I have to give the credit to our hosts all along the way. Kristian Pithie warmly welcomed us to the Chapman Gallery with its lovely show of barks from Maningrida and its extraordinary upper room. Howard, Frances and Becky Morphy cooked the best meal I’ve eaten in Australia ever, rabbit with mash and beans, plus crème caramel, ice cream, fresh fruit, apple tart and cream for dessert, and shared their table not only with us but with John Carty and his partner Jess.
At the NGA, Maryanne Voyazis, who we knew from her time in Washington DC, arranged for us be given a tour of the new Indigenous Galleries by Tina Baum before lunch with Simon Elliott, Associate Director for Curatorial and Educational Services. Afterwards Simon took us on a spirited run through the galleries, pointing out all the locations where Indigenous art is displayed throughout the NGA, beyond the new galleries—more about those in a moment.
Simon and Maryanne also took us out to see James Turrell’s Skyspace installation Within Without: this is a work of art not to be missed. Earth art, optical illusion, minimalism, science fiction—take your pick, it’s all there.
And finally, our first visit to the National Museum of Australia, where we managed to catch the Yalangbara show just days before its closing. The exhibition is smaller than I’d anticipated from the gorgeous and generous catalog, and lacked the didactic punch and thrill that I experienced earlier reading the essays. But there is no denying that the artworks included here are brilliant, and the variety of ways in which the Marika clan has represented the Djangka’wu story over the last half century is truly astonishing. To see Banduk’s boogie-woogie linocuts to one side and Mawalan’s earthy ochres to the other is a rare and moving experience.
We were again joined at the NMA by John Carty and enjoyed a very spirited discussion over lunch that ranged broadly. We mulled over ways in which museums and galleries might think about displaying Indigenous art now that the arguments about its status as fine contemporary Australian art are won. We debated what “authenticity” means and how teenagers photographers in Balgo and Yirrkala are continuing the traditions that reach back beyond Uta Uta Tjangala at Yumari. And we argued about the need for a new art history, one that is not bound to the Dreaming stories, but encompasses a broader vision of Indigenous society and the role that art plays in it.
But let me retreat to the National Gallery, for in many ways the new Indigenous galleries are the premier event in Canberra tourism these days. To say that these initial displays are designed to impress is to sell them short. They astonish and overwhelm. Although three of the galleries were closed for repairs to the flooring, what we saw was really more than we could absorb in a day. You start with 19th century artifacts and plunge directly into the early Papunya boards in their shrine-like semi-circular gallery. Then, from the relative darkness of those displays, you enter the cathedral ceilinged, brilliantly lit gallery of desert art since 1975. This gallery is dominated by the large collaborative star dreaming from Yuendumu that graced the cover of many editions of Wally Caruana’s Aboriginal Art, and that is a knockout in itself. But next to it, and nearly as tall (and we’re talking meters), is a work on paper over composition board by Old Tutuma Tjapangarti that has got to be the single most astonishing work of desert art I’ve seen in years. I searched online for an image, but can’t find one: you’ll just have to head for Canberra to see it for yourself It will be worth the trip.
In short, the best visit to Canberra ever, one that has left us pining for a return.
Our first day in Sydney yesterday took us, of course, to the AGNSW and the Yiribana Galleries. Actually, we started out upstairs where there’s a stunning selection of barks from across the Top End in the galleries just to the right as you enter. They are backed by the Tiwi pukumani poles that were the first Indigenous acquisitions for the Gallery, if I’m not mistaken.
Yiribana is elegantly hung this time around: I wouldn’t say it’s understated, but there’s a noticeable absence of flash paintings, the big Sally Gabori being a notable exception. Black and white predominates throughout the hang, be that in the works of Vernon Ah Kee (a gorgeous “portrait” from the Unwritten series and a large text piece), the prints by Lily Sandover and Kitty Kantilla that hang next to a large diptych by Marie Josette Orsto, ochres by Mabel Juli and Freddie Timms, or the pair of Body Marks paintings by Prince of Wales. More barks here as well, austere early works from Western Arnhem Land in contrast to the gorgeous contemporary interpretations of Barupu Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, flanking severe and beautiful larrakitj by Gulumbu, Djirrirra, Djambawa and others.
One of the highlights for us was the video installation, Picturing the Old People, by Genevieve Grieves—the first time we’ve had the chance to see her work in person. It consists of five panels, each depicting a group of Indigenous people being arranged for a portrait in the style of the 19th century “documentary” photographers. It is funny at times, moving and sad at others, and quite mesmerizing.
Today I’m off to give a talk at a local TAFE, and tonight it’s Bangarra at the Opera House. Sydney promises to be even more awesome than Canberra.