Tate’s “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” A Poignant Statement Of Country’s 65,000-Year History

Gordon Bennett, Possession Island (Abstraction), 1991, oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas, 184.3 x 184.5 cm, Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas Foundation 2016. © Estate of Gordon Bennett. Image courtesy of Tate.
Installation view “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Image courtesy of Tate.
Installation view “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Image courtesy of Tate.
Tracey Moffatt, [no title] from Up in the Sky, 1997, lithograph on paper, 61.5 x 76 cm. Tate. Purchased 1998. © Tracey Moffatt. Image courtesy of Tate.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled (Alhalkere), 1989, acrylic paint on canvas. Tate. Purchased with funds provided by Lady Sarah Atcherley in honour of Simon Mordant 2019. © Estate of Emily Kame Kngwarreye / DACS 2020, All rights reserved. Image courtesy of Tate.
Installation view “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Image courtesy of Tate.
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At Tate Modern in London, “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” draws attention to the injustice at the heart of Australia’s founding and very existence. This is a dark journey into abuses perpetrated on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, explored in canvas, photography and video.  Aboriginal voices are interspersed with governmental decrees and colonial bombast, forming a varied tapestry of inequity.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Tate

 

Gordon Bennett, Possession Island (Abstraction), 1991, oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas, 184.3 x 184.5 cm, Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas Foundation 2016. © Estate of Gordon Bennett. Image courtesy of Tate.
Installation view “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Image courtesy of Tate.

 

The 1992 in the title references the year of the “Mabo decision”, a legal victory for Aboriginal campaigner Eddie Koko Mabo, who was the lead plaintiff of a 10-year legal case to recognise his people’s ownership of Mer Island. Sadly, Mabo died five months before the ruling was handed down by the Australian High Court which resulted in the overturn of the doctrine terra nullius (“nobody’s land”) and saw Aboriginal Australian’s ownership of their land officially recognised. It is said that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had occupied the land for some 65,000 years before Captain Cook’s arrival in 1770. The complexity and rich diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia is explained in the AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia (1996) by David R. Horton, upon entering the exhibition.

“A Year in Art: Australia 1992” seeks to enrich understanding of the debates surrounding Australia’s First Nations people land rights in Australia—it doesn’t suggest remedies, and certainly not excuses. Neither is it an exhibition pointing to hope or potential co-operation. British painter Algernon Talmage’s huge and bombastic The Founding of Australia 1788 (1937), a glorifying of the arrival of the Royal Navy in Australia, is included only to be rebutted. It is placed opposite Gordon Bennett’s Possession Island (Abstraction) (1991) in which an Aboriginal man has been redacted under colour blocks representing the Aboriginal flag. These are two countervailing viewpoints, and Bennett’s one is in the driving seat. The colour blocks echo the anarchic squares of Kazimir Malevich, which are deftly deployed in other works by Bennett too. They variously represent destruction, purity and a kind of escape. In another of his sketches, How to Cross the Void (1993), the black square appears above an Aboriginal man hanging in a cell. Perhaps it represents a portal into an alternate, more equal, world.

 

Installation view “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Image courtesy of Tate.
Tracey Moffatt, [no title] from Up in the Sky, 1997, lithograph on paper, 61.5 x 76 cm. Tate. Purchased 1998. © Tracey Moffatt. Image courtesy of Tate.

Whilst parallels may be drawn to Malevich’s role in protesting Russian autocracy, there are also comparisons to be made with the racial dynamics in the US, which stem from a different but related historical context. Aboriginal artists like Richard Bell have long drawn on imagery from the Black Panthers, and it’s hard to watch Vernon Ah Kee’s tall man (2010) video of the torching of a police station in response to an Aboriginal man’s death in its cells, without thinking of Rodney King and George Floyd.

It would be a mistake to take a simplistic approach to the identity, grievances and journey of the First Nations peoples in Australia. This exhibition succeeds in presenting selected aspects of the layered identity of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, pulling several threads simultaneously. Racial differences are visible, but the collision of indigenous traditions with brash new Australia is a constant, jarring undercurrent to integration. A John Mawurndjul quotation decks the wall: “I have two ways. I am the old and the new.” Additionally, there are visual reminders of a feeling of split identity in photos by Tracy Moffatt: staged, movie-like evocations of indigenous babies being raised in white homes, a “stolen generation” forcibly removed from their families by government policies and raised by white families.

The exhibition highlights some of the shameful ways in which harming First Nations peoples was legitimised using legalese and pseudo-scientific formulas. Bennett’s sketch I Too Am an Apostle of Silence (1993) imagines a white cabinet with Aboriginal people bottled into specimen jars for inspection. Judy Watson presents letters from the Department of Native Affairs in the 1940s, discussing the intricacies of the legal rights of “half-castes”. These are shocking enough without the blood, which she has spattered over them.

 

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled (Alhalkere), 1989, acrylic paint on canvas. Tate. Purchased with funds provided by Lady Sarah Atcherley in honour of Simon Mordant 2019. © Estate of Emily Kame Kngwarreye / DACS 2020, All rights reserved. Image courtesy of Tate.
Installation view “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” at Tate Modern, London, 2021. Image courtesy of Tate.

 

There is a curatorial temptation in shows such as this to include works which expand our understanding of the issue without being compelling in a purely artistic context. There are many works in this exhibition that successfully fulfil both objectives. Of special note are Aboriginal artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Dale Harding, and an artist with a rising profile in Europe, Helen Johnson. Kngwarreye’s Untitled (Alhalkere) (1989) probes the link between people and the land; the world around her is a mesh of history, ancestry, social ties and environmental balance. A senior member of the Anmatyerre clan and senior custodian of cultural sites on Alhalkere country, her mazy, earthy dots are a hypnotic tribute to her layered heritage. It is well situated opposite Harding’s The Leap/Watershed (2017), made of coloured ochre from Ghungalu and Garingbal country, blown by the artist as if breathing life from the land itself onto the canvas. These rust-brown and red jewels are a tangible piece of Australian topography right in the heart of London’s SE1. Finally, Johnson’s Bad Debt (2016) places non-human invaders onto a map of Canberra, Australia’s capital city. Rabbits and foxes, introduced by the Australian government with devastating environmental consequences, appear as if in a collage atop this planned city, itself a symbol of post-Indigenous Australian order.

This is the second instalment in Tate Modern’s series of A Year in Art displays, following “A Year in Art: 1973,” which considered how art was used as a form of protest in response to the 1973 coup d’état in Chile. The year 1992, however, is a mere Kngwarreye-like dot in the long history of the First Nations peoples of Australia.  Whether it was a turning point or not is debatable. This exhibition will educate many as to the injustices and debates. While efforts to right the wrongs are being made, there is still a long way to go.

 

A Year in Art: Australia 1992
8 June 2021 – Spring 2022
Tate Modern, London

 

Participating Artists

Algernon Talmage (1871-1939); Bonita Ely (b. 1946); Dale Harding (b. 1982); Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996); Gordon Bennett (1955-2014); Helen Johnson (b. 1979); John Hughes (b. 1948); John Mawurndjul (b. 1952); Judy Watson (b. 1959); Peter Kennedy (b. 1945); Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960); Vernon Ah Kee (b. 1967).

 

 
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