There will be many mixed responses around ‘Connection : Songlines from Australia’s First Peoples’, just launched in Canberra. For any one who experienced ‘Van Gogh Alive’, where the Dutchman’s familiar paintings were magnified on huge screens and set in motion, there will be no surprises to find a collection of 84 Indigenous artists given the same treatment.
But for purists who still believe Aboriginal art is an esoteric world to which they have exclusive access, ‘Connection’ will come as a rude shock.
For, here we are, 50 years after Papunya artists shocked the artistic and anthropological worlds by picking up brushes and acrylic paint to desperately reveal the complexity of a culture they feared was about to be written out of history, maybe it’s time to lower our cultural barriers.
For the sheer numbers of significant exhibitions of the Art across the U.S., Germany, China, Singapore and Korea currently suggests that there’s a hunger out there for the product.
Whether ‘Connection’, if it tours the world as planned, will educate as it opens tabula rasa minds as well as simply offering a multimedia rush of colour, sound and even smell, is open to doubt.
But there’s every chance the world will get the chance to decide. For the Australian company Grande Experiences – which hit the ground running in 2009 with the van Gogh show – has now clocked 20 million punters across 170 cities with 220 shows featuring Monet, da Vinci, Dali and street art. Picasso is promised. Success in Canberra will see this patriotic effort go international.
Have I mentioned that ‘Connection’ is uniquely on at Australia’s National Museum? And that’s another aspect of the challenge to traditional thinking. For the institution that brought us the complex ‘Canning Stock Route‘ show to reveal the other side of a Whitefellars pastoral legend, and the ‘Seven Sisters Songline’ marvel that’s about to open in Berlin, has moved on to a provocative program of popularisation.
As well as ‘Connection’, the NMA also has – tucked away – a small show of kitchen equipment decorated with First Nations art. Breville’s luxury range – aimed at David Jones rather than Harvey Norman, I’m told – comes with an attempt to contextualise an Indigenous history of vari-coloured dilly bags, digging sticks and a grinding stone. I fear it doesn’t really justify the toaster!
Importantly, both of these innovations come with absolutely proper copyright and payment agreements. All 84 participants in ‘Connection’, for instance, receive a decade of royalties for their works.
And can there be any doubt that the descendants of Albert Namatjira, Emily Kngwarreye, Tommy Watson Alex Mingelmanganu et al are both proud and grateful for their illustrious ancestors’ exposure.
But how did this all come about?
It would seem that the dynamic collector, Pat Corrigan saw the van Gogh show in Dubai, and jumped on the blower to his favourite dealer, Adam Knight to declare this ‘the future’. The equally dynamic Knight agreed, approaching Bruce Peterson of Grande Experiences at his Melbourne head office. When Peterson had been persuaded, Knight ensured that he remained involved, bringing in Palawa photographer Wayne Quilliam as his co-curator and supplier of splendid images of both landscape and ceremony. This was enough to woo Margo Neale, the NMA’s lead Indigenous curator, who added Rhoda Roberts, the person who first made Aboriginal art move on the Sydney Opera House sails.
Incidentally, they still move in the current Vivid display, even more and even bigger than on the walls in Canberra.
Given the team headed by Adam Knight, known for his very personal dealings directly with artists and now master of massive galleries in the Nagambi and Yarra Valley wine districts – there was never going to be a purist selection of artists. For it becomes apparent that only two community art centres are involved – Buku Larrnggay in Arnhemland and Warlukulangu in the Deserts. For the rest, it’s worth noting the dealers’ names credited in the catalogue – Chris Simon, Hank Ebes, Adrian Newstead, Geoff Henderson and Diane Mossenson. It’s their artists among the living who predominate.
So alongside the legends mentioned above – Clifford Possum, Yirrwala, David Malangi, Michael Nelson Jagamara and Mick Namarari are also on the bill of fare – the assiduous will discover Goompi Ugerabah, Konstantina, Sharon Phineasa, Tanisha Qilliam and the King sisters Sarrita and Tarisse. And Sarrita, at the NMA opening, was suitably modest (and emotional) about appearing alongside the late great Emily.
Of course these relatively unknown painters aren’t urban, Blak and political artists – who mostly turned their backs on this opportunity – and they do paint with great precision in a traditional way. This makes their work particularly suitable for the movement that ‘Connection’ offers – circles that might be rockholes revolving, painted lines being added as though the artist was actually at work, stars moving across the sky to form the Seven Sisters. Much harder to motivate the calm, elderly hand of a Bugai Whyoulter.
And a mistake to make wing images in a Clifford Possum master work waggle cheekily!
Of course, no one is going to wander through the 35 minutes of ‘Connection’ and attempt to understand the story behind the hugely flashing images. But it’s possible to link art to a text wall which gives artist names and regions, emphasising the rich variety of Indigenous art.
Will the musical accompaniment add to any understanding, or only to the drama of the event? I have to say that the storied chanting that often accompanies art-making in remote communities would have been my perfect match. But when Wayne Quilliam’s dynamic still images of ceremony at Burunga were joined by Baker Boy at his loudest, it did seem to work.
I will be fascinated to join discussions around the industry to consider Margo Neale’s claims that ‘Connection’ is in the great tradition of Indigenous knowledge being passed on aurally and through performance rather than descending from paintings hung on white walls. But does she really believe that this show is “uninterrupted by the white voice”, given the collaborative team behind it?
And now news of Connection opening in Melbourne. It opens at Grande Experiences’s own premises, The Lume on June 23. Available tickets stretch until October, though no end date has been announced yet.
Artist: Albert Namatjira, Emily Kngwarreye, Tommy Watson, Alex Mingelmanganu, Clifford Possum, Yirrwala, David Malangi, Michael Nelson Jagamara, Mick Namarari, Goompi Ugerabah, Konstantina, Sharon Phineasa, Tanisha Qilliam, Sarrita King, Tarisse King, Bugai Whyoulter, Barbara Weir,
Tags: adam knight , albert namatjira , Alex Mingelmanganu , Breville , Bugai Whyoulter , clifford possum , Connection , david malangi , emily kngwarreye , Goompi Ugerabah , Grande Experiences , Jeremy Eccles , Konstantina , margo neale , michael nelson jagamara , mick namarari , national museum of australia , sarrita king , Sharon Phineasa , Tanisha Qilliam , tarisse king , The Lune , tommy watson , Wayne Quilliam , Yirrwala ,
Gallery: National Museum of Australia ,