Forward Thinking: Cologne Reconsiders Aboriginal Art

It has been less than twenty years since the Cologne Art Fair created a legend when it refused Gabrielle Pizzi the right to show there in 1994.

After taking all aspects of your application into consideration, it was not possible to grant you selection for Art Cologne 1994 because you do not exhibit authentic Aboriginal art, as the ’93 exhibition jury observed, but contemporary art by artists following in this tradition. As you know, or as you can see from the conditions of participation, folk art is not permitted at Art Cologne. (Quoted by John McDonald in “A Snub for Aboriginal Art.” Sydney Morning Herald, August 5, 1994, archived at KooriWeb.)

Remembering Forward Museum LudwigLast week the premier venue of Modernism in Germany, Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, opened Remembering Forward: Australian Aboriginal Painting since 1960.  According to co-curator Emily Joyce Evans, speaking in a video prepared for Vernissage.TV, “The basic idea behind the exhibition … has been to show this art as art. …  What does it mean for a museum like the Museum Ludwig that is fairly well known for large exhibitions of abstract painting to bring in these paintings that look abstract and we know that they’re not?  We know that there are many levels of complexity.”  Questions of authenticity have been banished in favor of an attempt to understand the place of contemporary Indigenous painting in the larger global art context.

Or, as in his catalog essay, “The Authenticity of Australian Aboriginal Painting in the Age of Globalization,” Ian McLean puts it: “There is only one reason for the Museum Ludwig to exhibit Aboriginal art: Aboriginal men and women from remote Australia have been producing the very best paintings of our times.”

Before I go any further, I should make it clear that there is no institutional connection between Art Cologne and the Museum Ludwig, nor any connection between the curators of the present show and the decision makers of 1994.  There is merely the geographical coincidence of the city of Cologne.  However, that coincidence does serve to highlight the changes in the perception of Aboriginal art that have occurred in Germany, Europe, and around the world in the intervening years.

Remembering Forward is built first of all on the works of nine artists, all of whom are superstars and heavy hitters in the art market (Paddy Bedford, Emily Kngwarreye, Queenie McKenzie, Dorothy Napangardi, Rover Thomas,  Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Clifford Possum and  Tim Leura Tjapalatjarri, and Turkey Tolson Tjungurrayi).  Curator Evans calls this a deliberate decision to focus on individuals rather than to attempt a survey show.

There is, however, a survey within the show, and that is of bark paintings from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (supplemented by a handful of works from the Museum der Kulturen in Basel).  Specifically, these are paintings collected in 1959-60 by Stuart Scougall and Tony Tuckson for the Art Gallery.  As such they are representative of the earliest efforts at collecting these paintings as art, as are the Basel pieces, which come from the collections brought back to Europe by Karel Kupka as examples of “the dawn of art.”  Their inclusion here seems intended to provide some balance to the definition of Aboriginal painting as art: the aesthetic qualities of the works in the exhibition have been validated by the complementary spheres of marketplace and museum.

The nine artists are well served by the selection of paintings included here.  Many are of the absolute highest quality–the Paddy Bedfords are an unusually fine and consistent lot–and all the works are representative of the artists’ signature styles.  As such, they provide a superb introduction to Aboriginal art to a European audience that may be unfamiliar with the work while at the same time arguing strongly for the aesthetic merits of the movement.

The selection of bark paintings is, as a whole, less successful.  There are major artists included–Binyinyuwuy, Djawa, Lipundja, and Midjawmidjaw among others–but the decision to emphasize historical significance over modern mastery is not a happy one in my opinion.  None of the works here have the majesty of some of the acrylic or ochre paintings; I cannot imagine being breathtaken in front of any of them for the first time as I have been by Mawurndjul or Wunungmurra.  Somehow these paintings seem consigned to history rather than embodying it.

Indeed, the exhibition’s preoccupation with history, even with the nine superstars, is just slightly disappointing.  There are only two living artists in the entire show, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Dorothy Napangardi.  Tjampitjinpa’s work, with a single excpetion from 2001, all dates to the 80s and early 90s.  Dorothy Napangardi’s canvases were all painted within the last ten years, as were Paddy Bedford’s, but otherwise, the vast majority of the works on display date back two decades or more.

The emphasis on historicity does gain added strength through the essays that accompany the show in the excellent catalog; indeed, this is one of the finest assemblies of writing on Aboriginal art that I have seen in many a year, and one of the most thought-provoking and thematically unified ever.

