Bold vision of artistic rebirth
January 5, 2008
Quoted from article:
In a dusty corner of the outback, among artworks covered in dirt, Judith Ryan set out on a journey that has transformed the NGV’s indigenous collection, writes Robin Usher.
Judith Ryan will never forget Lajamanu, a settlement on the edge of the Tanami Desert south of Darwin. It was the late 1980s and during her first visit to an Aboriginal settlement, she struggled to adapt to the 46-degree heat while seeking to communicate to people with very little English.
She was there to look at the first artwork the men of the settlement had made, using recycled parts of houses. “It was covered in red dirt and was not in great condition,” she says.
But Ryan was convinced it was worth adding to the NGV’s embryonic collection of indigenous art. She had been appointed curator of Aboriginal art the previous year, 1987, and had received photographs of the art.
“I was convinced they were very important works,” she says, despite the conditions in which she found them. “The designs were bold and immediate and were close to the perception of ceremonial art and ground painting. They had been made for their own purposes and not for sale.”
Despite the difficulties, she bought 40 of the paintings, which now make up a key part of the NGV’s collection of almost 2800 indigenous artworks, most of whose purchase was overseen by Ryan.
She says people find it hard to imagine the conditions she encountered 20 years ago. As well as the heat and dust, there was no digital technology – no STD telephone dialling, computers or modern cameras. Images of the artwork arrived in Melbourne as Polaroid prints.
But Ryan triumphed in her new field and last month celebrated 30 years at the NGV, mostly as a pioneer in the collection of Aboriginal art.
When she became curator of the indigenous collection, the gallery was unable to mount an exhibition from its meagre holdings. Now its collection is encyclopedic, which Ryan says is in keeping with the unique importance of Aboriginal art as the world’s longest continuing art tradition.
Another pioneer in the field, Beverley Knight, of Alcaston Gallery, says the breadth of the NGV’s collection has given a voice to indigenous artists from all over Australia. “It’s an outstanding achievement because (Ryan) has made the gallery relevant to contemporary society,” she says.
“That doesn’t happen in all institutions. Some have quite a narrow vision but Judith has focused on the whole country and that is really important.”
Knight believes many of the contemporary problems in Aboriginal communities are the result of neglect, because not enough was done to give them a voice. “(Social) breakdown might be widespread but it doesn’t affect everyone.”
She says the NGV collection is important in understanding modern Australia. “Indigenous people are seen equally as Australians now. The collection says this is what Australia is, where it has come from and where it’s going.”
Ryan agrees there has been “a quantum shift” in the way Aboriginal people are perceived because of the public’s awareness of their achievements in music, dance and art. “When you read about how indigenous people suffered through first contact (with whites) it drives you to get the best of their work out there,” she says.
It was partly the success of the Lajamanu visit that convinced Ryan she had found a job that suited her, even if it was not what she had trained for. The Ivanhoe Girls Grammar School graduate attended Melbourne University, finishing in 1970 with double honours degrees in fine arts and English literature.
“I had a shielded upbringing,” she concedes. “But while it was very conservative that did not extend to what I was encouraged to think.”
She travelled to Oxford University, where she earned a certificate of education, but did not enjoy England. “I never felt at home. Australians were treated as crude colonials and there was widespread prejudice about people who weren’t British.
“The racism towards Pakistanis and West Indians was not veiled – it was right out in the open.”
She also missed the Australian landscape. “England has a smaller horizon that closes in on what you are looking at. I missed the parched, bleached grasses in Australia.”
She returned home at the end of 1972, where she married and got a job teaching but found that being “an absolute workaholic” working with big classes was not good for her health. After several other jobs she was appointed circulations officer at the NGV in 1977 and has not looked back.
One of the Lajamanu works remains special to her – Snake Dreaming by Peter Japanangka Blacksmith. “When I first saw it the paint was falling off and I decided that I wasn’t going to buy it,” she says.
But the artist was insistent the gallery should have it and went to buy paint and brushes to repair it. “He made it strong and alive again,” she says. “It has the breath of life about it.”
