Market Chats: Lessons On Australian Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Art

Alick Tipoti and Kala Lagaw Ya people, Koedal Baydham Adhaz Parw (Crocodile Shark) Mask, 2010, fibreglass, synthetic polymer paint, Cassowary feathers, feathers, raffia and seeds, 130 x 300 x 7 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in 2010. © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery of Singapore.
“Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia”, installation view at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.
“Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia”, installation view at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artists and National Gallery Singapore.
Tony Albert and Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku-Yalanji peoples, ASH on Me, 2008, vintage ceramic ashtrays on vinyl lettering, overall 150 x 150 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in 2009. © and image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Gadigal Nura/Sydney.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Anmatyerre people, Yam awely, 1995, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 152 x 490 x 4 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, gift of the Delmore Collection, Donald and Janet Holt, 1995. © the artist, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.
Tjungkara Ken, Sandra Ken, Yaritji Young, Freda Brady, Maringka Tunkin and Pitjantjatjara people, Seven Sisters, 2018, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 200 x 300 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in 2020. © the artists, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists and National Gallery of Singapore.
Albert Namatjira and Western Arrarnta people, Gum tree and sandhill, c.1938, painting in watercolour over underdrawing in black pencil on paper, 38 x 29 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in 2009. © the artist, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery of Singapore.
Jonathan Jones and Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi peoples, untitled (walam-wunga.galang), 2020–21, sandstone with metal, rubber and audio, dimensions variable; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased with the assistance of Wesfarmers in 2020; installation view in “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia” at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. © the artist. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.
Richard Bell and Kamilaroi/Kooma/Jiman/Goreng Goreng peoples, Embassy, 2013–, canvas tent with annex, aluminium frame, rope, synthetic polymer paint on board, digital video, colour, sound, dimensions variable; collection of the artist. Installation view in “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia” at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.
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CoBo Social Market News

On view at National Gallery Singapore, Asia’s largest survey show of Australian First Nations art has plenty to teach us about the discourse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, and why we should pay attention.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander[1] art can be confounding even for the most curious of minds, in part because Australia’s complex history is wrought with controversies; policy changes continue to take place today trying to make amends, forge a future of inclusivity, and ensure the world’s oldest continuous living culture is given rightful recognition for its contribution to the global cultural discourse, and to its own land and Country. Growing up in Naarm/Melbourne[2], I remember the history taught to us at school was heavily centred on British colonisation. Aboriginal history was told as stories and myths of creation. Sport clubs at school were named after colonial painters or Australia-born painters of European descent, art class was Eurocentric, spliced here and there with an activity in dot painting inspired by Aboriginal desert painting. It was not until I was an adult at university that I had the exposure to learn about the rich culture of Australia’s First Nations, and the violent atrocities colonialism brought upon them. Though there is still more to be done, the country has come further than ever in its steps towards reconciliation, carrying out the promise of continual progress—but it’s still a discourse that struggles to tell its story to the world. Having lived in Hong Kong now for nearly eight years, it still surprises me how many people have admitted to knowing nothing of Australia’s troubled history, let alone Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. It is on this premise that National Gallery Singapore’s (NGS) “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia” piqued my interest.

 

“Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia”, installation view at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.
“Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia”, installation view at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artists and National Gallery Singapore.

 

The largest exhibition of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art ever showcased in Asia, the touring exhibition draws from the collections of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art. It launched at the NGA in Canberra in 2021, before travelling to the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. Singapore marks its first stop outside of Australia.

“Ever Present” at NGS presents over 170 artworks by more than 150 artists, showcasing the breadth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art from 1890 to present day. Helmed by Tina Baum, NGA’s Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, the exhibition is split into six overarching sections forming interlinked themes—Ancestors + Creators; Country + Constellations; Community + Family; Culture + Ceremony; Trade + Influence; Resistance + Colonisation; with a seventh, Innovation + Identity underpinning all six. The Singapore iteration, collaborating with NGS curators Phoebe Scott and Goh Sze Ying, sees an extra link highlighted exploring connections between Australia’s First Peoples and Southeast Asia.

 

Tony Albert and Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku-Yalanji peoples, ASH on Me, 2008, vintage ceramic ashtrays on vinyl lettering, overall 150 x 150 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in 2009. © and image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Gadigal Nura/Sydney.

