Not-so-Marvellous Melbourne: Anxiety on the urban frontier in the art of ST. Gill

In July, that State Library of Victoria will be hosting an exhibition of works by the colonial Australian artist ST Gill. The exhibition, Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of ST Gill, is being staged to coincide with the launch of a major new book by Professor Sasha Grishin of the Australian National University. Grishin has been researching Gill’s work for several decades now, so Grishin’s book, ST Gill and His Audiences promises to be a major contribution to the field. Grishin will also be presenting at a one-day conference, along with many other distinguished figures.

I became interested in Gill’s work while curating the exhibition Experimental Gentlemen at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. I included a number of Gill’s works in the exhibition, including a copy of the Australian Sketchbook after which Grishin’s exhibition is titled. I had an idea for a longer piece, which never quite made it over the line to publication, but which I thought I might offer here, more as a series of rough thoughts than a finished argument. I am sad that I won’t be able to be in Melbourne for the conference, because I think that Gill’s work presents a lot of complex questions in relation to how the Australian colonial imagination was formed.


ST Gill, The Newly Arrived. Watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The State Library of New South Wales holds one of the largest collections of paintings, prints and drawings by the Australian colonial artist Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880). Amongst its collection is a pair of small watercolours designed to be viewed in concert: a technique that Gill frequently used to tease out subtle antinomies across his satirical scenes. The first of these scenes, entitled The Newly Arrived c.1860, shows a group of European settlers dressed in top hats and frock coats, gathering around an Aboriginal family. In the centre, an Aboriginal man in a long flowing fur-skin coat, and his naked son, perform a spirited dance for the onlookers. So enthralled are the new settlers by this exotic performance, that one man reaches into his hip pocket, presumably for some coins to reward his primitive entertainer. In the background, a row of neat brick houses suggests a well-established and thriving colony.

ST Gill,  The Colonized, watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

ST Gill, The Colonized, watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The second image offers a stark contrast to the genteel pleasantries of The Newly Arrived. Gone are the neat brick houses and gentlemanly finery; in their place, a shanty bark hut and the rough and tumble uniform of the pioneer settler. Likewise for the Aboriginal characters: the life of carefree dancing as exotic amusement is replaced with a heavy burden, as they are roped into the hard labour of empire building. With his characteristically acerbic satire, Gill titles this second work The Colonized c.1860

It is hard not to read these two works as “before-and-after” shots, contrasting the carefree life of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants before being colonized, with their subjugation under the imperial project. But there is also a charged ambivalence to this contrast: not only does Gill offer a vague sympathy for the plight of his Aboriginal subjects, but he simultaneously points towards the degradation of colonial settler subject-hood: a fall from grace that effects the European on the frontier, himself colonized as part of the imperial process. While the European in The Colonizer is appears to be the “master,” it is a debased mastery, devoid of the fine trimmings of civilized society.

The frankness with which these images explore colonial encounters across the Australian frontier makes The Newly Arrived and The Colonized are remarkable pair of images. Lynette Russell argues, that while the American frontier was lauded by writers like Frederick Jackson Turner as being responsible for the emergence of an American identity, in Australia, “the frontier was essentially ignored.”[i] Ian McLean takes this further, suggesting that the frontier acted as a vital negative component to identity construction, habituating an inability to feel “at home” in the new country. According to McLean, for Australian artists, the frontier could not be pictured because it defied temporal unison. American painting could transcend this, because it was freed from colonial attachment, but in Australia the frontier was too close. The Australian artist was caught on the cusp of two worlds.[ii] As Paul Carter notes, picturing the act of settling became a psychic impossibility for Australian artists, requiring the constant proliferation of boundaries, whose deferral served the “symbolic function of making a place that speaks, a place with history.”[iii]

The Newly Arrived and The Colonized might be seen as both exception to, and proof of, this psychic impossibility. If by setting these two images against each other, Gill draws explicit attention to the passage from settling to settled, from colonizing to colonized, at the same time, it is a passage that occurs in absentia. The precise moment of colonization is never pictured, remaining always an invisible passage; even the transaction of payment alluded to in both works, is never visually realized.

This essay is not an attempt at what Rex Butler has called ‘radical revisionism.’ It does not seek to re-write history from the perspective of the present, in order to show the artists of the past pre-empting the political and social concerns of our current age. In addressing the work of ST Gill, I do not wish to position him as a radical proto-post-colonialist, speaking across “time-like separated’ areas to contemporary issues” or articulating “newer public virtues of beauty, persuasiveness and social justice.”[iv] My ambitions are decidedly more modest: my argument is that the art of ST Gill illustrates a key transitional moment in the development of the Australian colonial imagination, when the temporal strategies of modernity (such as historicism, evolution, and nationalism) emerge to normalise and repress the inherent contradictions and instability of the colonial project. By a fortunate confluence of coincidences (including his genre, audiences, temperament, and historical moment) Gill inadvertently captures this fleeting moment of transition, and in doing is, pictures the ambivalence of colonial discourse before it is obscured beneath the redemptive nationalist fantasy of the Heidelberg school of Australian Impressionism.

If, as Homi Bhabha has argued, uncovering this ambivalence serves to disrupt to destabilize the colonial project, this should not in any way be considered an act of rebellion on Gill’s behalf. Despite the ways in which it is often read, I understand Bhabha’s text as offering a method of interpretation and not a strategy of resistance. As he notes, disclosing the colonial ambivalence is a process that serves to both normalize and disrupt colonial authority.[v] Rather than being actively subversive, if Gill’s work reveals the antinomies and inconsistencies of the colonial mission, it is because it all too faithfully visualizes the colonial frontier without the benefit of the strategic apparatuses that would soon serve to normalize the unstable systems of power relations upon which this mission was founded.

In large part, this disclosure is the necessary result of Gill’s picturing of the urban environment, as opposed to the landscape idiom that dominates the canonical narrative of Australian art history. As Penelope Edmonds argues, colonial frontiers did not exist only in the bush, backwoods or borderlines. Rather, as the site for the emergence of colonial modernity, it was the “urban frontier” in which the realities of colonial authority were most conspicuous.[vi] Despite imperial confidence in the spatial order of the city and its power to produce and discipline subjects, colonial cities were mixed, uneasy, and transformative spaces, shaped by settler-Indigenous relationships. Torn between imperial ambition and colonial anxiety, they were the primary “contact zone” (to use Mary Louise Pratt’s term) in which issues of race, gender and miscegenation were played out. Edmonds notes that colonial cities were charged sites of mutual transformation in which the colonial narrative and identity was confounded and subverted. “Just as Indigenous people were colonized, so too were the newcomers and new spaces indigenized, albeit in highly uneven ways and within asymmetrical relations to power.”[vii]

It was in these urban encounters that the ambivalence of colonial relationships was brought into starkest relief, casting the settler subject as both colonizer and colonized. Following Lefebvre’s edict to reveal the ways in which spaces obscure the conditions of their own production, Edmond’s argues that settler cities have become naturalized and inevitable, concealing the constitutive relationships of Indigenous dispossession and displacement that adhere in their current incarnations.[viii] In examining Gill’s images of the ‘urban frontier,’ I would like to suggest that it was precisely this transactional, transformative nature of colonial cities that made them such heightened sites of colonial anxiety, leading most Australian artists to ignore the city in favor of the idealized bush. By exploring the slippages in Gill’s urban scenes, this paper aims to reveal the motivations and inherent repressions that underlie the development of the colonial imagination, and reveal the ideological foundations of Australian colonial identity.


It was late in the afternoon of Wednesday 27 October 1880. Rounding the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, the artist S.T. Gill collapsed onto the steps of the Melbourne Post Office. In full public view, the once famed ‘artist of the goldfields’ died in quiet anonymity from a ruptured aorta: his heart finally broken from years of heavy drinking. As ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ entered its decade of greatest prosperity, one of its most important chroniclers was buried in a pauper’s grave, his passing marked only by an indifferent note in the Sydney Bulletin, commemorating “an artist formerly well known in the South.”[ix] A century later, in his monograph S.T. Gill’s Australia, Geoffrey Dutton lamented, “Even now, Gill is an under-rated artist.”[x] By 1981, however, this seemed a somewhat outdated threnody. As early as 1911, A.W. Greig had begun Gill’s critical resurrection with a lengthy piece in the Melbourne Argus asking, “Are there any Victorian’s alive to-day who, for the sake of his art and the sake of the days that are gone, would rescue the last resting place of poor “S.T.G” from the oblivion to which it has fallen?”[xi] Within a year, the Historical Society of Victoria had relocated Gill’s remains to a private grave with a handsome headstone bearing the inscription: “Samuel Thomas Gill – The Artist of the Goldifelds.”[xii]

There seemed little doubt that Gill had been welcomed back into the Australian cultural canon: his works were acquired by all the major public institutions in Australia, and his reputation as ‘The Artist of the Goldfields’ was reaffirmed in every major Australian art historical text of the twentieth century.[xiii] By 1971, in the very first monograph on the artist, Keith Bowden marvelled, “High prices are now paid for [Gill’s] pictures and his books have become scarce collector’s items, all steadily appreciating in value and all eagerly sought.”[xiv]

For Dutton, however, it was not simply a matter of prestige or prices, but the seriousness with which Gill’s work was inserted into the narrative of Australian art history. As the title of his monograph suggests, this was connected to a peculiarly nationalist narrative, in which artistic development (like colonial settlement) was an unfolding process of acculturation, that Anne-Marie Willis has described as “coming to terms with the uniqueness of the land, learning to love it, leaving behind their European aesthetic framework an seeing the Australian landscape ‘with Australian eyes.’”[xv] This was not simply an aesthetic development, but a psychic process of identity construction. Thus, according to Dutton, it was Gill’s temperamental sympathy for the “Australian” characteristics of egalitarianism and “rough democracy” that attuned him to the “Australian” experience, allowing him to see the landscape as it really was. “As if by osmosis,’ writes Dutton, ‘Gill was at home from the time he stepped off the boat.”[xvi]

His ardent poetic and sympathetic temperament, spiced with a humour that could detect the hidden balances of character and occasions, enabled him to be wide open to the Australian experience … in a few year, he was already the most Australian of the 19th century artists, speaking the instinctive language of Australia’s rocks and trees, wildflowers and light.[xvii]

If these boosterish claims lack a certain level of sophistication (particularly in their evocation of a singular ‘Australian’ experience), they are hardly unique to Dutton: his is merely one iteration of a common refrain in Australian cultural history, in which the landscape is used to naturalize what Willis terms “illusions of identity.”[xviii] According to Willis, in such narratives the landscape is endowed with an inalienable truth, the problem being that of the observer, “needing to remove the scales from their eyes in order to see the land fully revealed.”[xix]

Nature is posited as culture, when in fact, nature itself is a cultural construction and the history of Australian landscape painting is not one of progressive discovery, the building up of an ever more accurate picture, but a series of changing conceptualizations, in which one cultural construction plays off another in ever more complex webs of invention and in which the picturing of the local intersects with other, including imported, aesthetic and cultural agendas.[xx]

Leaving aside for one moment the constructed nature of this narrative as critiqued by Willis, the question remains: why, despite the best efforts of critics like Dutton, has Gill’s work continued to sit so awkwardly within this nationalist narrative? This inexorable quandary confronted Bernard Smith in his pioneering 1945 history of Australian visual culture, Place, Taste and Tradition. Like Dutton, Smith concluded that “the most Australian of all artists, though himself an Englishman, was Samuel Thomas Gill … In many respects he was more Australian than any of the Heidelberg School.”[xxi] Recognizing that this flew in the face of art historical orthodoxy, Smith defends his position in an extraordinarily prescient passage that anticipates Willis’ argument made half a century later:

It will be said that Gill’s work was only Australian in content, that the form was English. But where a racial or national quality is to be found in a work of art, in our times, and belongs to the Western European tradition, such quality almost invariably resides in the content … A prevalent form of aesthetic snobbery has seen fit to use certain qualities of the Australian landscape – the nature of the trees, skies and fields – as Australian symbols. The reason for this is to be found, perhaps, in the Impressionists’ preoccupation with landscape painting, and on the other the squatter’s idolization of his property. There is no such thing as an Australian art-form. Lines and colours have no nationality … Gill used a style typical to the English graphic artists of the early nineteenth century to portray Australian genre subjects; Streeton used the formal qualities popular among the academic Impressionists of the late nineteenth century to portray Australian landscape subjects. Both expressed local subjects with techniques developed abroad, and in doing so both assisted the movement towards a national style, since content always tends to create a pattern suited to its own expression.[xxii]

In Place, Taste and Tradition, Smith offers the first social history of Australian art. In drawing attention to the Heidelberg Impressionist’s use of the landscape as national symbol, he pre-empts the critiques of scholars like Willis and Richard White, who argue that by linking national character to landscape, the Heidelberg artists naturalized Impressionism as a style. “It was a myth invented by the Heidelberg school,’ argues White, ‘that theirs’ was the ‘first truly Australian vision’ – their commitment to naturalism required that all previous versions were contrived.”[xxiii]

By 1961, when Smith set himself to writing the history of Australian painting, his commitment to Gill as an artist of distinctly “Australian character” posed a number of difficulties. Not least of these was reconciling Gill’s work within the dominant trope of melancholy that, following Marcus Clarke, Smith argues defines the Australian landscape tradition. Thus, on the one hand, Smith asserts that Gill’s paintings “form a most valuable commentary upon the life of the time, a commentary which is expressed with great gusto and great humour,” making Gill the first artist to “express the sardonic humour, the nonchalance and the irreverent attitudes to all form of authority, so frequently remarked upon by the students of Australian behaviour.”[xxiv] On the other hand, Smith is quick to remark that this humour is always tempered by the “melancholy of the Australian scene … the dead and fallen timber, the stunted grass-trees … the presentations of the dramatic in a primeval setting.”[xxv]

The dominance of the landscape narrative in Australian art history is tellingly revealed in the subordination of the scene to the setting that occurs in Smith’s account. Equally revealing is his invocation of the primeval quality of the landscape; by 1980 Smith had begun to recognize melancholy as a vital trope occluding the guilt of terra nullius.[xxvi] It was Smith’s student, Ian McLean who would take this idea to its logical limits, framing melancholy not as an ailment, but as a linguistic meta-trope underpinning the thought and imagination of the entire colonial epoch.[xxvii] For McLean, this melancholy created a dialectic narrative of redemption and failure, allowing for the creation of history from loss. If melancholy serves to dehistoricize the landscape, it also finds in it an original landscape that substitutes for the migrant’s actual sense of loss. “A melancholy landscape,’ he argues, ‘is an historical landscape, haunted with memories.”[xxviii]

In pointing to this melancholy, both Smith and McLean draw attention to the challenge that the proximity of the Other on the frontier posed to the structured order of European selfhood. Frederick Jackson Turner would unwittingly point to these antinomies in his influential 1893 treatise, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” For, if Turner’s “frontier thesis” is best know for the proposition that it was the endless space beyond the frontier that forged the aspirational nature of the American character, he also recognized the frontier as the site of encounter: “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”[xxix] It was through the hardships and adversity of this encounter that Turner believed a truly unique identity would emerge: “the outcome is not the old Europe [but] a new product that is American.”[xxx]

Turner’s evolutionary approach to American history stood in stark contrast to those who saw the frontier as merely a site where culture was replicated over an ever-expanding territorial domain.[xxxi] Half a century earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville contended that the cities of the New World were constructed from the “invisible luggage” of their migrant settlers. The men who travelled to the American wilderness, he argued, brought with them “the customs, the ideas, the needs of civilization” and implanted them in the wilderness.[xxxii] Despite their differences, however, in framing the frontier as a dividing line between civilization and wilderness, both Turner and de Tocqueville cast the frontier as a psychic line demarcating the limits of European identity. As Paul Carter concludes, this required a particularly western logic of property value, in which territorial units were treated as isolated legal and economic units.[xxxiii] Not only did this set the preconditions for the atavistic principles of origin and territory upon which western identity was based, but the endless deferral of the expanding frontier also enabled the developmental drive of capitalist modernity.

While the frontier provided the site for exposure to the Other, thus extending identity, this demarcation allowed a beyond in which the Other could be cast as contrary, maintaining the illusion of a stable identity.[xxxiv] The way of achieving this beyond was temporal.[xxxv] Rod Macneil has argued that understanding the landscape as temporal Other was fundamental to its recreation as a space available for colonization. Cast in primeval terms as the dialectic counter to civilization and modernity, the wilderness was forced to play a psychic role as the baseline against which colonial history could be written in order to stem the tide of ahistoricity. Couched in the terms of progress and redemption, the consequent conversion of the landscape from uncivilized place to colonized space signalled its transformation from the past into the present.[xxxvi] Likewise, by their connection with the pre-colonial landscape, the New World’s Indigenous inhabitants were cast into a temporal condition confined to the prehistoric past. Macneil concludes, “Aboriginality remained defined in terms of colonization’s temporal frontier, as a signifier of the past upon which the colonial nation was built.”[xxxvii] By the late nineteenth century, as artists like those of the Heidelberg school attempted to build a distinct national visuality, Aborigines disappeared almost entirely from Australian art, leaving a melancholy landscape haunted by what Bernard Smith evocatively termed “the spectre of Truganini.”[xxxviii]

And yet, the image of the frontier depicted by Gill in The Newly Arrived and The Colonized is strangely incongruous with this melancholy and empty landscape. Even McLean is forced to note this, offering a curt and unsympathetic dismissal:

If the frontier aesthetic had to first empty the landscape in order to silence it, it also needed to be filled with the figures of the new owners claiming their possession. In this respect, colonial artist S.T. Gill might appear the real precursor of the Impressionist project, as with his The Colonized. However, his satire is in the melancholy vein typical of his time. Gill gives Australia the comic people that he feels it deserves.[xxxix]

While McLean’s explanation seems a considerable development from Bernard Smith’s setting of Gill’s caricature within “melancholy of the Australian scene,” both work on a similar logic, reconciling Gill’s work within what they see as the dominant colonial landscape trope. And yet, it seems to me, that while Gill’s images contain a deep-seated anxiety, this anxiety is markedly different in character to the melancholy of the later Australian Impressionists, or even that of his closer contemporaries such as Eugene von Guérard or Nicholas Chevalier. While Gill moved in the same social circles as von Guérard and Chevalier, he belonged to a markedly different status of artist. The son of a Baptist minister, Gill did not have the benefit of academic training, but rather, was apprenticed as a draughtsman by the Hubard Profile Gallery in London, where he was employed to produce profile silhouettes. After arriving in Adelaide in 1839, he established a studio to produce low cost depictions of humans, animals and houses on “paper suited for home conveyance”[xl] This put him in very different social category of artist from that of von Guérard and Chevalier, who were both academically trained artists who travelled to Australia in search of the exotic and sublime landscape. Unlike the imposing canvases by these artists, Gill’s works were low-cost souvenirs. Tellingly, in 1864 Chevalier’s The Buffalo Ranges 1864 became the first Australian painting acquired by the recently established National Gallery of Victoria; it would be another 90 years before the hallowed institution would acquire a work of ST Gill.[xli]

Nicholas Chevalier, The Buffalo Ranges 1864. Oil on canvas, 132 x 183 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Nicholas Chevalier, The Buffalo Ranges 1864. Oil on canvas, 132 x 183 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Moreover, despite the efforts of scholars like Geoffrey Dutton and Bernard Smith to reconcile Gill with the landscape tradition that dominates the Australian art historical narrative, Gill’s paintings do not seem particularly interested in the landscape. Gill is a genre painter, and his best works are animated scenes filled with energetic figures. While Smith makes much of the “melancholy” landscape in which these scenes are set, this reading requires a decidedly selective vision. More often than not, the landscape in Gill’s works is little more than a hastily rendered background. Even his most melancholy “outback” scenes, such as those that Gill produced while acting as draughtsman to John Horrock’s ill-fated 1846 expedition, are less concerned with the landscape than the dramatic scene occurring within it (see for instance, Invalid’s tent, salt lake 75 miles north-west of Mount Arden 1846 in the Art Gallery of South Australia). Gill’s great skill was figures, and when he paints an empty landscape, such as Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown c.1846 (Art Gallery of South Australia), the overall effect is far too dull and generic to privilege any particular emotion, melancholic or otherwise. If, as Willis argues, in the art of the Heidelberg school “nature is posited as culture,” it is perhaps unsurprising that Gill’s awkward commercial landscapes were not embraced into the national canon.

