Wonderful to report after all that State’s travails, art galleries in Victoria are opening by the bucket-load “ and, naturally, First Nations art and culture is taking precedence!

At the NGV in Melbourne, not one but two delayed shows burst forth “ the big ‘Tiwi‘ exhibition under Judith Ryan’s guidance; and ‘Destiny‘ (Deacon of course) helmed by Myles Russell-Cook. Then, up in Bendigo, that gallery’s development of an Australian Fashion Collection has allowed South Kaantju woman Shonae Hobson to collate ‘Piinpi‘ “ meaning seasonal changes in eastern Cape York languages “ featuring the new fad for Indigenous fashion.

Tiwi‘ naturally takes my interest first and foremost as a place I’ve visited and written about in the past “ and more than justified by the sheer size of the enterprise that has required a 325 page catalogue. It’s the first attempt to explain the uniqueness of the Bathurst and Melville Islands’ culture since the Art Gallery of SA did so rather well in 2006 under the curatorship of James Bennett, who had the inestimable advantage of having been the first art coordinator at the Milikapiti Art Centre at Snake Bay on Melville.

And Milikapiti has produced a stream of important artists from the late great Kitty Kantilla through to today’s cultural leader, Pedro Wanaeamirri. It’s suggested that the absence of missionary activity at Snake Bay may have been an artistic advantage. But with artist names such as Mary Magdalene Tipungwuti and Immaculata Tipiloura about, there’s no denying the presence of the Roman Catholic Church on the islands. And Bennett’s thesis at AGSA was very much that Tiwi adaptability had always allowed outsiders to play a role in their non-sacred art activities “ from Macassans in the past, through buffalo hunters bringing in steel axes that allowed serious sculpting of the islands’ impenetrable ironwood to upgrade tradition pukumani pole carving, to the anthropologist Mountford suggesting they paint stories of their unique foundation myths on bark in 1954 “ both of which were new ideas to this predominantly carving people.

And what a good idea that turned out to be! As the catalogue sums up: The 1954 collection of Tiwi art (114 commissioned works) is much more than the sum of its cultural signs or its material form; it is more than the differences in the artistic language of the artists in both intention and materiality. It is an invitation to the viewer to pay close attention to its precocious authenticity, its cultural longevity, its sagacity and substance, its continuity. Unlike much of Western art, this is not art that is in a hurry; it tells you to take your time, to watch and listen.

Some find it hard to spot ‘sagacity’ in the flavours of abstract iconography that dot and dash across Tiwi barks, canvases and prints that have followed. But Judith Ryan is quite clear: The aesthetics of abstraction is much more important to Tiwi than meaning. Clearly these marks derive from body painting “ often using a pwoja/comb to industrialise the process “ and some of the rhythms may come from dance. In Kitty Kantilla’s case, there must also be a reflection of her skin group, which is rain “ how better interpreted than by dotting.

But I’m delighted to think that this emphasis on the abstract has arisen in part from my exchanges with Jane Goodale in writing about AGSA’s 2006 show. The American anthropologist was there with Mountford in the 50s and she insisted to me that before then, Traditional painting was and is abstract, ie without story. The benefits of this are surely underlined by the fact that both Sydney’s and Melbourne’s Art Galleries made their first forays into Aboriginal art as art via collections of Pukumani Poles “ those commissioned by Stuart Scougall for AGNSW in 1959 and some borrowed by the NGV in 1968, the set of ten subsequently acquired.

While Arnhemland artists were making barks which at that time could be categorised and rejected by art curators as ethnology, these sculptures had an undeniable aesthetic. Though it sadly took 10/20 years before the rest of First Nations art broke through those blinkered barriers.

Tiwi‘ offers almost 300 exhibits by 70 artists including Cardo Kerinauia, Declan Apuatimi, Deaf Tommy Mungatopi, Mani Luki and Enraeld Munkara from the great era of sculpting, via women who did both sculpting and painting such as Nancy Henry Ripijingimpi and Freda Warlapinni, to today’s painting leaders like Michelle Woody, Timothy Cook and Cornelia Tipuamantumirri. A somewhat sterile horseshoe of tutini greets arrivals, failing to capture the marvellous acceptance of decay that these poles would accumulate in real life (and death) as they record a dead person’s character and fading memory around her/his grave on the Islands.

