I’ll be returning to Australia in a couple of months and one of the places that I am most looking forward to revisiting is the National Gallery in Canberra. I’ve only been twice before. I went first in 1990, when I knew nothing much about Aboriginal art and was frankly more excited about seeing Pollock’s Blue Poles than the Aboriginal Memorial. Another fifteen years passed before my second visit. At that time, far more knowledgeable, I wandered among the 200 mortuary poles in amazement and delighted in the quality of the relatively small number of other works that surrounded them in the main floor gallery.
I could hardly imagine what thirteen galleries might encompass now that the NGA’s expansion has been completed, but I knew that a stop in Canberra had to be on this year’s itinerary. But now I’ll be much better prepared, thanks to the preview I’ve had in the pages of the stunning new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights from the National Gallery of Australia (NGA, 2010, edited by Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana). At over 250 pages and reproducing nearly that many works from the more than 7500 in the Gallery’s collection, this is a substantial and beautiful guide to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Clearly, such an undertaking can hardly be a guide to the collections themselves, but as an introduction to their wonders or as a souvenir of a visit, or even as an elementary text on the subject, it would be hard to surpass what’s held between the covers of this book. At A$29.95, it is an amazing bargain, printed with great care and in superb color on heavy paper stock that will help to make it a lasting addition to anyone’s library.
The organization of the book by and large parallels the organization of the new galleries themselves:
- The Aboriginal Memorial
- 19th Century Objects
- Early Western Desert paintings
- Desert paintings after 1975
- The Kimberley
- Bark paintings and sculpture before 1980
- Hermannsburg School — Gordon and Marilyn Darling Gallery
- Prints and drawings
- North Queensland and Top End after 1980
- Torres Strait Islands
- Urban art
Editors Cubillo and Caruana have provided a brief introduction to the history of the collections and the major exhibitions that have been mounted at the NGA over the years since the Gallery opened. Otherwise they have opted to keep such generalities to a minimum to allow for a focus on the individual works themselves. Each reproduction is accompanied by a brief annotation that provides biographical information about the artist along with explanatory notes that offer insight into the context in which the work was created, the subject matter it addresses, or its place in the larger canon. The twenty-nine contributors to this textual material include the editors themselves along with artists like Djambawa Marawili, Danie Mellor, and Julie Gough, academics Howard Morphy, Luke Taylor, and Ian McLean, and curators Brenda Croft, Stephen Gilchrist, and Margie West among others, all of whom insure the high standard of commentary.
What delights me most about this collection, however, is the selection of works themselves. There are many familiar masterpieces ranging from Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s Rising Sun Chasing the Night Away (1977-78) to Rover Thomas’s Cyclone Tracy (1991), Dennis Nona’s Ubirikurirri (2007), and Mervyn Bishop’s iconic photograph Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory (1975). A nineteenth century shell necklace from Tasmania sits in opposition to a pearl shell and hair string ornament from the Kimberley coast dated to around 1900. There are drawings by Tommy McRae and William Barak, watercolors by Albert Namatjira, ceramic vessels by Thancoupie, and batiks from Ernabella and Utopia, including a superb example from 1981 by Emily Kngwarreye that is hardly distinguishable from some of her painted masterpieces of a decade later.
But more than these well-known examples, the fascinating selection of somewhat atypical or idiosyncratic creations by artists both well known and obscure adds greatly to the enjoyment of this book. From the Kimberley there is an austere black canvas by Freddie Timms and a striking and unusual Paddy Bedford. The Tutini (1984) by Tiwi artist Holder Adams Punguatji has an unusually delicate patterning painted on it, while Glen Farmer Illortaminni’s Jongijongini (egret) ( 2005-06) is a modernist masterpiece in bronze. Alick Tipoti from the Torres Strait is represented not by one of his familiar linocuts but by a hieratic sculpture in rusted steel, pearl shell, and hardwood, Adhaz Parw Ngoedhe Buk (2008) that I certainly hope will be on display when I arrive.
Perhaps my favorite part, though, is the concluding chapter on urban art. There is considerable overlap in artists if not artworks with the selection that Brenda L. Croft made for the 2007 triennial, Culture Warriors. The photomedia (a separate gallery in Canberra) comprises not only the documentary work of Croft herself, Bishop, and Ricky Maynard, but the outer limits work of Destiny Deacon and Christian Thompson. Flipping through pages showing paintings by Robert Campbell Jnr, Ian Abdulla, Trevor Nickolls, and Gordon Hookey gave me a new appreciation for the story-telling abilities of contemporary urbanites; these works offer a fascinating counterpoint to the conceptual creations of Fiona Foley, Julie Gough, and Richard Bell.
The book’s back matter is modest but useful. There is a well-drawn map pinpointing places of origin, a brief glossary of common Aboriginal-language terms employed in the texts, contributor’s biographies, and an index of featured artists.
If you are planning to visit the new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander galleries, a few hours spent in the pages of this book will certainly enrich the experience, whether your acquaintance with Aboriginal art is glancing or deep. And I fully expect that once I’ve been there, I will continue to treasure this work for its reference value and visual delights.