What is conjured by a title like ‘The National‘? For Poms, it’s a horse race at Aintree; for the writers in the opening stanza’s catalogue, it’s an opportunity to consider whether Australia actually is a nation; for the art punters of Sydney “ where ‘The National‘ is spread across its three major public galleries “ it’s probably Biennale lite with an attempt at demotic branding….the old ‘Perspecta‘ from the 1980s without some its burden of being an attempt to catch up with the glamorous international Biennale by an Art Gallery of NSW which had only recognised that ‘Contemporary Art’ existed in 1979! Why did Perspecta die only a few iterations later, I wonder?

So “ 48 Aussie artists pretty evenly spread across the Art Gallery, the MCA and Carriageworks, with style-differences to reflect institutional identity: relations with nature claimed by the AGNSW; issues around class and power at the more political MCA; and the DNA of the institution reflected in performance and large-scale installations at Carriageworks. Thirteen of the 48 are Indigenous “ but, of course, that quartering is matched by a quartering again when remote and urban artists are counted. Just three of the thirteen come from outside the curators’ easy reach “ Guynbi Ganambarr, the most inventive mind working at the most innovative art centre “ Buku Larrnggay in eastern Arnhem land; Tiger Yaltangki from the liveliest Desert art centre, Iwantja; and that performative elder, Alan Griffiths from the East Kimberley.

This statistically inappropriate proportioning is pretty much a match for the National Gallery’s Indigenous Quinquennial next month; whereas the two earliest Perspectas had only tribal artists showing in pioneering recognition of the Papunya artistic breakthrough a decade earlier. Were they, like John the Baptist, simply preparing the way for their Blak brethren? Or is it proof that contemporary is still not a word that springs to the curatorial mind when thinking about Aboriginal art – especially at the MCA?

This is very much a mid-career show “ few ‘masters’ have been chosen. Then again, few real innovators or exciters can be found; just established figures doing their thing. Standouts amongst the non-Indigenous artists would have to include Khadim Ali’s wall-work at the MCA’s Harbourside entrance which resists multi-culturalism deliciously; the parallel attempts to actualise music on paper by Peter Maloney and Marco Fusinato, placed opposite each other at the MCA and crying out for improvisator musos to give them sound; Alex Gawronski’s challenge to the mind as you enter the AGNSW to find Carriageworks’ gritty industrial beamwork transported into its mock-Grecian foyer “ his other attempts at transportation at the other two venues working far less dramatically; and Khaled Sabsabi’s deadly ironic photographic take on war in the Middle East with The Divine Victory hailed on yellow plastic boundary tape that futilely seeks to put limits on utter chaos and destruction.

Not too many Anglo-Irish names there!

Intriguingly, two of the three institutional curators open their catalogue chapters with Indigenous artists. Blair French at the MCA maintains his silence. But Anneke Jespers at the AGNSW delights in a lengthy consideration of the late Gordon Bennett’s suite of works, ‘Home Decor (after M.Preston)’ 2012/13 which take loosely Aboriginal designs that Margaret Preston recommended to Australians in the 1920s for bedspreads, rugs and cushion covers and re-appropriates them for a post-colonial era. Of course, Jespers denies value in Preston and her fellow Jindyworobaks giving any sort of promotion to the then-unheeded cultures of Aborigines. Indeed, she continues the unheeding by summing up ‘The National’ boldly: When suppressed Indigenous traditions, obsolete currencies, local antiquities, bombed-out cities, displaced food cultures, threatened species and second-wave feminist political practices are returned to view, their untimeliness is charged with an affective potential.

Over at Carriageworks, where Archie Moore’s festoon of fluttering flags from 28 imagined Aboriginal nations dominates the main hall there, curator Nina Miall also uses the Indigenous to make some wild claims. The nations were an early attempt by surveyor RH Matthews to give Aborigines land boundaries in a way that White Australia might understand and appreciate. Matthews, of course, was followed by the much more detailed and accurate Norman Tindale, whose work is still being appreciated by Aborigines making land rights claims. But, for Miall, this boundary system has to be denied in her 21st Century where she recognises that there are no longer any stable, undivided positions but rather degrees of hybridity, indigeneity and diaspora that are heavily determined by context.

