptures from unexpected materials. Badger Bates, a Paakantji man from Broken Hill, creates ants and spiders and spiderwebs from cast-off industrial materials salvaged from the local tip. He also has a pair of mating snakes, barely polished out of their natural state as riverbank red gum roots, that seems almost alive. Garth Lena, who hails from Bundalung country in the northeast of New South Wales, has crafted an Echidna (2006) from mango wood inset with brilliant white porcelain quills. Echidnas also inspired the work of artists from as far afield as Mugularrangu, southwest of Borroloola (Susan George) and Gapuwiyak in Arnhem Land (Penny Milingu Wanapuyngu). Tasmania’s Vicki West brings the island state’s Devil to life using the traditional technique of weaving broad-leaved bull kelp, a skill that has customarily been used to create sinuous, sensual water-carriers.

In the catalog, each artist is given a full profile, and all the works are reproduced in full or double-page spreads, expertly photographed. An appendix offers a photograph and a brief CV for each of the artists, and a map showing where they live and work. The catalog’s front matter is equally glorious. Curators Foreshaw and Parkes have each penned essays to introduce the work. Parkes’s “Carved, Coiled, Cast and Constructed: contemporary Indigenous sculpture in Australia” focuses on the ways in which the artworks are produced. Foreshaw’s “Making Known” elucidates the cultural significance of the creatures on display. The two essays complement one another brilliantly and bring form and content into harmony almost as well as the artists themselves do.

Further enhancing the curatorial essays is a bounty of detailed photographic close-ups of the works in the exhibition and of the artists working with their raw materials. Flakes ofdjundum (the tree root used to make yellow dye for pandanus weaving) crumble in Penny Milingu Wanapuyngu’s hand and liquid red ochre runs down Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri’s fingers. To see the knots in Johnny Young’s wire sculptures of horses and kangaroos, the pits and scars in Graham Badari’s cast aluminum fruit bats, the poker burns on Billy Cooley’s purnu sculptures magnified to a larger-than-life size is to gain a new appreciation for both the materials and the craft.

Respecting artistic tradition and recognizing aesthetic innovation, binding artists’ lives and work through the expressive medium of animal life that reveals enduring connections to the country each artist comes from, celebrating beauty in its rough and sublime forms, Menagerie obliterates the distinction between art and craft, traditional and modern, urban and rural. Object deserves our applause its continuing efforts to bring Indigenous artistry to the forefront of contemporary design, exemplified by its appointment of an Indigenous curator (Foreshaw is a Wiradjuri woman) and by its ongoing and expanding collaborations with the Australian Museum. The Museum has launched a campaign to raise the funds required to purchase the exhibition that Object’s Parkes and Foreshaw have assembled for its permanent collections. Menagerie would be a significant addition to the Museum’s collections of Papunya Tula boards and traditional bark paintings and pukumani sculptures. Celebrate Survival Day with your donation today.


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3 Responses to A World of Animals

  1. Pingback: Barbed Wire And Galvanized Wire Sculptures - Nifty Homestead

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