Interview with Leon Paroissien and Bernice Murphy

This is an excerpt from the interview which looks at Aboriginal art only. The full interview can be found at the url below. The interview was made in 2006.

In the Perspecta exhibition organised by Bernice Murphy in 1983, the aboriginal curator Djon Mundine made an exhibition of aboriginal art in the Gallery of New South Wales.

You(Mrs. Murphy) are the curator of the first Australia Perspecta exhibitions. Please talk about the context when you initiated the exhibition, and your idea and purpose in holding the exhibition. What were the difficulties and the outcomes?
BM : As noted, the Biennale of Sydney began in 1973. By 1976, the art world was already much engaged with the critical ideas of the time. There was a strongly leftist art community movement, very critical of having a biennale at all. So for me – working in the State Gallery as the first curator of contemporary art – my first step was to defend the Biennale, because I believed it really was important for Australia and we should not close it down. That was a time when the Biennale was still fragile and didn’t have a secure place in the community “ not even in the State Gallery itself, and the new director (from England, in 1978) was critical of it in those years.
However in defending the Biennale of Sydney, I also wished to defend the idea of local engagement. But I believed the way to do this was through providing a different instrument: to create a special concentration on Australian art in a stand-alone exhibition between the Biennales of Sydney. It seemed to me that we would then have a very good dialogue in our culture: one year bringing in a major exhibition of art largely from other parts of the world – from other countries, other cultures – and in the next year, having a special concentration on contemporary art of Australia where you would be more critically engaged in art history from our own viewpoints.

I saw these two exhibitions as part of a dialogue and of enlivening necessary dynamics in our culture. You need all the elements functioning all the time, including supporting your local culture. When we talk about a biennale of art from somewhere else in the world, we should also be looking at what is happening inside the local context. For us, Australia was crucially involved in these dynamics of self-definition, and the international dialogue and engagement were part of both a local and changing international process all the time.

I began the first Australia Perspecta exhibition in 1981 – with about 75 artists, and I did the second one in 1983 with about 90 artists. Both were curated by me alone “ although in the second, I introduced Aboriginal curatorship by Djon Mundine in one section (the first curatorial commission of an Aboriginal curator by a major art museum in Australia). The project sought to open up a wide horizon of art across this country (as state galleries did not focus on contemporary art at that time, and it was difficult for the public to know what was being produced in the country). The Perspecta exhibitions went on into the 1990s but finally stopped because by then all kinds of exhibitions in Australia were happening all the time, and artist-run spaces had emerged as well.

Every capital city has a major contemporary art space today “ a result of the ferment of the 1970s and early 1980s. Meanwhile, all of our state galleries needed to improve their facilities and be able to hold better exhibitions (some state galleries have been through several rebuilding stages over 30 years). Every art community has needed its independent contemporary art spaces or art galleries, often run by artist-directors. Many collectives of young artists also existed. All these dynamics were in play by the 1980s and the Biennale was very much involved as an agent (even an irritant at times) in stimulating these expanding art scenes across the country.

What is the connection of the Perspecta to your particular interest in Australian aboriginal art?

BM : When I started Perspecta, I had already been engaged by indigenous art (and had exhibited it as part of contemporary art in a 1978 exhibition to Indonesia). It was very striking to audiences in the first Perspecta to show indigenous art (paintings on canvas from desert Aboriginal communities) which was never yet shown in a major state gallery as ˜art’. It caused quite a shock to put Aboriginal art from Papunya alongside the contemporary art from all of Australia. When it first happened, some critics said that they are totally different and can’t be put together. These were people who generally had no contact with indigenous culture at that stage. You need to have contact and to learn and to be changed by it.

Today when you visit, for example, the National Gallery in Canberra, you’ll see Aboriginal art presented in both the historical and contemporary sections — and in Indigenous galleries on its own. There are also indigenous artists working with ideas from the macro-culture, concerning issues of colonialism, identity and displaced history. In all of our state galleries today, indigenous art is presented as contemporary art, and would be displayed in the same spaces as contemporary art in general. This emerges from a long process, beginning about 25 years ago.

