The differences between the two major Indigenous art prizes in Australia “ the NATSIAAs in Darwin and the WA Indigenous Art Awards in Perth “ may be widening. While this year’s finalists up North are predominantly artists from remote communities (see my separate story), 35% of Perth’s selected finalists are urban/Blak artists. And winner Megan Cope, announced on 3rd July, is certainly one of them.
Cope is a proudly identifying Noonucal/Ngugi woman of 30. She has nothing to prove to herself and the world “ though the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board sought to disagree “ that she is Aboriginal. So the notion of her needing a Blaktism (Baptism “ get it???) ceremony to give her the authenticity her less-than-black appearance denies her is a cruel irony. Indeed, in ‘proving’ herself to the Australia Council, she did even begin to doubt herself: Am I Aboriginal enough???
Her film ‘The Blaktism’ captures that irony subtly but well “ the sense of non-Indigenous ceremony, a plinth covered by the Union Jack, the Renaissance church music and dog-collared celebrant, and the wonderfully pious euphemism for the ‘blacking up’ part of the ceremony – pigment resolution – set the scene for Megan’s proud smile as she seals her transformation with a ritual drink. Once alone, however, an emptiness is apparent as she slowly wipes the blacking off; perhaps she’s thinking of Andrew Bolt?
Oddly, the quiet power of the piece is read by WAIAA judge Amy Barrett-Lennard as being associated with the brashness and ‘showy’ work that comes out of the proppaNOW group in Brisbane “ Cope’s former alma mater. I disagree “ but it may help to explain Cope’s victory in Perth for a piece of work that no tribal Aboriginal artist could begin to imagine creating. It’s subject-matter, dramaturgy and technology are specifically the province of an urban artist.
No doubt, fellow urbanites Karla Dickens, Sandra Hill, Archie Moore and Steaphen Paton would understand; but I doubt that Yunkarra Billy Atkins (Martu), Simon Hogan (Pitjanjatjara), Ninggirrnga Marawili (Yolngu), Eunice Porter (Ngaanyatjarra “ and winner of the WA Artist’s Award for her ‘history paintings’), Betty Kuntiwa Pumani (Yankunytjatjara), John Prince Siddon (Walmajarri), the eight-strong Tjala Collaborative (APY Lands) or Carlene West (Pitjanjatjara) would see the point. Maybe the increasingly high-profile naÃ¯ve Aranda artist Vincent Namatjira, the grandson of Albert who create stories around figurative cartoons of his grandfather, the Queen, John Howard and Julia Gillard, might just see the irony.
So “ very hard for judges Clothilde Bullen and Carly Lane from the WA Art Gallery, Kimberley Moulton from the Melbourne Museum and Amy Barrett-Lennard, director of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts to compare and contrast. Three Indigenous judges but none from a tribal language group “ as the NATSIAAs are pioneering this year. What could they intuit of the collaborative negotiation required for the eight Elder artists from Amata to agree on designs for their three large canvases? Would they have been able to feel the pain of the Spinifex artist Carlene West as she claimed back the lands from which she was separated by the Maralinga atomic tests in canvases that burst on to the scene last year? Is the radicality of great grandmother Nonggirrnga Marawili’s bark painting reflecting on traditional Lightning Snake stories in ways unlike any other Yolngu artist, readily apparent to urban eyes?
In the catalogue, curator Carly Lane makes the case “ one that I’ve also made before “ that categorisations as ‘spiritual’ and ‘political’ tend to be attached to remote and urban Aboriginal art, in that order, in order to separate and divide them. Whereas she would argue that both are as likely to be present in both camps. I’m sure Megan Cope and Carlene West both contain the two categories “ as should have been apparent from my assessments of each’s contribution to the Awards. But did I suggest that Cope’s work was not ‘authentic’? For that is Lane’s conclusion “ that the spiritual/political divide has disadvantaged the urban work from acceptance as ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art.
In fact, surely both are disadvantaged by being given a single label. People who are uncomfortable with the notion that any sort of spiritual statement might lie in their desert canvas or Arnhem bark need to be redirected towards the politics of Country or the unique aesthetic of that tribal group. One only has to look at the history of the WA Awards “ where People’s Choice prizes have gone to the late Shane Pickett (twice), Michael Cook and Brian Robinson “ four out of the five occasions “ and all Western-trained artists.
The stimulating exhibition of not just single works but a curated group of works from each artist continues at the WA Gallery until 12 October. And you can vote in their People’s Choice Awards online (after studying the art) at http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/WAIAA_2015/peoples-choice-award.asp.
Artist: Karla Dickens, Sandra Hill, Archie Moore, Steaphen Paton, Yunkarra Billy Atkins, Simon Hogan, Ninggirrnga Marawili, Eunice Porter, Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, John Prince Siddon, Hector Buton, Wawiriya Burton, Willy Kaika Burton, Jimmy Doegan, Brenton Ken, Ray Ken, Mick Wikilyiri, Ruby Tjangawa Williamson, Carlene West, Vincent Namatjira, Megan Cope, Shane Pickett, Michael Cook, Brian Robinson,