¦when I see those Indigenous paintings crop up in contemporary art shows, I go: ˜Are they contemporary artists?, remarked Grayson Perry in an article published by the Sydney Morning Herald in early October. Now he’s used the SMH again to admit, I was clumsy; I wasn’t very well-informed. I’ve since read up about it and thought more about it. I regret what I said, especially if it annoyed or upset anyone.
At the press conference to launch the largest ever show of his fascinating work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Perry went even further, suggesting he’d lost sleep over the issue and, having toured the MCA’s Indigenous collection and talked to its curators: I was badly informed “ it’s a lot more complicated that I thought.
Well, that’s a lot better than worrying about upsetting anyone. It certainly is a lot more complicated “ especially as what might have seemed like a publicity grab for the MCA show is actually a consolidation of the views Grayson Perry expressed way back in 2007 after (I presume) viewing a fine show of Maningrida barks and sculptures in London. Then he used a column in The Times (this is no ordinary artist “ as well as winning the Turner Prize, he’s gone on to give the significant Reith Lectures) to prove that neither spirituality nor hidden meaning can actually take Aboriginal artists past the key gate-keeping tests of aesthetic and intellectual complexity which his ‘contemporary-art tribe’ had established. For his work had an authenticity bestowed by connoisseurs in his tribe!
So, it’s a gate-keeping thing “ as is so much in contemporary art “ as well as a failure to read Aboriginal Art Directory! The prison-warder revealed himself in the SMH as someone who is a contemporary artist and who sees a lot of people from all different areas “ especially over the last 20 years “ borrowing from the status of contemporary art. Ah, if only all contemporary artists were Aboriginal, the doors would be wide open!
So, sad that this intellectually challenging artist from a very non-elitist Essex background, trained at Portsmouth Polytechnic, should have wasted 8 years in not investigating the complications. He has, after all investigated and borrowed brilliantly from Chinese, Japanese and Islamic ceramics “ none very ‘contemporary’; and I could have sworn I spotted the influences of mid-European folk art and African sculpture across a range of his work. I wonder whether there’s an essential difference between referencing the medieval Blue and White of old Amsterdam in Grayson Perry’s ‘Map of Nowhere’ (2008) and throwing in a map of the water-hole at Wirnpa, as Martu artist Daniel Walbidi does? It’s where the last living ancestral being and greatest rainmaker in the desert region lay down after travelling extensively across Australia from the Great Australian Bight and up to the Kimberley?
Some of Perry’s range may go over art-viewing heads in Australia, I fear. Its origins are so rooted in the British class system, with its jealousy upwards and mockery down. The six-part, Hogarth-devoted, The Vanity of Small Differences, for instance, tracks the social rise and fall of Essex Man in the 21st Century. And the 15 metre ‘Walthamstow Tapestry’ tackles the Seven Ages of Man from ‘his’ blood-pumping birth to a medieval death via all the Brit brand-names that see a Pom through life. There are also constant variations of ‘his’ gender. For, the essentially autobiographical artist is himself a famous transvestite “ receiving his CBE from Prince Charles as his alter ego, Claire; giving himself in art the womb he’s missing in life to procreate his ‘offspring’, the teddy bear Alan Measles; and including more details of his sexual fantasies in the catalogue than I really needed to know!
The very preponderance of pots and tapestries is itself a political statement “ for ‘real’ artists in the Western world simply don’t dabble in crafts like that; they’re women’s things – though don’t tell Bernard Leach! In Perry’s case, too, he could be confident that the vice squad wouldn’t raid a pottery exhibition, and he could push the limits of taste. Don’t miss his early ceramic efforts, by the way. His 1980s plates are pretty ordinary in technical terms “ though outrageous ideas are bursting through the cracks. And they show just how far he’s come in ceramics via the priapic pot, ‘Women of Ideas’ (1990) and the evidence of his painful childhood in ‘God the Father’ (2003), to the 90 centimetre tall, Alan Measles-surmounted ‘What’s Not to Like’ (2007). It must have taken total faith to put into the kiln, where it might so easily have exploded “ a faith, in the end justified by its finding a home in ceramic heaven, Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Art in Japan.
I wonder whether Grayson Perry will return to the UK fired by a happy combination of his new humility and Paul Keating’s latest eye-opener: At its best, Aboriginal art has been effective in translating an entire culture and the understanding of an entire continent. The more we interpret Australia through Aboriginal eyes the more we allow ourselves to understand the land we share. Will that make Daniel Walbidi the Grayson Perry CBE of Oz????
And I wonder whether that other clumsy and ill-informed doubting Thomas on the subject of Indigenous art, Christopher Allen at The Australian will bother to investigate its complications?
Artist: Daniel Walbidi,
Gallery: Museum of Contemporary Art ,