ST. Gill. Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown, c.1846. Watercolour on paper, 34.0 x 46.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

ST. Gill. Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown, c.1846. Watercolour on paper, 34.0 x 46.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

More significantly, this comparison is illustrative of the connection between modern aesthetics, nationalism and the idealised bush. As Tony Bennett notes, the discourse of aesthetics, which crystallized around this time (centred on emergent institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria, which was founded in Melbourne in 1861) played a significant role in developing new forms of self-governance. This discourse was an “active component in the eighteenth-century culture of taste and played a major role in the subsequent development of the art museum, providing the discursive ground on which it was to discharge its obligations as a reformatory of public morals and manners.”[xlii] By positing nature as culture, while offering their particular vision as the first truly accurate depiction of the Australian landscape, the Heidelberg school perfectly wed modernist aesthetics to this reformatory apparatus.

Tom Roberts, Bailed Up 1895. Oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Tom Roberts, Bailed Up 1895. Oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Following Marshall Berman, Dipesh Charkrabarty has characterized “modernism” as “designating the aesthetic means by which an urban literate class subject to the invasive forces of modernization seeks to create, however falteringly, a sense of being at home in the modern city.”[xliii] In this context, the retreat from the city by the urbane and educated artists of the Heidelberg school might be seen, as Terry Smith argues, as “ahistorical attempts at ‘universal’ resolutions of conjectures of problems which are threatening the present.”[xliv] Discussing the academic Impressionism of Tom Robert’s Bailed Up 1895 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), Smith concludes:

Roberts’s painstaking realism serves to give to the spectator a sense of being present, at a moment in the past, it gives ‘eyewitness news value’ to history. And it does so [with] the same detachment from the forces of contemporary reality … Conflict between rich and poor, between the rule of law and the rules of the lawless, between the safe system of those who have and the aggressively independent self-seeking of the have-not bushrangers – all this is absent from the painting.[xlv]

ST. Gill, The King of Terrors and his Satallites [sic], c.1880. Watercolour, 31.7 x 22.2 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

ST. Gill, The King of Terrors and his Satallites [sic], c.1880. Watercolour, 31.7 x 22.2 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The bush idealism of Heidelberg was precisely a retreat from the anxiety inducing realities of Melbourne’s urbanized reality. But Gill’s works did not retreat from this reality; indeed, one of his final paintings The King of Terrors and His Satallites [sic] c.1880 (State Library of New South Wales) directly tackles the subject of urban iniquity in a grim portent of the artist’s own imminent demise. But if the image of Gill as a drunkard and an outcast, serves to cast him as the emblematic figure of modern experience, the flâneur, it must be noted that Gill’s experience of modernity was radically different to that of the Heidelberg artists. When Gill arrived in Adelaide in 1839, he landed in a colony less than three years old. Although blessed with an influx of immigrants, South Australia was almost broke, having embarked on an ambitious program of public works. In this tiny and impoverished colony, it was exceedingly difficult to make a living as an artist, and in 1851 Gill appeared in the Adelaide Supreme Court and declared that he was insolvent.[xlvi] Gill’s insolvency coincided with the discovery of gold in north-eastern Victoria. The following year, Gill followed the rush of men to the goldfields seeking his fortune on the diggings.


ST Gill, A City of Melbourne Solicitor 1866, lithograph, 34 x 26.6 cm, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

When Gill arrived in Melbourne in 1852, the Victorian gold rush had just begun transforming the city from a small, provincial town into one of the world’s richest metropolises. Although he found little success as a miner, Gill made a roaring trade selling images of the goldfields to the influx of men and women who flocked to north-eastern Victoria from across Australia and the world. In his four years in Melbourne, Gill documented life of the goldfields with an unmatched vigour and animation. In 1856, he left Melbourne in order to try and extend his artistic success into New South Wales; when he returned in 1864 he found a city transformed. In the decade since his arrival in Melbourne, the population had risen from 23,000 in 1852 to over 140,000 in 1861. Over 20 million ounces of gold had been mined from the Victorian goldfields, allowing for the construction of grand new buildings, roads, modern plumbing and gas lighting, ushering in the era of “Marvellous Melbourne.”[xlvii]

Suffering from financial difficulties, alcoholism, and venereal disease, Gill was perhaps indisposed to celebrate the city’s new-found prosperity. The images that he produced in his final decades in Melbourne present an unremittingly bleak view of the modern city, lacking the levity of humour of his images of the goldfields; a vision of modernity characterised by public drunkenness, racial degradation, alienation and poverty. This might well have reflected Gill’s internal state, but it should also be seen as an indication of the radical acceleration of modernity that occurred in Melbourne in the 1850s and 60s. As Bennett notes in regards to the slowly unfolding influence of evolution and historicism in Australia, modernity arrived in gradual waves: a “slow modernity” rather than a rupture.[xlviii] Unlike the Heidelberg artists, who were mostly born in the decade after 1865, Gill witnessed firsthand the maturation of modernity in Australian cities; the fully-fledged modernity that characterized the grand metropolis of Melbourne in the 1880s should not, therefore, be assumed to be a naturalized part of Gill’s understanding of the world.


ST Gill, On the Board of Works 1866, lithograph, 34 x 26.6 cm, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

A simple analogy might be seen in his preferred choice of medium: the watercolour ‘sketch.’ In 1845, Gill had acquired a daguerreotype, the first camera in the colony of South Australia. The purchase was greeted with great enthusiasm in Adelaide, with the South Australian Register noting:

It appears to take likenesses as if by magic. The sitter is reflected in a piece of looking glass, and suddenly, without aid of brush or pencil, his reflection is “stamped” and “crystalised.” That there should be an error is absolutely impossible. It is the man himself. The portrait is, in fact, a preserved looking glass.[xlix]

Gill’s career as a photographer was, however, short lived, and soon after acquiring his daguerreotype machine, he sold it to the publican Robert Hall.[l] The most likely reason for this was financial; it was not until the late 1890s that new printing processes made photographic reproduction an affordable medium of dissemination.[li] On a psychic level, however, Paul Carter notes that the realism of photography – as marveled by the reporter from the South Australian Register – created an “ambiguity of the present tense” that undermined the colonizer’s ontological claims of spatial speculation, as it presented a history of objects (“the man himself”) rather than their conjuration by discovery. This could only be resolved by returning to the picturesque view of the tourist: “The strangest place in this looking glass world is where we stand looking into it but fail to see ourselves reflected there, glimpsing instead the strangeness of our origins.”[lii]

In abandoning the photographic for the painterly, Gill might be seen to be playing precisely into this colonial trope, preempting the Heidelberg artist’s claim to capture the essential truth of the landscape. Indeed, this is not far from Dutton’s interpretation, that in the watercolor sketch, Gill found the medium best suited to his desire to capture the liveliness and spontaneity of colonial life.[liii] And yet, Gill did not abandon photography (the most modern and mimetic mode available) in order to adopt the picturesque stylings of Chevalier of von Guérard; he abandoned photography in favor of the debased popular medium of caricature.

ST Gill, The Provident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

ST Gill, The Provident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

While Gill’s first volume of published sketches purport to represent his subjects precisely “as they are,”[liv] the image’s mode as satire offers a markedly different version of presentness to the “eyewitness news value” of the Heidelberg artists. This is most strikingly evident in Gill’s use of paired images, such as The Newly Arrived and The Colonized, or the pair of lithographs The Provident Diggers in Melbourne and The Improvident Diggers in Melbourne which appeared in Gill’s 1852 publication The Victorian Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are. The folly of reading these images as documentary is illustrated by Graeme Davison, who completely fails to recognize the irony of Gill’s depiction of the diggers, reading them as straightforward morality pieces:

Conservative colonists feared … that the social dislocation of the gold rush might culminate in anarchy and revolution. The arrival of thousands of avaricious young men, adrift from the restraining influence of home and kin, exposed to the hazards and temptations of frontier life and susceptible to the appeals of radicals and revolutionaries, inspired dread among the governing classes. S.T. Gill gave vivid expression to these fears in his contrasting portraits of the ‘improvident digger’, bent upon riot and debauchery, and the ‘provident digger’ contemplating self-advancement and domesticity.[lv]

While Gill’s “improvident diggers” are shown drunkenly staggering past a jewelry store, the “provident” pair soberly concentrate on plans for available freehold land displayed in a realtor’s window. And yet, like many of Gill’s images, the message of this counterpoint is far from straightforward. As most contemporary Australian viewers would have been aware, inflation and land shortages had created a situation in which private real-estate contractors could easily prey upon unwitting diggers, charging highly inflated prices for low quality holdings. In such a situation, gold was a much sounder investment. In this situation, it was the “provident” digger was the one most likely to be swindled.

ST Gill, The Improvident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

ST Gill, The Improvident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

To read Gill’s images as morality tales, as Davison does, is to quite literally miss the joke. As Geoffrey Dutton rightly asserts, “S.T. Gill was a humourist rather than a moralist.”[lvi] However, as Rex Butler and Ian McLean note”

A joke gets its laughs by momentarily revealing the absurdity of a conventional truth, as in the medieval carnival that turns the world upside down. The secret is not to resolve the antinomy but hold it in suspense; what Žižek calls a parallax view. Thus the successful mimic is always funny because they are two at once.[lvii]

This is particularly significant, considering the dual nature of Gill’s audience; The Victorian Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are was editioned in both Australia and Britain, and was therefore required to appeal to both colonial and imperial tastes.[lviii] And yet, as Žižek notes, the joke also serves to transform an inherent limitation (that which cannot be spoken, the position that cannot be assumed, the void of what cannot be seen from the first perspective, the space between The Newly Arrived and The Colonized) into something that is only a contingent difficulty that will one day be overcome. Nowhere is this ambiguity more evident than in one of Gill’s most difficult and troubling works: Native Dignity 1866.

Samuel Thomas (ST) Gill, Native dignity 1866, lithograph, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0648

Samuel Thomas (ST) Gill, Native dignity 1866, lithograph, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0648

By the mid-1860s, orthogenetic theories of social evolution were slowly beginning to emerge in Australia.[lix] Aboriginal culture was seen as an earlier stage in the teleological progress of human civilization and likened to an archaeological remnant of primeval man. Once contact was made with the more ‘advanced’ cultures, it was assumed inevitable that this ‘primitive’ culture would disappear. Not only did this lead to a sense of urgency on the part of early anthropologists to record and collect ethnographic data for the information it could shed on the development of humanity, but it inspired artists like Gill to create detailed visual records of Indigenous dress, material objects and cultural practices. He documented these observations in his most lavish publication, The Australian Sketchbook 1865.[lx]

In contrast to the detailed attention paid to traditional Indigenous dress and custom in The Australian Sketchbook, Native Dignity offers a striking counterpoint. An Aboriginal man is shown in a battered top hat, cutaway jacket and shirt, but no trousers. With his cane under his arm he swaggers down the street, alongside a smiling female companion swishing a tattered crinoline and a dinky parasol. It is likely that Gill, like many of his contemporaries saw Indigenous Australians as a dying race, but Native Dignity might also be seen as a critical commentary on the adverse impact of the encroachment of modernity upon both Indigenous and non-indigenous subjects in the colonial city. In making this claim, it is worth revisiting Edmonds assertion that the colonial city was a charged site in which “issues of civilization and savagery; race, gender and miscegenation were played out.”[lxi]

By the 1860s, images of Indigenous Australians in the urban setting were increasingly rare, not because Indigenous Australians were not present in Australian cities, but because their presence was a source of great anxiety amongst non-indigenous Australians. As Patrick Wolfe argues, rather than a fixed site, the frontier was always shifting, contextual and negotiated: always placing the Aboriginal somewhere else.[lxii] Lynette Russell continues, “the spatial coexistence of invaders and indigenes was anomalous making settler colonialism an assertion about the nation’s structure rather than a statement about its origins.”[lxiii] Beyond a simple racist stereotype, by picturing Indigenous people in the present, in such an ambiguous image of the urban frontier, Native Dignity plays upon the full range of urban anxieties of the non-indigenous colonial subject.

Confronted with the realities of the urban frontier, the settler subject is forcibly cast into the role of both colonizer and colonized in a dialectic of domination in which the self and the Other become mutually dependent. Although imbued with all the prejudices of its time, the very act of picturing this violence is, in some small and unintentional way, a form of resistance to the imperialism of silence. As Lynette Russell concludes, “when frontiers and boundaries are examined closely they seem to melt away. Instead of a line or a space or even a contact zone, we find only a concept, a notion that lacks temporal and geographic specificity.”[lxiv] Rather than defining the Australian experience, in Native Dignity, the melancholy nationalist landscape tradition fades into the dust between barefoot dancing feet.

[i] Lynette Russell, ed. Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 4.

[ii] Ian McLean, “Under Saturn: Melancholy and the Colonial Imagination,” in Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific, ed. Nicholas Thomas and Diane Losche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 152-58.

[iii] Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 154-55.

[iv] Rex Butler, ed. Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2005), 9.

[v] Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28(1984): 126-7.

[vi] Penelope Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010), 5-6.

[vii] Ibid., 9.

[viii] Ibid., 10.

[ix] Keith Macrae Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist (Maryborough: The Author, 1971), 103-12; Geoffrey Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia (South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1981), 47-50.

[x] Ibid., 7.

[xi] A.W. Greig, “An Australian Cruikshank,” The Argus, Saturday 14 September 1912, 7. Reprinted in The Register, Wednesday 18 September 1912, 11.

[xii] Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist, 109.

[xiii] See for instance, William Moore, The Story of Australian Art (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1934), 59-60. Bernard Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1945), 67-70; Bernard Smith, Terry Smith, and Christopher Heathcote, Australian Painting 1788-2000 (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49-53. Gill was also routinely featured in Australian newspapers and art magazines, for instance, E. McCaughan, “Samuel Thomas Gill,” The Australasian, 15 November 1930. Basil Burdett, “Samuel Thomas Gill: An Artist of the ‘Fifties,” Art in Australia 3, no. 49 (1933); W.H. Langham, “Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880): Landscape Painter,” Bulletin of the National Gallery of South Australia 2, no. 1 (1940); J.K Moir, “S.T. Gill, the Artist of the Goldfields,” The Argus, 9 December 1944 1944.

[xiv] Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist, xi.

[xv] Anne-Marie Willis, Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1993), 62.

[xvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 7.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Willis, Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation.

[xix] Ibid., 62-64.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition, 67.

[xxii] Ibid., 67-70.

[xxiii] Richard White, Inventing Australia (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1981), 106.

[xxiv] Smith, Smith, and Heathcote, Australian Painting 1788-2000, 50.

[xxv] Ibid., 50-51.

[xxvi] Bernard Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: The 1980 Boyer Lectures (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980).

[xxvii] McLean, “Under Saturn: Melancholy and the Colonial Imagination,” 131-42.

[xxviii] Ibid., 136-7.

[xxix] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The Froniter in American History, ed. Frederick Jackson Turner (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921), 3.

[xxx] Ibid., 4.

[xxxi] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 158.

[xxxii] David Hamer, New Towns in the New World (New York: Columbia University, 1990), 65.

[xxxiii] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 136.

[xxxiv] The maintenance and hegemony of this identity position is taken up by a number of scholars, for example Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 14-15; Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 16-17.

[xxxv] As Johannes Fabian observes, “there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical and political act.” Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; repr., 2002). Similar positions are articulated in Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference; Tony Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[xxxvi] Rod Macneil, “Time after Time: Temporal Frontiers and Boundaries in Colonial Images of the Australian Landscape,” in Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, ed. Lynette Russell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 48-49.

[xxxvii] Rod Macneil, “Time after Time: Temporal Frontiers and Boundaries in Colonial Images of the Australian Landscape,” in Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, ed. Lynette Russell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 49.

[xxxviii] Truganini (c.1812-1876) was an Aboriginal woman from the island of Tasmania. By the time of her death, she was widely considered the “last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian.” Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: The 1980 Boyer Lectures.

[xxxix] Ian McLean, “Picturing Australia: The Impressionist Swindle,” in Becoming Australians: The Movement Towards Federation in Ballarat and the Nation, ed. Kevin T. Livingston, Richard Jordan, and Gay Sweely (Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2001), 59.

[xl] E.J.R. Morgan, “Gill, Samuel Thomas (1818-1880),” in Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1966); Patricia Wilkie, “For Friends at Home: Some Early Views of Melbourne,” La Trobe Journal 46(1991).

[xli] In 1954, the National Gallery of Victoria purchased their first work by Gill, The Avengers c.1869.

[xlii] Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism, 3.

[xliii] Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, 155-56. See also, Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Penguin, 1988), Ch. 1.

[xliv] Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian Art: The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002), 93.

[xlv] Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian Art: The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002), 99. In noting this disconnect from the urbanized reality, Smith notes, “In this sense it is a retrospective creation, celebrating a phase which was passing. And, in this same sense, it is city-based: it imposes the over confident optimism of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ onto a declining rural industry … There is no suggestion here that Roberts is deliberately misrepresenting the situations he is painting: all of them, with the exception of the bushranging subjects, could be witnessed in places throughout Australia. Rather, interest lies in the fact that, unlike much of the popular illustration and public rhetoric of the time, he elects not to show the most progressive aspect of the situation.” 84-85.

[xlvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 27.

[xlvii] Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004).

[xlviii] Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism.

[xlix] South Australian Register, Saturday November 8, 1845, 2.

[l] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 18.

[li] Wilkie, “For Friends at Home: Some Early Views of Melbourne,” 64.

[lii] Paul Carter, Living in a New County: History, Travelling and Language (London: Faber, 1992), 36-45.

[liii] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 18-19.

[liv] Samuel Thomas Gill, The Victoria Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are (Melbourne: Macartney & Galbraith, 1852).

[lv] Graeme Davison, “Gold-Rush Melbourne,” in Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia, ed. Iain McCalman and Alexander Cook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 63.

[lvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 28.

[lvii] Rex Butler and Ian McLean, “Let Uz Not Talk Falsely Now,” in Richard Bell: Lessons on Etiquette and Manners, ed. Max Delany and Francis E. Parker (Caufield East, Victoria: Monash University Museum of Art, 2013), 39.

[lviii] As I have argued elsewhere, in Britain, the display of colonial iniquity was a subject of considerable interest, playing up to both Imperial fantasies of domination and colonial anxiety. Henry Skerritt, “William Strutt: Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852,” in Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, ed. Christopher Menz (Parkville, Victoria: Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2012).

[lix] Phillip Jones, “Words to Objects: Origins of Ethnography in Colonial South Australia,” Records of the South Australian Museum 33, no. 1 (2000).

[lx] Samuel Thomas Gill, The Australian Sketchbook (Melbourne: Hamel & Ferguson, 1865).

[lxi] Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities 12.

[lxii] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (London: Cassell, 1999), 173.

[lxiii] Russell, Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, 2.

[lxiv] Ibid., 11-13.

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Lisa Uhl: Seeing the Forest and the Trees

The following is a catalogue essay, written for the exhibition Lisa Uhl: Turtujarti at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi from November 19-December 20, 2014.


Lisa Uhl, Kurrkapi 2014, Cat No. 305-14, 120 x 240 cm, acrylic on canvas.

Most English speakers will be familiar with the phrase, “to not see the forest for the trees.” It is used to describe someone whose focus on minute details obscures their ability to see the broader context. Over her short career, the oeuvre of Lisa Uhl has been almost singularly devoted to trees—in particular, the turtutjarti (walnut trees) and kurrkapi (desert oaks) of Wangkajungka country on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. And yet, Uhl is most definitely a “big picture” painter. Nowhere is this more evident than in the works in this current exhibition, which rank among the most accomplished and daring of the young artist’s career. Here the turtutjarti and kurrkapi are rendered almost a spectral presence, subsumed beneath Uhl’s painterly experiments in the visualization of space. These paintings seem less concerned with taxonomic detail than with an ambitious project of world picturing.


Installation image, Lisa Uhl: Turtujarti, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, November 19-December 19, 2014.

This is not to say that the centrality of turtutjarti and kurrkapi to Uhl’s work has diminished in any way. The trees remain the structural foundation of her practice. Typically, they are the first element that Uhl commits to canvas, before following their contours to fill the negative space with color. It is this technique that gives Uhl’s paintings their languid pulse, so evocative of the shimmering desert heat. In her most recent works, however, Uhl has begun to vary this formula. As Mangkaja Arts studio coordinator Wes Maselli notes, if Uhl encounters a blotch, splatter or errant line, “sometimes she will now follow that instead.” In these new paintings, the negative space takes on a life of its own. Rather than being rendered in a single color, the space between Uhl’s trees is now increasingly punctuated by bold gestural incursions and multiple colors. Differentiating between the trees and the spaces between has become increasingly difficult. Uhl is not prioritizing the forest or the trees, but refuting the entire binary. These paintings suggest that it is in the connective space between these poles that our knowledge of the world is produced—that allows one to see both the forest and the trees.

Much has been made of the story that Uhl has not actually “seen” the turtutjarti and kurrkapi, but rather, that her knowledge of them comes from the oral accounts of the influential senior women in her community. In noting this, we should be careful not to underestimate the significance of this system of oral knowledge transfer. After all seeing and knowing are rarely the same thing. The clunky attempts of early European painters to depict the Australian landscape is clear evidence of this. These artists “saw” the landscape, but lacked the conceptual frames to accurately represent it. Uhl might not have seen the turtutjarti and kurrkapi, but she has an intimate and passionate knowledge of them, imparted by figures of the highest esteem, such as Jukuja Dolly Snell, Milkujung Jewess James, Kuji Rose Goodjie, and Purlta Maryanne Downs. These women have instructed Uhl in the deeper meanings of the land: meanings that come from the ancestral Ngarrangkarni. As a young woman, Uhl does not have the authority to paint the “big stories” of Ngarrangkarni. Instead, she restricts herself to the secular subject matter of trees. Nevertheless, her paintings still participate in a worldview informed by this “big picture” view of country.


Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2014, Cat No. 366-14, 90 x 60 cm, acrylic on canvas

This is a worldview defined by connectivity. In a sense, Ngarrangkarni is the most complex network of them all, connecting all things across time and space. It is also the foundation of being. During the Ngarrangkarni, the ancestral beings traveled across the landscape, creating the world and everything in it. Ngarrangkarni is not, however, restricted to the distant past. The residue of these events remains in the present, creating a landscape saturated in ancestral signs. Children are born from the ancestor’s spirits emerging from the earth, linking a person to their country and defining their identity. As a result, the boundaries between the human and natural realms (between self and country) are indistinct. Ngarrangkarni is a network of the most total integration.

While identity is rooted in place, the nature of place is not static. While many Westerners think of the desert and barren and monochromatic, it is full of color and life. The visual activity of the landscape—such as the shimmer of a waterhole or the changing colors of desert blooms—are all tangible expressions of ancestral presence. Recreating these visual effects, such as in the vibrant color combinations and pulsing hum of Uhl’s canvases, is a reenactment of the power of Ngarrangkarni. In Uhl’s paintings, turtutjarti and kurrkapi are the earthly bedrock upon which the transformational actions of ancestral presence is manifest. Her motif is the mutable landscape, but its power is revealed through the ability of its surface to change.


Lisa Uhl, Kurrkapi 2014, Cat No. 340-14, 90 x 120 cm, acrylic on canvas

This explains why Uhl can find a seemingly endless source of inspiration in repeating the same motifs. It also explains why her paintings never fully divest themselves of the imagery of turtutjarti and kurrkapi. They are the literal roots of her network, bringing it back to earth and avoiding the inverse risk of only seeing the forest and not the trees. This insistent physicality of Uhl’s paintings is also an insistent humanity, reminding us that the most powerful networks are also the most affective, uniting real people and real places. The dissociated image of surfing the internet has led many people to view networks as disembodied frames. In reality, networks are the imaginary links that we use to call our world into existence. These networks still require nodes, operators, and locations from which to form our relations.

This takes a decidedly contemporary relevance in a world increasingly defined by the entangled networks of globalization. Despite coming from the seemingly remote locale of Fitzroy Crossing, Uhl’s paintings speak to a global condition. Picturing the complex networks that make up contemporary life—networks that are at once internationally expansive but locally experienced—is one of the central concerns of contemporary artists across the world. This is perhaps why, in our world of increasingly unfathomable networks, the ancient wisdom of concepts like Ngarrangkarni has taken on such contemporary resonance. It is also why artists like Uhl sit comfortably at the vanguard of international contemporary art practice. Drawing on the network ontology of Ngarrangkarni, Uhl’s paintings speak confidently across cultures without sacrificing any of their distinctive identity.


Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2014, Cat No. 383-14, 120 x 120 cm, acrylic on canvas

Since anthropologists first began recording Aboriginal culture in the late nineteenth century, Western commentators have been prophesizing its demise. But Aboriginal culture has proved remarkably resilient, continually adapting the tools of modernity for its own revitalization. It seems strangely fitting then, that the final exhibition at the legendary Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi should come from such a dynamic young artist as Lisa Uhl. While the art market might have its ups-and-downs, and galleries might come and go, in the hands of artists like Uhl, Aboriginal culture continues to finds new vitality. Uhl is the model of resilience in the face of adversity and social tumult. Amid the often-challenging circumstances of modern Fitzroy Crossing, her radiant personality and personal strength shines through in the joie de vivre of her canvases. Like the turtujarti and kurrkapi, she stands tall: a sign of life in what others might wrongly perceive as a barren desert. This life breeds life, and as a committed artist, her success has inspired others in the community. In time, she may well grow to become as important a leader as the great women who went before her. The closing of Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi marks the end of one era, but the paintings of Lisa Uhl point to the future: you just have to see the forest for the trees.

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AKOS: Corey Bulpitt


Last week I was lucky enough to swing a couple of days in Vancouver on my way back to Pittsburgh from Australia. I didn’t need a lot of persuading to stop by the seaport city; I always enjoy my time there, whether spent on the beach, at one of the many great museums, or at the delicious Toshi’s Sushi.

But the reason for my visit this time was to catch the exhibition AKOS: Corey Bulpitt, curated by Kwiaahwah Jones at the Bill Reid Gallery. I was really glad I did, because it is a knockout show. It is always exciting to see an artist emerging into an important new talent. AKOS shows Bulpitt restlessly but methodically working through a range of critical questions, and finding a pretty striking array of answers.

I am still processing my thoughts on the show, and on Bulpitt’s work in general, so that is something for a later, longer piece. For now, I just wanted to encourage you all to try and catch AKOS: Corey Bulpitt before it closes on September 14.

I have blogged on Bulpitt’s work before, and am currently working up a longer piece. Up until now, my interest has been mostly in his mural practice, and how this works both within and across cultures in interesting ways. But what AKOS: Corey Bulpitt shows is just how reflexively Bulpitt is engaging with the historical trajectory of these traditions.


Corey Bulpitt, This is Not Art (detail), 2014. Image from Urban Native Magazine


Take for instance the work Old School/New School 2014, which is one of the first “graffiti” style works in the exhibition. The title refers to a multi-faceted pun taking place across the canvas. On a black background, Bulpitt has stenciled a “school” of salmon in the traditional formline style. While formline is clearly an “old school,” the use of stencils belongs to a “new school” of graffiti practice (made famous by the work of Banksy, but which also has a lineage stretching back several decades.) On top of this, Bulpitt has created a crashing wave of free-hand aerosol paint lines, redolent of the classical style of “old school” graffiti practice. But like all of Bulpitt’s work, this combination of styles comes together into something seamlessly whole: itself a “new school” of Indigenous artistic practice, embodied by collective movements like Beat Nation and the Vancouver based Shop Wrong, of whom Bulpitt is an active and prominent figure.

This is a lot going on in just a single work, but the exhibition teases out the implications in even more profound ways, in large part due to the sophisticated curating of Kwiaahwah Jones. Jones has skillfully managed to unite the disparate parts of Bulpitt’s practice (from traditional totem poles, ceremonial masks, photography and painting) into a seamless whole. This is no mean feat in the complicated spaces of the Bill Reid Gallery, in which the work of the museum’s namesake casts a long shadow.


However, Bulpitt and Reid actually share many similarities: both discovered their Haida artistic heritage later in life; both viewed their predecessors with great reverence, but both were determined to be cultural innovators. Thus, while works like Pipe Dreams/Tunnel Vision should seem jarring set amidst Reid’s beautifully austere forms, they work in tandem to present both the persistence and dynamism of Haida culture.

The parallels were clearly not lost on the exhibition’s curator, who notes, “Graffiti and Haida design share many of the same artistic values: continuous flow that expands and compresses, balance in design, colour, positive and negative, and narrative which is reflective of society and social status.”

I was extremely fortunate to be given a tour of the exhibition by Jones, and she offered the apt description of Reid as a being “bridge between worlds.” It was this characteristic that she also saw in Bulpitt’s work. Both artists, she argued, were “healers, crossing cultures, bringing people together and showing them what is wrong, so that they can begin the healing process”

AKOS: Corey Bulpitt is on at the Bill Reid Gallery, 639 Hornby Street, Vancouver, BC until September 14.

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Rachel Harrison: Expanded or Abandoned Field?


Rachel Harrison, Pablo Escobar, 2010, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In mid-July, I had the pleasure of visiting Chicago for the first time. We arrived in the middle of a mid-west heat wave, which was not all that conducive for sightseeing, but terrific weather to explore the magnificent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute is such a wonderful institution; I could have spent all day amongst their extraordinary collection of European modernism, not to mention their superb selection of pre-War American paintings. One work I was particularly pleased to see was Rachel Harrison’s Pablo Escobar 2010. This is a fine piece, and Harrison is an artist that I very much admire; coming across it on the second floor was a very welcome surprise.


Rachel Harrison, Pablo Escobar, 2010 (with detail of plastic chilli peppers).

Like many of Harrison’s best works, Pablo Escobar balances the gravitas of conceptual abstraction with an appealing playfulness and humor. The kitchy plastic peppers and garish Latino palette, are the perfect foil for the work’s faux-modernist angularity. Unfortunately, the curators have placed the work at the end of a roped off corridor, meaning that it is impossible to view Pablo Escobar in the round. This situation would be problematic for almost any piece of modern or contemporary sculpture; but the difficulties are particularly acute in the case of Harrison’s work.


Rachel Harrison, Utopia, 2002, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh, we are fortunate to have an equally excellent example of Harrison’s work: Utopia 2002, currently on display as part of the spectacularly re-hung Scaife Galleries. In November 2002, Utopia was reproduced on the cover of Artforum magazine. Set against a crisp white background, the peak of Harrison’s hospital-green polystyrene menhir rises through the centre of the page. Like most photographic reproductions of the work, its is photographed so that the small porcelain figurine that rests upon a ledge of this monolith is seen from behind, casting an inevitable comparison to the famous rückenfigur of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 1818. Like Friedrich’s wanderer, the figure appears absorbed in his environment, contemplating the pallid summit that soars above him.


Artforum, November 2002, and Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.

The coherence of this photographic image is somewhat different to the physical experience of the work in space. For a start, in order to photograph the porcelain figure from behind, the photograph elides the presence of a second ledge, upon which sits a small geological specimen of metallic encrusted rock.


Rachel Harrison, Utopia, 2002, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

The direction with which the viewer approaches the sculpture determines which of these two objects are encountered first. If however, you approach the sculpture from the “rock” side, before circling the object in a clockwise direction, the first experience of the porcelain figure is not as rückenfigur, but front on, his crudely painted gilded face standing at approximately head height to the viewer. Rather than a figure of serious contemplation, the viewer is confronted with a kitsch mass-produced commodity. This is the kind of “trick” that Stefano Basilico sees in Harrison’s work, flipping expectations and making “the viewer aware of the transition of time in their experience of the work.”[1] Elizabeth Thomas counters, that Harrison is “a teaser, not a trickster,” setting up multipart compositions as part of the artist’s concern “with the act of looking, and of comprehending (or not) the whole field of visual culture that surrounds us.”[2]


Rachel Harrison, Valid Like Salad, 2012 and All in the Family, 2012 (installation image from the exhibition The Help, Green Naftali Gallery, New York, 2012).

Over a century earlier, this question of looking and comprehending the world similarly preoccupied the German sculptor and theorist Adolf von Hildebrand. According to Hildebrand, our relation to the external world is based upon our perception of its spatial attributes. As a result, he concludes, we must consider our perception of space and form as “the most important facts in our conception of the reality of things.”[3] For Hildebrand, the perception of form is not immediately given in visual perception, rather, it is grasped through the combination of visual and kinaesthetic modes of perception, the two modes combining to supply the material for our imagination of three-dimensional forms. For Hildebrand, this is an “impure” understanding, requiring a combination of experiential components. The role of the artist is to unify these components into a purely visual form.

In the artistic representation, we may check and control the relation between our visual and kinaesthetic ideas, and the test, both of these our own ideas and of the efficacy of the artist’s work is – Do we react immediately to the impression received from this representation … This unity which the artist makes of visual impression and kinaesthetic idea, is the most fundamental source of our aesthetic enjoyment in a work of art.”[4]


Adolf von Hilderbrand, Philoket, 1886

This creates a clear difficulty for the sculptor, who, as Hildebrand notes, works in the mental material of kinaesthetic ideas. If the role of the artist is to create a purely visual and immediately recognisable spatial unity, the unity of a sculptor’s work must be dependent on its two-dimensional image. Hildebrand even asserts the primacy of drawing, arguing that “sculpture has undoubtedly evolved from drawing; by giving depth to a drawing we make it a relief.”[5] It is relief sculpture that Hildebrand sees as the format par excellence for the capturing of form, in which spatial unity remains bound to a simple, understandable spatial unity. For Hildebrand, even sculpture in the round is conceived of as relief, as the sculptor works towards extracting a single, unified form by imagining the work from a single vantage point. This is contrasted to modelling in clay; where sculpture extracts an image from a spatial unity (the block), modelling works in the entirely wrong direction, starting with kinaesthetic ideas: “That which is not modelled is entirely lacking as volume. No general element of clay exists beyond that which is modelled.”[6]


Adolf von Hildebrand: Amazonenjagd (Mittelteil aus dem Amazonentriptychon), 1887/88

In her 1977 text Passages in Modern Sculpture, Rosalind Krauss positions Hildebrand’s argument as the articulation of a peculiarly neoclassical worldview. Like Hildebrand, Krauss also sees relief sculpture as the ultimate expression of this worldview. “The rationalist model, on which neoclassicism depends, holds within it two basic suppositions: the context through which understanding unfolds is time; and, for sculpture, the natural context of rationality is the medium of relief.”[7] Following from Hildebrand’s espousal of the instantaneousness of visual appreciation, Krauss argues that the medium of relief links the visibility of the sculpture with the comprehension of its meaning: from the single viewing point “all the implications of gesture, all the significance of form, must naturally devolves.”

Relief thus makes it possible for the viewer to understand two reciprocal qualities simultaneously: form and meaning. Just as the enlightenment heralded man’s capacity to understand the world through reason, the relief “aspires to comprehend and project the movement of historical time and man’s place within it.”[8] This also explains the neo-classical tendency to depict figures from multiple vantage points, in order to transcend the partial information any single aspect coveys, and to find an ideal vantage point that will contain the totality of information necessary for a conceptual grasp of the object. “Throughout the nineteenth century,” Krauss concludes, “sculptors continually tried to provide the viewer with information about those unseen (and of course unseeable) sides of whole objects imbedded within relief ground”[9]


Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1817

In essence, this argument does not depart substantially from Hildebrand, with the key exception that Krauss sees this as symptomatic of a particular epistemological moment, whereas Hildebrand sees it as the expression of a universal, aesthetic law. In noting that sculpture is a “historically bounded category and not a universal one,” Krauss argues that modern sculpture marks a paradigm shift in which logic of sculpture began to change.[10] For Krauss, this transition is clearly evidenced in the work of Rodin, in whose work, she argues the omniscience of neoclassical relief is replaced with an entirely different subjectivity: “This picture of the self as enjoying a privileged and direct relationship to the contents of its own consciousness is a picture of the self as basically private and discrete.”[11] In the essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Krauss argues that this sets ups a new problem for sculpture. With Rodin, sculpture enters into the space that Krauss terms its “negative condition.” No longer tied to the condition of the monument, it becomes homeless, functionally placeless and self-referential:

Through its fetishization of the base, the sculpture reaches downward to absorb the pedestal into itself and away from actual place; and through the representation of its own materials or the processes of its construction the sculpture depicts its own autonomy.[12]


Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac, 1891-1898

According to Krauss, this led to a situation in which sculpture could only be defined in the combination of exclusions not-landscape and not-architecture. This space could only be explored for a limited time, and by the 1950s its potential had been largely exhausted. This led Krauss to argue that the sculpture of the 1960s and 70s consisted of an expanded field “generated by problematising the set of oppositions between which the modernist category of sculpture is suspended.”[13] In Pop and Minimalist sculpture, Krauss saw a desire to defeat the idea of a centre towards which forms point or build, rejecting the ideal space that exists prior to experience and the psychological model in which a self exists replete with its meanings prior to contact with its world.[14] This was achieved by pointing to the externality of meaning.

Within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium…but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms … this is obviously a different approach to thinking about the history of form from that of the historicist criticism’s constructions of elaborate genealogical trees. It presupposes the acceptance of definitive rupture and the possibility of looking at historical process from the point of view of logical structure.[15]

In Passages in Modern Sculpture, Krauss concludes with a rhapsodic account of recent works by Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. In these works, she argues, the process that began with Rodin has reached fulfilment. “In every case, the image of passage serves to place both the viewer and the artist before the work, and the world, in an attitude of primary humility in order to encounter the deep reciprocity between himself and it.”[16]


Rachel Harrison, Installation image from the exhibition The Help, Green Naftali Gallery, New York, 2012.

In his 2007 essay on Rachel Harrison, John Kelsey labels the artist’s work “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field.”[17] Kelsey is not the only person to note the antagonistic relationship between Harrison’s sculpture and Krauss’ theorising. Situating Harrison amongst an emergent movement of “unmonumental” contemporary sculptors, Trevor Smith argues: “Though this work appears to be a retreat from Rosalind Krauss’s description of “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” it might be seen more accurately as a strategic bulwark against that field’s potential collapse into culture-at-large.”[18] For Smith, it is not simply that Harrison’s sculptures are “obdurately sculptural,” but that they re-examine pre-minimalist forms of address.

Even though Michael Fried’s landmark 1967 critique of literalism, “Art and Objecthood,” was concerned specifically with the phenomenon of Minimalist sculpture, his warning against the unexacting subject relations found in works that were primarily physical and durational, as opposed to optical and instantaneous remain critical to the discussion.[19]

Harrison’s Utopia does not have the theatricality of minimalism, nor does it evoke the kind of humility espoused by Krauss. In its use of found objects, it does not suggest the kind of self-referentiality of Rodin; neither does its mutlipart composition conform to Hildebrand’s single-view. Laura Hoptman argues that the organization of disparate elements into a coherent narrative is one of the crucial distinctions between 20th and 21st century assemblage. Compositionally, sculptures like Harrision’s Utopia are intended to be holistic, with discrete objects coalescing into a coherent narrative. “Organization,” claims Hoptman, “has superseded chance.”[20]

In the beginning of the twenty-first century, an era of customization in which selections from an almost infinite array of choices are collaged together to create personal soundtracks, social groups, menus, histories and canons, the most interesting artists are the mixers, the mashers and sewers-together, the cobblers of irreproducible one-offs.[21]

Kelsey draws the distinction between between “combines” and “complexes” to describe this difference, noting the highly individualised and personal nature of such customizations.[22] This is not a dissolution of artistic subjectivity, but rather a repositioning, that can be seen in Harrision’s balance of the fabricated versus the readymade. As Elizabeth Thomas notes:

Within a single work, Harrison sets up a complex relationship between the created and the found – it is unclear which was devised for which, whether the specificity of a particular photograph or porcelain figurine completes a sculpture, or whether the sculpture was in fact initiated in response to the objects.[23]


Rachel Harrison, Nose, 2005

This uncertain precedence gives Harrison’s sculptures a sense of contingency, as Kelsey comments: “there is always one more component, and it could be anything … that shows up to antagonise the idea that sculpture will ever be complete or identical to itself.”[24] This indeterminacy between object and plinth, artwork and readymade all suggest that Harrison’s work is not interested in the kind of dialectics between form and appearance, subject and object, duration and space that characterise Krauss and Hildebrand’s approaches to sculpture. Ellen Siefermann claims that, “Harrison’s strategies unsettle, provoke, mislead and destabilize … so that through such dialectical reversals she can immediately collapse them again.”[25]

This brings us back to the two-sided nature of Harrison’s Utopia (and the profound difficulties posed by the Art Institute’s display of Pablo Escobar). In presenting the rückenfigur in the round, Harrison seems to want to both re-inscribe the contemplative viewer while mocking the pretensions of the self-contained modernist artwork; to return meaning to the sculpted form, while keeping one eye firmly on the world outside. In doing so, Harrison does not seek to resolve this opposition, so much as reaffirm it as a space of play, undermining the critical force of both poles.


Rachel Harrison, from left: Pablo Escobar, Around the Water Cooler, Siren Serenade, Signature Roll, installation image, Regen Projects II, Los Angele, 2010.

[1] Stefano Basilico, “Rachel Harrison, Trick and Treat,” in Basilico, cur., Currents 30: Rachel Harrison exhib. cat. (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2002), 22.

[2] Elizabeth Thomas, “Rachel Harrision” in Laura Hoptman, cur., 54th Carnegie International exhib. cat. (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2004, 158.

[3] Adolf Hildebrand, The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture, trans. Max Meyer and Robert Morris Ogden (New York: G.E. Stechert & Co, 1945), 17.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 125.

[6] Ibid., 134.

[7] Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring, 1979), 33.

[11] Kraus, Passages in Modern Sculpture, 27.

[12] Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 34.

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Ch.7.

[15] Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 44.

[16] Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, 283.

[17] John Kelsey, “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field,” in Heike Munder, cur. Rachel Harrsion: If I Did It, exhib. cat. (Zürich: Kunsthalle Nürnberg, 2007), 120-125.

[18] Trevor Smith, “Sculpture: A Minor Place,” in Laura Hoptman, cur., Unmonumental (New York: New Museum, 2007), 188.

[19] Ibid., 185.

[20] Hoptman, Unmonumnetal, 132-137.

[21] Ibid., 138.

[22] Kelsey, “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field,” 120.

[23] Thomas, “Rachel Harrison,” 158.

[24] Kelsey, “Sculpture in the Abandoned Field,” 124.

[25] Ellen Siefermann, “Many Layered Objects: Notes on Rachel Harrison’s Strategies,” in in Heike Munder, cur. Rachel Harrsion: If I Did It, 118.

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Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey: Permanent Presence

With the start of the Fall semester, I am beginning to think that my aim to do a blog post a day was a little too ambitious… Nevertheless, despite having missed a few days, I am going to try and get back on the horse!


Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt with their mural Salmon Cycle – The Spirit Within 2013, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

On my recent visit to Vancouver, I became a little obsessed with Northwest Coast Indigenous art. It really is hard not to: it is extremely visually compelling, and speaks so beautifully to the landscape from which it comes. It certainly didn’t hurt that I spent much of the week at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, which houses so many cultural riches of region’s traditional owners. Lacking the budget to acquire any artworks, I returned with a lot of presents for my young son: a very nice t-shirt designed by Eric Parnell; an animal puzzle designed by Doug LaFortune (which Gabriel loves) and the Book of Play with Northwest Coast Native Art .


Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey, The Storm, 2011, Grenville Street Bridge, Vancouver, Canada.

This evening, as Gabriel and I were reading the Book of Play, one image in particular caught my attention. It was the Haida artist Corey Bulpitt‘s depiction of the rainbow. It is a striking image: the contrast between the multi-colour of the rainbow and the thick blocks of black and white typical of northwest coast art causes the image to leap out. Seeing the image in Gabe’s book reminded me of the first time I had seen this motif, in a different work of Bulpitt’s, which I stumbled upon quite by accident while in Vancouver. In 2011, Bulpitt included the rainbow motif at the very centre of 50 foot mural entitled The Storm. The Storm is one of two murals underneath the Granville Street bridge in Vancouver; the other being an equally impressive work by Bulpitt’s frequent collaborator Larissa Healey (which I believe pre-dates The Storm by 3 years). I was very pleased to stumble on these works, because I had recently seen Bulpitt and Healey’s wonderful mural outside the National Gallery of Canada, which had been commissioned for the exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art.


Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt, Granville Street Bridge Mural, 2008, Vancouver, Canada (photo 2013 by author).

As my photos show, the Grenville Street bridge murals have suffered a bit from the elements. Nevertheless, the rainbow beams out with an irrepressible luminosity. Bulpitt and Healey’s murals clearly belong to two identifiable traditions: Northwest Coast Native art and the more recent graffiti styles. In their dress and invocation of the parlance of hip-hop, they clearly find this to be a compatible marriage; certainly, their artwork moves fluidly within and across both circles of influence very productively. This week, however, I have been thinking about these works in slightly different terms.


Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey, The Storm, 2011, Grenville Street Bridge, Vancouver, Canada (photo 2013, by author).

In the 1920s, when Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros revived the Mexican tradition of mural paintings, the attraction of muralism to these artists was, in part, that it was anathema to the formalist traditions of easel painting. Murals were a way of reconnecting modern art to the people; of inserting it into the very architectural fabric of society. To this end, the Mexican muralists revived the Renaissance tradition of fresco painting, in which paint is applied to wet plaster, literally becoming part of the substance of the wall upon which it is painted. In some ways, I see a very obvious parallel here to what Bulpitt and Healey are attempting to do through uniting traditional Haida and Anishinaabe designs with the modes, mediums and language of the street. But there is something more here I think needs to be teased out. As a medium, fresco also attracted the Mexican muralists because of its permanence; it was intended to last forever, just like the revolutionary governments that it celebrated. How does this compare to Bulpitt and Healey’s murals, which belong to the ephemeral tradition of graffiti?


Larissa Healey and Corey Bulpitt, Salmon Cycle – The Spirit Within 2013, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

One answer might be found in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. In the museum’s Great Hall are dozens of examples of Northwest Coast art in varying degrees of repair. In their traditional settings, the giant totem poles preserved at MOA would have eventually deteriorated, to be replaced by new poles. What remained was the imagery, passed on through generations, persisting long after the objects had returned to nature. In a sense, the medium of graffiti is somewhat more permanent, but its associations with the outlaw and the ephemeral is particularly poignant in the case of Indigenous cultural representations. This is a very bold assertion of permanent presence. These murals powerfully declare: “You might outlaw our culture, you might repress our imagery, but like the salmon we will return against the tide; our traditions are permanent.”

stepping forward quietly and boldly
elders watch as we stand our ground
once again the silence is broken
hear our songs under your bridge
we have not left n we rise again

Gurl 23 [aka Larissa Healey]

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Lisa Uhl: Repetition and Transformation


Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2012, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 240 cm.

Recently, I was asked to write a catalog essay for a forthcoming exhibition featuring nine senior men from north Western Australia. In the essay, I note that one of the things that made these artists great (sadly eight of the nine are deceased), was their ability to constantly shift their practice, which I argue is symptomatic of a kind of “transformational ontology.”

For Indigenous people, the visual activity of the landscape (the shimmer of a dried waterhole, shifts in light and color, blooms in Spring) are all tangible expressions of ancestral experience. They are the bridge between the phenomenol and noumenol worlds: the way in which the Dreaming is made visible. Recreating these visual effects is not about creating a representation of the landscape (as in a western landscape painting, which is always a copy of the “real” world), but rather, a re-enactment of the power of the Dreaming. As such, paintings become an active part of imagining country, participating in this transformational process, and giving them power to literally change the world! […] Despite their relatively short careers, all nine artists were extraordinarily mercurial in their artistic practice, experimenting, innovating and shifting styles with alacrity. This peripatetic drive stands to reason; re-energising the Dreaming was a full-time creative exercise: a life’s work.It is impossible to grasp the immensity of such a project from a single painting. Just like the landscape, which reveals its ancestral energy through constant change, the profound success of these artists must be measured through their own continued processes of innovation and transformation.


Lisa Uhl, Four versions of Turtujarti, 2012-2013, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 90 cm each.

This is more or less the same argument I offered in my discussion with Will Owen at the Toledo Art Museum, and I think it is more or less accurate. What it ignores, however, is the question of repetition. Indeed, as an artistic strategy, repetition is integral to many of the finest Aboriginal artists. How might we begin to reconcile this with the idea of a “transformational ontology?”


Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 90 cm.

One artist we might consider is Lisa Uhl. I really admire Uhl’s paintings: they have a beautifully raw elegance that is deeply expressive, while speaking to a local art history. Along with the equally exciting, but slightly older Sonia Kurarra, Uhl is one of the rising stars of the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency at Fitzroy Crossing. In her short painting career, Uhl (born c.1976) has clearly imbibed the influence of her aunt Jukuja Dolly Snell (who raised her from an infant), but has managed to find her own voice through her signature motifs of the Turtujarti (walnut trees from the Great Sandy Desert) and Kurrkapi (Desert Oaks). Uhl clearly does not tire of painting this limited repetoire of motifs (which, to be honest, are pretty much indistinguishable). But to call this a limitation in Uhl’s oeuvre, is like dismissing Mark Rothko because he only painted squares! While it would be wrong to call Uhl a formalist, her paintings are similar to Rothko’s in the sense that their charge comes from their exploration of light and colour: a line of white against a mauve background breaks like dusk through the trees, or a halo of amber emits the pulse of a languid afternoon.


Lisa Uhl, Turtujarti 2013, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

Sure, some artists tear through styles and motifs, but. Uhl is on a different track. In her works, the motif of Turtujarti works as the earthly bedrock upon which the transformational actions of ancestral presence take place. Her motif is the immutable landscape, but its power is revealed through the ability of its surface to change. Uhl’s practice is a beautiful metaphor for this process. Painting might be used to rejuvenate this ancestral power, but it cannot be at the expense of this mutability. Perhaps Uhl’s focus is also a sign of her youth, revealing a sensible trepidation not to transgress the bounds of her authority. As she becomes an elder in her own right, perhaps her practice will transform; but for now, I am happy to enjoy her patient meditations on Turtujarti and Kurrkapi.


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Sidney Nolan and the Relativity of Otherness

Inland Australia 1950 by Sir Sidney Nolan 1917-1992

Sidney Nolan, Inland Australia, 1950, Tate Modern collection.

Yikes. It is 1030pm on my 34th birthday and I haven’t even started today’s blog. I knew the daily blog was going to be a tall order, but some days really push you!

In May this year I had the great pleasure of spending a week in London. It was the first time I had been to the UK since visiting with my parents in 1989. Needless to say, I spent my time dashing between galleries and museums, taking in the embarrassment of masterpieces on display. At one point, in the Tate Modern, I rounded a corner and came face to face with a very familiar sight: a Sidney Nolan desert painting from 1950. I haven’t been in Australia for about 18 months, so seeing Nolan’s painting was a bit uncanny; its familiar colors and textures belonged somewhere else entirely. Whether out of familiarity or surprise, it caught my attention; to the extent that I can no longer remember any of the other works in the room. Nevertheless, I approached it with some trepidation, cautious that its allure was nothing more that sentimental parochialism.

Alongside the work was a brief quote from Nolan, describing his motivation for painting these composite desert scenes:

I wanted to know the true nature of the “otherness” I had been born into. It was not a European thing. I wanted to paint the great purity and implacability of the landscape. I wanted a visual form of the “otherness” of the thing not seen.

Nolan’s statement is quite extraordinary, in that it reveals both his desire to escape the “provincialism problem” (so eloquently described two decades later by Terry Smith), while finding himself essentially trapped by his own strategies: his self-othering against the “alien” desert landscape. I cannot help contrasting this to Edouard Glissant’s assertion that the colonized is always the first to recognize the contemporary state that he terms “Relation,” because they are the first to recognise the other within, having been forcefully cast into the role by the encompassing colonial power. As always, Glissant’s description is delightfully rich:

We “know” that the Other is within us and affects how we evolve as well as the bulk of our conceptions and the development of our sensibility … In spite of ourselves, a sort of “consciousness of consciousness” opens us up and turns each of us into a disconcerted actor in the Poetics of Relation.

In the Cave 1957 by Sir Sidney Nolan 1917-1992

Sidney Nolan, In the Cave, 1957, Tate Modern collection.

It is easy to forget that colonization  works in degrees: and as Nolan’s case suggests, the Australian settler subject could occupy both the position of colonizer and colonized. But there is still something worth thinking through about an artist standing at the precipice of this consciousness of Relation. Several scholars have spoken to me about the profound influence of Indigenous art on Nolan, although relatively little has been published on this matter. (Likewise, the incorporation of Aboriginal shield designs in Albert Tucker’s work also demands some critical attention). On the one hand, this is clearly in line with the modernist tendency to use Indigenous art as a trove of primitivist motifs to be raided at will (something clearly evident in Nolan’s In the Cave 1957, also at the Tate). But I think Nolan’s statement hints at a more profound realisation. Nolan’s problem, as summed up in this statement, is that he is looking to replicate the other within through a generalised otherness without… something that can be reproduced as profoundly alien: the outlaw, the desert, the Aborigine and so on. This is why these paintings are ultimately provincial: they pander to the desire of the center for a provincial other than is recognizable, but different. The lesson of Relation is not to try and cast this otherness in understandable terms, but rather, to recognize that it is one part of the infinite diversity of the world. It would take several decades before the true artists of the desert would jolt the Australian art world into consciousness of this.


Albert Tucker, Untitled (Bushranger with Sheild), c.1956, private collection.

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Kutungka Napanangka and the sticky question of aesthetics


Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2004

I don’t have a lot of time to blog today, so I thought I would just offer a little case study that I have been thinking about this week. There has been a lot of debate lately over the short-comings of Aboriginal art history. I have many opinions on this – and I don’t have time to share them all now – but what I would say, is that rather than a symptomatic failure, I tend to think the problems with the field are more representative of the enormous epistemic challenges that Aboriginal art poses to western intellectual frameworks.

Kutungka Napanangka, Morning Sickness Dreaming 2005


Kutungka Napanangka is an artist that I have always found intriguing. Not only does she produce beautiful paintings, but her career encapsulates many of the peculiar challenges that Aboriginal art poses. Paintings of the western desert are created at a complex intersection of Indigenous cosmology and market forces. They reveal numerous influences: cultural, familial, more recent influences from the market and from art centre facilitators and art-coordinators. Kutungka was born at Kintore around 1950, and began painting in 1999 through Ikuntji Arts Women’s Centre (Haast Bluff). In 2005, she moved to Alice Springs, where she commenced painting with Papunya Tula Artists.



Kutungka Napanangka, Claypan Site of Yulkarpa, 2007

Kutungka’s career is interesting because, it has exhibited several seemingly disjointed periods in which her art has entirely changed aesthetic direction. These changes can be clearly aligned to changing external circumstances in Kutungka’s life – such as the arrival of new art-coordinators or her move between different art centres. However, they also reflect her changing personal circumstances – such as her geographic location and proximity to different family members and artistic influences. These changes resulted in major shifts in her art practice.



Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2000

If we are serious about discussing the role of aesthetics in Indigenous art, then I suspect a case study like Kutungka’s could be extremely useful. Perhaps, underneath the superficial aesthetic shifts, we can begin to uncover the underlying conceptual /visual concerns that shape her paintings, and by examining both the continuities and discontinuities, we might come to a better understanding of how aesthetics are contribute to these conceptual/cultural concerns? Doing so might not only shed light upon how western assumptions are brought to bear on our reading of Aboriginal art, while offering alternative ways of viewing and valuing desert painting.


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Taking baby to the Museum

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed ideas might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.

aug 13 1107

Discussing Carl Andre’s Equivalent V 1966-69, Museum of Modern Art, New York

As it is Friday, I thought I would post something a little bit lighter. In one of my earlier posts this week, I mentioned that museums are a guilty pleasure of mine. One side effect, is that my son Gabriel has found himself pushed around quite a few institutions.  In his short 14 months on the planet, he has been to the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, Toledo Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Brooklyn Museum (just to name a few). It has been really gratifying to see Gabe become so comfortable with the museum environment, pointing excitedly to things he recognizes, clapping and smiling to video installations, or peering curiously at things he finds of interest.


Gabriel (center) enjoying James Turrell’s Aten Reign 2013, Guggenheim Museum, New York

Clearly I am not the only parent who likes the idea of taking their children to museums (indeed, as the modern museum was founded on the idea of public enlightenment and self-improvement, it seems an inevitable result). I am not sure whether art museums can help stimulate cognitive development or produce more enlightened young citizens, but I do know that in my life the arts have always given me great pleasure. More than anything I would like to share that with my son; to inculcate the value of imaginative and poetic pursuits, so that he too can glimpse the myriad ways of seeing the world around us.


Examining El Anatsui’s Bleeding Takari II 2007, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Most major museums now cater to children in some way or another. MoMA and the Chicago Art Institute both have terrific children’s areas. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has fantastic programs for slightly older kids, and thanks to Daniel Baumann, the Carnegie Museum now has a wonderfully retro Lozziwurm. The Toledo Museum of Art not only has a family center, but also offers “baby tours.” Many museums offer “stroller tours” – but more often than not, these are pitched equally at the parents as the toddlers (a bit like the moms and bubs sessions offered at cinemas). Toledo’s program differs, in that it was designed by Dr. Kathy Danko-McGhee, an expert in early child development. Designed for children from 2-18 months, these tours have a duel purpose: to stimulate cognitive development in young children, and to teach parents and caregivers how to engage babies’ with art, which in turn promotes brain growth and literacy skills. Sensibly, the tours are limited to half-an-hour, to accommodate for babies’ short attention span.  I am yet to take Gabriel on one of these tours, but am hoping we can get to one in the next few months.


Crikey it’s big! Checking out Alexander Calder’s Flamingo 1973, Federal Plaza, Chicago.

As it is Friday, and the end of the first week of my daily blogging exercise, I wanted to throw open the floor to you. What are your thoughts about taking baby to the museum? Do you think there is value in taking small children to museums? Have you had any great experiences, or shocking disasters? Is there a museum you particularly love, or a program that you think warrants commendation? Alternatively, do you think children should be left at home; that museums should be a quiet place for adult contemplation? I really look forward to hearing your thoughts, comments, stories… Till then, see you next week.


I think I’m ready to go Dad! With Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


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I Wayan Bendi: On Looking at Looking

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.


I Wayan Bendi’s studio, outside of Ubud in Bali. (Photo by author).

Growing up in Perth, Western Australia, the island of Bali loomed prominently as a tourist destination. I remember girls in primary school coming back with their hair in tight braids, while the boys sported the ubiquitous Bintang beer singlets. It was not until December 2010 that I first visited Bali, and I must admit, I found it a bit depressing. The Balinese have an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage, evident in myriad forms across the island (art, architecture, food, dance, music). But the oppressive impact of mass tourism is equally ubiquitous. I couldn’t help thinking of Johnny Rotten’s acerbic account of “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”


I Wayan Bendi, Cintaku Negeriku, 2008-10

In any case, I get the feeling that most Australian visitors don’t trouble themselves too much to think about Balinese culture: which meant that when my father and I stumbled upon the Neka Art Museum in Ubud, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. It is a pretty unusual museum for those accustomed to western institutions: most of the rooms are quite open, allowing outside air to breeze through.  Like much of Bali, the Museum has the feel of a sort of faded glory; a quiet resignation to the deleterious effects of modernity. I knew a little of Balinese art, but I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular. For my father and I, it was just nice to get away from the throng of street merchants selling tourist curios. However, in the Neka Art Museum, I encountered an artist whose work immediately struck me: I Wayan Bendi. Over the next few days, I tried to seek out as much of his work as I could.


I Wayan Bendi, Lukisan ini memperlihatkan pertempuran melawan Belanda. (The Struggle for Independence Against the Dutch), 1985

Bendi was born in 1950 in Batuan, a village near Ubud. He is something of legend in Balinese art, considered one of the leading practitioners of the Batuan style of panting that emerged in the 1920s. In something that will certainly endear him to fans of Australian Indigenous art, Bendi attributes his own take on Batuan painting to a vision he had in a dream. Paintings in this style teem with action, and are crammed full of intricate details, pulsating with the chaotic rhythms of village life. A number of things struck me about Bendi’s work. The first, was the ease with which his narratives combined traditional/mythological elements with the mundane activities of daily life. Huge spirit figures team over scenes of people going about their routines. I was similarly struck with the adaptability of Bendi’s style to incorporate recent historical events: in Ubud I saw images that Bendi had painted of London and Singapore. In other images, he depicts the Struggle for Independence against the Dutch (see above), the World Trade Center attack on September 11, the Bali Bombings of 2002, and even the death of Diana Princess of Wales (see below). Although his style of painting was deeply rooted in his homelands, Bendi was clearly comfortable using it to depict faraway places: from Jakarta to Singapore, Hawaii, London and New York.


I Wayan Bendi, Diana Spencer, 2007

But the detail that struck me most in Bendi’s paintings was the recurring appearence in his Balinese paintings of the big-nosed western tourist, sporting a large camera. These figures were inevitably poking their noses/cameras into everyday events – often the cockfights made famous by Clifford Geertz (see for instance, in the lower right of the painting Kebakaran 1999 shown below).

kebakaran_the_firefighters copy

I Wayan Bendi, Kebakaran (The Firefighters), 1999

Amidst all of the action of this Batuan scene, Bendi seems to be critiquing the very act of looking. I loved this critical representation of the objectifying representational apparatus of the tourist/anthropologist. In a place like Ubud, where the packaging of Balinese culture for tourist display has created a tired simulacra of an exquisite tradition, Bendi’s paintings seemed magnificently subversive. I really hope I have the chance to see more of Bendi’s work – I think he is a first rate contemporary artist, and one whose work really warrants some serious critical inquiry.


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Aboriginal Art and the Archive

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.


Brook Andrew, 52 Portrait, 2013, installation view Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

Museums are my guilty pleasure. When we go on holiday, I am sure I drive my wife crazy wanting to spend all-day-every-day in museums. I say they are a guilty pleasure, because I completely recognise that museums embody all of the problematic features of western modernity. Critically mining the museum/archive is a pretty popular strategy among a current crop of young, urban based Indigenous artists in Australia (Brook Andrew, Christian Thompson, Danie Mellor et al). This is ostensibly the topic of Emily Cloney’s article in the recent edition of Artlink.


Christian Thompson working in the archives at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University.

All three are highly sophisticated artists, and I have a great respect for their work. But in the past few months, I have been giving a lot of thought to whether the space of the archive really offers the transgressive potential that these artists are looking for. My thinking here is obviously filtered through Foucault and Bennett – so you must excuse the monolithic epistemic power I attribute to the museum. But I wonder if a different way to think of it might be through Hal Foster’s essay on the contemporary arist-as-archivist. Consider Foster’s assertion:

Certainly the figure of the artist-as-archivist follows that of the artist- as-curator, and some archival artists continue to play on the category of the collection. Yet they are not as concerned with critiques of representational totality and institutional integrity: that the museum has been ruined as a coherent system in a public sphere is generally assumed, not triumphally proclaimed or melancholically pondered, and some of these artists suggest other kinds of ordering—within the museum and without. In this respect the orientation of archival art is often more “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive … Sometimes strained in effect, archival art is rarely cynical in intent (another welcome change); on the contrary, these artists often aim to fashion distracted viewers into engaged discussants (here there is nothing passive about the word “archival”)

Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall, 2004), 4.

Foster is clearly celebrating a different kind of contemporary artist-as-archivist here, but I wonder if we can’t read him against the grain. Being “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive” certainly runs counter to the kinds of critique envisaged by people like Andrew, Thompson or Mellor. To me, it sounds more applicable to the work of Aboriginal painters in Arnhem Land, the Kimberley or the Central Desert, whose works consist of a vast repository of deeply felt experiences, registered in a palimpsest of historical meaning.


Peter Mungkuri, Ngura (Country), 2012

The type of archive found in remote Aboriginal art differs in one key respect from Foucault’s definition; where Foucault sees the archive as composed of statements existing solely in an exterior space, without dependence on a subjective interior consciousness, the archive of Aboriginal paintings maintains a defiant indexicality to the landscape. All of which makes me wonder, whether in fact, Aboriginal art is always going to be in fundamental tension with the western archive, museum and curatorial endeavor. What kind of archive could possibly be appropriate to mediate the sharing of the archives without absorbing them into an external “law of what can be said?”  I am not sure of the answer to this question, nor do I suspect there is a single answer. Perhaps I will just end where I began, with Foucault:

In this sense, the diagnosis does not establish the fact of our identity by the play of distinctions. It establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, A.M. Sheridan Smith, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), Part III, Ch.4.

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George Nuku: Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.


George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013

Keeping with the theme of materiality, a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing George Nuku’s installation Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light 2013, created for the exhibition Paradise Lost? at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It is a really interesting work, made up of old-display cabinets from the Museum of Anthropology – precisely the kind of cabinets used to objectify and display Indigenous cultures. Before my comments, I would like to quote Nuku’s artist statement in its entirety, because I think it reveals a lot:

Don’t worry, it will be traditional by this afternoon.

This artwork’s shape and elements are dictated by its site, availability of materials, and time; these are some of the factors that determine a given tradition. I say that it is a traditional practice to be innovative. The composition of Waharoa speaks to the ancestors and forces of nature that are present in this Great Hall. The plexiglass as a material speaks to light and the water that surrounds us; they are the source of life itself. The abalone shell and the white feathers speak directly to the wood that surrounds us – the union of earth, sea and air. The red and black paint, and the cord binding everything together, represent time/space and male/female aspects respectively.

The Waharoa communicates to the people that the past is in front of us and the future we remember.


George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013

Waharoa is a fascinating work, and I was particularly pleased to be able to see Nuku speak about his practice. I was not at all surprised to hear him speak very passionately about his materials: particularly his use of styrofoam – which he described as “like carving clouds.” Reading his statement for Waharoa, however, one thing that struck me was how much Nuku had adopted the parlance of minimalism (site-specificity, the activation of space etc). The question I kept returning to was whether these (deeply personal) works were antithetical to the aims of minimalism, or whether, in fact, they achieved a more perfect embodiment of these aims than any of the minimalists were ever able to achieve?


George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013

I have a feeling, that the key to answering this question requires investigating the nature of self- and object-hood inherent in these works. Nuku intimated this in his speech at UBC, Nuku saying, “I carve poles, but the poles also carve me into what I am now. My work is me.” It is important to note that Waharoa is also a kind of self-portrait, replicating the designs of Nuku’s own tattoos. In Maori culture, tattoos (or tā moko) are more than just surface designs; they reveal much about a person’s identity, lineage and connection to place. In other words, they do not just cover the surface of the body (like western make-up), but reveal something essential from within. Rather than just offering site-specificity through transparency, I wonder if Nuku isn’t getting at something more profound: critiquing the impossibility of the minimalist project through the assertion of peculiarly Maori sense of self-hood, objecthood and space. This is clearly what is at stake in his invocation of connectivity between the art object and its surrounding space; the union of earth, sea and air.  While Nuku’s invocation of innovation sounds decidedly modernist, rather than partaking in the universalism of late Modernism, Warharoa offers exactly what the title suggests: a glimpse at a radically different way of seeing the world. In its transparency, Waharoa does not proffer a single, overarching world-view, but many shifting, disparate and mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world.


George Nuku, Waharoa/Portal: Te Ao Marama – The World of Light, 2013


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Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.


Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui installation image at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by author).

In recent months, my thoughts have increasingly turned to the use of found materials in the work of Indigenous artists. In part, these investigations have been motivated by an attempt to think through the nature of objecthood in Aboriginal art. Although not strictly an “Indigenous artist,” one artist that I have been testing some of these ideas against is the Ghanian born sculptor El Anatsui. I have found it extremely difficult to articulate why I find Anatsui’s work so compelling. When you describe his work – “he uses old liquor bottle tops and turns them into flowing tapestry like sculptures” – they sound a bit twee. But when you stand before these works, it is impossible not to be moved by their poetry and grace. On the one hand, Anatsui is a master of teasing out the former associations of his recycled materials. Here is the description of a 1998 work titled Motley Crowd:

For Motley Crowd … Anatsui used house posts he took from deserted homes in Nsukka region. Historically, when a house built in a vernacular style, primarily of earth and wood, became dilapidated the hardwood posts were reused to build a new house. Some posts supported generations of homes, making them ripe metaphors for endurance and connections to those who came before.

(Exhibition Label, from the exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, Brooklyn Museum, February 8 – August 18).



El Anatsui, Motley Crowd, 1998/modified 2010


It is clear that Anatsui is mining these kind of relationships across his oeuvre, but what happens after these materials are turned into works of art? Like most Aboriginal art, critical commentaries seem to fall a bit short here. Certainly, we can all see that Anatsui is making something of great beauty, but there is clearly something else at play here.



Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui installation image at the Brooklyn Museum (photo by author).


I was lucky enough to make it to the Brooklyn Museum to see the final weekend of the exhibition Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui. One thing that struck me in the exhibition, which is made up predominantly of recent works (2010-2011), is that Anatsui’s work is getting better and better. Compared to older works in the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art or MoMA, he seems to be finding subtle new ways to engage with his materiality. The end result is that the works seem much less forced, less bombastic and much more inventive. For me, these recent works are not just engaged a straightforward criticism of colonialism (the effects of alcohol, poverty, etc), but rather, are suggesting something radically new. In their delicate lightness, Anatsui’s recent works seem to be less about the material itself (bottle-caps), than they are about asserting their own individual presence. In other words, is it possible that these works are becoming less about transformation (turning bottle-caps into art; reframing African modernity in poetic terms), and more about the ineffable reality of presentness? These works leave behind any simplistic reading as “alternative modernities” for something that is much more assured in its transcendent contemporaneity.  Since leaving the exhibition, Anatsui’s works have rarely been far from my mind. I wish I could have returned to the exhibition several times, because his works raise so many questions, which are almost impossible to ask when standing before their dazzling radiance.



Mandatory tourist shot outside the Brooklyn Museum. (Photo by the author’s dad).

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Ngarra (c.1920-2008)

The following is an extended version of a tribute that was first published in Art Monthly Australia, Issue 216, Summer 2008, pp.42-43

Ngarra_Brring.nga and Wanda

Ngarra, Brring.nga and Wanda, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm,

When European pastoralists swept through the Kimberley hinterland towards the end of the 19th Century, they employed the traditional colonial strategy of divide and conquer. Like the landscape they inhabited, the Indigenous occupants were subdivided into manageable groups. There were those who could be of use to the colonizers, who accepted the hegemony of the pastoral industry, obeyed its rules and learnt its ways. There were others, however, who resisted the occupation; who remained faithful to their traditional customs and lifestyle; refusing to be subsumed into station life. This latter group were given the derogatory title of myall; wild bushmen who lacked the sophistication of the ‘station blackfella’. For much of his life, Ngarra felt burdened by the label of being myall. It was only late in his life, when he began to internalize his significance as an artist, elder and cultural leader that he began to re-evaluate and reclaim the epithet. “Myall,’ he declared in 2005. ‘That’s why I’m in the lead with the biggest name all over the world. Station blackfella got no name: just rubbish riding tail.”