In the catalog’s introduction, co-authored by the three curators, a fundamental insight by Ian McLean announces the theme that is explored in fascinating ways by essayists Judith Ryan, Fred Myers, Djon Mundine, Richard Bell, and McLean himself.  They write:

Modernism, according to his thesis, is the fundamental condition of life in times of globalization. The lives of the painters, from Papunya to Warmun to Yirrkala, were marked by colonization, by the usually painful encounter with White settlers. McLean thus tried to understand the attitude towards life and the painting of Aboriginal people living in remote regions as an unbroken, lived Dreaming in a modern manner. The phenomenon of Aboriginal art can thus be reconciled with modern art history and integrated into the social history of globalization without abandoning its crucial difference and uniqueness. If the modern era produced globalization, then Aboriginal art is also a child of this modernism (p. 10).

Taking this statement as a starting point, we can discard the familiar debates about Aboriginal painting (to stay close to the medium of the exhibition) as craft vs art, as art vs ethnography, as contemporary vs traditional.  It’s a liberating thesis, whether you finally agree with it or not, and it enriches the essays that bring depth to the exhibition in satisfying ways.

For example, if you look at the famed origin story of Geoffrey Bardon at Papunya in the light of globalism, you can see the outburst of Pintupi painting as a lament for the loss of homeland, as Bardon insisted, and see that loss in the context of colonialism, which Bardon did less explicitly.  Globalization is transformative, and one of the ways that it transformed Indigenous expression was by making available the acrylics and canvas–indeed even the cast-off boards and cupboard doors that became the supports for those early artworks.  The Pintupi painters created something new for themselves and for the rest of the world out of the detritus of modern life in Papunya.

In his contribution, “What Did Paintings Want? —  Pintupi Painting at Yayayi in the 1970s,” Fred Myers details the nature of the relationships between the painters and the shadowy government they called “Canberra.”  It is a theme that Myers has examined from many angles over the years, and in his hands, it never loses any of its luster; there is always something new to be learned, a new beam of light refracted off a facet unseen until now.  Here, Myers looks at the painters’ will–desired, frustrated, occasionally achieved–to establish a reciprocal exchange between themselves and Canberra, with paintings being “traded” for motorcars.

The motorcar is itself an emblem of the transformation wrought by globalization: travels to country can be achieved by driving rather than by footwalking.  What makes the motorcar both desirable and necessary is the immense distance that had to be navigated by the 1960s and 1970s.  That distance resulted from forced dislocation, the usurpation of natural resources, and the destruction of the local economy that followed colonization.

Politics is never far from the surface of Remembering Forward, and it comes to the fore in the two contributions by Indigenous authors included in the catalog.  Djon Mundine’s “A Personal History of Aboriginal Art” takes as its starting metaphor Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which the British protagonist arrogates to himself the authority to name his island and his companion (“Friday”): a very small instance of declaring terra nullius.  He then moves on to an examination of Frantz Fanon’s analysis of identity in the post-colonial state and its relevance to the development of Aboriginal art.  In the progress (if I can use the word) from the subjugated population’s imitation of the colonial culture, through rejection of it, idealization of the indigenous culture, and finally a “mature rationalization of both historical and current influences to a true national expression and self-image” (p. 148), Mundine sees a pattern that might be applied to the history of Aboriginal art from William Barak to the present.

The catalog also reprints the essay that Richard Bell wrote in 2003 in conjunction with the painting that won him the top prize at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award that year: “Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art–It’s a White Thing.”  His thesis is straightforward and by now famous:

Aboriginal art has become a product of the times. A commodity. The result of a concerted and sustained marketing strategy, albeit one that has been loose and uncoordinated. There is no Aboriginal art industry. There is, however, an industry that caters for Aboriginal art. The key players in that industry are not Aboriginal (p. 153).

Bell’s provocations extend far beyond his attack on Modernism and the gallery system that supports it.  He pummels not only art galleries and anthropologists, but the very foundations of notions of reconciliation and Native Title.  He whips the well-meaning, including people he characterizes as “BINTs” (Been in the Northern Territory) and Bookees (those who learn everything they know from books and BINTs).  After seven years, this essay has lost none of its power to unsettle and embarrass, perhaps because so little has changed.

Ian McLean’s essay closes the volume and turns the screw one final revolution by suggesting that modernism and globalization do not belong only to the West but by their very nature have become universal.

