I’m beginning to wonder if naming something “Australia” is a bad idea. I’m not quibbling about the continent and country. But there was that Baz Luhrmann film that attracted a lot of flack. And now there’s this show over in London. Look, I’m no fan of John Olson, never have been, but I did think that the “cascade of diarrhoea” was a bit much. I’m no fan of Grayson Perry either, but the orange plastic platform shoes and blue plastic lunchbox man purse were really pretty tacky attire for an opening at the Royal Academy in my book. (The man could really do with some fashion tips from old Eddie Izzard videos, but that’s another matter.) If all you did was read the press, you’d think that an epidemic of bad taste had overtaken Picadilly. Or overtaken Picadilly again, depending on your views on neon advertising.
I did get the impression that many people who visited the show thought that the Indigenous work was the strongest and most interesting part of the exhibition. But even there, among those who had some familiarity with the art, a plague of crankiness erupted. There were complaints about hanging Emily Kngwarreye’s Big Yam Dreaming way up over a large doorway; the gist of the problem was that it was a painting about things that grow underground, and so it shouldn’t be stuck ten feet up in the air. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that argument. The problem with putting Big Yam Dreaming ten feet up in the air over a large doorway is that it makes it look as though the exhibition has run out of room and they had to stick in somewhere. Emily deserves better than that.
In the end, there was only one thing to do short of getting on a plane and seeing the show for myself, which wasn’t going to happen. So I ordered the catalog from Amazon.co.uk. (That was another problem: the catalog was ubiquitously advertised and unavailable, even from the museum shop itself, for weeks after the show opened.)
Having leafed through the entire catalog a few times now, I can only figure that all the negative reviews in the British press were a manifestation of the cultural cringe. They were just embarrassed to have been outclassed by the cosmopolitan engagement with trends in European art that the artists from Down Under have evinced over the past two hundred years. There is a boatload–a fleetful if I may–of great painting in this show. I’ve seen a lot of it before, in person: the McCubbins and the Robertsons, the von Guerards and the Heysens, the Fred Williams and the Margaret Prestons. But there were plenty of surprises too, like the silversmith Henry Steiner, whose works from the 1860s and 1870s make you wonder whether Danie Mellor has been communing with the old fellow’s spirit.
But of course, my primary interest was to see the Indigenous work that Wally Caruana and Franchesca Cubillo have selected. It’s unfortunate that the London designers succumbed to the “oldest culture” canard and chose to place this work at the start of the exhibition and the catalog, as though it weren’t more contemporary than half the work in the contemporary section. Wally and Franchesca’s essay attempts to correct the primitivising predilection by offering succinct readings of individual works, elucidating their meanings without reference to timelessness and antiquity. But above all, I have to say that the selection of works is magnificent. In truth, if the Indigenous works were mounted as a stand-alone show in any state gallery or museum anywhere, it would be an impressive exhibition in its own right.
The presentation in the catalog opens with the oldest painting by an Indigenous artist in the show, a bark by an unidentified artist dated to c. 1884 showing Nabudi Spirit Woman with Possum, Magpie Goose, and Fish. The wood is splintered into two fragments of unequal size, the edges are abraded, and the ochres have faded. For all that, it retains its qualities of an icon, with the ghostly eyes of the spirit woman confronting the viewer as she presents the bounty of the landscape.
From there we are thrust right into the modernity of bark painting . Yirawala’s Kundaagi – Red Plains Kangaroo (1962) may be chronologically an early instance of a new movement, but paired with Mawurndjul’s Rainbow Serpent’s Antilopine Kangaroo, painted nearly three decades later, it demonstrates what a visionary the older painter truly was. In some ways these two paintings exert more power and more visual dazzle even than the two later works by Mawurndjul that are included, although the NGA’s 2006 Mardayin Design at Dilebang is a standout among the artist’s less overtly referential designs of the current century.
The barks from eastern Arnhem Land are chosen with equal care to represent the area’s stylistic diversity. Munggurawuy Yunupingu’s Fire Story at Caledon Bay (1963) is a classic, gridded structure, while Mawalan Marika’s The Milky Way (1965) is a looser, sprawling display of virtuosity. The star-dotted central black river of the sky is surrounded by a variety of mythic figures strewn across a background of stars placed on the field of clan cross-hatching. The astute observer will be delighted by the comparison to a 2007 rendition of Garak, the Universe by Gulumbu Yunupingu with its subtle color shifts that capture the essence of the Milky Way long before the tiny stars reveal themselves.
The most startling works among the selection of barks, though, have to be the pair by Loftu Bardayal Nadjamerrek. Dead Man, from 1968, a grimly articulated skeletal figure, has enormous, visceral power, but the majestic vision of the escarpment in The Artist’s Country, Liverpool River (1975) with its blocks and bands of ochres floating one atop another, all surmounted by a row a skeletal trees, must stand as one of the most daring and original of the great artist’s great works. A trio of small paintings from Groote Eylandt and the Tiwi lands round out this section of the exhibition.