Ngarra, Ngamangray, 2007
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

In an art world in which the gloss of ‘superstars’ shines brightly, Ngarra’s words seem somewhat incongruous. In the last 14 years of his life, he had a distinguished career as an artist. He exhibited widely throughout Australia and overseas, his works were acquired by numerous public collections and he was a five-time finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. And yet, throughout his life, Ngarra remained something of an unheralded artistic figure, overshadowed by the success of many of his contemporaries. To his peers, however, he was a figure of singular importance, whose knowledge of culture, law and mythology were unparalleled in his generation.

Ngarra was born around 1920 in the bush near Glenroy Station in the central west Kimberely region. Orphaned as a young boy, he was put to work on the stock camps, mustering donkeys, mules and horses. After receiving a harsh beating from one of his relatives, Ngarra fled the station to find his maternal grandfathers Muelbyne and Larlgarlbyne. These old men, or mananambarra as they were referred, had not reconciled with the pastoral industry. Speaking Andinyin and Kitja, they lived traditionally in the mountain country, upholding their traditional customs, laws and ceremonies.


Ngarra, Yal.yalji, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

Muelbyne and Larlgarlbyne imparted to Ngarra their knowledge of bush survival and schooled him in the ancient philosophies, law and mythology of his people. This education sharply contrasted with Ngarra’s contemporaries, who were living on the stations and learning the skills of cattlemen. The teaching of the old men made Ngarra one of the most important ceremonial leaders of his generation. Until recently, when he declared himself ‘too old for the job’, Ngarra was the senior manambarra for ceremonies throughout a vast stretch of the Kimberley. Speaking on Ngarra’s importance, the late artist Timmy Timms declared “This Ngarrangarri standing up here, if him bin Catholic, then him Pope and everybody gotta bend at the knee.”

As a young man hoping to get married Ngarra chose to rejoin his station kinsfolk. Beginning what was to be a long and successful career as a cattleman, Ngarra’s bush skills made him a master stockman and drover. During the break from station life imposed by the wet season, Ngarra would walk the country with his fellow workers and lived a traditional nomadic life, attending to the ceremonies of life, death and the afterlife.


Ngarra, Tcherramangki, 2007
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

In 1994, Ngarra made a simple proposition to his old friend, anthropologist Kevin Shaw; “I want to become a big artist.”  Despite Shaw’s protestations that “I don’t know anything about art”, Ngarra was insistent, telling him “Well, you had better find out.” The pair embarked on a 1600 kilometre four-wheel drive journey to collect ochre from places that Ngarra had visited on foot and on horseback more than twenty years before. With Ngarra’s extensive bush knowledge they were able to collect over twenty separate colours. Later, Ngarra reflected with pride, “I had 23 Kimberley bush ochre colours. Most people only know five or ten bush ochre colours.” For his first works, Ngarra used this broad palette to decorate traditional wooden bowls known as kudi. These kudi were designed along two sets of principles: the first being decorated in the ‘old style’ taught to him by Muelbyne and Larlgarlbyne, and the other bearing innovative designs that revealed Ngarra’s earliest transformations of his knowledge of the Ngarrangkarni (Dreaming), country and mythology into visual imagery.

When age and illness made collecting and grinding ochres too difficult, Ngarra switched to acrylic paints, where he immediately shone as a master colourist. Ngarra colour-mixed his own paints to produce an endless and stunning array of colour combinations. His dedication and integrity to both his art and culture inspired his peers and Ngarra became a formative influence on several artists including Mick Jowalji and Jack Dale.

Ngarra_Stars and Moon Phases

Ngarra, Stars and Moon Phases, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

A lifelong smoker, emphysema and the weariness of age gradually restricted Ngarra’s movement and forced him to retire from painting in 2002. A lifelong perfectionist, he felt frustrated at his physical inability to make his paintings “clean and lively.” However, it was not long before he returned to his art practice, but his fragile health dictated that he restrict himself to producing small, delicate works on paper. He made the medium his own, and this late revival represented a second flowering in his career as a painter. In the final four years of his life, Ngarra devoted most of his waking hours to his works on paper, producing his most sustained body of works.

Ngarra’s paintings transform elements of his traditional culture and life into compelling visual and political statements. To Ngarra, painting presented both a personal and political mission to record his “really bush contracts” in the face of corporate development and the disappearance of traditional culture. And yet, they are equally defined by their visual inventiveness, their humour and wit and their joyful sense of experimentation. Ngarra’s privileged cultural position meant that he felt free to innovate and adapt his imagery for visual or allegorical effect. When asked to describe the motivation behind one of his paintings, he disarmingly replied, “I’m just fucking about to see what the idea looked like.”


Ngarra, Janderra, 2005
synthetic polymer paint on paper, 50 x 70 cm

Ngarra was a unique individual: an artist whose work spoke of ancient knowledge systems, whilst maintaining an entirely contemporary vision of artistic experimentation and innovation. As Shaw noted, he was “one of the few remaining people on earth who lived through the superimposition of pastoral capital over the hunter-gatherer way of life.” This very fact gives his work a historical and cultural significance that is yet to be fully appreciated. But one cannot overlook the singular artistic vision that is reflected in his works, which sparkle with the fire of artistic experimentation. On 1st November 2008, Ngarra died peacefully in his Derby home from complications secondary to pneumonia. He left the world with a body of works whose power may take several generations to truly comprehend.

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Book Review: Paul O’Neill: The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s)


The Curator as Fall Guy

Review of Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass, 2012)

It seems that no one in the art world is just one thing anymore. We are all some hybrid variation of the hyphenated multiplex artist-curator-critic-theorist-activist-historian-model-actor. While it might seem easy to account for this as the triumph of inter-disciplinarity over the modernist doctrine of specialization, the rise of hyphenated identifiers has been matched by the equally ubiquitous multiplication of new forms of specialised critical discourse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the emergence since the late 1980s of curatorship as an independent field of critical inquiry. Since 1987, postgraduate curatorial training programs have proliferated at tertiary institutions across the world, and the field of “curatorial discourse” has emerged as an accepted (albeit vaguely defined) field.

The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) by curator, artist and writer Paul O’Neill is an attempt to provide a historical account of the emergence of this new discourse, while defining the parameters of the field. Rigorously researched, at times it feels like an act of curatorship in itself; as detailed arguments and counter-arguments pile up it is sometimes hard to discern the author’s own critical voice beneath his dense survey of critical opinions. This is most notable in the book’s second chapter, where O’Neill’s conclusion seems to offer a markedly softer assessment of “Biennial Culture” than that offered in the preceding 30 pages. Nevertheless, O’Neill sketches a convincing history of the emergence of curatorial discourse as a gradual process, beginning with the avant-garde of the 1920s, gaining momentum in the 1960s, before reaching a level of global prominence in the era of the Biennial in the 1990s. Central to this narrative is a shift in agency that occurs as artists begin to challenge the autonomy of the art object, recentering art around the event of the exhibition. For O’Neill, this relinquishing of authorial control by artists was met by the rise of the curator: “curatorship emerged as a creative, semiautonomous, and individually authored form of mediation.”[1] This is highly problematic for O’Neill, who blames curatorial discourse for “establishing, or at least bolstering, a coherent sense of agency in contemporary art production.”[2] O’Neill is particularly strident in his criticism of the authorial role of curators institutionalising meaning within the frame of the exhibition.

At this point it becomes apparent that O’Neill’s account is far more than a simple description of the emergence of curatorial discourse, functioning equally as a strategic manual for institutional resistance. As an artist-curator himself, there is something almost teleological in the way in which he positions the emergence of curatorial discourse. For if, as O’Neill concludes, all curatorial processes should be collaborative, dialogic, and open-ended, there is an unmistakable sense in The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) that he sees this as an inevitable process of internal artistic development, shaking its institutional frames and dispersing its agency.  Leaving aside the orthodoxy that collaborative processes are necessarily more challenging, democratic or open (a point that Claire Bishop takes up with some force in her recent book Artificial Hells[3]), O’Neill’s enthusiasm for the blurred boundaries of collaborative artistic-curatorial ventures raises several objections.

Firstly, despite the repeated description of curators as the authors of meaning with exhibitions functioning as texts, exhibitions do not work in the same way as written texts. Curating is not the same as writing, mostly because artworks (or any object for that matter) very rarely act like words, even when they are used like readymades to the service of a rigidly proscribed curatorial regimen. This is because exhibitions always involve a dialogic tension between the artistic and the curatorial. The problem for O’Neill, is that in attempting to position “curating as another medium of artistic production”[4] he manoeuvres himself into a corner in which it is almost impossible for him to productively define the difference between these two forms of agency. Occupying both positions (as in the artist-curator) does not necessarily mean that the two discourses become united (that is, that the curatorial becomes artistic or the artistic becomes curatorial). The discourse of architecture does not simply evaporate in a home is designed by a builder. While I wholeheartedly agree with O’Neill’s conclusion that we need to move beyond “the level of an oversimplified antagonism, in which the practices of artists and curators are kept separate from one another,”[5] this should not be at the expense of critically understanding the particular ways in which different modes of thought contribute towards the construction of artistic and exhibitionary meanings.

Reading O’Neill against the grain, we might instead see the artistic and the curatorial as two distinct modes of agency present in every exhibition of artworks. The first of these (which for convenience we might term “the artistic”) resides within the artistic form (which is expressly not limited to objecthood). The latter (which we might term “the curatorial”) controls the mediation of these forms in space and time (again, this is not limited to physical spaces, and can include virtual spaces). Regardless of whether they are wielded by an artist, curator, artist-curator or collaboratively, these two modes are always in balanced tension. Some instances, the balance of agency will be weighted in favour of the artistic, while in other instances it will swing towards the curatorial, but both will always be present in some respect within an art exhibition. The key question in both artistic and curatorial discourse might then become negotiating this push and pull of these separate (but necessarily connected) discourses: a complex balancing act to ensure the openness of creative processes. Ultimately, this is the aim of The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s): to enable “dialogical spaces of negotiation between curators, artists, and their publics.” This does not mean that we all must become artists, but that by critically addressing different modes of thought there are new possibilities. In beginning to map out the shape and form of curatorial discourse, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) takes an important step towards kindling these possibilities.


[1] Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass, 2012), 4.

[2] Ibid. 2.

[3] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).

[4] O’Neill, op. cit. 129.

[5] Ibid. 129.

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Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West [1862]

The following catalogue entry was first published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.42-43

Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West 1862, oil on milled board, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of Dr Samuel Arthur Ewing 1938.

It is easy to pinpoint the location of the scene depicted in Nicholas Chevalier’s Buffalo Range from the West [1862]. It is a vista near the town of Nug Nug, approximately 250 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Nestled between the Buffalo River and the sloping range, it is a beautiful spot, and one can easily imagine the scene, on a still, quiet morning, as the sun slowly rises behind the peaks, bathing the horizon in a luminous haze. It is somewhat harder to ascertain when the artist might have visited Nug Nug in order to experience such an impressive view.

Nicholas Chevalier arrived in Australia in 1854, after studying painting in Lausanne, Munich, London and Rome. In Melbourne, he fell quickly into the company of artists such as Eugene von Guérard, Edward LaTrobe Bateman and S.T. Gill. Alongside von Guérard, Chevalier joined the 1858 expedition to the Dandenong Ranges and Baw Baw Plateau led by Alfred Howitt. Despite the artists’ enthusiasm to find picturesque views, the expedition was delayed when the pair arrived in fashionable, but inappropriate footwear for such a rugged journey. By the 1860s, however, Chevalier was a more seasoned traveller, joining Georg von Neumayer on two explorations in Western Victoria. Unfortunately, neither Howitt nor von Neumayer’s expeditions went anywhere near the Buffalo Ranges, so the source of Chevalier’s inspiration remains unclear. It is even possible that it came from a sketch by another artist, such as von Guérard.

But perhaps this is to miss the point of Chevalier’s Buffalo Ranges from the West.  Amongst critics then as now, Chevalier’s work has tended suffer in comparison to von Guérard’s, being seen as decorative, and lacking in visual tension. But Chevalier’s intentions are markedly different to those of his close companion. Von Guérard sought to capture the picturesque whole of the landscape by close attention to its minute details. In contrast, Chevalier’s paintings are not interested in either natural detail or the picturesque. In Buffalo Ranges the view is deliberately distorted; the vista is greatly foreshortened and is coupled with the delicate play of dawn light in order to present a much more imposing than accurate visage. In 1821, William Hazlitt described the picturesque as a yearning for “ideal deformity, not ideal beauty.” In Buffalo Ranges from the West, Chevalier is not trying to present something particular, but something universally beautiful. Rather than looking for tension or naturalism, we should just enjoy the warm, reflected glow of Chevalier’s vision, and allow it to transport us, not to Nug Nug, but to the arcadia of the cosmopolitan artist’s imagination.   

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William Strutt: Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 [1887]

The following catalogue entry was originally published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.38-39


William Strutt, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 1887, oil on canvas, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973

After an arduous flight from London, the ailing Sir Russell Grimwade was carried off the plane at Melbourne airport. Despite his deteriorating health, he had undertaken the voyage in order to acquire William Strutt’s Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 [1887]. A systematic and discerning collector of Australiana, the painting would be the jewel in his collection. Within three months, Grimwade had died, making it the definitive culmination of his collecting passions.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, Bushrangers was based upon accounts of a brazen robbery that occurred near St. Kilda Road in Elwood while Strutt was resident in Victoria. The story had been thoroughly covered in the press, stoked with sensationalist vigour by the Argus. Three decades later, when Strutt came to immortalise the scene, the exploits of the Kelly gang lent it a contemporary currency. At the First Colonial Convention in London in 1887, questions of colonial law and order predominated, and Strutt’s painting spoke directly to the Imperial neuroses that young colonies were being torn between bourgeois respectability and the lure of vice. In Strutt’s tableau, the stricken female figure – an easy stand-in for Queen Victoria – seeks comfort in the arms of her ineffectual consort, while remaining at the tantalising mercy of a handsome rogue. As the rule of God and law are strewn aside, the moral of the story is simple: vigilance was necessary to keep the young colonies on the righteous path.

At the time that Grimwade acquired Strutt’s painting, the figure of the bushranger was making a final, heroic resurgence in the Australian national narrative, via the paintings of Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. As Grimwade’s final great acquisition, Strutt’s Bushrangers could not have been further from the radical nationalist ideal of swagmen, larrikins and bushrangers that these artist’s embodied. His was a genteel brand of nationalism that celebrated the pioneering efforts of explorers, pastoralists and industrialists, men like his father Frederick Sheppard Grimwade. These were the kind of men pictured on the right of Strutt’s composition, and as sexy as the vagabond figure of the bushranger might be, it was on this side that Sir Russell Grimwade saw himself, and the tide of Australian history.

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Objects of Power and the Power of Objects

Nksis NkondiCarnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Nksis Nkondi
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Passing through a long, elegant gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, its walls lined with masterpieces of nineteenth century European Impressionism, you come to a small dimly lit chamber. Peering out from within the darkness, your gaze is fixed by a pair of ivory white eyes. They draw you into the gloomy recess, where you are confronted by a fearsome figure; his right arm held above him ready to attack, his wide-mouthed scowl revealing two chipped and jagged teeth. You recoil briefly before realizing that all is safe: the brute is trapped within a Perspex case, and on further inspection you find that he is weighed down with a messy assortment of slings and arrows that pierce his body, a mélange of rusted nails sticking out in every direction. [Fig.1].

The figure is a nkisi (plural minkisi) of the type known as nkondi (plural minkondi) from the Congo basin in west central Africa. Nkisi is a general term referring to spirits and the objects that house them. Nkondi refers more specifically to the category of objects once referred to as nail fetishes but now more diplomatically called power figures.[1] Although the precise practices varied over time and place, nkisi nkondi were generally produced by nganga (ritual specialists), who would work in conjunction with a supplicant or a separate artisan. The carved figure (usually humanoid, but occasionally taking the form of an animal such as a dog or panther) would act as a container, which would be animated and empowered by the insertion of a parcel of medicine (bilongo). In the case of the Carnegie Museum nkisi, this parcel would have been sealed into the now empty cavity on the figure’s belly. Once animated by the nganga, supplicants would drive nails and other objects into the nkisi in order to enrage the spirit into action for the purposes of vengeance, protection, healing, or dispute resolution. In other instances, minkondi could be used to sanction an oath; if the oath were broken, the spirit would be released to hunt down the party that breached the agreement.[2] Reflecting this function, nkisi nkondi are often depicted in the pose of hunters, and the word nkondi is derived from the word konda meaning “to hunt.”[3] The Carnegie Museum nkisi is a fine illustration of this, and it is likely that its raised hand would have originally held a knife or spear.[4]

The nkisi in the Carnegie Museum is a striking object, but one of a kind that can be found in museums across America and Europe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago all house impressive examples of minkondi. But is it appropriate to exhibit these objects in the context of a western art museum? On the one hand, they appear incommensurate with the western concept of art: they are functional objects whose efficacy was measured in ritual/magical terms and not aesthetic criteria; they were never intended as objects of autonomous aesthetic contemplation; moreover, they were often produced communally, bearing the scars of their shared use. Is it an act of interpretive violence to include these objects in a museum, where they are largely stripped of their context and become admired for their aesthetic impact or formal effect? Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to both their ubiquity in western museums and the conceptual challenges they pose, nkisi nkondi are frequently cited by those trying to grapple with the most basic questions of the anthropology of art.[5] Is art a universal category? Is it possible, practical, or even ethical to consider aesthetics cross-culturally? What kind of theoretical category could possibly embrace minkondi alongside a portrait by Gainsborough, an Islamic girih mosaic or a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol?

These types of questions gained a degree of urgency in the wake of post-colonialism, when the hierarchies of western vision came under scrutiny across all disciplines of the humanities.[6] As western conceptual artists sought to push the boundaries of what constituted art (a performance? a text? a urinal?), art historians and anthropologists drew attention to the fact that, not only was the category of “primitive art” a western creation designed to enforce hierarchical cultural distinctions, but the entire notion of aesthetic autonomy was a western epistemological eccentricity.[7] While such critiques were often overshadowed by the vehemence of their righteous indignation (and their tendency to homogenize western cultural attitudes), their basic premise was a valuable one: categorical distinctions such as “primitive art” and “fine art” were created and perpetuated by a social context designed to exalt western cultural achievements, while denigrating the art of non-western cultures as conceptually or formally inferior, positioning it on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder, while denying its coevality by placing the supposedly non-modern “primitive” in a less developed temporal frame.[8]  This paper considers minkondi within the context of these debates. In particular, it focuses on two contrasting theories of art, developed by Howard Morphy and Alfred Gell in an attempt to create a methodological framework for the interpretation and appreciation of art objects.