 

Global interest in Australian First Nations art is long overdue, and perhaps could not have arrived at a better time than now as uncertainties and flux plague the world over, forcing us to embrace change. Great strides have been made in just a short few years to bring conversations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art to the international table: Gagosian’s exhibition “Desert Painters of Australia” held iterations New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong; Tony Albert’s large-scale installation Native Home became a talking point at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2019; while that same year, Sotheby’s held its inaugural Aboriginal Art auction at its New York showroom, achieving US$2.8 million. In 2020, Brook Andrew directed a well-received Biennale of Sydney which heavily promoted inclusivity and emphasised the upturn of Eurocentrism. In 2021, London’s Tate Modern opened “A Year in Art: Australia 1992”, its curatorial premise departing from the landmark 1992 “Mabo decision”[3]. In May, Blak Douglas became just the second First Nations artist to be awarded the coveted Archibald Prize for his portrait of artist Karla Dickens—the first time in its century-long history a portrait of an Aboriginal woman was awarded the accolade. Then just weeks ago, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris opened the first major solo exhibition outside of Australia of Sally Gabori, with Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in attendance. On view since late May, “Ever Present” in Singapore comes at an opportune moment as another milestone in this global ambition to situate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world circuit.

 

Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Anmatyerre people, Yam awely, 1995, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 152 x 490 x 4 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, gift of the Delmore Collection, Donald and Janet Holt, 1995. © the artist, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.
Tjungkara Ken, Sandra Ken, Yaritji Young, Freda Brady, Maringka Tunkin and Pitjantjatjara people, Seven Sisters, 2018, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 200 x 300 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in 2020. © the artists, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists and National Gallery of Singapore.

 

A Living History Told Through Art

Australia’s First Nations comprise of more than 300 language groups, yet this immense disparity was ignored by colonists who claimed Australia terra nullius, or “no man’s land”. Bringing this to the fore, Daniel Boyd’s Treasure Island (2005) is a painting of a map of Australia colourfully segmented to represent each of the language groups, with the words “Treasure Island” written over the top in cursive typeface. The painting sets the stage for the rest of the exhibition, a statement of the dialogue “Ever Present” seeks to establish.

A vital aspect of exploring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is understanding that respect and intimate connection to Country and Ancestors is firmly at its core. “Our oral histories, stories, art and performance tell of the time before time, before light, before life,” writes Baum in her curatorial essay. While Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Yama wely (1995) maps Country above and below ground in dizzying swirls of warm reds and yellows, the breathtakingly beautiful Seven Sisters painted in 2018 collaboratively by Tjungkara Ken, Sandra Ken, Yaritji Young, Freda Brady, and Maringka Tunkin, all belonging to the Pitjantjatjara peoples, portrays an Ancestral epic tale of traditional morals and forbidden love told across many Aboriginal Communities throughout the country.

Papunya paintings, including Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Love Story (1972) and Warlugulong (1977), and Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa’s Corroboree and body decoration (1972) tells yet another dimension of the desert painting movements. Papunya was one of many government settlements established under the Australian government’s contentious policy of assimilation. Founded in 1959 in the Northern Territory some 250km west of Alice Springs, Papunya’s residents included people from the Pintupi, Luritja, Anmatyerr, Kukatja, and Warlpiri language groups. Papunya artists are largely heralded for their experiments in acrylic paint on canvas, portraying Ancestral stories through a visual vocabulary of dots, lines, circles, and more with rich earth tones. In 1972, artists, including Tjapaltjarri, came together and formed their own cooperative, Papunya Tula Artists, which today remains a vital part of the contemporary Aboriginal arts industry.

 

Albert Namatjira and Western Arrarnta people, Gum tree and sandhill, c.1938, painting in watercolour over underdrawing in black pencil on paper, 38 x 29 cm; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased in 2009. © the artist, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery of Singapore.

 

Learning watercolour painting techniques from notable Australian artist Rex Battarbee while accompanying him on a two-month painting trip in the Central Australian desert, Albert Namatjira rose to the fore as the first Aboriginal artist to achieve wide popularity throughout Australia. His first solo exhibition in 1938 was a sold-out success. Portrayed in several of his paintings on view, including Ghost gum (c. 1945) and Gum tree and sandhill (c. 1938) is the ilwempe/ghost gum, a drought-resistant tree believed to be Ancestor beings. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a selection of boab nut carvings, bark paintings, shell necklaces, and ceremonial masks—both ancestral and contemporary—demonstrate the depth of interconnection between family, culture, ceremony, Country, and Community. Objects of cultural importance or ceremonial performance thus also play a role in the repertoire of First Nations art. Roy Wiggan, a descendant of the Bardi people of Western Australia, was known for his making of ilma, a performance symbol enlivened through the physical movement of ceremonial dance. His ilma, Cape Leveque Lighthouse (1991), was inspired by visits from the spirit of his late father, Henry Wiggan, and tells the story of his father’s misadventure with a broken bark rift in the Indian Ocean, whereby he miraculously floated back to Sunday Island off the coast of the Kimberley region, ushered by freak tides.

Another point “Ever Present” makes remarkably clear is the dispelling of the myth—through art—that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had no contact with the outside world prior to European colonisation. Scholars have long proved this to be wrong, although schoolbooks were slower to catch up. Australia’s First Peoples have, in fact, a long history of exchanges with peoples of Papua New Guinea, Dutch and Spanish voyagers, Chinese goldminers, and more, all before Europeans arrived on their shores. As “Ever Present” sets out to demonstrate, historical encounters, exchanges and trade between Aboriginal Communities from northern Australia and traders arriving from Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia) is also recorded in art. Closer to the present day, seen in works of batik is the deeply rooted history of artistic exchange between Aboriginal Communities, ongoing since the 1970s.