Ryan has written about the trip – that for the Walpiri people the very act of painting is one of ritual recreation and renewal, whereby the life-giving myths break into the present from the heroic past.
Geometric designs in much of indigenous art can be traced back to some of Australia’s 125,000 rock art sites, which outnumber those in Europe and southern Africa combined. Rock art also inspired bark paintings from Arnhem Land, which are among the earliest pieces in the collection. This is the result of a decision by the then director, Daryl Lindsay, to challenge the practice of indigenous works only being collected by museums.
The collection is now a key part of the NGV and in some ways has become its public face. More than 5 million people have been through the Aboriginal galleries on the ground floor of NGV Australia since it opened at Federation Square in 2002, justifying the decision by a previous director, Timothy Potts, to place them there.
“It was a curator’s dream to work with the architects planning the space,” Ryan says. “Aboriginal art had always had such meagre space previously. We never even had proper store room – the Pukumani poles (from the Tiwi Islands) used to be stored in a broom cupboard.”
She describes the 2002 opening as a breathtaking moment. “Without inner walls, people can see the different traditions that exist across the continent.”
It was the culmination of Ryan’s work over much of the previous two decades. The NGV had to play catch up because it had not bought any Aboriginal works between 1968 and 1984, which meant it had missed the breakthrough that occurred in 1971 when a school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged men at Papunya Tula, 240 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, to paint.
Art of extraordinary conceptual complexity that followed has transformed the tradition of Australian landscape painting. Ryan bought 10 Papunya Tula artworks in 1987 but only after convincing the gallery’s then director, Patrick McCaughey, that their purchase was imperative. “I can still remember the pictures that first arrived at the gallery in an album of photos. They are burned in my memory,” she says.
But McCaughey, who had made the decision to resume buying Aboriginal art in 1984, was concerned they were too small to justify the $100,000 price. “I argued they would transform the collection but he said he could only afford to pay half the price over two years.”
Ryan negotiated the deal and now describes the price as a steal, given the contemporary prices for Papunya Tula artworks. She also got to know Bardon and the two are close friends.
Her efforts were boosted in 1989 when James Mollison started as director, after having overseen the collection of indigenous art when he was director of Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia.
“He was my mentor. He always insisted that indigenous art be treated in the same way as any other art because he was convinced they were great works,” she says. “He drove me to develop the collection.”
One day he took her “shopping” to a Gertrude Street gallery where two works were for sale by the Kimberley artist Rover Thomas, for $6500 each. “There was no money available in the budget but he said there were only two sorts of curators – the quick and the dead. Which one are you?”
The paintings ended up at the NGV, demonstrating Ryan’s continuing philosophy of buying the best contemporary art as it is produced. In 2001, a Thomas painting sold for $450,000, a record at the time.
“We want to unearth tomorrow’s masterpieces today,” she says. “All the time I have been in this field people have said that previous art had more integrity than contemporary work. But it’s necessary to collect work before the market escalates the price beyond the reach of the public purse.”
One of Ryan’s greatest coups did not involve money. The Janet and Donald Holt family was willing to donate an eight-metre masterpiece by Emily Kam Kngwarreye, Big Yam Dreaming, to a public gallery, and Ryan successfully argued that it should be the NGV rather than Canberra’s NGA.
A Kngwarreye painting set the current record for Aboriginal art last year when it sold for more than $1 million.
Ryan makes two trips a year to indigenous communities and the collection continues to grow. On her latest trip to communities near the Western Australian, South Australian and Northern Territory borders, a video was shot of artists at work.
The best of the footage is now being screened at the NGV. “The multi-media space just opened. We can’t afford to sit still.”
The NGV’s deputy director, Frances Lindsay, says the collection demonstrates that indigenous culture is not static but is continuing today with great gusto and experimentation.
“We have seen a renaissance of Aboriginal art in our lifetimes,” she says. “The personal stories go back in history but artists today have embraced new ways of expressing age-old stories. Judith has shown great tenacity to build the collection.”