Nkisi NkondiMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Nkisi Nkondi
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Minkondi present several grounds for disputing the hegemony of the western category of art. Far from being the relics of a primeval past, most minkondi housed in American and European museums are intrinsically linked to the forces of modernity. Like the Carnegie Museum example, most of these were created between 1875 and 1825; the period when the ethnographic “scramble” for African art began in earnest.[9] As Enid Schildkrout and Curtis Keim note, cultural objects from the Congo had been making their way to Europe since the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, but it was in the late nineteenth century as scientific and ethnographic theories of evolution created a new interest in “primitive” cultures that such objects began to be systematically acquired in significant volume.[10] Spurred by the emergence of orthogenetic theories of evolution, ethnographers clambered to collect these supposed relics of authentic primitive cultures for the information they could shed on the development of humanity. However, far from proving these spurious teleological theories of cultural development, minkondi point to more complex processes of cultural transaction and exchange. For although Zdenka Volavkova finds historical record of the creation and use of minkondi dating back to 1676,[11] and Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen suggest that the practice could have been current a century earlier,[12] Kasja Ekholm Friedman shows that there is significant reason to believe that the usage of these objects developed as a modern response to the changing social and cultural circumstances created by colonialism.[13]

While Friedman recognizes that the practice of nkisi nkondi was undoubtedly present before colonization, she argues that it played a relatively minor role alongside practices of ancestor worship and other religious observances. The flourishing of minkisi cults of the late nineteenth century was due to a combination of factors, including the spread of new diseases, the destruction of traditional authority structures in which Earth Gods and Kings were expected to intercede between subjects and the spirit realm, and the arrival of Christian theology which encouraged individual communication with God. Thus, according to Friedman, the rise in fetishism should be seen as “a product of dissolution and crisis.” [14] While critics of “primitivism” often put questions of representation on a temporal structure, Friedman’s conclusion suggests that fetish objects are a modern phenomenon and a response to the conditions of (an albeit alternative) modernity. As Jean and John Comaroff affirm, practices such as witchcraft and fetishism are integral to the experience of the contemporary world. They should not be seen as a return to pre-modern, irrational forms, but as part of a dynamic modernity constructed through the processes of globalization.[15] In such a context, minkondi can be seen as a hybrid cultural form, forged through exchange and coalescence.

If, in this sense, minkondi test the limits of our Eurocentric conception of modernity, they pose a similar challenge to the western category of art. It is not that minkondi are incommensurate with western art objects, but rather, it is their similarities that draw attention to the antinomies within such categorical distinctions. As Wyatt MacGaffey wryly observes, “Magic has been regarded as a bizarre phenomenon, the artness of art has not.”[16] Noting the rampant commodity fetishism inherent in the art market, along with the hushed reverence and quasi-religious status accorded artworks as the “embodiments of spiritual value,” MacGaffey concludes that, “the Kongo attitude towards fetishes is not all that different from the gallery-goer’s attitude to art.”[17] It is, perhaps, possible to take this argument even further, as Rachel Moore does in her study of modern cinema, in which she argues that the dual concepts of magic and the primitive were invoked by modern film-makers in order to overcome the disavowal of sensuous resonance that had made the connection between sign and signifier seem arbitrary and conventional in modern language. For Moore, modern cinema works precisely as a fetish, reconnecting sign practice with the physical act of expressive transaction.[18] It is noteworthy that this concept of magic corresponds almost precisely to the definition of art offered in R.G. Collingwood’s famous treatise The Principles of Art published in 1938.[19]

Unlike Collingwood, however, MacGaffey does not advocate a universal category of art, and ultimately resigns himself to the limits of cultural translation and exchange.[20] Rather, MacGaffey’s intention is to move beyond what he sees as a spurious distinction between function and aesthetic autonomy, towards a definition of art as a form of social agency. In doing, he draws upon the theoretical armature of Alfred Gell, who argues that the anthropology of art should be the theoretical study of “social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency.”[21] According to Gell:

Nothing is decidable in advance about the nature of [the art] object, because the theory is premised on the idea that the nature of the art object is a function of the social-relational matrix to which it is embedded. It has no ‘intrinsic’ nature, independent of the relational context.[22]


Nkisi Nkondi
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This line of thinking could easily be confused with the pure relativism of an institutional theory of art as theorized by Arthur Danto, in which art is defined as whatever is treated as art by the institutionally recognized art world.[23] Gell is quick to refute such a claim,[24] proposing instead that it was possible to consider art as a special form of technology, defined by the role it plays in advancing social relationships constructed through agency: “I view art as a system of action intended to change the world, rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.”[25] For Gell, the art object is a mediating object in human actions: “the anthropology of art, to reiterate, is just anthropology itself, except that it deals with those situations in which there is an ‘index of agency’ which is normally some kind of artifact.”[26] These create “art like situations” – which, he argues can normally be recognized intuitively – in which the material index permits the abduction of specifically social agency.

Gell’s theory provides a useful starting point to move beyond western assumptions about art and aesthetics. His desire to sidestep the symbolic and aesthetic elements of art is driven by the recognition that such analysis can only ever start from a position informed by western assumptions.[27] As Robert Layton notes, Gell does not deny that works of art often contain an aesthetic dimension, but is conscious that the “aesthetic attitude” is a specific historic product of western epistemology.[28] However, as Layton and other critics have been quick to point out, by focusing on social action over signification Gell ignores the ways in which aesthetic and semantic elements contribute to the efficacy of this social action.[29]

This criticism is been leveled with particular force by Howard Morphy for whom these elements are central to the definition of art. For Morphy, “art objects are ones with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes (but in most cases both), that are used for presentational purposes.”[30] In simple terms, the difference between Gell and Morphy’s theories might be seen as a matter of focus: whereas Gell’s interest is in assessing what art does, (ie. what makes an art-like situation) for Morphy, it is the how question that is paramount. [31] The anthropology of art, he argues, “must engage with the study of form at the micro level, seeing in the production of art objects a form of agency that arises from bodies of knowledge.”[32] To ignore these elements, equates to a failure to account for the role of human agency in artistic production and the precise ways in which art operates as a mode of action.

This is not to say that Morphy discounts the role of art as a mode of social action, but rather, that understanding the nature of this agency requires some account of the role of symbolic meaning and aesthetic effect. Morphy is equally aware of the assumptions that underpin western categories of art and aesthetics. Unlike Gell, however, he is not prepared to side-step them completely in his discussion of art. This creates an inevitable tension. On the one hand, Morphy argues that art must be considered within the cultural context of its creation: “the set of objects that fall within the category of art objects have to be determined in each particular case in the context of the society concerned.”[33] On the other, he notes the necessarily biased cultural position of the ethnographer: “The anthropological category is an analytic one and will not necessarily conform to any category explicitly recognized by a particular society.”[34] In some ways, Morphy tries to have it both ways: under the judgment of Congo society, nkondi may well not be considered art works at all, but under Morphy’s analytical category (“objects with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes that are used for presentational purposes) they most certainly would be. It is, as Morphy admits, a fuzzy category containing “a series of overlapping polythetic sets,” but one that he maintains is useful in differentiating art objects from other objects, “even if the boundaries of the category are fuzzy around the edges.”[35]

It is to the aid of this differentiation that Morphy maintains his attachment to the symbolic elements of art, in order to create a useful category for cross-cultural analysis. One of the problems with Gell’s theory of art is its broad inclusivity, which can be stretched to include almost any object in which the material index can be used for the abduction of agency. Gell encourages this by offering the examples of guns and land mines as objects that extend agency. Layton chides the author:

Gell cites land mines as agents of the evil intent in the minds of Pol Pot’s soldiers. Pol Pot’s soldiers used them as extensions of their own agency. This is a misleading parallel. Art objects do not have the same kind of agency as mantraps or poisoned arrows. If Pol Pot’s soldiers had spent their time burying pictures of the Mona Lisa, or even pictures of Pol Pot, there would not be so many Cambodians whose lives today have been ruined by shattered limbs.[36]

Brooklyn Museum Nkisi

Nkisi Nkondi
Brooklyn Museum, New York

Certainly, Gell’s theory seems excessively broad, and yet, even with Morphy’s caveats, the question of theorizing the agency of matter – or more specifically, the intersection of human and material agency – remains a vexing problem for both Moprhy and Gell. Indeed, it is worth noting the affinities between Gell and Morphy’s theorizing of art and Nicole Boivan’s more general attempt to negotiate the relationship between the material and cognitive worlds. While Boivan is far less interested in the kind of categorical distinctions that occupy Gell and Morphy, her conclusions on the interconnection of the material and mental worlds end up looking remarkably similar.[37]

Like Morphy, Boivan sees material objects as being both integral to social relations, but also closely related to the ideational aspects of society, where it enters back into culture. For Morphy, this is one of the defining features of art: “art does not simply reflect culture (ie. act as a structural analogue for society) it is integral to the processes of its reproduction and transformation over time.”[38] In response to Gell’s suggestion that the art object is a mediating one, Morphy argues that:

Mediation is always a component of material cultural object but the mediating role is fundamental to art objects. They mediate between domains of existence, they mediate between artist and audience, and they mediate between an object that they are an index of and the person interacting with the object.[39]

This leads to one of Morphy’s key misinterpretations of Gell’s text.  While Gell argues that culture has no existence outside of social systems, Morphy is incorrect to assume that this means there is a direct relationship between object and index, or that “Gell’s objects are often simply social parrots.”[40] For Gell, the concept of agency is relational: for any agent there is a patient, and conversely, for any patient there is an agent. The work of art (index) is a patient with respect to the artist who made it, but is a patient with respect to the spectator who is moved by it.[41] Morphy’s criticism presumes that this is a direct relationship, and hence, he argues that Gell’s theory cannot extend to a theory of representation or semiosis.[42] This ignores the fact that the agency of the artist is necessarily abducted from the index (artwork), and hence the index is indispensible in this transaction. For Gell, abduction of agency cuts across the concept of meaning, for what the viewer abducts is never a ‘meaning’ but a system of actions. As a result, there is never a direct relationship between representation and meaning. If there is no space between the signifier and the signified, then there can be no abduction. We might compare this to Robert Sharf’s concept of irony, in which the art object is distinguished by the density of the relationship between signifier and signified.[43] For Gell, this indecipherability is precisely because we construe art objects as a system of signs that do not correspond to signifier and signified and which rely on the migration of agency.[44] It is this indeterminacy that MacGaffey picks up on in his analysis of nkisi nkondi. As MacGaffey notes, the minkisi is an:

Index of cumulative agency, a visible knot tying together an invisible skein of spatio-temporal relations of which the participants in the ritual are well aware … Minkisi are always ensembles of materials signifying, by there names, their appearance or their associations, the powers attributed to the whole.[45]

Nkisi NkondiMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nkisi Nkondi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

According to MacGaffey, the effect of the nkisi nkondi is a result of the complex interplay between concealment and accumulation of meaning: “containment gives the impression that something may be hidden inside, and accumulation adds obscurity to make the secret evident.”[46] Essential to this “cognitive stickiness” however, is the art object itself, and MacGaffey notes that the sense of interiority and mystery were often heightened by impressive workmanship. Finely created minkisi were intended to arouse astonishment (ngiukulu), and it was widely held that sculptures admired for their art made more effective minkisi.[47] MacGaffey uses this to illustrate Gell’s theory of enchantment, through which works of formal complexity or technical virtuosity exert a power of fascination upon the viewer because the viewer is trapped in the indecipherability of the index.[48] However, to return to Morphy’s “how” question, Gell’s theory falls short of identifying the particular properties of objects that trigger these feelings of enchantment.[49] In one of the least satisfying sections of Art and Agency, while discussing complex patterns, Gell hints at the possibility that complex patterns might act something like a picture of agent-patient relationships.[50]

In an abstract picture one patch of colour seems to be ‘pushing against’ another patch of colour, even though there are no objects in the external world with which we can identify these patches of colour. The causal interaction we perceive is internal to the index itself … the parts of the index exert causal influence over one another and testify to the agency of the index as a whole.[51]

In doing so, Gell offers the possibility that aesthetics work something like a structural analogue to agent-patient relations. By extension, this argument could be used to claim that the most charged objects of social agency are necessarily the most aesthetically charged, as they present a visual embodiment of this relationship. Such a conclusion would, however, vindicate Morphy’s call for the study of form at a micro level, and run counter to Gell’s central claim that art can be understood as a force of social agency entirely independently of aesthetic criteria.

This difficulty reveals an intractable tension in Gell’s work between culture as process, and cultures as bounded groups.[52] These are necessarily overlapping categories to which art is both a social agent and binding force, as well as essential mode of self-representation. As Marsha Meskimmon posits: “I would argue that art is a vital form of articulation, that visualization and materialization are active and forceful modes in the production of the real, and that they can transcend the limits of current understanding by pushing the boundaries of imagination.”[53] If, for Morphy, close formal reading reveals the agency that arises from a body of knowledge, the indeterminacy of art also allows for subtle expressions of cultural change, where hybridity and transaction allows for new forms of cultural expression. Having established nkisi nkondi as the representative objects of an alternative modernity, perhaps the next question that must be asked is whether and in which ways their forms have been altered in the traffic in culture, and how they might be able to speak cross-culturally of our shared experience of globalization.

Such questions reveal the indivisibility of the social and the cultural, and the arbitrariness of drawing distinctions between the aesthetic and social action of art. As Bart Vandenabeele notes, artworks “are human artifacts that cannot be understood at all separate from human values, intentions, interests, or habits. That is why they are not unchangeable: they are being constantly changed by and adapted to the human ways of life or communities that are equally temporary, historical and continually transforming.”[54] Likewise, as Gell notes, art objects are not solipsistic, but rather, they are collaborative, involving audiences and other artists: “art objects are not self-sufficient, but human agency is exercised within the material world.” His words echo Collingwood’s declaration that “the artist stands in collaborative relations with an entire community.”[55] Roy Sieber and Roslyn Walker stress the importance of collaboration in the creation of minkondi and their integration into the practices of everyday life in the Congo.[56] However, this interconnection between art and life is not unique to the Congo, it should be seen as a vital component to understanding the category of art.

Nkisi NkondiDallas Museum of Art

Nkisi Nkondi
Dallas Museum of Art

James Clifford argues, that part of the problem with western interpretation of power figures derives from a deep anxiety towards fetishes:

A good collector (as opposed to the obsessive, the miser) is tasteful and reflective. Accumulation unfolds in a pedagogical, edifying manner. The collection itself – its taxonomic, aesthetic structure – is valued, and any private fixation on single objects is negatively marked as fetishism.[57]

According to Clifford, all identities are based around accumulation, but only western identity is obsessed with the collection of possessions. This, he argues, is a peculiarly western strategy for the development of a possessive self. At the same time, it reveals the underlying iconoclasm the W.T.J Mitchell argues motivates the profound discontinuity between image and reality (signifier and signified) that propels the western drive for aesthetic autonomy.[58]

If the nkisi nkondi reveal magic to be an evolving element of modernity, a process for building community, and a site for resistance, perhaps they also offer an opportunity to strip back the ethnocentrism of our own understanding of the world and highlight the peculiarities of our western vision. If the social context of nkisi nkondi remains in many ways inscrutable to us, perhaps it is precisely through their artness that they might communicate across time and space. Communication is never perfect, particularly in the case of art. And yet, as Collingwood argues, understanding can only ever be imperfect, but a partial and imperfect understanding is not the same as a failure to understand.[59] As Vandenbeele notes:

For successful (artistic) communication, it is not a necessary requirement that words, images, sounds, and concepts have exact meanings shared by all participants … incommensurability between languages and concepts could be interpreted in a positive way, that is, the communication process is kept in motion by what the participants do not share.[60]

These are the kind of cross-cultural “conversations” that Anthony Appiah suggests lead to imaginative engagement with the Other, an engagement, that in Collingwood’s words becomes “progressively stronger as conversation proceeds, and based on the fact that neither party seems to the other to be talking nonsense.”[61] It is through encounters like these that identity is extended: a perfect illustration being the profound influence of non-western arts, first through “primitivism” and later in the challenges of post-colonialism. The exposure to works like the nkisi nkondi first changed western art, and then our understandings of what constituted the category of art. That we continue to ask these questions, and that their answers remain illusive — just as they do to erudite scholars like Morphy and Gell — suggests that the question “what is art?” may itself be charged with a certain cognitive stickiness whose very indecipherability lends this conversation such power.

[1] Wyatt MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” in The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, eds. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 228-229.

[2] See for instance, Zdenka Volavkova, “Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo,” African Arts 2 (Winter 1972): 52, Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen, “Nkisi Figures of the Bakongo,” African Arts 7 (Spring 1974): 88 and Wyatt MacGaffey, Art and Healing of the Bakongo (Stockholm: Folkens museum-ethnographiska, 1991), 121.

[3] Wyatt MacGaffey, Art and Healing of the Bakongo, 121.

[4]  “Nkisi Nkondi (Nail Figure), Carnegie Museum of Art website, accessed 10 April 2012: [ ]

[5] See for instance, Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59-62, Cesare Poppy, “Wonders taken for Signs” in Presence: The Inherence of the Prototype with Images and Other Objects, eds. Robert Maniura and Rupert Shepherd, (London: Ashgate, 2006), 235, Bart Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 38:4 (Winter, 2004), 1-2, Robert Farris Thompson, “Kongo Power Figure,” in Perspectives: Angles on African Art (New York: The Centre for African Art, 1987), 180-181, MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 230-234, and Wyatt MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 39 (Spring 2001), 137-150.

[6] See for instance, James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), Sally Price, Primitive Art in Civilized Places (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), Shelly Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998) and Susan Hiller ed. The Myth of Primtivism: Perspectives on Art (London: Routledge, 1991).

[7] Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” in The Anthropology of Art: A Reader, eds. Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 7-8.

[8] Johanne Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[9] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, “Objects and Agendas: Re-collecting the Congo,” in The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, eds. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 21-25.

[10] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, “Objects and Agendas: Re-collecting the Congo,” 21-25.

[11] Zdenka Volavkova, “Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo,” African Arts 2 (Winter 1972): 52.

[12] Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen, “Nkisi Figures of the Bakongo,” African Arts 7 (Spring 1974): 88. It is worth noting that MacGaffey and Janzen draw on the same historical source as Volavkova in making this claim (Olfred Dapper’s 1670 account of his travels in Africa), but come to different conclusions as to the historical veracity of some of the claims made in Dapper’s text.

