If you have seen a major exhibition of Indigenous Australian art just about anywhere in the world, the odds are good that you have seen works from the collection of Sydney’s Colin and Elizabeth Laverty.
The Lavertys have lent, by request, more than 300 different Aboriginal artworks by 98 different artists to more than 60 galleries in Australia, including the National, all state and many regional galleries. Paintings by 48 different artists have also been lent by request, to prestigious museums in 12 countries overseas, including the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the Hayward Gallery in London, the Tinguely Museum in Basel, the National Museum of Art in Osaka, the National Art Centre in Tokyo and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany .
Three years ago, the Lavertys published a spectacular survey of their collection, which they have now followed up in a second edition, Beyond Sacred: Australian Aboriginal art: the collection of of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty (Kleimeyer, 2011).
I wrote twice on the publication of the first edition (here and here) and I will note again for the record a certain lack of impartiality, given that I was asked to author one of the four introductory essays for the volume. And I am delighted to be back in print and once again in the company of fellow essayists Howard Morphy, Judith Ryan, and the late Nick Waterlow.
The second edition has plenty to offer that is new. To begin with, it is 50 pages larger and introduces around seventy works not included in the earlier publication. Some of these are new works that the Lavertys have acquired in recent years: a dramatic painting by Tjungkara Ken from Amata, bright gouaches by Rammey Ramsey, a painting and etchings by Papunya Tula Artist Nyilyari Tjapangati, and an exquisite large canvas from 2008 by M. Napanangka. A wonderful bark by John Mawurndjul, painted in 2004, depicts Ngalyod Rainbow Serpent in a manner that marries the artist’s early and late styles in a single painting. There is a new section featuring an expanded selection of paintings by Sally Gabori, introduced with a new essay by Dallas Gold of Raft Artspace.
One of the surprising delights in the new edition is a selection of sculptural pieces by Baluka Maymuru. Baluka, a senior member of the Manggalili clan, is the son of Narritjin’s brother Nanyin and brother of Naminapu Maymuru-White. He won the 2006 Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award with a set of three larrakitj (mortuary poles) but the works in the Laverty collection are quite another thing. They resemble to a degree the sculptures of Terry Yumbulul (another artist collected by the Lavertys) in their idiosyncratic shapes that feature portrait faces. The iconography, however, is distinctly and immediately recognizable as classical Manggalili: the thunderclouds and breast girdles, and the symmetrical tripartite organization that reflects the landscape at the clan’s Djarrakpi homeland. They have the ovoid shape derived from the yingapungapu (a sand sculpture associated with burial ceremonies).
But all that is new to the second edition is not new, or not newly created. There are exquisite older paintings by Rusty Peters, majestic compositions by Butcher Cherel, and a lovely trio of bark paintings from Wadeye that capture the 1960s style of painting from that community with subtle elegance.
There are new photographs by Richard Woldendorp in addition to the familiar and magisterial landscapes by Peter Eve. A sunset portrait of Butcher Cherel by Stephen Oxenbury is a work of art in its own right. As in the earlier edition, the photographs of the landscapes in which the artworks are created are both dazzling in their own right and illuminating of the art. There are more landscapes as well this time around and they provide a splendid complement to the paintings.
In the winter of 2008, shortly after the first edition’s publication, the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery (NRAG) under Ron Ramsey’s direction mounted an impressive presentation of Indigenous works from the Laverty collection. Next weekend a new show opens at NRAG called “Laverty 2.” It promises to be a premier exhibition of contemporary Australian art, drawing not only from the Indigenous canon but also from the Lavertys’ extensive holdings of contemporary non-Indigenous Australian painting. As one of the expressed purposes behind Beyond Sacred was the collectors’ desire to present Aboriginal work as contemporary art, this show ought to be a fascinating survey and an illuminating lesson into the Lavertys’ aesthetic vision. (Visitors who arrive before the end of May will also have a chance to see another exhibition of Indigenous art, curated by Una Rey, Speaking in Colour, which features work from the Kimberley coast, the Tiwi Islands, and the watercolorists of Central Australia.)
Reviewing the first edition of Beyond Sacred for artcritical: the online magazine of art and ideas, Joe Fyfe noted for us Yanks that “until a long overdue survey show hits these shores, this volume appears the most definitive substitute.” I’d go one better and says that there is an international truth to Fyfe’s observation. It would be hard to find a more comprehensive (and a more gorgeous) collection of works by contemporary Indigenous artists than can be located within the pages of this book. The Lavertys’ collection is distinguished by the impeccable taste of its creators, by their passionate commitment to the artists and the communities they come from, and by their contributions to just the kind of broad survey shows that we see all too rarely anywhere in the world.