Making a selection of the best books illustrating the recent history of Australian Aboriginal art proved even harder than choosing among the many superb anthropological studies of Indigenous culture: this short list could easily have been twice as long. In the end I opted mostly for catalogues from major exhibitions that could give the flavor of the incredible diversity and the history of the genre, even if that meant ignoring superb monographs like Emily Kngwarreye: Paintings by Jennifer Isaacs (Craftsman House, 1998) or Scott Cane’s almost metaphysical investigation Pila Nguru: the Spinifex People (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2002). With that caveat, here’s my list, presented this time in chronological order by date of publication.
I suppose I have to say that Geoffrey Bardon started it all with Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (Rigby, 1979), which he later altered and expanded into Papunya Tula: art of the Western Desert (McPhee Gribble, 1991). This is the foundation story of acrylic painting in the desert, the tale of the birth of a movement. Intensely personal and dramatic, it is a story of discovery and heartbreak, of connections made and missed. The biographies of the artists are sometimes more the story of Bardon’s relationships with them, but that fact does not diminish their appeal. But it is well to remember that this is Bardon’s story as much as anyone else.
Dreamings: the art of Aboriginal Australia, edited by Peter Sutton (Braziller/Asia Society, 1988) is the catalogue of the exhibition sent to America to celebrate the Australian bicentenary. Many of us on this side of the Big Pond were introduced to Aboriginal art by this exhibition; for me it was a literally life-changing event, as I think I’ve said more than once before. Although the majority of works included in the exhibition were early barks and desert paintings from the 1980s, there is an attempt to demonstrate the real diversity of artistic achievement, and given that Peter Sutton was in charge of the catalog, one of its delights is the inclusion of sculptures from Aurukun that, along with the toas from the Lake Eyre region in the early 20th century, gave a glimpse of realms that were strange and wonderful and completely unexpected. The essays are almost more significant that the photographs of the art works and for a long time comprised the most significant explication of Indigenous art for audiences outside of Australia.
Bernhard Lüthi curated a truly amazing survey of Aboriginal art for Europeans audiences with Aratjara: art of the first Australians: traditional and contemporary works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (DuMont Buchverlag, 1993). It covers much of the same ground that Sutton traversed in Dreamings, but added so much more. There are numerous photographs of rock art that make connections to the barks of the Top End, and there is a healthy representation of work from artists of urban backgrounds. The essays are briefer than those in the Sutton volume, but also more far reaching in their coverage, and the illustrations are copious and glorious. If Dreamings opened my eyes, Aratjara was revelatory of a brilliance that I’d only had hints of. The English edition was scarce for many years, but lately has come to be regularly available on the internet markets; this book ought to be in every serious collector’s library.
The Eye of the Storm: eight contemporary Indigenous Australian Artists (National Gallery of Australia, 1996) is a slim volume that had a huge impact on my appreciation of contemporary Aboriginal art, as it introduced me to many of the artists included in it: George Milpurrurru, John Mawurndjul, Brian Nyinawanga, Fiona Foley, Ken Thaiday, and Roy Wiggan. With such richness on display, the inclusion of Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye seemed superfluous, almost old hat. I don’t think that I had paid much attention to Indigenous sculpture, if that term can be used to describe Nyinawanga’s bone bundles and Wiggan’s ilma, until I saw this catalogue. But once I had, I was hooked.
Saltwater: Yirrkala bark paintings of sea country (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, 1999) is still, to my knowledge, the only substantial catalogue devoted solely to Yirrkala bark paintings apart from the recent Yalangbara: art of the Djang’kawu (Australian National Museum, 2010). This is a serious omission in the exhibition agenda that ought to be corrected without delay. That said, Saltwater documents the ongoing struggle of the Yolngu to reclaim their rights in country as much as it presents the masterful paintings of generations of important artists. In this respect, it foregrounds the political implications of bark painting in a tradition that goes back to the Yirrkala Church Panels and the Bark Petition. And the work is beautiful.
Beyond the Pale: contemporary Indigenous art: 2000 Biennal of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, by Brenda Croft (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2000) was another revelation for me, this time of the work of urban artists and photographers (Michael Riley, Darren Siwes) in particular. It opened up the beauties of bark painting, especially work from Maningrida that had begun flowering into what I might call abstraction. Before I saw this catalog I had mostly been interested in desert acrylic painting, though I had begun to learn a bit about the art of the Kimberley and the Tiwi Islands. Beyond the Pale took my interest in entirely new directions.