 

Keeping The Past Alive For The Future

An artist who welcomed me at his studio in Warrane/Sydney once told me that all Aboriginal art is inherently political. This may seem obvious when one looks at the works of many contemporary artists, whether that is Michael Cook’s restaging of colonial histories in his photographs, or Archie Moore’s Aboriginal Anarchy (2012), an overt confrontation of identity reinterpreting the Australian Aboriginal flag. Equally unconcealed are works such as Vernon Ah Kee’s If I was White (2002), a series of inkjet prints with statements all beginning with “If I was White” or “But I am Black”, and Tony Albert’s ASH on Me (2008), comprised of ashtrays decorated with caricatures of Aboriginal people—gathered from Albert’s collection of bric-a-bracs he terms “Aboriginalia”[4].

Furthermore, what “Ever Present” sets out to illustrate is that contemporary First Nations art is also often a statement of strength, resilience and survival. One of the most emotive works in the exhibition may be Yhonnie Scarce’s Silence part 1 + 2 (2014), comprising black glass objects bringing to mind bodily parts, pinched by stainless steel scissors. The work alludes to the humiliation and pain inflicted upon Aboriginal people who were subject to medical testing, and scientific and anthropological experiments[5]. I may never forget experiencing Scarce’s work, In the Dead House (2020) displayed inside an old stone mortuary in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens—it was so heart-wrenching I cried. The mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples led to a common belief classifying them as fauna[6]; it was not until a referendum in 1967 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were finally regarded as citizens.

An equally powerful work is Julie Gough’s Some Tasmanian Aboriginal children living with non-Aboriginal people before 1840 (2008), an installation of burnt tea tree “spears” held within the frame of an old chair, a memorial to the many Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families in Tasmania as a result of a government policy practised until the 1970s across Australia[7].

 

Jonathan Jones and Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi peoples, untitled (walam-wunga.galang), 2020–21, sandstone with metal, rubber and audio, dimensions variable; National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra, purchased with the assistance of Wesfarmers in 2020; installation view in “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia” at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. © the artist. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.
Richard Bell and Kamilaroi/Kooma/Jiman/Goreng Goreng peoples, Embassy, 2013–, canvas tent with annex, aluminium frame, rope, synthetic polymer paint on board, digital video, colour, sound, dimensions variable; collection of the artist. Installation view in “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia” at National Gallery Singapore, 27 May – 25 September 2022. Photo by Joseph Nair/Memphis West Pictures. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Singapore.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

“Ever Present” presents two special commissions, a mixed-media commission by Jonathan Jones, and an iteration of Richard Bell’s ongoing Embassy (2013–), which draws upon the original 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy[8] and the Aboriginal rights movement to create a public space by which visitors can come together to create dialogue.

History is always evolving. Sometimes it gets a rewrite, correcting the wrongs and misconceptions of its past scribes. Art is a voice through which these histories can be passed down. Art is oftentimes a way of igniting the difficult conversations, a welcome way to reconciling with the past and raising questions for the future. Encompassing all its lessons on Australian First Nations art, the most poignant lesson “Ever Present” brings may simply be the stark reminder that it’s up to us to take part in these discussions, to acknowledge and be knowledgeable of the past, so that the future can be one of inclusivity and humanity.

 

Notes:

[1] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island, First Nations and First Peoples are interchangeable in reference to the first peoples of Australia. (https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/australias-first-peoples)

[2] While the practice of dual naming for capital cities was already becoming more common, in March 2022, Tourism Australia announced they would officially adopt the usage of this system. (https://www.tourism.australia.com/en/news-and-media/news-stories/tourism-australia-adopts-aboriginal-dual-naming.html)

[3] For more information on the significance of the Mabo Decision, see: (https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/mabo-native-title/)

[4] Aboriginalia refers to items of kitsch that drew on Aboriginal motifs, emblems and caricatures, now regarded as contentious. (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-05/aboriginalia-and-the-politics-of-aboriginal-kitsch/8323130).

[5] In 2002, Adelaide University officially released a formal apology, and published the documentation in a book. (https://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/news314.html; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1125797/)

[6] Two controversial gargoyles at the Australian War Memorial demonstrate this abhorrent fiction. (https://theconversation.com/gargoyles-and-silence-our-story-at-the-australian-war-memorial-38829).

[7] Widely known as the Stolen Generations, its impact continues even today. (https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/stolen-generations)

[8] Between 1972 and 1992, the embassy was established across various locations in Canberra, and is a symbol of Aboriginal protest against the approach of successive governments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. (https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/aboriginal-tent-embassy)

 

Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia
27 May – 25 September 2022
National Gallery Singapore, Singapore

 

 

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