The massive exhibition, My Country: I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, closes at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art on October 7. Thanks to a friend in Brissie, I was able to post photographs of the show almost immediately upon its opening while waiting for the catalog to arrive in the mail. Thanks to an exceptionally busy few months in between, I haven’t returned to talk about the catalog, or my impressions of the show as seen from afar, since then, but I hope to make up for that today, in time for the close.
It has been ten years since Story Place, showcasing the art of Queensland, opened at the QAG at a time when contemporary Indigenous art from Queensland was beginning its ascent in the commercial sphere, challenging the long dominance of the deserts as it dispelled more generic taunts about the impoverished culture of the Sunshine State (“XXXX: how Queenslanders spell “beer”). Since then the rock arts of Laura, the inventions of the Lockhart River Art Gang, and the sculptures of Aurukun, among others, have come to share the stage with an increasingly diverse schedule of traditionally inspired art, while the influence of proppaNOW has reshaped perceptions of metropolitan Indigenous art into cosmopolitan fame. It seems fitting that GoMA should choose this moment to celebrate the breadth of accomplishment in recent Aboriginal Australian art production with a broad survey show that spans the continent’s production.
That continental conceit was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the huge “map” of artistic production that spanned the main gallery display, with works arranged long and high on a wall in such a way that expressed the geographical relationships among their points of origin. In the photographs that I saw, it seemed a brilliant idea, although I have since heard it rather severely criticized. The notion of mapping out Aboriginal art to emphasize the relation of art to country makes intellectual sense. But the concept may have done a disservice to viewers’ ability to appreciate the individual works themselves, which often then had to be viewed from a considerable distance. Detail was sacrificed in some cases, a sense of scale in others. The parts, it was argued, became subordinate to the whole. I can’t offer an opinion on that, other than to say that the whole appears to be striking in its execution.
The wall also masks another strange aspect of the curatorial selection of work for this show: the absence of artists from Arnhem Land. Showing concurrently with My Country is Death and life : rakuny ga walnga : contemporary Arnhem Land art, curated by Diane Moon, which seems to cover the gap. The QAGoMA blog has posted two lovely short pieces about this exhibition, one covering the opening ceremonies, and the other highlighting the recent acquisition of seven stunning mindirr by Margaret Rarru from Milingimbi, charcoal-black conical baskets of tightly woven pandanus. These are included in Death and life, and are among the most gorgeous examples of contemporary fiber work I have seen. But why the segregation of Arnhem Land from the rest of the country? So far I haven’t stumbled upon a commentary. (It appears that there is an electronic book based on the show, but apart from a record of its existence in the catalogue of the National Library of Australia, I haven’t been able to chase down more information about that either.)
In the midst of these virtual explorations, I received the official catalog for My Country from the QAG Store. As I flipped through the pages in the first hour or so, I was quickly lost in the sheer splendor of the works included in this exhibition and in an overall awe for the acumen of the curators who have acquired this work for QAGoMA. There can be no doubt that this represents an extraordinary collection. Some, like the Papunya Tula works from the 1980s or the flying foxes and law poles from Aurukun, are staggering, classic works that I’ve been lucky enough to see in person on previous visits to the Galleries. Others were brand new: Megan Cope’s maps of drowned countries were a revelation (and one that is haunting my mind as I read my way through Alexis Wright’s magisterial and mind-blowing new novel, The Swan Book).
There were family portraits by Brenda L. Croft and Vernon Ah Kee, and another family of Gordon Hookey’s insolent marsupial armies and streetwise ‘roos. Actual families were represented in pairs of works by Sunfly Tjampitjin and Pauline Sunfly Nangala. Either painting would be achingly beautiful seen by itself, but displayed on facing pages of the catalog they are as exquisite a pairing of family history as one could ask for. Different kinds of relationships are likewise foregrounded when Jenuarrie’s linocut of Aboriginal rock art, Stanley Island, Far North Queensland (1987) is set opposite Gordon Bennett’s 1991 Untitled: with images of tall masted ships rocking amidst hatched design work, native fauna, and drowning souls, they form a haunting pair. Visual affinities between Robert Campbell Jr’s Philip’s Landing (1988) and Vincent Serico’s Carnarvon Collision (big map) (2006) likewise only reinforce the horror of repeated invasion. Set these visually sophisticated histories against Nancy Joan Stokes’s four paintings of the The Killing Fields at Attack Creek (2002) (one, above right) and see if your pulse rate doesn’t rocket at their evocation of Edenic horrors.
As I settled in to read the catalog essays, I began to notice a few odd strains that, while not undermining the enterprise of the exhibition, have perplexed me.
