The fruits of both philanthropy and of sheer artistic determination are currently exciting Britain and the US, with First Nations thinking strong in the first and their art overwhelming in the latter.
Overnight, it would seem, that benchmark of contemporary art, the Tate Modern in London has devoted nine months to Australia’s contribution to the art of today. As I’ve pointed out often in the past, our attempts to persuade the Mother Country that we might have culture Downunder have generally fallen flat. Who can forget John Olsen’s ‘Sydney Sun’ canvas being compared to “a cascade of diarrhoea” by a leading Pommy critic?
So, what’s different about the oddly entitled A Year in Art: Australia 1992 that might encourage a ‘Guardian‘ critic to extol, “This excellent new show is emphatically political. Its focus is the agonising debate over Indigenous Australian land rights, before and after the high court’s epochal 1992 Mabo decision”. And in that very sentence, Laura Cumming answers my question – we can sell political art better than aesthetics.
Perhaps even better, the ‘Financial Times‘ thought: “Confident that the art can speak for itself, the show beguiles with the richness and variety of indigenous Australian art, framing it emphatically as contemporary rather than folk art or an ethnographic display”.
For the Tate, the core of the show lies here: “The exhibition explores how artists have acknowledged the continuing relationship Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have with their lands, as well as the ongoing impact of colonisation and the complexities of representation in Australian society today”.
Thank you Qantas! Little did the airline know in 2015 when they were persuaded by the silver-tongued Pat Corrigan that proceeds from the sale of their excellent art collection shouldn’t disappear into general revenue but be put into a Project. And the one that won was the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (Sydney’s MCA) plan to work with the Tate to buy a shared collection of contemporary Australian art. Mind you, in 2015 I clearly reported that “there is no plan for the Tate in its Thameside power station to establish an Australian salle or even a national exhibition”.
Which they clearly now have until next northern Spring. We also have the odd title ‘Australia 1992′, suggesting that everything changed with the Mabo Decision that year, ignoring the necessary later Wik Decision and Keating’s statutory actions beyond that.
A further conundrum, noted by me in 2015 but reinforced this year – the Brits are trying to fit us into Asia rather than hanging on to the idea that we’re displaced Europeans. For the co-curation of both this Tate Modern show and the joint purchasing project is lead by Sook-Kyung Lee, Senior Curator, International Art (Hyundai Tate Research Centre for Asia) with the assistance of Tamsin Hong, Assistant Curator, International Art (Performance) and Valentina Ravaglia, Curator, Displays & International Art.
So, what represents the new Oz – for the Tate, in 2015, had only works by Tracey Moffatt and the Malaysian-born Simryn Gill in its collection?
Well it’s intriguing that the FT was “beguiled with the richness and variety of indigenous Australian art”, when it’s actually only part of the story. Given the political parameters of the project, it’s not surprising that the emphasis is on urban/Blak art – headed by Gordon Bennett, Judy Watson, Richard Bell and Vernon Ah Kee. Bennett’s wonderful ‘Possession Island (Abstraction)’, 1991, presented in dialogue with Algernon Talmage’s romantic imaginings of colonialism in ‘The Founding of Australia 1788′ (1937) came in for particular comment in both UK reviews, especially its witty use of Malevich and the Aboriginal flag.
Interestingly, the rather less obviously-political paintings of Emily Kngwarreye (donated to the Tate, and not part of the MCA project) and an early figurative bark by John Mawurndjul which was bought with the Qantas money must bemuse those who seek only rampant post-colonialism. But for Clothilde Bullen, MCA’s senior curator for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections, it’s a breakthrough moment. “Bark works have always been seen as ethnographic,” she says. “To have John Mawurndjul’s bark work taken into the Tate collection is a monumental shift.”
Somewhere in between, Dale Harding’s blown-ochre, ‘The Leap’ references both the materials Murwandjul uses and the politics of the others, referencing an 1867 Queensland massacre forcing Yuwi people to fall to their deaths from a cliff.
The politics continue in non-Indigenous hands via Bonita Ely’s 1979 video, ‘Jabiluka UO₂‘, and another video by Peter Kennedy and John Hughes ‘On Sacred Land‘ (1983-4), addressing the history of white management, capitalism and institutionalisation in regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights. Finally Helen Johnson’s multi-layered paintings ‘Bad Debt’ (2016) and ‘Seat of Power‘ (2016) examine the legacy of British colonisation in Australia’s political framework, society and environment.
Less obviously political are works by Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Rosalie Gascoigne, Juan Davila, Imants Tillers, Ian Burn, and a Susan Norrie film set in Japan. But, interestingly, neither of the reviews referenced mention the non-Indigenous works.
Meanwhile, ever-faithful to the Indigenous, the Kluge/Ruhe Museum in the US University of Virginia has just opened a tribute to Papunya Tula Artists 50 years of painting. ‘Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu (Past & Present Together)’ is offering ‘Rich Beginnings‘ in part one, which runs until next February, and ‘Contemporary Flavour’ over the following year.
The late John Kluge was first excited by Aboriginal art when he saw the important ‘Dreamings‘ exhibition in new York in 1988, instantly becoming one of the legendary ‘Three Ks’, all serious American collectors. So his own collection began much later than the 1971 pioneering work in Papunya on found materials such as building boards and masonite. But, by buying others’ collections – such as that of the assiduous Margaret Carnegie – he filled gaps and obtained important early works by Mick Namarari, Uta Uta Jangala and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa. Strangely, he went on to hand out major commissions for art to be produced in Ramingining, Yirrkala, Yuendumu and Balgo – but never to Papunya Tula Artists.
Perhaps his museum successors are making up for this. Here’s how the Kluge/Ruhe curators, Fred Myers & Henry Skerritt are backgrounding the project: “Painting began as a vehicle for the survival and transmission of cultural knowledge, but quickly grew into a powerful medium for economic and social justice. Only a year after starting to paint, in 1972, the artists banded together to form the Papunya Tula Artists company, which still operates today under the guidance of its Aboriginal board of directors. The success of Papunya Tula Artists inspired the creation of similar cooperatives and art centres across Australia, creating a multi-million-dollar industry and helping artists return to their ancestral homelands. Over the last fifty years, Papunya Tula has redefined Aboriginal Australian art, sparking one of the most important contemporary art movements of our time”.
Summing grandly up: “It tells a story of constant artistic rejuvenation. Inspired by the sweeping ancestral landscapes of the Australian deserts, it is one of the world’s greatest stories of resilience, self-determination and the power of art”.
A catalogue follows in October.
And finally, in Berlin, Michael Reid is partnering with PTA to show his second Papunya show this year in celebration of the artists’ bicentenary. He has some substantial 21st Century works by the likes of Turkey Tolson, George Tjungarryi and Pirrmangka Napanangka. The exhibition runs until 17th July.
Artist: Tracey Moffatt, Gordon Bennett, Judy Watson, Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Emily Kngwarreye, John Mawurndjul, Dale Harding, Mick Namarari, Uta Uta Jangala, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Turkey Tolson, George Tjungarryi, Pirrmangka Napanangka,
Tags: Clothilde Bullen , fred myers , Henry Skerritt , Jeremy Eccles , Kluge-Ruhe Museum , michael reid , Museum of Contemporary Art , Papunya Tula Artists , Qantas Foundation , Sook-Kyung Lee , Tate Modern ,
Gallery: Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection ,