Blak on Blak

In last week’s post on the origin myths of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, I speculated that one of the reasons that the story of Geoff Bardon at Papunya appeals to us is that it locates the narrative of the flowering of the desert art school in theories of modernism. I have often written about how I see contemporary Aboriginal art as contemporary art, most extensively in my contribution to Colin and Liz Laverty’s book, Beyond Sacred: recent paintings from Australia’s remote Aboriginal communities (Grant Hardie, 2008). Sometimes I have been prompted to look at the movement from the opposite angle, and to wonder how contemporary art partakes of Aboriginality. The latest issue of Artlink magazine (vol. 30, no. 1) has brought those thoughts to the forefront once again. (If your local newsagent is sold out, you can order it from the Artlink website.) 

An entire issue of a contemporary arts magazine devoted to Aboriginal art is rare enough. One that’s devoted entirely to the work of contemporary artists from urban areas whose primary media are photography, glass, video, graphite, or film is an event.

Blak on Blak, as the issue is themed, takes a look at a broad range of contemporary, non-traditional artists and their works. One of the delights of the issue is the list of artists whose work is examined. After a historical look back at the importance of Lin Onus to the urban tradition, the magazine includes profiles of recent work by several members of the Brisbane collective proppaNow (Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Gordon Hookey, and former member Fiona Foley). Photographers Dianne Jones, Bindi Cole, and Gary Lee are given generous treatment. There is an article on Beaver Lennon, an extraordinary young painter of landscapes in a style that mixes realism with naivete; Lennon was among the artists included in the 2008 Xstrata Emerging Artists exhibition at GoMA. Yhonnie Scarce,who works in blown glass is among the lesser known artists included here, along with a group of Tasmanian fibre artists including Vicki West and Patsy Cameron.

Equally delighting is the list of contributors, the authors who write about these artists. It’s a curatorial and critical Who’s Who, including Daniel Browning, Bruce McLean, Margo Neale, Brenda Croft, Clotilde Bullen, Julie Gough, Nici Cumpston, Djon Mundine, and Jenny Fraser. That’s quite a bit of star power to pack into 100 pages.

Few would argue that the works of these artists fit comfortably into almost any definition of contemporary art; indeed, there is often more dispute over when they constitute Aboriginal art. This unfortunate argument smacks of the meanness that is addressed in Daniel Browning’s introductory essay in Artlink, “Not black enough: the politics of skin,” and hilariously deconstructed in Bindi Cole’s Wathaurung Mob (2008), in which a group of suburbanites of varying skin tones, clad in polo shirts and ensconced in a bourgeois home, pose for a family portrait in lamp-black face paint and red string headbands. The whites of their eyes meet the camera’s gaze dead on as if to say, “Is this black enough?”

As I leafed through the pages of the magazine, marveling at the variety and the beauty of the art presented there, I was struck by several themes that thread themselves through the works of these artists–and reminded that those themes are equally important to other urban, art-school-educated practitioners who have been omitted from this survey. When I list those themes, they are all familiar from the culture debates we read about in newspapers and criticism: language, violence, the masks of identity we wear.

Language is a key component of Indigenous identity. People of Aboriginal descent who have been brought up in generations of urban dislocation mourn the loss of language, and refer to their grandparents or their parents faltering grasp on indigenous tongues. The histories of Aboriginal protest and Aboriginal imagery are inextricably entwined in theYirrkala Bark Petition and the Barunga Statement

Thus Christian Thompson’s digital video, Desert Slipper (2006) speaks to his frustrating attempts to reinvigorate even the smallest levels of communication in his ancestral Bidjara tongue. But while such overt use of Indigenous language may be rare among these dispossessed artists, the use of English words as a visual device is a commonplace.

