unDisclosed: the Triennial returns

In all the excitement about exhibitions of Aboriginal art here in America, I’ve neglected unDisclosed: the Second National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia until a week before its initial run closes.  (The show will travel around Australia through 2014.)  Delayed two years by funding difficulties in the wake of the GFC, unDisclosed has still proven itself worth the wait.  It is smaller than Culture Warriors: a third fewer artists represented and perhaps only half the number of artworks as the 2007 edition.  But the reduction in size, probably also financially enforced, makes it no less satisfying.  There is a similar breadth, stylistically and thematically, and no shortage of grand works.  Indeed, one of the reasons that a catalog listing might seem shorter this time around is that several of the selections–notably those by Michael Cook and Fiona Foley–are themselves large and complex assemblages.  Cook’s two contributions each contain ten photographs; Foley’s Let a hundred flowers bloom, 34 photographs and 36 brass sculptures (and then some).  unDisclosed is a substantial show in every sense.

One of the Triennial’s imperatives is to survey the state of Aboriginal art over the three years prior to its opening.  Given the diversity of Indigenous art production in Australia today, this is no mean feat, and selectivity will always mean that some aspects of the aesthetic landscape will be neglected.  To state the obvious, there is nothing here from the APY and Ngaanyatjara lands, so ably covered in the NGV’s Living Water.  The Kimberley gets scant attention again, as it did in 2007, represented only by Bidyadanga artist Daniel Walbidi (as Jan Billycan was the sole Kimberley painter in Culture Warriors).  Selectivity and budgets, as I noted, will result in exclusions, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that any of the twenty artists in this show ought to have been turned away in favor of Hector Burton or Rusty Peters, Tjunkara Ken or Mabel Juli.

But when I think about this issue from a historical perspective, I can’t help but feel a bit of disappointment, or unease.  The weight accorded to a “work in series” like a Triennial (or a Biennale) together with the imprimatur of the National Gallery, means that these exhibitions are likely to assume a degree of significance a few decades from now that other surveys may not retain.  And so I have to hope that the Triennials will be able in future years to reflect contemporary practice with a balance of breadth and depth.  I know I’m asking a lot (I always do).  I want the NATSIAA to be especially broad, exploring all the crannies of artistic production in a broad range of media and styles; I want the Triennial to summarize the best in contemporary production, afford us the opportunity to study an artist’s work in multiple examples, and cover the spectrum of creation adequately.

That said, I think that curator Carly Lane (with the NGA’s Franchesca Cubillo’s assistance in editing the consistently beautiful exhibition catalog) deserves our admiration and applause for assembling a show that satisfies so many criteria and demands.  Visitors who come wanting to see work that is familiar and universally lauded will rejoice in the extraordinary beauty of Naata Nungurrayi’s canvases and the imposing presence of Sally Gabori’s vast splashes–though they may be surprised at the austerity of palette in the selections of the latter.  Those who seek to discover something new and challenging will probably pause for extended contemplation of Michael Cook’s intriguingly mysterious meditations on first contact.  For others who desire a sense of explicit continuity with Culture Warriors will no doubt be delighted to encounter Vernon Ah Kee’s work (which also serves to highlight the continuing pain of the injustices on Palm Island that were an important theme in the earlier Triennial), Christian Thompson’s experiments in video, and Danie Mellor’s idiosyncratic environmental explorations.

Indeed, it is hard not to want to compare Lane’s choices and agenda with those of Brenda L. Croft, who curated Culture Warriors: despite the similarities and continuities between the two shows, unDisclosed has a very different feel to it when the comparison is made.  The opening paragraph of Lane’s curatorial essay in the new Triennial’s catalog offered me a clue.

The second National Indigenous Art Triennial, unDisclosed alludes to the spoken and unspoken, the known and the unknown, what can be revealed and what cannot.  The exhibition captures the duality of the disclosed and undisclosed in each of the works of art and within the exhibition itself.  It explores the artists’ motivations and inspirations and hints at the undercurrent of knowledge, stories and histories that artists reveal–or choose not to reveal–in their work (p. 9).