Hetti Perkins and Hannah Fink produced Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000) in time for the Sydney Olympics and the 30th anniversary of the founding of the contemporary acrylic painting movement and filled the catalog with gorgeous reproductions of important artworks and intelligent, multi-faceted essays on the art, artists, and history of the company. I’ve written quite a bit in recent weeks about Papunya Tula’s history and will note here that while this was not the first major retrospective of the company’s work, this catalog is certainly still the most comprehensive and downright gorgeous compilation of the work to be published to date. The essays, ranging from an interview with Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, who died the year the exhibition was mounted, through aspects of history, geography, economics, and aesthetics, are delights, one and all.
Story Place: Indigenous art of Cape York and the rainforest by Lindy Allen (Queensland Art Gallery, 2003) signaled the entry of art from Queensland’s Far North into the marketplace in a major way, building on community operations as diverse as Hopevale and Lockhart River while including neglected artists like Joe Rootsey, and even non-traditional forms like Danie Mellor’s earthenware sculptures. I suspect that Story Place had a huge impact on the fortunes of Queensland artists and inspired the renaissance of painting on Mornington Island and the growth of other art centres around the state. It certainly brought the artists of Aurukun back to the public eye and refreshed my own appreciation for work dimly remembered from Dreamings.
<<rarrk>> John Mawurndjul: journey through time in northern Australia (Schwabe/Crawford House, 2005) is the sole artist’s monograph that I’ve chosen for this list, but I believe that the exception is justified for a number of reasons. The first is the astonishing fact of an Aboriginal artist being given a retrospective in Europe–and with an exhibition that brought bark painting out of the shadows of ethnography and under consideration as fine art. For a while, it seemed as though Mawurndjul’s work was everywhere you turned, helped in part by his direct participation in the creation of work for the Australian Indigenous Art Commission at the Musée du quai Branly the following year. In addition, Mawurndjul’s eloquent and challenging assertions of his stature as a creative artist, so well captured in this volume, stand out as a nearly unprecedented manifesto to the Western art world. And finally, there is the body of work itself: more than two decades of masterful creation, adaptation, and growth that changed the practice of painting on bark in ways whose influence is still being felt today.
One Sun One Moon: Aboriginal art in Australia (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007), curated by Hetti Perkins and Margie West, almost rivals Aratjara in its breadth, but it reflects the significant change in the perception of “an Aboriginal high art” (to use Fred Myers’ phrase) over the intervening fifteen years. One Sun One Moon clearly invokes the accomplishments of a mature, modern art movement with scarcely a glance back towards the traditions of ceremony and ritual. Of all the titles I have chosen here, this is the one that provides the widest scope for considering the achievements of Indigenous artists. I would be hard pressed to recommend a single volume that packs more diversity into its pages, leading me to suggest that if you could own only one book on Aboriginal art, this might well be the one.
That same year, Brenda Croft curated Culture Warriors: national Indigenous art triennial (National Gallery of Australia, 2007) to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the NGA and to celebrate once again the achievements of artists working outside the realm of traditional iconography and expression. Giving a nod to that tradition in the works of five “old masters” (Arthur Pambegan, Jr, D. R. Nakamarra, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Wamud Namok, and Philip Gudthaykudthay), Culture Warriors focuses its attention on the production of art-school trained urban practitioners with a strong political bent (Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Hookey, Christian Thompson, Richard Bell, and Daniel Boyd, among others) and on other artists whose work stands outside the mainstream in form: Treanha Hamm, Dennis Nona, H. J. Wedge. Almost twenty years after Dreamings introduced Aboriginal art to much of the world outside Australia, Croft seemed to set out to redefine the category, and did so brilliantly.
Nici Cumpston and Barry Patton’s Desert Country (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2010) would be notable if only for its expansive inclusion of new works from the APY and Ngaanyatjara Lands, but it is much more than that. It is a comprehensive survey, starting with the Hermmansburg watercolorists, traversing Papunya Tula, Ikuntji, Watiyawanu, Warmun, Balgo, Utopia, the Spinifex/Maralinga cluster, and the Western Desert Mob, before ending in the emergent APY lands. There is a beautiful two-page map of a slice of Australia from the Josephine Bonaparte Gulf to the Great Australian Bight, liberally annotated not just with the locations of art centres, but with place-names significant to many of the artists and paintings. Since the show was drawn from outstanding but under-exhibited collection of AGSA, many of the works included here, while representative, come fresh to the eye.
And finally, there is the great effort of cultural reclamation, as well as a great art show, Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route (National Museum of Australia, 2010). The exhibition was conceived as a project that would record the impact of the intrusion of pastoralists through the heart of Western Australia and the rift that it caused in the land and the people, but told from the Aboriginal perspective. As part of the process of reclaiming that history, Indigenous people were brought back to country and during a six-week excursion along the length of the Stock Route, artists produced 127 stunning canvases documenting their connections to the land. Yiwarra Kuju stands as one of the best examples of how art functions in relation to larger cultural issues, and the catalog is a first-class example of both art history and personal history and how the two are inextricably intertwined.