Curator Bruce McLean’s introductory piece lays out the thematic schema: the notions of country, history, and life that inform contemporary Aboriginal art. These are organizing principles that allow for the consideration of exceedingly large and overlapping themes that the artists present in their work. Invasion, colonization, subjugation, and cultural loss pervade considerations of history. Personal life is a confrontation with racism, the legacy of those colonial encounters, and McLean astutely observes that there are two sides addressed in much of this work. The grim facts of incarceration and deaths in custody are countered by the insistence upon reconciliation: Gordon Hookey’s Blood on the Wattle, Blood on the Palm confronts Bindi Cole’s I Forgive You, and Tony Albert’s SORRY comments ironically on the process. And finally, bridging all these themes is the notion of country. It is equally the vaunted connection to land and dispossession from it that informs the exhibition.
Following McLean, essays by Hetti Perkins (“My Country”), Brenda L. Croft (“History Always Repeats”) and Glenn Iseger-Pilkington (“Sorry: Keeping Our Histories Alive”) expand upon the basic themes and connect individual works from the show to them. Interviews or statements by Judy Watson, Ruby Tjangawa Williamson, Alick Tipoti, Michael Cook, Tony Albert, and Bindi Cole give direct, personal voice to the larger concerns. Each section, as introduced by the major essays, then presents a selection of work in splendid color, and these pages are the ones that entranced me on first opening the book’s pages.
Now, in the context of the essays, I noticed something about the organization of the catalog (and perhaps the show?) that I missed at first. The work by what we commonly refer to as “traditional” or “remote” artists mostly clusters in the section on country. The essays on life and history are illustrated with the work of urban practitioners, by and large. This segregation struck me forcibly, perhaps because I had just recently finished watching Richard Bell’s SBS series Colour Theory. In each episode, Bell and Perkins were at pains to point out the importance of the connections to ancestral country that informs the work of each of the urban artists they profiled. Indeed, the television show’s didacticism on this point came to feel like a blunt instrument after a very short while. I found it a little disturbing to see My Country seemingly and contrarily reinforce the contested divisions between city and bush.
Luckily, there is an antidote to be found in the unlikeliest of places. Following on the main body of the catalog are two more brief essays that document ancillary activities to the exhibition. José da Silva’s “My Life As I Live It: First Peoples and Black Cinema” offers a brief recap of the film series of work from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, and the UK that played in conjunction with My Country. And Tamsin Cull provides a brief look at the series of activities for children that has been organized by QAGoMA’s Children’s Art Centre through January 2014, and here is where the two otherwise disparate threads of the catalog come together.
Kangaroo Crew is an interactive collection of sculptures, paintings, and games designed to keep the youngsters amused while their elders survey the artwork, but in the best fashion, it is didactic as well as fun. It is based around Gordon Hookey’s The Sacred Hill, a children’s book that is also available from the Museum Store (and well worth the investment). The plot of the book involves four different ‘roos (plains, potoroo, tree, and rock wallaby) who are driven off the sacred hill of their homeland by an invading crew of tough, heartless mynah birds. After a long time in exile, they are rallied by the dream of an old ‘roo to capitalize on their collective strengths to regain possession of the hill. Most of the mynah birds flee, but a few remain behind to share the country with its original denizens.
The twenty-five paintings by Hookey that illustrate the story are done in a slightly softened version of his trademark style; indeed there’s one double-page spread the begins the return to country, full of ranks of ‘roos and subtitled MOB BILISE ACTION, that bears a striking compositional resemblance to the massed, rifle-toting rebels in Blood on the Wattle, Blood on the Palm. (In the children’s version the rifles are gone, and only a few raised fists indicate determination.) What’s so wonderful about this piece is that it manages to knit up the themes of life, history and country, while blending the urban and traditional, with wit and warmth.
But I mustn’t let these philosophical-critical-theoretical considerations distract me from the most important message that this exhibition carries. The art of Aboriginal Australia, as presented in My Country: I Still Call Australia Home is varied and vibrant, stunningly so. The work is endlessly inventive and surpassingly beautiful despite the grim nature of much of the subject matter. The older work included here from the 1980s–be it Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi or Gordon Bennett, stands up to the latest inventions from Tjala Arts and the laneways of Melbourne. The photography and video work is dazzling, the weaving, the linocuts, the assemblage all speak to an exuberance that would be hard to match in another show. I’ve been dismayed by the early and largely negative—not to say ill-informed, but there, I’ve said it—reviews of Australia at the Royal Academy in London. It seems as if the reviewers find the work nothing more than a pale imitation of European traditions, easily dismissed as second-hand and second-rate. Too bad they can’t get a look at McLean’s blockbuster instead.
Below, a link to a brief video clip in which curator Bruce McLean talks about a favorite work from the exhibition, Vernon Ah Kee’s triptych Neither Pride Nor Courage.