I wonder if Curator-in-Chief, Hetti Perkins knows how appropriate her title ‘Ceremony‘ for the fourth National Indigenous Art Triennial is? For, back in the 90s, when the balance of authority was switching inexorably from the remote northern Aboriginal peoples to the more politically-active south-eastern mob, Charlie Perkins, her father, was asked to adjudicate on the fate of the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation.
That organisation, run from Darwin, had as its main function to maintain culture across the north, facilitating ceremony on both local and national scale. For instance, they were behind the series of three great Groote Eylandt tribal dance festivals in the Gulf Carpentaria, where participants came in their hundreds from the Deserts, The Kimberley, Cape York and Arnhemland to prove the continued strength of their cultures to each other through dance. Some funding for this massive effort of organisation came from the Australia Council, but its Aboriginal Arts Board functionaries decided that ceremony had nothing to do with art, and therefore should be defunded.
In a last ditch effort to maintain this absolutely essential precursor to art – the stories, the body-painting, the song, the dance, etc – Perkins was asked to report, and came down firmly in favour of the Foundation’s work. He was ignored – and, arguably, it was a turning point in the promotion of Blakness and the loss of authority by the Elders in the North. Their townships became disfunctional and the outstation movement took off in response. Much classical art today comes from those outstations.
So where does ceremony fit into curatorial thinking today? Hetti Perkins – assisted by the National Gallery of Australia’s Kelli Cole – is keen to assert that “Ceremony is not a new idea in the context of our unique heritage, but neither is it something that only belongs in the past”.
Indeed, no one in Yirrkala would deny that truth.
But for the Triennial (actually yet another Quinquennial – they’ve happened every five years since 2007), it means a heavy emphasis on the South-East, with 10 of the 18 artists or artist groups hailing from or reflecting the cultures of the ACT and NSW. Perkins says she’s prioritised “Artists who hadn’t been seen before” – suggesting that the Triennial is not simply intended to celebrate the most significant artists of the era.
It is also quite a bit smaller than earlier iterations. And this concentration has undoubted benefits – with (mostly) works of scale placed in pairs in separate rooms so that they can speak to each other. It had a powerful effect on a Western artsworld observer who’d barely given Aboriginal art a second thought in his 80+ years. I use the word Aboriginal advisedly – for there are no Torres Strait participants.
The opening foyer is too big for such a powerful effect. Penny Evans post-bushfire wall-work from Yuraygur Country work is marvellous, blowing up blackened banksia remnant pieces in clay and placing them in calligraphic patterns across a huge wall. Too diffuse? Possibly. But the humanity she adds to her Old Man Banksia pieces with fleshly touches of red/brown glaze is potent close up. Is it then diminished by Joel Spring’s bushfire contribution – ugly slabs of concrete serrated with burnt branches or the slots where they’ve been atomised? A fine idea but it needed some of Evans’s humanity.
To one side, blackened but otherwise unrelated, ‘Blak Parliament House‘ is an installation of soft sculptures and paintings created collaboratively by members of the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyere Artists art centres in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. It must have given the old ladies involved a lot of fun to make. But I can’t help thinking that it was all someone’s ‘Good Idea’ in Canberra, as confirmed by the odd use of ‘Blak’ in the title, not a word found much around Mparntwe. There seems to be an intent to politicise Arrernte art, adding national issues like fracking to their deliberately local water-colours, etc. I took comfort in Sally Mulda’s resistant banner, using text from one of her delightful paintings, “Policeman Knocking on Window”.
Was this foyer ceremonial? Hardly. We had to enter the first salle for evidence of that – huge Desert canvases by Mantua Nangala and substantial pots by Kunmanara Carroll, both telling the story of the Kungka Kutjara, the Two Woman Songline. Nangala’s multi-dotted sand-dunes, often in a very personal purple colour, are enhanced by the online, digital-only catalogue – where the intensity of her song that goes with the art is ceremony itself. The late Mr Carroll, who died in 2021, had this to say about his suite of elegant pots, loaded with story:
“There are huge sandhills and two claypans. There is a creek, Wanampi tjara, guarded by a Rainbow Serpent. The Wanampi, Rainbow Serpent, […] made that road [creek] and he brought the water with him. There was no water here before, but it is still there now. Little bit to the east are the Kungka Kutjara, the Two Women Tjukurpa. Wati Nyiru, the man, is a big rock on the hill looking down at them. The women were cleaning out the soak, digging to find water. They made the rock-hole there”.
