Land Marks, the exhibition that opened on 28 February 2006, represents the first major reorganisation of the Indigenous galleries at Federation Square since their establishment in 2002 and it reveals some bold curatorial decisions and new directions for display. Featuring more than 200 works, several shown for the first time in public, it comprises a rich tapestry of voices, narratives and agendas. Time has afforded a certain familiarity with the architecture of the gallery spaces, and all the angles, windows and outlooks are used to great effect.
It is also important, however, to acknowledge the historical foundations and antecedents of the new show. From as early as the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854, Indigenous Australian art has appeared in westernised spaces in Victoria. Artist, explorer and naturalist Ludwig Becker included an anonymous ‘pencil drawing by an Aborigine’ in the fine arts section of that exhibition. In 1929, the National Museum of Victoria staged Australian Aboriginal Art ‘with the view to stimulating, public interest in the habits and customs of the Australian Aboriginals’. Works by Tommy McRae—similar to those of his works now exhibited in Land Marks—were included, along with bark paintings from Arnhem Land and Victoria. In 1943, the National Gallery and the National Museum of Victoria staged the speciously titled Primitive Art Exhibition, combining works from New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, the Americas and Africa with bark paintings and painted shields from across Australia.
So impressed was Daryl Lindsay, then director of the gallery, by the 1943 show that only a few years later the gallery made its first acquisition of works by an Indigenous artist: two exquisite watercolours by western Arrernte artist Edwin Pareroultja, Red Wall, Ormiston Gorge (1946) and Mt Sonder from Ormiston (1946). Pareroultja’s work is duly featured in the new exhibition. To his credit, Lindsay urged that more bark paintings be displayed in the NGV, and two beautiful works from Oenpelli, presented to the gallery by the Department of the Interior in 1952, have also been included in Land Marks.
It is characteristic of the fresh perspectives opened up by Land Marks that such historic works sit alongside contemporary ones by great living artists such as Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek, whose speech at the opening expressed his knowledge of and pride in his country and his art. Other kinds of juxtaposition in this show are equally striking.
Some sections of the gallery are given over entirely to pieces similar in colour or hue; the paintings and sculptural objects are unified in this way, creating an effective dialogue between works of two and three dimensions. This strategy deliberately emphasises the formal characteristics of individual works as connections of this kind are made between disparate traditions across vast stretches of country. In some quarters of the Aboriginal art world, emphasising the decorative or aesthetic element has been criticised because it is seen to ignore or downplay cultural meaning. As the wall texts, accompanying program and superb catalogue make clear, however, the connections run far deeper than appearances. Some of the featured artists are shown in direct relation to one another, grouped together through geography or complex kinship networks. Even more subtle relations are established through subject matter, gendered perspectives, and variations on important themes that are woven like threads running through the entire exhibition.
As well as being visually spectacular, the exhibition has a strong historical element, identifying some of the momentous changes in the history of Australian Indigenous art since works were first made for Europeans in the nineteenth century. The wall, floor and cabinet spaces of the four main galleries open up, onion-like, to reveal different layers in this history. The larger galleries allow the finest early boards from Papunya to resonate with their cousins, important large early works by Warlpiri men from Lajamanu. ‘This is the first time we have been able to hang works in this way,’ remarks the Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, Judith Ryan. Important early works on paper, such as those by William Barak, Captain Harrison and Tommy McRae, create synergies with the contemporary works by Lin Onus, H.J. Wedge and newcomer Brett Ross. The colour and light suffusing the 1940s and 1950s Hermannsburg School of watercolourists, which included artists such as Albert Namatjira and Otto and Edwin Pareroultja, are reflected in panels by contemporary eastern Arrernte artist Billy Benn and canvases by Ginger Riley Munduwalawala—who only resolved to become an artist after meeting Namatjira and seeing him paint.
Works by Brook Andrew and others in new media—neon, mirror, Perspex and so on—sit alongside the bark paintings and pen drawings of a previous age, disrupting easy readings of a seamless continuity in Australian Indigenous art unaffected and unchanged by the processes of colonialism. Andrew (interviewed elsewhere in this issue) has stated that his work Polemics (2000) was a direct response to comments that ‘artists couldn’t create work or dialogue about politics in our society’. He added that ‘when reading the work the viewer may believe that it’s only about politics, but my message is more of a personal comment … it’s a kind of indigenous philosophy’. Similarly, artists such as senior Gija man Paddy Bedford (Goowoomji, Nyunkuny) use earth pigments and synthetic polymer paint on composition board to express their personal philosophy, local history and cultural knowledge.
Interpreted as a reassertion of rights to land, Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s often quoted pronouncement ‘Our painting is a political act’ offers a wider statement of identity and survival in a hostile political, economic and social climate. The exhibition of Aboriginal art is also political in various senses, or should be—not just with regard to the question of who gets shown and who doesn’t, but through the involvement of curators and catalogue writers in active dialogue with living artists, in coming to terms with past practices and beliefs, and in addressing blind spots by educating audiences. In this respect, the essays in the Land Marks catalogue by Judith Ryan, Stephen Gilchrist, Julie Gough and Paul Tacon help to illuminate and contextualise the artworks, providing vital insights informed by the artists’ own perspectives, which were largely missing in the presentation of the 1929 and 1943 exhibitions.
The Land Marks show continues a tradition of recognising and showcasing the aesthetic dynamism of Aboriginal art, its mastery over materials and technique. But it also strikes out in some new directions through its clear assertion of an Aboriginal art history.
Image credit: Tatjana Medvedev