The National Gallery of Victoria is 150 years old. As part of the celebration, the Felton Bequest has sponsored the purchase of a vast collection of 21st century art of the Western Desert, here presented under the title Living Water. The intent of this acquisition is to provide depth to the NGV Indigenous collection in an area where there has been enormous growth in productivity over the last decade. There are a few works from PIntupi artists, and from the Spinifex painters to set the scene, but the vast majority of the canvases come from the APY lands, Ngaanatjarra country, or from the territories recently covered so brilliantly by the Canning Stock Route collection at the NMA.
A second part of the sesquicentennial bequest is a collection of artifacts, dating back to the nineteenth century.
The third and final component is a commission from three contemporary, urban-based artists: Brook Andrew, Jonathan Jones, and Vernon Ah Kee.
I won’t take the time today to reflect on the art in great detail, as much of it deserves a thoughtful response that’s not well suited to dashing off a post before dashing off to more meetings and museums as we’re planning to do today.
Instead I’m going to do something that I hope in uncharacteristic: complain a bit.
First of all, we’ve been to the Potter Center twice now, and if we hadn’t been told that there was an exhibition of artifacts, we’d be none the wiser. The second time, we knew it existed, but by the time we arrived at Fed Square, we had forgotten (jet lag, I guess) and nothing about the signage at the Museum reminded us. I think they’re on the second floor, but you can’t take my word for it. Look carefully if you go to visit.
A similar problem exists with the commissioned works. They’re quite literally all over the place. The Brook Andrew piece is hard to miss if you’re taking the escalator to one of the upper levels. The Jonathan Jones sculpture, one of his best works ever (I think) is in a staircase landing off to your right if you come in through the Exhibition Street entrance; otherwise, it is tucked away where you won’t see it.
The Vernon Ah Kee installation, the standout of the entire exhibition, however one defines the exhibition, is set out in a cubbyhole facing a back wall amidst the desert paintings that comprise the bulk of Living Water. Again, if you went looking for it, you might have a hard time finding it; if you stumbled upon it, you might wonder what it was doing there.
The three commissions all honor the memory of William Barak, who was not quite yet the leader at Coranderrk when the NGV was founded 150 years ago. And perhaps this honor also ties in with the collection of artifacts. At any rate, taken together, this all seems to represent the alpha and omega of Aboriginal art—from Barak to Punmu and beyond.