Knowledge, stories and histories: that, I think is the core of this exhibition, the thread that runs through the galleries and thematic divisions around which Lane has organized the work.  Culture Warriors, as its very title declaims, was an exhibition in which politics were foregrounded and politics became the lens through which I viewed the artworks in it.  The politics of culture presented in the metropolitan sensibilities of Gordon Hookey, Daniel Boyd, Christopher Pease, and above all, Richard Bell, were obvious, blatant, inescapable.  But those politics informed a viewing of H. J. Wedge’s nightmarish community scenarios, Treanha Hamm’s reconstructions of lost arts, and Elaine Russell’s mission narratives as well.  Even the privileged status of the “old masters” (Djotarra, Wamud Namok, Mawurndjul, Gudthaykudthay, Pambegan) lent them the aura of taking a political stance in preserving culture against assimilation.

Here, in unDisclosed, Lane has adopted a subtler strategy through the use of history  to elicit an understanding of the works on display.  Rather than issuing a strident call to arms, this is an exhibition that invites contemplation.

Mystery and history meet head-on in obvious ways in Danie Mellor’s surreal landscapes and Michael Cook’s seaside hallucinations.  Nici Cumpston’s lush lakesides intertwine histories of environmental degradation and loss of country.  Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s use of scrap metal, history’s discards, make contemporary creations out of materials that have literally aged: they are old and new at the same time.

Cook, Cumpston, and Connelly-Northey are among  the artists included in this exhibition would nominally be characterized as “urban” artists, and these urbanists constitute half the total number of artists in the show.  These are the people whom “contact history” has shaped and whose engagements with history are overtly engagements with Europeans.  They are also the artists who are more likely to be formally innovative and thus representative of the changes in the art world in the three years (or so) since the last summation.  Yet they hardly represent 50% of even the moderately successful Indigenous artists working in Australia today.  If we are not careful, this imbalance may skew our interpretation of the concept of history in the exhibition.

History is a tricky concept to work with in Indigenous contexts, as Minoru Hokari demonstrated in Gurindji Journey: a Japanese historian in the outback.  The western, positivist, causality-laced view of history that artists like Cook and Mellor are trying to turn on its head is quite different to the view of history written, as Will Stubbs has recently argued in relation to Yolngu art, in a tense that doesn’t exist in English and that encompasses past, present, and future in a single perspective.  These dual views of history generate some of the tension involved in interpreting unDisclosed.

For the “traditional” artists in the show, the meaning of history in their lives remains closer to the concept of “unDisclosed.”    For some, history as displayed here is personal history.  Nyapanyapa’s Sydney Hotel bears witness to her emergent success as a painter and her relationship with Roslyn Oxley’s gallery.  Similarly, Naata Nungurrayi’s use of acrylics indexes a kind of historical encounter between autobiography (her bush childhood in the vicinity of the country of Marrapinti and Unkunya depicted in her works) and the contemporary art market.  And in contrast to Nyapanyapa, Guny’bi Ganambarr’s barks are deeply traditional, despite their formal innovations.

Daniel Walbidi’s Kirriwirri paintings retell his “first contact” with his ancestral homelands rather than his first contact with Europeans.  In this regard he inverts the typical tropes of the genre of history painting as it is normally practiced in the Kimberley, where stories of massacres and the dangers to country imposed by European contact are more the norm among artists like the masters from Warmun.  Alick Tipoti’s mawa masks represent another reclamation of intimate familiarity with a tradition nearly lost.   Josette Marie Orsto’s Jikapayinga (Female Crocodile) may allude to her father Declan Apuatimi’s near-fatal encounter with a crocodile, a story that her mother Jean Baptiste had also painted over the years: a layering of personal histories, perhaps, with Dreaming narratives.  It is harder to penetrate the themes of history in the work of Bob Burruwal and Lena Yarinkura other than to fall back on the concept of the Dreaming and the ahistorical rituals that preserve it.

And so, after weeks of contemplating the exhibition online and poring over the superb catalog, I find I am still wrestling with unDisclosed.  To me, that is the mark of a satisfying and successful exhibition.  Perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to see it in person when I next return to Australia; maybe we’ll all be lucky and it will follow Culture Warriors to America sometime in the future.  In the meantime, I can glimpse a bit of the excitement in this news story about the Canberra opening that I found on YouTube.

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