It’s not often that a show garlanded with a US$25,000 prize from America lands in our humble Sydney galleries. But OCCURRENT AFFAIR, the first group show by Brisbane’s political provocateurs, proppaNOW to come south in the 20 years of their existence is just that, now at the National Art School in Darlinghurst.

It was in October 2022 that the Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice, honouring “an artist or group of artists which have taken great risks to advance social justice in profound and visionary ways” came their way. International in scope, the biennial prize is awarded for a particular project’s long-term impact, boldness and artistic excellence. And it was specifically for the University of Queensland Art Museum’s 2021 show OCCURRENT AFFAIR that proppaNOW received the 2022–2024 Jane Lombard Prize – as reported at the time on AAD.

The citation said: “Conceived as a collaborative activist gesture, it addressed current socio-political, economic and environmental issues, while celebrating the strength, resilience and continuity of Aboriginal culture”.

And proppaNOW was described: “Founded in 2003 to combat the invisibility of urban Aboriginal contemporary art that addresses the issues of our time, it has broken with expectations of what is proper (‘proppa’) in Aboriginal art; created a new sovereign space for First Nations artists internationally outside colonial stereotypes, desires for authenticity, and capitalist capitulations; and opened new political imaginaries”.

Could they have written that themselves, I wonder? Also, what inauthentic colonial stereotypes are portrayed in the art of the Yolngu, the Gija or the Pintupi, I wonder?

So the walls at the NAS Gallery are now pulsing with works by Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey and the late Laurie Nilsen. Ah Kee has also been responsible for an over-long film interviewing all his living collective colleagues – a pity for a well-edited version would have introduced their important differences. The elder Jennifer Herd, for instance makes works rooted in her ancestral origins in the northern rainforests of Queensland, while none of the others acknowledge that history.

Their worlds began only in 1788 with massacres (Cope), racism (Ah Kee, Albert, Bell and Hookey) and are rooted in the cities, exemplified by Gordon Hookey’s iconic image of a giant roo with proud red, yellow and black balls defending Country, consisting entirely of tower blocks.

Only Laurie Nilsen, the father of the barbed-wire emu, seems to have retained his connections to rural Country; his pure whitefellar ‘TRAP’ being loaded with rustic artefacts, and his three guillotined emu heads – emu was his totem – inescapably penned in by rusty barbed wire. But then the man hailed as “the one who glued the collective together originally”, had a long previous history with the Campfire Group of Artists, and, pace Richard Bell’s subsequent appropriation of the words, he had designed a poster proclaiming ˜White Australia has a Black History” way back in 1987.

With Nilson departed in 2020, and with the collective fire “rekindled” by last year’s American recognition, Tony Albert announced the recruitment of three proppaNEW members at the NAS opening. Their names – Lliy Eather, Warraba Weatherall and Shannon Brett.

The show continues to tour NSW.

PS – rather less predictable contemporary Aboriginal art can be found in the unlikely setting of Trinity Grammar School’s Delmar Gallery in Sydney’s Inner West. There, what I suspect is the first commerical group show of The Tennant Creek Brio in Sydney must be opening a few schoolboys’ eyes. The public can also visit Wednesday to Sunday afternoons. And be prepared to find work that is a wild accumulation of the Warlpiri flight north after the 1928 Coniston Massacre; the colonial destruction of tribal men’s jangkayi, where much lore and discipline was passed through the generations; the subsequent colonial Intervention, mining, gambling, alcohol and violence. What was once an Aboriginal Health initiative has bcome an all-male art centre that “transforms suffering, grief and tragedy into an experience of euphoria, sensory pleasure and wonder”, according to a commentary.

Despite the Brio’s differences to the norms of either traditional or urban First Nations art, prices as high as $17,000 are being asked by Dallas Gold’s Raft Gallry which has curated the show. Until 30 July.