Saltwater men from either side of the Continent match it in Salle 3. Darrell Sibosado has taken a leap since he first appeared in the Art Gallery of WA’s ‘Desert, River, Sea’ show. Then his amplification of Bard riji (pearl-shell carving) from north of Broome was in 3D metal. Now he’s working in white neon that seems to float free of a black wall, portraying the proper path that leads to ceremony, ‘Ngarrgidj Morr‘, as laid down by Aalingoon, the Rainbow Serpent, as he lay beneath the ocean surface, shedding his iridescent scales containing the lore. As you can see in the image, it’s not a straight path.
Opposite Sibosado, the seas of Arnhemland and the Gulf feature in Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu filmic self-portrait as Baru, the mythic Yolngu crocodile. This is a man who increasingly uses film as a substitute for speech – which he cannot articulate. Undoubtedly he has gained confidence from the world in which he lives, where YSL – Yolngu Sign Language – is almost as common as its spoken equivalent. Indeed, there’s a marvellous book of imagery illustrating YSL which came out in 2020 thanks to the dedication of a group of linguists lead by Dr Bentley James. Gutiŋarra’s contribution to the theme of ‘Ceremony‘ seems limited to the application of ochre to his brow, accompanied by his father’s Baru song.
The fourth room is specifically collaborative. Wiradjuri artist Nicole Foreshew spent time in the East Kimberley with the Gija artist, the late Phyllis Thomas – now known as Boorljoonngali. Their friendship has allowed Foreshew to exhibit their works together – the southerner responding to her admired elder. Here, Boorljoonngali’s Jirrawun-era ‘Gemerre‘ paintings – bold black, white and ochre stripes reflecting the cicatrices traditionally cut into initiates’ bodies – are foregrounded by Foreshew’s serried ranks of ‘manbeny‘, ceramic widows’ caps, coloured with the same ochres.
As Boorljoonngali once explained: “That stripe we call gemerre is cut [on the body] with a little rock, sharp one, then cut them. That is what they used to do to make that mark. Now we use it for dance, we paint it on ourself”….for ceremony, of course. The caps also appear ceremonial en masse, and certainly have a south-eastern resonance as was shown at the 2021 Dharawal show at Hazelhurst Gallery, when Gamilaroi artist Kerry Toomey photographed herself in mourning for her endangered culture.
The most notable art in the next room comes from Ngemba man, Andrew Snelgar – Kamberri-born, but a traveller who’s art reflects the Country where he’s living. Here he’s crafted a series of incised shields, each one differently shaped and patterned as the wood he’s chosen demands. Like Sibosado, making art the right way is a complex business: “Making things for me is a big ceremony, because it’s something that I take a lot of pride in and try and do properly. There’s ways of doing it. There’s rules around it. Every item that you make has its own rules”. I can well believe that the trees providing his timber sang to Snelgar as he claims in the works’ caption.
Did the trees in the NGA Sculpture Garden sing to Paul Girrawah House as he carved into them with designs passed on to him by his mother, Ngambri-Ngunnawal Elder Dr Matilda House? Were they aware of his political purpose in asserting Aboriginal sovereignty over the Federal capital? Or would they have been happier to know they were about to become “a lasting reminder for our ancestors and families to be acknowledged, respected and honoured on what has always been Ngambri-Ngunnawal Country”? The scars certainly offer their own identity beside Rodin’s ‘Burghers of Calais’.
Back indoors, I fear the simple beauty of Milingimbi’s Garrawurra sisters – Margaret and Helen – with a wall of slightly varied black dhomala – dilly bags – may go under-appreciated. But their perfection should be noted, as should the unique colour – a natural dye “that belongs to me”, asserts Margaret. More obvious are the minimalist black and white lorrkon, again colours that are personal in that land of red and yellow ochres.
