Art at the ANU

When I think about looking at Aboriginal art in Canberra, my thoughts immediately turn to the National Gallery, and in more recent years, to the National Museum where collections and curatorial programs combine in exhibitions that are aesthetic delights and pedagogic inspirations.  But although I’ve visited the Australian National University’s Drill Hall Gallery and own several catalogs of Indigenous shows that have been mounted there over the years, the ANU is rarely a destination in itself.  Maybe for that reason, the discovery of Indigenous Art at the Australian National University (Macmillan, 2009) took me completely by surprise.  The publication is the catalog of an exhibition that was held at Drill Hall in 2009, and somehow I must have turned my radar off for a few months back then.  I’m glad I’ve finally caught up again.

Edited by Claudette Chubb and Nancy Sever, large in format, copiously illustrated in full color, and graced by a series of first rate essays, this publication serves equally well as an introduction to Indigenous art making for those with only a passing acquaintance and as a trove of documentation for the connoisseur.

The book’s appeal lies first of all in the selection of works that grace the various collections of Aboriginal art housed in departments across the University.  The quality of the paintings, artifacts, and prints is uniformly high, but they are not the flash, blockbuster kinds of work that typically adorn the walls of major touring exhibitions.  Indeed, many of them were collected for the ANU in the days before the words “blockbuster” and “Aboriginal art” were routinely found in the same sentence.  Instead they are most often exquisite gems, representative of the places and times of their creation, usually by first rate artists, and yet somehow appealingly modest in design and execution.  But to the student of the genre’s history, they can be endlessly fascinating and enriching.

An introductory essay by Mary Eagle sets the stage for the more extensive contributions that follow by some of the leading scholars of Indigenous art attached to the University.  The essays are sometimes geographical in focus, sometimes thematic, but always illuminating and refreshingly diverse in the manner in which they approach their subjects.

For example, the first contribution, by Melinda Hinkson and Kim Barber, details the work brought back to the ANU by W. E. H. Stanner during his field work in the Port Keats area in the middle years of the twentieth century.  If you own a copy of Stanner’s collected essays, White Man Got No Dreaming, you’ll immediately recognize Nym Bandak’s All the World (1958-59), which was reproduced on the endpapers of that volume, although not with quite the glowing color found here.  If you’ve read An Appreciation of Difference: W. E. H. Stanner and Aboriginal Australia (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008, edited by Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett), you’ll be familiar with some of the stories and biographical details re-presented in this essay.  But to read those stories again in the context of the paintings in the ANU collections is to gain a new appreciation for both the art of the Port Keats region and for Stanner’s contributions to the recognition of Indigenous visual culture.

If Margie West’s essay on Tiwi art is all to brief, Jon Altman and Luke Taylor’s extended explication, “Too Many Dreamings: diversity and change in bark paintings from West Arnhem Land” is satisfyingly encyclopedic.  Beginning in the west with paintings from Kakadu and the Stone Country and proceeding eastwards through Kunbarlanya, Maningrida and on towards Ramingining and through time from the 1960s to the twenty-first century, the authors offer a primer on the stylistic diversity and cultural changes the region encompasses.

A 1972 Kunabibi Ceremony painting attributed to Nym Djumurgurr is a vibrant forest of frogs; a pair of exquisite barks by Dick Ngueingulei Murramurra re-affirm his masterful draftsmanship.  Equally stunning is a 1984 example from the Nganjmira family (they almost deserve to be called a school); painted on bark by Peter Nganjmira, Yawk Yawk Spirits with Ngalyod at Malworn is a classic of the genre that is too often only seen these days on paper.  In tracing the development of painting around Maningrida the authors skillfully juxtapose Mick Kubarkku and Ivan Namirrkki’s work to greart effect.  Similarly the appearance on facing pages of a Barramundi (1982) by the little known Big Bill Biriya Biriya with a late and very abstract depiction of the waterhole at Milmilngkan (2008) by John Mawurndjul constitutes a minor essay on both continuity and change in the region over three decades.  The chapter closes with a reproduction of Brian Nyinawanga’s screenprint Visions of the City (1993).  A portrait of Sydney dominated by the Centrepoint Tower, it evokes Kubarkku and Malangi in a stylistic map of west Arnhem Land as much as an interpretive map of the metropolis.

