There aren’t many art shows that could place side by side paintings, carvings, sculpture and weaving by a disparate of artists such as John Mawurndjul and John Olsen, the late Lofty Bardayal Nadjmirrik and James Gleeson, the Tjampi weavers and Ian Fairweather, let alone the Hermannsberg potters and Sidney Nolan! Or would want to!
But up in Darwin, they’ve found good reasons to mix and match black and white artists; the NT and its neighbours, PNG and Indonesia; and sculpture, weaving and canvas “ just so long as there’s an animal involved….all ‘Beautiful Beasts’. For that’s the title of the show which opened last weekend, running right through the Christmas season “ when frazzled parents in that Troppo City might well want to find stimulating distractions for their offspring.
It’s all happening at the Museum & Art Gallery of the NT (MAGNT), which has been criticised in the past for failing to either show off the riches of its own collection or offer its visitors fresh and exciting art shows “ other than the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, the one big annual event that draws the world to Darwin. It “ and its Alice Springs sibling, the Araluen Art Centre “ have also been damned (would you believe a 750 signature petition going to the NT Parliament?) for failing to give white Territorian art matching coverage to Aboriginal art.
You know what they say about statistics! Perhaps that inbalance is just a reflection of how the world responds to Aboriginal art “ which was, after all, belatedly recognised by Robert Hughes as the last great art movement of the 20th Century?
But it’s not the message that Apolline Kohen “ acting Director of MAGNT “ wants to communicate in Beautiful Beasts. There’s some really lovely work on show here from our collection “ three quarters of which has never been shown before. And I think there are dialogues going on all over this show “ obvious in such motifs as animals metamorphosing into people that are shared between Northern Australia and our neighbours to the north. But then you’ve got Charles Blackman’s animal/human exchange in his series about Alice in Wonderland.
And then we’ve got Anniebell Marrngamarrnga’s beautiful Yawkyawk (an animal? a mermaid?), Kohen continued, which may not strictly be an animal, but is surely zoomorphic with its fishy tail “ and is a spirit that may not have made the full transformation that the rest of animal-kind has made in Aboriginal lore from humans into beasts.
The next dialogue would be about sheer innovation. There’s a crocodile eating a hornbill from Papua New Guinea that is extraordinary in its use of material, says Apolline Kohen; it uses wood plus seeds and hair and reminds me of Craig Koomeeta’s work from Cape York. And then the Gallery is lucky enough to have a rare painting from the period when the eccentric painter Ian Fairweather spent in Darwin “ much of it on the beach building the raft that would only just get him across the sea to Roti in Indonesia. Fairweather was just settling into his mature style in 1950 – so it’ll be fascinating to see ‘Noon Cattle’, his contribution to Beautiful Beasts.
The final dialogue could be between the two Johns “ Mawurndjul and Olsen. Kohen worked for many years with Johnny Mawurndjul at Maningrida, so her selection and knowledge of his work and its meanings in the Kuninjku world of myth are as good as anyone’s. She believes that John Olsen’s myth-making will be a fascinating complement to it on the walls of MAGNT.
But Kohen concludes that the connections will have to be made, and the stories told by each visitor to the Museum. Beautiful Beasts draws together artworks for their aesthetic value “ though there’s also humour and the bizarre – overriding any tendency to group objects for academic reasons. The purposeful grouping and limited text opens up the artworks for interpretation in new and innovative ways.