Indeed, much of Vernon Ah Kee’s work is composed primarily of words, be they cut vinyl applied to gallery walls or stenciled on large canvases, the two modes of deployment suggesting either the impermanence or the durability of language through time. With other artists, such as Richard Bell and Gordon Hookey, language is an equal partner with imagery in the expression of the artists’ fury. The Aboriginal whorls and the Pollockian swirls of Scientia e Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) (2003) tell half the painting’s story; the words “Aboriginal Art It’s a White Thing” are integral to the painting’s meaning. Hookey, says Brenda Croft in her contribution to the Artlink survey, “uses language like a bittersweet lover, toying with the structure, punning, alliterating, pulling apart its signifying capabilities to confuse and challenge, to hit with a sucker punch” (p. 52). Bindi Cole’s faux-advertisements rely on marketing hype to make their point about the manipulation of identity through language, and even as visually expressive and inventive an artist as Fiona Foley will construct her message in words. Dispersed is a sculpture of the word itself, 50cm high and 500 long, cast in aluminum and adorned with .30-caliber bullets to punch the point home.

Foley’s work often engages with violence, though often without words, or only glancingly. Her famous No Shades of White series (2008), depicting the Hedonistic Honky Haters in their Ku Klux Klan inspired kente-cloth costumes collapses histories of Africa, North America, and Australia into a single narrative of racist violence. And of course, Hookey’s work is a catalog of violence played out in jails and parliamentary chambers, in courtrooms and on highways. 

Tony Albert has recently engaged with police violence in a series of lyrical and brutal watercolors, Blak ‘n’ Blue (2009), replete with truncheons, dogs, and echoes of Gordon Bennett’s The Nine Ricochets. Vernon Ah Kee can be indirect in his confrontation of violence (“theendofliving / andthebeginning / ofsurvival” reads one wall text). He can also be shockingly overt, as in Cant Chant (wegrewhere), his multi-screen video installation at the Venice Biennale of 2009, excerpts from which can be seen in this video.

Above all, these artists are engaged with questions of identity. What does it mean to be Aboriginal in contemporary, metropolitan Australia? What does in mean to be an artist in such a venue? What is the place of Aboriginal art in the contemporary art world, and how does one present oneself as both Aboriginal and modern?

The uncertainties and ambiguities that come in response to these questions often find expression among these artists in the device of the mask. Masks conceal identities, and they also create them. Again, look back to Fiona Foley’s hedonistic honky haters in their hoods for a chilling examples. The cover of the Artlink issue reproduces an image from Tony Albert’s recent series No Place (2009) in which he has photographed family and friends wearing the elaborate masks of Mexican wrestlers known as luchadores libres. Bindi Cole has documented the “sistagirls” of the Tiwi community of Nguiu on Bathurst Island, transgender men who dress and live as women. 

Dianne Jones has photographed family members in the pose of the Mona LisaJuelisa is demure and could almost stand in for the original, but Murray (both 2005), athletic in a FUBU sweatshirt, is another matter altogether. Similarly, she herself poses in an appropriation of Max Dupain’s famous ode to the Australian beach culture in Sunbaker (2003). Jones piles artifice on artifice in other works, casting herself as James Dean in Close your mouth and open up your heart (2008) and as Andy Warhol’s Elvis in A little less conversation (2008).

Vernon Ah Kee’s strategy moves in the opposite direction to Jones’s. Rather than recreating artworks, be they the Mona Lisa or Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams but with black shearers, Ah Kee starts with historical photographs and makes charcoal portraits out of them. His exquisite series of drawings of family members, some derived from photographs taken by the anthropologist Norman Tindale to document a supposedly vanishing race, some life studies, cast aside artifice. In their simplicity and directness, they answer the question of identity with a matter-of-fact grace. These portraits are contemporary, they are art, they are Aboriginal. They speak of sorrow, and they speak of rage, of loss and of dispossession. 

What these artists all share is the desire to create the self. They do so by engaging with that common history of loss and dispossession, but they also do so by engaging with the broader cosmopolitan world of modern art. For them, modern art is as much a part of their tradition as their Aboriginality. History and art history meet in these works and form a unique and yet at the same time universal statement of selfhood; they define what is Aboriginal about modern art.

Video Link: Djon Mundine launching BLAK on BLAK from Stephen Hooper on Vimeo.

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