Howard Morphy’s contribution on the art of Yirrkala is a delightful memoir of his own engagement with the artists of that community (and especially the extended family of Narritjin Maymuru), a general survey of the clans and styles of Yolngu painting, and a detailed explication of the meaning of selected individual paintings.  The sweep of the personal and historical, the general and the specific, mirrors the strengths of the book overall: novice and initiate alike will come away with an enhanced appreciation for the complexity and sophistication of this work.

Turning to the deserts, we’re treated to a pair of essays that capture first the historical context of the emergence of Aboriginal art at Papunya and second some of the “contemporary trajectories” this work is following.  In the first case, Nicolas Peterson offers “The Cultural Context of Art from the Desert.”  Although he concludes with reflections on the art in the marketplace, his approach to his subject is informed by the notion that the early works to emerge from Central Australia in the 1970s are above all religious art.  Peterson here gets beyond the customary tropes of the secret-sacred and the everlasting Dreamtime to provide insight into the system of belief that underlies the painting and the ceremony.  A selection of Papunya boards from the first three years of production capably illustrates Peterson’s narrative, but the real visual delight here is a set of painted shields, mostly dating from 1980 and executed by Warlpiri men from Yuendumu before the practice of painting in acrylic on canvas was jumpstarted in that community.  The vibrant colors and dynamic designs, especially in Tim Langdon Japangardi’s Pamakurlangu and a Possum Dreaming by an unknown artist, are a wonder to behold.

Warlpiri women hold pride of place at the start of Alison French’s subsequent essay on desert art and again it is a collection of paintings on coolamons and dancing boards that shimmer, pulsate, and astonish the eye.  French moves from Yuendumu to Utopia to continue her explorations of women’s contributions to desert painting before concluding with an appreciation of the legacy of the painters of the Hermannsburg School to the contemporary art scene.  Unfortunately, it appears that the ANU collections don’t include any work by the first woman to participate in the experiments with watercolor, Cordula Ebatarinja, nor the numerous present-day female descendants of Namatjira.

The final two essays in the book approach their subject not from the perspective of geography, but of genre.  Nigel Lendon’s “Groundwork: the advent of the Indigenous print in Australia” is an excellent survey of graphic work from the 1970s and 1980s, an area all too often neglected in general surveys of Aboriginal art.  I knew, of course, about Banduk Marika’s experiments in the context of the Boomalli collective, but I was unaware of the extensive contributions that the ANU’s printmaking workshops made to development of printmaking among Aboriginal artists.  (I had no idea that these etchings by Narritjin existed!).  Master printmaker Theo Tremblay curated a significant exhibition of Indigenous prints in 1992 entitled New Tracks Old Land: contemporary prints from Aboriginal Australia, and I’ve now gone off in search of that catalog, which is happily still available on the secondary market.

Editor Nancy Sever closes the volume with a brief look at some of the leading practitioners of painting and printmaking working in metropolitan Australia.  Here again there is a refreshing balance of the familiar (strong work by Julie Dowling and Ian Abdulla) with the lesser known (an early painting by Gordon Hookey, a pencil drawing by Harry Wedge), and even an installation piece by Djon Mundine, executed in collaboration with Fiona Foley.

As Mary Eagle points out in her introduction, the Australian National University has long been a nexus between government, academe, and Indigenous peoples.  W. E. H. Stanner, Nugget Coombs, Gough Whitlam, Narritjin Maymuru, Djon Mundine, Howard Morphy, and all the other contributors to this volume form just a partial roll call of the distinguished citizens who have met there to advance the country’s understanding of its Indigenous culture.  Discovering this volume and the treasures it documents can only increase our appreciation for the work that continues to take place there and radiate outwards into the world.

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