A few small works on board from the Central Desert (Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, and the extraordinarily beautiful Secret Sandhills by Timmy Payungka Tjapangarti) might whet the appetite, but the curators have pulled out all the stops with a series of eye-blasting masterpieces: Anatjari Tjakamarra–whorls upon whorls–standing in contrast to the linear delights of Turkey Tolson’s Straightening Spears at Ilyingaugnau (courtesy of AGSA) and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s Rain Dreaming at Nyunmau, late of the Laverty Collection and now in the collection of the NGA. AGSA has also loaned Uta Uta Tjangala’s monumental Old Man’s Dreaming, which holds its own even when put up against the familiar delights of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Warlugulong and Emily’s great black-and-white Big Yam Dreaming. The early men’s collaborative Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming) from Yuendumu makes a formidable complement to the celestial images from Yirrkala. There is a kind of visual harmony between Gulumbu’s painting and Dorothy Napangardi’s large Sandhills of Mina Mina (2000) from the NGA, which likewise resonates strongly with Doreen Nakamarra’s jagged delineation of her sandhill country around Marrapinti.
What is striking about the selection of these desert works is the combination of visual austerity and grandeur that they embody. I am struck once more by how inadequate any comparison to Western painting turns out to be: to suggest that some of these works are minimalist or partake of Abstract Expressionist tendencies is to miss their essential qualities, even if one isn’t equipped to penetrate the stories, rituals, and beliefs that animate them. This tension between the attempt to come to terms with desert painting via Western routes and the pure phenomenological impact of the visual experience is perhaps best exemplified by the Marumili Artists’ collaborative Ngayarta Kujarra (2009) on load from the NGV. This solitary and stunning example of the recent efflorescence of color handling in the deserts, with its enormous expanse of salt-pan white would provoke comparisons to Minimalism were it not for the insistence of the riot of color that surrounds the image of the lake, a border in which pastels and primary colors battle and blend together to remarkable effect.
Two iconic paintings by Rover Thomas, Roads Meeting (1987) and Cyclone Tracy (1991) will no doubt be the images that most visitors take away from the exhibition of painting from the Kimberley, and that is a shame in some ways. The other two ochre paintings the curators have chosen–both of them built to an extraordinary scale–are a haunting pair. Queenie Mackenzie’s 1995 tableau, Gija Country, is spare in composition and muted in color; Paddy Jaminji’s Kimberley Landscape (1984) is denser, jitterier, and in much of its even greater expanse, darker. The two of them together form an extraordinary, hieratic evocation of the East Kimberley landscape, evoking the sacred in ways that Rover’s paintings only hint at.
Most of the remaining works in this section of the exhibition evoke the collision of civilizations that is at the heart of the colonial encounter in Australia, and do so in surprising and varied ways. The Victorian (in both senses of the word) artists Tommy McRae, William Barak, and Mickey of Ulladulla deploy Western pictorial conventions to delineate Indigenous life, as in his own way, does Otto Pareroultja. Robert Campbell Jr’s Abo History (Facts) does so as well in his idiosyncratic, blended style. And the legacies of that encounter are starkly rendered by the desolation of Ricky Maynard’s photograph of The Healing Garden, Wybalenna, Flinders Island, Tasmania (below) and Nici Cumpston’s Campsite V, Nookamka Lake. The psychological devastation lurking in the apparent peacefulness of Maynard’s portrait and the ecological crisis that is all too obvious in Cumpston’s painting are twinned images of the nightmare of history.
That nightmare re-emerges in the exhibition’s final chapter, unironically titled “Elizabethan Post-Colonial 1950-2013,” where all the works discussed above might have been better placed. Gordon Bennett takes up the theme explicitly in Possession Island while the psychological trauma leaks out of the selections from Tracey Moffatt’s Up in the Sky series. Fiona Foley looks slyly at the aftermath of dispossession in her video work Bliss, represented in the catalogue by a lushly gorgeous still of a seductive field of pink poppies with their opium filled heads ready to burst.
Sly in a different way is Vernon Ah Kee’s digital print Can’t Chant (wegrewhere) #2 with its trio of board-shorted, tee-shirted indigenes standing in front of the Gold Coast’s high-rises, their surfboards painted with designs that mimic wooden shields from the rain forests of the eastern Cape. Other works by Christian Thompson, Danie Mellor, Dennis Nona, and Judy Watson (the gorgeous sculptural installation fire and water standing in the courtyard of the Academy) complete the representation of Indigenous artists in this section.
In the end, though, what I find most encouraging about the significant presence of Indigenous art in Australia at the Royal Academy is the fact that it represents yet another in a growing string of international exhibitions that are exposing these artists to audiences around the western world: Remembering Forward at Germany’s Ludwig Museum in 2010; Ancestral Modern and Crossing Cultures in the United States in 2012, along with the traveling presentation of Tjukurrtjanu at the Musée du quay Branly in Paris; and this year, in addition to Australia, Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and Mémoires Vives: une histoire de l’art aborigène at the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France, about which I will have more to say in a few weeks. (For now, I will just say that it appears to be as stunning and intriguing than any of the others.) With all of this atop a strong domestic exhibition program, it seems clear that reports of the demise of Aboriginal art are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, great exaggerated.