Three recent heavyweight reviews of Indigenous art in three newspapers – The Wall Street Journal, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian – raise fascinating questions about how and why non-Indigenous critics treat Australia’s most significant contemporary artform so variably here and overseas.
Of course, my thinking is in part formed by the questions I’ve been asking of late about the presentation of our First Nations art at home – specifically, why it’s taken the Kluge/Ruhe Museum in Virginia USA to come up with the three most important exhibitions this year – tackling the 50th anniversary of the Papunya Tula Artists company twice and 80 years of Yolngu barks from Arnhemland in a single exhibition that will tour America for several years. And why no Australian institution has managed anything comparable.
Let’s start at the top! ‘MADAYIN: EIGHT DECADES of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting From Yirrkala’ presents artworks that are largely unknown in the U.S. While recent decades have cast light on the “dot paintings” made by Aboriginal people in Australia’s western deserts, these works from northeast Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory—also patterned, abstract, occasionally figurative, but visually very different—have had much less exposure”.
That’s how Judith H. Dobrzynski begins her Wall Street Journal review of the showing in Dartmouth, New Hampshire even before it officially opens this coming weekend. She goes on: “As the wall texts explain, the artists are from the Yolngu people, and their paintings are considered to be family, part of a kinship system called gurrutju and linked by raki, which connects the land, sea, plants and all creatures. Within the Yolngu relational system are two complementary groups, called moieties, and people must marry someone from the other group. When they make art, each clan uses its own, distinct miny’tji, the design traditions that go back many millennia and that are deemed Madayin—both sacred and beautiful”.
I’m quoting at length because I wonder how many domestic reviews of Aboriginal art would bother to even enter this complex world that’s so integral to the creation of these works. Oddly, I encountered a delightful attempt last night as Burarra singer/songwriter Ursula Yovich interspersed her performance at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre with an explanation of gurrutju! And yes, the Tarnanthi exhibition two years ago that contained some of the Dartmouth barks before they set off for America also tackled gurrutju, but how many reviews bothered.
Too much like hard work? Dobrzynski makes light of it: “Perplexed? Don’t worry. While these and other concepts are critical to Yolngu art, the curators offer help. Noting that they are sharing the paintings to provide an understanding of their world, Wukun Wanambi—a recently deceased artist who was part of the exhibition’s large (mainly Yolngu) curatorial team—says in the opening wall text, “Like the surface of the water, beneath is an ocean of knowledge. We can only show you the surface.”
But….“The surface is spectacular. Ranging from 19 inches to 12 feet tall, these vertical paintings are rendered almost entirely in natural shades of white, ocher, gray, maroon, beige and black. Their fascinating designs draw in viewers, and their meanings—as inscrutable as they may be—cause observers to wonder and to linger”.
Dobrzynski even seeks out the deeper motives that lead her to wonder about the timing of this artistic production in bursts over the 80 years: “The Yolngu’s rights to their ancestral lands were especially endangered, by mining interests, assimilation policies, sea-right claims or war. Believing that their art is the most powerful way to document that they have lived on their land since the dawn of creation, they chose to show it and sell it to Westerners to disseminate that message, and the Yolngu curators had those contentious times in mind”.
It’s an embracing review that’s surely justified the Yolngu curators’ multi-year efforts. How often do they feel that in Australia, I wonder?
For I’d be fairly confident that Robert Andrew, the Yawuru/Blak artist who’s language-based works using high-tech equipment seem to feature in all major Australian First Nations shows these days, would be less than happy with Christopher Allen’s review of his current MONA show in Hobart. The Australian’s art critic has a habit of contextualising shows he’s reviewing with up to 50% of erudite background information before reaching the art. Here his context is his doubts about Dr Andrew’s decision to identify as Aboriginal when his ancestry contains only a great-great-grandmother who was Yawuru.
But then Allen doesn’t acknowledge the word ‘identify’, which is the choice made by many contemporary Blak artists of mixed descent. Not only artists. The recent census shows that there was a 25% increase in people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in 2021 – up from 649,171 in 2016 to 812,728. The largest increase was in Victoria, where the jump was 37.4%, rather than the NT where the Aboriginal population rose only 5%. That surely suggests more people choosing to identify.