Meanwhile, ‘Destiny‘ is work made almost as far away from the Tiwi Islands as you can get. Nothing abstract here, though some of it’s a bit blurred. Oddly, Destiny Deacon has her ancestral origins closeish by on Cape York and in the Torres Strait island of Mer “ but her whole life has been down south: I’m a proud Melbourne girl, she asserts. More than that, she’s Blak. And, with her deliberately misspelled exhibition in 1991, ‘blak lik mi’, it’s accepted that in distinguishing Aboriginality from skin-colour via that one word, she seems to have invented urban political art in Australia.

The weird thing is that while others are angry sloganeers, Destiny has a mordant humour that sucks you in and churns you up! As the much more serious artist, Danie Mellor comments in the catalogue about the series ‘Man & doll’ featuring the artist’s brother John Harding and a bedraggled doll in various urban settings, I really didn’t get it at all, but I feel transported, so in my mind, the images work and I feel very satisfied. There is a sense of something being proposed, enjoyed, unanswered. They suggest a set of possibilities.

Mellor is part of an all-Blak cast of commentators in the chunky catalogue “ apart, of course, from Destiny’s frequent partner-in-crime, non-Indigenous photographer Virginia Fraser. How she feels about increasing the possibilities of a photo’s interpretation through intentional blurring, I don’t know. But it must work “ for Broadsheet magazine’s critic enthuses: One of the privileges of witnessing series after series of Deacon’s photography in a dedicated exhibition is the overall feel of them. Many of the works are out of focus. Blurry, and deliberately so. Deacon tells me they represent moods. Like a painting, she says. Sometimes that’s the way I see things.

Do I hear Blak Impressionism? Not a phrase that crosses Sydney Biennale Director Brook Andrews’s mind as he raves about Destiny’s three decades of work, The beauty of her simplicity to weave stories and allegories and poetry of the image, to weave harmony and healing back to what was broken.

To 14th February 2021.

And so to ‘Piinipi‘ in Bendigo. Two years of development have gone into Shonae Hobson’s exhibition and an amazing 30 years of history. For Hobson is happy accept that non-Indigenous designers Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee were collaborating with the Indigenous world back in the 70s. Today, you can’t have an art fair without a First Nations fashion show, and Darwin has added the National Indigenous Fashion Awards this year “ the winning outfits from which will be in Bendigo (later at the National Museum in Canberra) including the gorgeous Peggy Griffiths ‘Legacy Dress’ from the East Kimberley.

In all, 70 artists, designers and makers are included “ for, it has to be remembered that many an Indigenous design requires non-Indigenous techniques to turn into something wearable. Collaboration is the name of the game. So the entrepreneurial Grace-Lillian Lee turned to TSI’s old master Ken Thaiday for palm-weaving techniques that could create stand-out dresses. Challengingly, she argues, I get tired of the fact that everyone expects Indigenous fashion to look like Indigenous art. I think that’s really marginalising us into a category that’s restricted. I think that if artists are only being utilised “ and utilised is the word “ for their storyline and Aboriginality, it’s not really ethical.

Other language groups contributing range from Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria to Western Victoria, where Lyn-Al Young has been commissioned to make four outfits for the opening salon.

To 17th January 2021.

PS – I’ve just heard that the Victorian Government has come up with a large sum of money to build NGV Contemporary on the Southbank in Melbourne – at 30,000 square metres, the largest such space in Australia. This will give Director Tony Ellwood great joy to outshine his last posting at QAGoMA in Brisbane; and give further heartache to folks at the Art Gallery in Adelaide where they were denied a contemporary art extension in favour of an Indigenous Cultural Centre by the SA Government.

Let’s hope Ellwood learnt a lesson from QAGoMA that huge size isn’t everything when it comes to displaying art!