LP : Also the now-famous Aboriginal Memorial, a work near the entrance of the National Gallery (shaped curayorially by Djon Mundine) was commissioned for the Biennale of Sydney of 1988.

BM : In the early 1980s, when we began at the University of Sydney, we had already commissioned an exhibition (and collection) from Djon Mundine, based at Ramingining, and working with artists in Arnhem Land – part of which was shown recently in Taiwan. We had decided to spend one-third of our budget for the whole world for three years to buy the whole exhibition shown in 1984. However in 1988, when Djon had the idea of a large group of commissioned sculptures (200 hollow-log coffins “ as a memorial to Aboriginal deaths), only the National Gallery in Canberra had the resources to commission such a large work. So it was first shown in the Biennale of Sydney of 1998 – and pre- purchased by the National Gallery, providing the money for the work to be made.

LP : Djon Mundine worked in Ramingining for 14 years. Ramingining is now one of the most celebrated centers for Aboriginal art. Djon Mundine not only worked with the community, but also with the artists in developing ideas for the collection of work from Ramingining for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) “ now one of three Indigenous collections in the MCA.

BM : In the second Perspecta in 1983, my new idea had been to commission Djon to curate a special presentation from the Aboriginal community of Ramingining in the far north.

So in the final exhibition, we had a group of bark painting from a senior artist, David Malangi, in one area; and series of small photographic prints and an audio-tape recording of daily life by one of his sons in another area.. It was probably the first series of exhibited photographs of Aboriginal people not made by an outside observer but by someone inside the indigenous culture – and using contemporary technology. This was six years, by the way, before the famous exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre, in the Centre Pompidou in Paris “ which still presented indigenous artists from around the world in their utopian, ideal ˜otherness’. In Australia, we were engaged with the representation of indigenous artists, and all the difficult issues involved, since the late 1970s “ long before these issues became fashionably current elsewhere.

The Biennale and Perspecta exhibitions seemed to function like some non-institutional events happening every two years that opened up the chance for certain artists to be shown, then lead further to the development of collections and institutional support for emerging artists.

BM : In fact, the state museums and the state galleries in the 70s in Australia didn’t yet show contemporary art very much at all.. Besides, we didn’t have any museum of contemporary art or established institutions for contemporary art until later.
However a small number of adventurous staff were starting to use these old, large state institutions to do quite adventurous work at times, as opportunities could be created inside their more conservative programs. So all of our state institutions have now a collective history of having had new work feeding into their lives for about 30 years. They are more lively, multi-audience institutions today. If you walk into the state art galleries, you see the old arts of Asia, Europe, Britain. But then you walk into the Biennale of Sydney (still held in part in Sydney’s state gallery) and you experience a continuity of attention to new art now well established within a state institution – where a mainstream, broad public is used to experiencing the art of the present. Having years ago worked in that institution to create such a dialogue with the present, it is very pleasing personally to see how far an engagement with the art of today has spread into the institution’s whole life and self-image “ and has affected the cultural life of Sydney as a whole. My work later with Leon Paroissien to create the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (opened 1991) was the final extension of the work I had begun in Sydney in the 1970s.

LP : In just the same way as the Biennale of Sydney influenced the state art museums across Australia, so Perspecta in New South Wales also influenced other states. Although Perspecta doesn’t exist anymore you have not only the MCA with a constant program of exhibitions of contemporary art, but also there are many smaller art museums and art spaces around the country showing contemporary art. So you could argue that Perspecta had really done its job.

In the meantime, there is a regular biennial of Australian art in Adelaide that has been going since 1990. In Melbourne, there is the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art – a small institution that has an ongoing program of contemporary art, while the nearby State Gallery of Victoria shows contemporary art also. Melbourne also has many smaller art institutions such as university museums and galleries that show contemporary art nearly all the time. Later this year, the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane will open a Gallery of Modern Art in a separate building. It will have a regular program of contemporary art with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region through the Asia-Pacific Triennials.



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