Which is not the same as Allen’s odd phrase, “a kind of racial mysticism”, which is how he interprets the choice “that makes one particular genetic component decisive and all-defining”. And is his judgement on Andrew’s art any kinder? “In reality he is engaged in what he himself sees as a kind of archaeological quest for the vestiges of his own past, long obscured by the passage of generations and a process of wilful forgetting”?
Robert Andrew’s ‘Within an Utterance’ is on at MONA in Hobart until October 17th, when, presumably, the Palawa Kani words he has borrowed will at last be mechanically revealed.
Finally, we come to John McDonald’s trenchant Sydney Morning Herald review of the current National Gallery/Wesfarmers touring show of First Nations art in Singapore – on until only this weekend. He begins by noting the ubiquity of Indigenous art these days in the international sphere, compared to only 20 years ago. But continues: “I was left pondering these issues after finally getting to see Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia, at the National Gallery Singapore. Featuring more than 170 works by 150 artists this is reputedly the largest display of Aboriginal art ever seen at a museum in Asia.
But……“I felt the major drawback with the selection was that it was too laden with photography, video and activist art, at the expense of pieces with more aesthetic and spiritual power. For instance, it was surprising to see no fewer than three works by Vernon Ah Kee, but not a single piece by an artist such as Guynbi Ganambarr. The inevitable Richard Bell was represented by a massive painting from the Wesfarmers’ collection and the globe-trotting Embassy installation, but there was nothing by artists as significant as David Malangi, Mick Kubarkku, Jarinyanu David Downs, Eubena Nampitjin, Ginger Riley, and so on. One of those blue barks by Dhambit Munungurr would have been a sensation.
“I know it’s a good policy to review the works in the show rather than those one might have preferred to see, but the main point is that the selection felt skewed by political considerations. This extends to NGA curator, Tina Baum, writing her catalogue entries and wall labels in the first person plural as if she were speaking for all Aboriginal people”
And, given that this is supposed to a promotional effort for Australia, “It’s a strange show that gives the impression Aboriginal people are in perpetual conflict with an oppressive, white state. There’s so much we can learn from Indigenous society in terms of tolerance, sharing, and caring for the land, that it would have been desirable to emphasise those aspects more fully”.
I regret to say that my links to SMH and The Australian are behind paywalls, but the Wall Street Journal seems generous enough to share with the world!
Incidentally, back in 2011 when MONA opened, I toured with founder David Walsh and naturally queried him as to why Indigenous art was entirely missing. His response was fascinating: “The basic building block in Aboriginal art is the sentence, using a commonly referenced series of symbols. We haven’t had that in the West since the Renaissance. There are three ways of making a written language – using an alphabet, using syllables, with a symbol for each, and using pictograms or logograms like Chinese. The symbolic level in Aboriginal art is more at the level of the first two, while Western art today uses logograms. In other words, Aboriginal art is more sophisticated – and I just need to know more to understand it”.
This understanding is significant. It should have wider currency and be debated (I noted in 2011); and may indeed lead to the appearance of Aboriginal art at MONA. Now it has!
Artist: Wukun Wanambi, Robert Andrew, Vernon Ah Kee, Guynbi Ganambarr, Richard Bell, David Malangi, Mick Kubarkku, Jarinyanu David Downs, Eubena Nampitjin, Ginger Riley, Dhambit Munungurr, Long Jack Phillipus, Naminapu Maymuru-White,
Tags: Christopher Allen , david malangi , Dhambit Munuŋgurr , eubena nampitjin , ginger riley , Guynbi Ganambarr , Jarinyanu David Downs , Jeremy Eccles , John McDonald , Judith H. Dobrzynski , Kluge-Ruhe Museum , Madayin , mick kubarkku , MONA , National Gallery Singapore , Papunya Tula Artists , richard bell , Robert Andrew , Ursula Yovich , vernon ah kee , wukun wanambi ,