While we tend to think of globalization as being driven by Western ideas and technologies that homogenize the cultural diversit y of the world, it is also the product of other traditions adapting to and producing their own modernities. This is the source of globalization’s cultural richness. Indigenous communities are not closed to modernity. They readily incorporate its ideas and practices into their world view and their art; and this openness to the new is largely why their traditions have, despite all the predictions of experts, survived and contributed to the new cultural space of globalization. If at every turn Indigenous people find themselves fighting intense political battles against the institutions of modernity and globalization, these institutions are the lingua franca of our times. They structure our thought, including Aboriginal thought. Who then owns modernity and its language? (p. 170)

McLean’s essay was clearly written specifically for Remembering Forward and yet I find that his comments on Modernism in the global context, on the history of Australian Aboriginal painting, and on exhibitions of Aboriginal art to be broadly relevant not just to the current show but to an exhibition as dissimilar to it as the great Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, which first appeared under the direction of Bernhard Lüthi at another German museum, Düsseldorf’s Kunstsammling Nordrhein-Westfalen in 1993.  Indeed, the current exhibitions reflections on globalism might serve as a central thesis for an entirely different survey show of Aboriginal art: I am thinking in particular of Brenda L. Croft’s Culture Warriors.

Culture Warriors, from the National Gallery of Australia, celebrated truly contemporary art, most of the pieces in it having been executed within a few years of its opening in 2007.  It paid homage to five “masters,” a code word for artists who work in more traditional visual vocabularies and media: John Mawurndjul, Arthur Pambegan Jr, Waud Namok, Philip Gudthaykudthay and (least traditionally, oddly) D. R. Nakamarra.  The majority of the other artists included in that exhibition were of the “urban” school of Aboriginal art, often university-educated, explicitly political, and not easily identifiable by European and North American audiences as “Aboriginal.”

And yet despite the visual, temporal, and temperamental differences between the artists represented in Remembering Forward and Culture Warriors, there is a profound connection, in the galleries and on the page, that is achieved by the Cologne exhibition.  As such, Remembering Forward may come to stand as an important moment in the history of international exhibitions of Indigenous Australian art.

Remembering Forward will be on display at Museum Ludwig in Cologne through March 20, 2011.

Acknowledgement: My thanks to Laura Parker and Paul Holberton Publishing for conveying to me galley proofs of the English-language catalog for Remembering Forward, and without whose assistance this essay would still be but a dream.

Remembering Forward

Click on the image above to link to the video of Emily Evans discussing "Remembering Forward: Aboriginal Painting Since 1960" at Museum Ludwig

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5 Responses to Forward Thinking: Cologne Reconsiders Aboriginal Art

  1. greg says:

    I would hope that Bell’s nihilistic position – ending his essay “there is no hope,” for example – is less viable today, in the wake of Rudd’s late but heartfelt “sorry” day, then it was in 2002 when Bell wrote his bitter manifesto. The piece is marbled with internal contradictions, as it begins with what appears to be a lament about the transformation of aboriginal art as a commodity, and ends with a business-oriented complaint about the resulting percentage split. (His arguments about art centers skimming profits from artists, which weirdly echo those made by an interloper who recently schemed to take over Papunya Tula, ignores the cross-subsidizing nature of the centers and their use of income brought in by ‘masters’ to cultivate new talent, and in the process creating a reward system for passing cultural knowledge from one generation to the next).
    But the most questionable part of Bell’s manifesto for me is his assault on ‘book learned’ knowledge about aboriginal people and culture. As an American academic – and not one of Bell’s detested anthropologists – who lived and worked in Australia for years, I remained amazed at the utter lack of interest expressed by my design students and faculty colleagues regarding aboriginal art and culture. When I would ask for tips for what to see on my first trip to Kakadu or the central desert, the standard reply was: dunno, never been – this from people who had traversed China, sunbathed in Thailand, hiked Kilimanjaro. Call me an enlightenment junkie, but it seems to me that a bit of ‘bin to NT’ and ‘book learning’ on the part of Australia’s majority population could go a long way in addressing the indignities and injustices suffered by generations of first Australians, both those living in country and city alike.

  2. Pingback: rethinking Indigenous modernism | iconophilia

  3. Pingback: Art and Ethnography in France | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  4. janine says:

    great site
    very informative
    happy new year!!

  5. Pingback: Aboriginal Academy | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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