“The Art Gallery of NSW has long been recognised for the excellence of its collection of classical bark paintings”, noted the AGNSW’s then Public Programs Curator, Terence Maloon in 1994; going on to say, “It is also regarded as a pioneer in the promotion of Aboriginal art, being the first state art gallery in Australia to actively establish a collection based on an enthusiasm for its aesthetic rather than its ethnographic qualities”.

Maloon made these comments at the opening of the dedicated Yiribana Gallery “ still tucked away in the bowels of the Gallery “ in a catalogue, hailed as the first major survey publication of our collection. That had begun building in 1956 with the gift of works by anthropologist Charles Mountford which had been collected by him on the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhemland in 1949.

And some of those ‘classical’ barks “ surely the first use of the word classical in application to our First Nations art “ from such pioneering masters of the art as Mawalan Marika, Nym Banduk, Samuel Wagbara and ‘The Artist Once Known’ from Groote Eylandt would, you might have thought be on display at the AGNSW’s current exhibition celebrating the history of Yiribana as the Gallery builds itself a larger space dedicated to this important art of Australia’s cultural heritage. The Gallery’s current Indigenous curator, Cara Pinchbeck obviously hopes to bring her people’s art up into the light if we’re to put faith in her words in the latest edition of the Art Gallery Society’s magazine ‘Look‘.

Mind you, it’s only via ‘Look‘ that I was aware of this ‘celebration’ intended for the current Yiribana hang “ it’s not mentioned in the Gallery itself. There, nothing is dated before 1994 as it loosely traces the developments in art practice since that year.

Two major developments to note are the arrival of women artists “ surely more than 50% of the show – assisted by the arrival of the wonderful Mollie Gowing Fund to buy Aboriginal art in 1996. Major beneficiaries would have been Gloria Petyarre “ whose 21-panel ‘Mountain Devil Dreaming‘ is a Modernist eye-catcher, the weavers of Arnhemland whose work was certainly not considered before 1994, and Cape York potter now called Thanakupi.

But for me, the stand-out pieces in the exhibition would have to be headed by a second generation Ngukurr artist, Wally Wilfred, whose 2018 sculpture set based on the documentary film ‘ Dhyakiyarr v The King’ in which the 1933 setting of an unequal war between the police and the locals in the Roper Mission following the murder of intruding trepangers is powerfully evokes today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Of subtler importance is the late Timmy Timms very early Jirrawun painting of the Mistake Creek Massacre, revealing his influence on later paintings by several other artists in that group. And the final room’s wall of Buku Larrnggay barks by Djambawa Marawili, Gunybi Ganambarr and Nonggirrnga Marawili is a fully justified recognition of that art centre’s preeminence in the 2000 teens.

There’s also a self-referential display of publications by the AGNW’s Indigenous team over the years “ mysteriously leaving out the original Yiribana catalogue by the young Margo Neale with Gamilaroi/Ullaroi-Yuwaaliaay artist and curator, Daphne Wallace. Also noted was the sad absence of any catalogues published for two major shows, ‘Crossing Country’ “ which captured the emerging strength of art at Maningrida in the 1990s “ and ‘True Stories’, constructed for AGNSW with the help of Jirrawun’s director, Tony Oliver in the East Kimberley.

But it’s hard to take the last 26 years as seriously as the important pioneering work that preceded it….the 1950s commissioning by the Gallery of the iconic set of Tiwi Pukumani Poles “ which once upon a time sat permanently in the Yiribana gallery; Lin Onus’s popular 1991 ‘Fruit Bats’ hanging on a Hills Hoist with their scattered rarrked poo; the Tjapaltjarri brothers, Clifford Possum and Tim Leura’s complex ‘Warlugulong‘; La Grange man, John Dodo’s extraordinary sandstone carving of a baleful ‘Maparn‘ head in 1985; and Gordon Bennett’s mocking “appropriated history” painting, ‘Myths of the Western Man‘ from 1992.

Perhaps they’re saving such riches for the opening of Sydney Modern? Which will put Sydney behind the National Gallery of Victoria’s big Tiwi show in November, when a forest of Pukumani poles dating back to 1912 will go on show.