Tell that to the Yolngu! From whom Guynbi Ganambarr comes showing adaptability rather than any signs of hybridity. His Larrakitj (funerary poles) have the textures of nature still apparent while his painted miny’tji swirls around them traditionally; his use of found materials such as galvanised steel sheets or the rubber belts from mining sites continues to thrill “ the sparkle he achieves through carving and counter-carving is miraculous; and his barks take on three dimensions with sand and sawdust.

Or to Alan Griffiths, who, despite his Anglicised name (his wife Peggy’s name is a match for my mother-in-law!) is deeply into the Mirriwong culture of the East Kimberley so that his dreams become ceremonies in the same way that Rover Thomas revived the neighbouring Gija culture with his Goorirr Goorirr dream in the 1970s. Balga “ public dances “ have taken off big in The Kimberley in recent years, so it was appropriate that performative Carriageworks should bring the whole Griffiths clan down to the chilly south to take his woven Balmarra (post-ethnological dance ‘machines’) off the wall and wildly out into the night air.

Or to the shy, retiring Tiger Yaltangki from Indulkana whose maverick imagination runs deeply from the Mamu (evil spirits) of Desert Aboriginal myth to Dr Who on the television or AC/DC on his earphones. You’d have thought his appropriation was sufficient to appeal to the MCA “ but no, he’s at the AGNSW.

And so is Dale Harding, who is surely the most interesting of the urban artists in that Brisbane has failed to corrupt him into believing in touristic Oooga-Boogas out there (as Brisbane’s proppaNOW mob would have us believe) but encouraged him to return to his roots in Carnarvon Gorge, one of Queensland’s great unknown tourist sites. The Gorge’s two stencil galleries are recaptured in a dedicated room at the Gallery where Ghungalu ochres both create ancient memes on the walls and add the political dimension of a blank wall containing only one thick patch of red ochre blanking out the names of staff at the Woorabinda Mission who’d turned it into a concentration camp for Harding’s ancestors.

Predictability, with varying degrees of success, may be found in the works of Megan Cope (an oyster shell midden glittering with black copper dust residue), Karla Dickens (a row of garments given individual character through rich 19th Century applique, which then reveal themselves as straight-jackets), Yhonnie Scarce (black and white blown glass yams hung as the mushroom cloud that enveloped her Maralinga homeland), Karen Mills (who seems to have appropriated Kitty Malarvie’s Sturt Creek country and ochres from The Kimberley for her Milkwater canvases), Gordon Hookey (whose ugly wallwork of KKK pigs and Blak kangaroos quite distracts from his room-mate, Nell’s gentle work), and Richard Bell (who simply seizes the late great Bob Maza’s pioneering Black Theatre of Redfern, and gets minor actor Gary Foley to claim it was a Black Panther offshoot). The boys should see ‘The Redfern Story’ film before making such claims. Mind you, they have unearthed a wonderful Brett Whiteley poster saying rather more than Bell manages.

Which leaves only Julie Gough’s rich take on Tasmania’s colonial history, showing the elegant homesteads and estates that emerged from the ‘dispersal’ of native Tasmanians during the Black War accompanied by official texts asserting that the subjugation of the Aboriginal Natives is a patriotic duty for the protection of our persons and Property and the advancement of prosperity. All those Plosives! This necessary piece of story-telling is associated with the recent, dreadful peat fires that Tassie’s government did so little to extinguish, in reflection of official encouragement in the 19th Century to clear trees and undergrowth to deny shelter to Aborigines. Though, of course, we now know that fire was also the Indigenous way of clearing land for hunting. Indeed, we always knew that if you look at the paintings of John Glover.

So ‘The National‘ makes multiple attempts to rewrite history through its art and its catalogue justifications (including the unhelpful suggestion from one Helen Hughes that Australia is pure invention; there is no such country, no such people), but the evidence is there in real Aboriginal art that a continent populated at least 50,000 years ago and surprisingly quickly settled by a single people, who naturally developed distinctive regional differences over the aeons, had a single identity for those people. My friend Steven Wanta Patrick, a Warlpiri man from Lajamanu 3000km away, took me on a tour of Sydney’s Kur’ringai rock carvings and recognised the key features of every figure. We once were a spiritually homogeneous nation.

Will better evidence of that emerge as ‘The National‘ progresses through two further iterations in 2019 and 2021?