Also potentially underwhelming is James Tylor’s delicate installation, ‘The Darkness of the Enlightenment‘. Tiny photos and bronze objects are hard to read as “The transmission of language”, as claimed. Delicate, but, I fear, obtuse. However Tylor is in demand at the Adelaide Biennial and the George Eastman Museum in New York currently; so I may be missing something.
I was also mystified by Hayley Miller Baker’s film, ‘Nyctinasty‘. Set at a meditative pace, Baker crushes charcoal and blackens her hands scrunchingly, possibly painfully. Is this ceremony? Is she recapturing a blacker past? Probably not – for Baker then showers the charcoal off.
Fortunately, Kaytetye man, Dylan River appears with a stunning work in the next room. It’s an eyeball; his own; blown up to cover a whole wall – each eyelash now 2cms thick. And reflected in the eyeball is The Bungalow, the notorious ‘home’ for stolen kids in Mparntwe. Inspired by old photos of them, ‘nicely’ dressed, up against a wall looking out at their lost Country and freedom, he’s created a technological marvel that reverses that picture. He is clearly looking in to The Bungalow and its gates where weeping mothers and grannies waited, hoping to catch sight of their offspring. Surprisingly moving.
Opposite River, Robert Andrew offers his third high-tech wall-work – another is currently in the Biennale of Sydney at the MCA. It’s machinery programmed to blow away a white surface to reveal – over three months – ochred words in Ngambri-Ngunnawal, gifted to the Yawuru artist from WA by local elder Matilda House. More ritual than ceremony, perhaps.
More words in the final room from the outlandish SJ Norman. The Wiradjuri person has also borrowed language – the endangered Walgalu from the Brindbellas – which they’ve meticulously carved on to animal bones. Sadly, the words all seem to be sourced from colonialists – Phillip Gidley King being credited with many, such as ‘Murring‘, recorded as meaning ‘Black Man’. Did the Walgalu really need such a word in an all-Black world, I wonder?? Norman, of course, has just won the Blake Prize for a ‘religious’ work – showing a diptych of their back being scarified with razors, and the resulting cicatrices. I guess we can conclude that both works reflect “the embodied legacy of colonial trauma, colonial violence or the ongoing legacy of colonial violence as it’s experienced in the body”, as they put it in the catalogue.
Separate from the rest of ‘Ceremony‘, Joel Bray’s multi-channel filmed work in a side room shows him naked, colourised and occasionally glittering, dancing on Wiradjuri Country. On Lake Burley Griffin behind the NGA, maverick Desert man, Robert Fielding, has painted a desert-wrecked car and set it floating above Ngambri-Ngunnawal land that used to be a ceremonial gathering-place before the Molongolo was dammed to make that nice lake. It’s a relationship that is hard to discern without notes.
Fortunately, there’s more sign of active ceremony inside the building.
Artist: Penny Evans, Joel Spring, Sally Mulda, Mantua Nangala, Kunmanara Carroll, Darrell Sibosado, Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu, Nicole Foreshew, Boorljoonngali, Kerry Toomey, Andrew Snelgar, Paul Girrawah House, Margaret Garrawurra, Helen Garrawurra, James Tylor, Hayley Miller Baker, Dylan River, Robert Andrew, SJ Norman, Joel Bray, Robert Fielding,,
Tags: Aboriginal Cultural Foundation , Andrew Snelgar , Boorljoonngali , Charlie Perkins , Darrell Sibosado , Dylan River , Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu , Hayley Miller Baker , Helen Garrawurra , hetti perkins , James Tylor , Jeremy Eccles , Joel Bray , Joel Spring , Kerry Toomey , Kunmanara Carroll , mantua nangala , Margaret Garrawurra , national indigenous art triennial , Nicole Foreshew , Paul Girrawah House , penny evans , Robert Andrew , Robert Fielding , Sally Mulda , SJ Norman ,
Gallery: National Gallery of Australia ,