[13] Kasja Ekholm Friedman and Jonathan Friedman, Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization (Plymouth, UK: AltaMira Press, 2008), 29-85. See also Dunja Hersak, “There are many Kongo Worlds: Particularities of Magico-Religious Beliefs among the Vili and Yombe of Congo-Brazzaville, Africa: Journal of International African Institute, 71 (4: 2001): 614-640.

[14] Kasja Ekholm Friedman and Jonathan Friedman, Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization, 29-85.

[15] Jean Comaroff, Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Post-Colonial Africa, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993).

[16] MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 221

[17] MacGaffey, ‘Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 139.

[18] Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[19] R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938).

[20] MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 230-233.

[21] Gell, quoted in MacGaffey

[22] Gell, Art and Agency, 7.

[23] Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61 (19, October 1964): 571-584.

[24] Gell, Art and Agency, 5.

[25] Gell, Art and Agency, 7.

[26] Gell, Art and Agency, 66

[27] Gell, Art and Agency, 9-10.

[28] Robert Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” Journal of the Royal Anthroplogical Institute 9 (2003): 449.

[29] See for example, Howard Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” Journal of Material Culture 14 (1): 5-27, Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” Oceania 80 (2, July 2010): 129-142, and Robert Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” 447-464.

[30] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12.

[31] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 6.

[32] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 17.

[33] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12.

[34] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 13.

[35] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12, 15.

[36] Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” 452.

[37] Nicole Boivan, Material Cultures, Material Minds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). It is worth noting that Boivan discusses both Gell and Morphy’s work at some length in her book.

[38] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 13-14.

[39] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 8.

[40] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 8.

[41] Gell, Art and Agency, 22, see also MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.

[42] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 10.

[43] Robert Sharf, “The Buddha’s Fingerbones at Famensi and the Art of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism,” The Art Bulletin 93 (1: March 2011), 38-57.

[44] Gell, Art and Agency, 20-23.

[45] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 145-146.

[46] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 145

[47] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.

[48] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” 133-135.

[49] Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” 133-135.

[50] Gell, Art and Agency, 76.

[51] Gell, Art and Agency, 76.

[52] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 22.

[53] Marsha Meskinnon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London: Routledge, 2011), 6.

[54] Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,”7.

[55] Collingwood, Principles of Art, 324.

[56] Roy Sieber and Roslyn Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1987).

[57] Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, 219.

[58] W.T.J. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986),

[59] Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 309.

[60] Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,” 2.

[61] Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 309.

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Jukurrtjanu Mularrarringu (From the Dreaming): Meaning and Movement in the Art of Nora Wompi

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Nora Wompi at Fortyfivedownstairs presented by Suzanne O’Connell Gallery from April 27 till May 8, 2010

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2007, acrylic on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria.

With their thick, viscous skeins of impasto paint, the paintings of Nora Wompi seem to melt onto the eye. Layers of overlapping colours blur, making forms difficult to define; the desert landscape shimmers into being, like a mirage upon the horizon. Despite abandoning her searing palette of reds, orange and pinks Wompi’s work has lost none of its blazing desert intensity. Meandering tracks of paint roll rhythmically across the canvas, creating a dynamic, anamorphic topography. The movement of the artist’s hand is clearly visible in the thick brushstrokes, which run across the canvas like trails in the wilderness. The encrusted dots of early works have given way to broad swathes of shifting colour. Where the early works had a gravelly sense of place that evoked the material presence of the landscape, Wompi’s recent works present a peripatetic, nomadic understanding of space.

In the past five years, Wompi’s paintings have increased in both scale and confidence. Her development has not been a process of metamorphosis, so much as a form of artistic excavation, stripping away the crust to reveal the metaphysical essence of the landscape. Her latest works are less concerned with the visible features of the landscape than with its underlying spiritual meanings. They are paintings of experience, not cynical or world-weary, but acutely aware of the truth of the matter, of what is permanent and what fades away.

Nora Wompi, Kinjun 1995, acrylic on paper, National Gallery of Victoria.

Exploring this intangible essence has required Wompi to develop a unique abstract visual language. The clearly identifiable iconography of desert painting – with its recognisable symbols for waterholes, campsites and rockholes – has slowly been replaced with a more fluid, gestural style. The specificity of particular places, stories and sites has given way to grand, totalised renderings of her country around Kunnawarritji. These are ‘big pictures’ that require a ‘big picture’ approach. The spiritual essence that they seek to capture cannot be described using a predetermined lexicon of signs, but requires the development of an artistic language based on emotion and intuition.

It is important to note that for Wompi, this visual language is not something simply imagined or ‘made up’. Although intangible, the essence of landscape that Wompi’s paintings address is very real. It is a spirituality revealed through a close connection and understanding of her ancestral country. It is only through a long and intimate association with the landscape that these mysteries are revealed. This revelation is described in her native Kukatja tongue as jukurrtjanu mularrarringu – the truth that comes from the Dreaming. It is from the Dreaming that everything of value or significance derives.

Born around 1935 at Lilbaru near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, Wompi belongs to a fading generation of senior Indigenous people who grew up in the desert, learning the solemn codes of the nomadic lifestyle. Consistent with this nomadic outlook, her biography is defined by significant movements: walking with her mother to Bililuna Station and then onto Balgo Mission; relocating to Fitzroy Crossing with her second husband Cowboy Dick; returning to Kunnawarritji with her sisters at the dawn of the homelands movement. Although aged in her seventies, Wompi maintains a highly transitory lifestyle, moving regularly between Kunnawarritji, Balgo, Kiwirrkurra and Punmu in order to visit relatives and attend to familial obligations.

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2012, acrylic on canvas.

In the nomadic concept of country, places are not understood in isolation, but rather through their intersections and connections. In Indigenous cosmology, this reveals itself through the songlines that run across the country, uniting all places. These paths reflect the ancestral mythology of the Dreaming, when spirit beings traveled across the landscape creating its sacred sites and leaving their residue in the landscape. According to Indigenous beliefs, this sacred essence remains in the landscape, and is discernible to those whose kinship or custodial ties allow them to access it.

It is this pervasive presence that Wompi explores in her paintings. In their sinuous pathways, we see an organic lattice of places, each connected, rolling into each other like tali or sandhills. Each gestural mark upon the canvas is like a footprint, revealing its creator’s presence. Like a footprint, they exist as the memory of presence – a nostalgic echo of past travels, both personal and ancestral. Judith Ryan has characterized this as a “haptic quality … calling sites and spiritual associations through touch.” This touch connects Wompi’s knowledge and custodianship of the land to that of her ancestors; her movement on the canvas becomes a mythopoetic recollection of all the spiritual travels that underpin her country. At the same time, it overlays her own journey – both physical and artistic – onto these paths, creating a palimpsest that connects the past and present.

Nora Wompi, Kunawarritji 2010, acrylic on canvas.

In doing so, Wompi’s paintings create a matrix that unites all time and place. They paint the history of her landscape, as it is transcribed by ancient songlines and transgressed by more recent paths, such as the Canning Stock Route, which, during Wompi’s lifetime, brought European settlers into the world of the Kukatja. These settlers could not see the landscape, access its sacred powers or read its songlines. But perhaps this is the very point of Wompi’s paintings. As their lines of colour spill outwards to the edge of the painting, it is almost as though they are trying to break free of the canvas, to pour out from Kunnawarritji to the world. As they reach the edge, they ask us to see the majesty outside the canvas – to realize that this mystical essence is part of the great continuum of existence. This is a unique gift; an intercultural exchange that offers both an expansive lesson in Indigenous cosmology and a critique of our own visual nescience. Painted lovingly and passionately by a powerful, individualistic woman, they project a unique understanding of the world. In their beauty and grace, they offer a guidebook that invites us to feel the indelible essence of this sacred land.

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Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson at Mossenson Galleries, Perth, Western Australia, from June 1, till July 4, 2010

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

Far to the west of the remote Indigenous community of Yuendumu, in the distant reaches of the Tanami Desert, lies one of the most important ceremonial sites for the women of the Warlpiri. Mina Mina is a sacred landscape made up of two large clay-pans guarded by a feathery sentinel of desert oaks, where, in the Jukurrpa (Dreamtime) a series of karlangu (digging sticks) emerged from the ground. Taking up these sticks, a large group of ancestral women began a heroic journey north to Jayinki and then eastward through Alcoota country. Marching in joyous exultation, their paths shaped the landscape, permeating it with the spirit of their songs. According to the Warlpiri, the spindly desert oaks at Mina Mina are an embodiment of these first digging sticks and of the ancestral women who brandished them.

The story of Mina Mina is of profound spiritual sustenance to the Warlpiri. It helps explain the genesis of the landscape, and circumscribes their relationship to it. Despite being over 300 kilometres from Yuendumu, it remains an important site of ceremonial and custodial obligations. Not surprisingly, it has also been one of the great sources of artistic inspiration for Warlpiri women. At the hands of Yuendumu’s great chroniclers it has revealed itself in a myriad of ways: some artists have chosen to focus on the desert oaks (Kurrkara), others the hair-string skirts (Majarrdi) worn during ceremony, others still have focused on the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) or vine (Ngalyipi) first collected by the ancestral travelers. Combined, these stories create a stunning vision of place, united by the indelible spiritual identification that is felt by the Warlpiri, and in particular those of the Napangardi/Japangardi and Napanangka/Japanangka sub-sections for whom this place resonates with personal significance.

Kelly Napanangka Michaels, Majarrdi Jukurrpa (Ceremonial Dancing Skirt Dreaming) 2010

In contrast to the other early epicentres of desert painting, such as Papunya and Lajamanu, the painting movement at Yuendumu did not coalesce around senior men, but began in 1983 through the efforts of a group of senior Warlpiri women. Encouraged by the anthropologist Françoise Dussart, the women helped forge the dynamic ‘Yuendumu style’, which, as Judith Ryan has noted, was “characterised by vibrant colour, large brush-strokes and an almost messy, gestural freedom.”[1] In 1985, the artists formed Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, through which they have refined the style, adding a level of accomplishment and elegance, while retaining the intensity of colour and spontaneity of design that defined the early movement. Subsequent generations of Yuendumu women have gained international acclaim as artists, including Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Bessie Nakamarra Sims and Betsy Napangardi Lewis. Despite generational change and aesthetic transformation, the presence of Mina Mina in Warlpiri art has remained an iconic constant.

It is this legacy that is taken up in the paintings of Kelly Napanangka Michaels and Alma Nangala Robertson. Born in the late 1960s, Michaels (b.1965) and Robertson (b.1969) heard the Jukurrpa stories from their elders, and saw them painted with passion and dedication by their artistic forebears. Now they pass these stories onto their children and grandchildren, retelling them in a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. The influence of their elders runs through their work; the dominant iconographies of Warlpiri painting are clearly present, as is the characteristic Yuendumu palette of pink, mauve, purple and blue. However, this is not a slavish form of imitation. In the paintings of Michaels and Robertson, influence exists as an aesthetic undercurrent that bubbles to the surface like the spiritual residue of the ancestors that informs the landscape. The influence of their artistic precursors becomes a song that infuses the canvas, filling it with the authority of cultural continuity and uniting it with the performative actions of song and ceremony that connect the Warlpiri to the Jukurrpa.

Alma Nangala Robertson, Mina Mina Jukurrpa 2010

In Michaels’ depictions of Mina Mina, two key elements of the story dominate: the ceremonial dancing skirts (Majarrdi) and the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) collected by the women on their journey. Majarrdi and Jinti-parnta are painted with a jutting angular intensity, which makes them appear to quiver across the canvas. Using extremes of contrasting colours (including a distinctive use of black and white outlines), Michaels creates a fluttering tension between foreground and background that makes the Majarrdi appear to float above the canvas as though suspended by invisible dancers. This creates an ethereal sense of spiritual presence, while the thickly painted ground of the canvas anchors them to the temporal materiality of the landscape. Like her artistic precursors, Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Robertson’s focus is the sacred Ngalyipi vine and the desert oaks (Kurrkara). Her paintings are swirling evocations of the landscape that shuttle between the narrative of travel and the fixed nature of place. Meandering lines sink into the landscape, evoking the residue of ancestral travels that simmer below the surface. Mina Mina pulsates in a spiral of colour that alludes to the constant spiritual undercurrents of ancestral travels, which shape and inform this place.

Kelly Napanangka Michaels, Majarrdi Jukurrpa (Ceremonial Dancing Skirt Dreaming) 2010

In drawing attention to this continuity of ancestral presence, both Michaels and Robertson testify to the continuing power of the Dreaming – a power that runs through all things, and unites all time and place. In their paintings, culture, aesthetics, history and place unite in a joyful continuum of colour and song. The Jukurrpa of Mina Mina is carried forward; its transformative power is expressed in an artistic evolution that pays homage to the past, while presenting a new vision for the future. On these fresh tongues, the exultant songs of the ancestral women are given new breath, proclaiming the creative power of Mina Mina for future generations.

[1] Judith Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert from the National Gallery of Victoria exhib. cat. (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1989), 69.

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Carved out of Life: The Art of Emu Egg Carving

The following essay was first published as a preview for the exhibition Carved out of Life curated by Clinton Nain and held at at Craft Victoria from 18 June till 24 July 2010. The essay was published in Art Guide Australia, July/August 2010.

Installation image of carved Emu eggs by Lucy Williams.

Two years ago, the contemporary Indigenous artist Clinton Nain acquired his first emu egg. It was by Esther Kirby – a family friend of Nain’s, and the daughter of renowned Wiradjuri ‘boss carver’ Sam Kirby. The object resonated with the young artist, its muted patina of green and grey whispering softly as though each incised layer revealed a hidden world. And yet, as he delved into this verdant haze, Nain could find little clarity or illumination: carved emu eggs have rarely appeared in critical literature or major exhibitions. In frustration, he decided to curate his own survey, Carved out of Life: the Art of Emu Egg Carving at Craft Victoria, in a valiant attempt to “highlight the importance and significance of a neglected medium.”

To most Australians, carved emu eggs are items of kitsch, synonymous with craft markets and tourist outlets. Amongst southern Indigenous peoples, however, they are objects of considerable communal identification. Brenda Croft has noted, that by the mid-20th Century, carved emu eggs were a popular decorative item in Indigenous homes, serving to “affirm and Indigenous identity within the domestic environment.” [i] For Nain, however, their significance is more profound: “Denied traditional forms of cultural expression, Indigenous communities adopted the emu egg as a medium to tell stories, explain totems and reveal knowledge of land, place and identity … strengthening and retaining links to the past.”

With the rise of post-colonial theory, this kind of claim has been a common refrain in Indigenous art criticism. Colonial modes of art production are reclaimed as acts of artistic subterfuge through which forbidden pre-colonial knowledge is preserved beneath the cover of western aesthetics.  The problem with this kind of revisionism is that it creates a static and uniform criterion of value, in which Indigenous artworks can only be ‘significant’ or ‘important’ insomuch as they contain some hidden cultural cache; some link to the past; some authentic ‘Aboriginality.’ This is not to suggest that carved emu eggs might not be rich in such ‘traditional’ cultural content, but rather, that such an emphasis obscures a more complex cultural history that might offer a greater insight into this enigmatic medium.

Carved emu egg by Jonaski Takuma, 1895 – 1905, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

The practice of carving emu eggs arose in the mid-19th Century. It was not originally considered an Aboriginal medium, in fact, one of the most successful early carvers was a Japanese craftsman named Jonaski Takuma who set up shop in Sydney’s Strand Arcade in 1893. The aesthetic of the first carved emu eggs belonged firmly to the ornate decorative style of the late Victorian era. Their content, on the other hand, was resolutely nationalist, reflecting the idealised bush ethos pioneered by The Bulletin, Henry Lawson and the Heidelberg painters. In the post-War years, this aesthetic and ideology was superseded by a more modernist vision of Australian design and identity. Coupled with new government restrictions on the harvesting of emu eggs, the practice of carving emu eggs became increasingly rare amongst non-Indigenous artisans.

It was around this same time that the carving of emu eggs began its remarkable ascendancy amongst Indigenous communities. This coincidence is illuminating, for just as non-Indigenous Australians were dismantling the vision of bush nationalism embodied in carved emu eggs, it was appropriated by Indigenous artists for an entirely different ideological purpose. Like the Hermannsburg School of watercolour painting, emu egg carving was an introduced medium that demonstrated skill, craftsmanship and expertise, while its content professed a uniquely Aboriginal affinity with the landscape. The medium itself neatly balanced a dichotomy of assimilation and self-assertion: carved onto an objet whose acquisition required the knowledge of the hunter-gatherer, it suggested an inherent physical link to Indigenous heritage, while the realist images etched upon it implied a reconciliation with western aesthetic values.

Prior to the 1970s, there was little discernible difference in either content or style, between carved emu eggs produced by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. In some instances, artists of both cultures worked side by side. However, as issues such as land rights and Indigenous self-determination began to gain momentum, many Indigenous artists began to seek a more assertive vision of Indigenous identity. Carvers like Bluey Roberts, Badger Bates and Adrian ‘Ringo’ Morten began to replace realist imagery with an array of neo-traditional Aboriginal designs, drawing upon elements of rock art, desert painting and the traditional markings of their southern Indigenous tribes. Others, like Esther Kirby or Western Australian artist Barry Belotti, retained the realism of their predecessors, but used it to critique colonial incursion. Writhing from the surface, Kirby’s depictions of Indigenous faces wear a mask of suffocating anguish, as though silenced by the confines of an imposed visual language.

Esther Kirby, Carved Emu Egg, 2010.

Clinton Nain is absolutely correct in arguing that carved emu eggs deserve greater critical attention. For the past century, southern Indigenous people have been exploring the medium, changing its style and content to reflect their changing historical, social and political situation. Critically evaluating these developments offers a unique opportunity to explore the complex cultural history of southern Indigenous people, their continued negotiation with modernity, and the historical forces that have constructed contemporary Indigenous identity. They reveal how seemingly fixed notions of identity, place or culture are remodelled, reappropriated and reused for changing political, ideological or personal reasons. It is precisely these indicators that show how artists negotiate the forces of history and shed light upon the world in which we live. Just as Indigenous and non-Indigenous craftsmen once worked side by side, perhaps in these tiny globes we might see a vision of the world that we share, as much as the differences that we inscribe upon it.

[i] Brenda Croft, ‘The Gift of Seeing with Fingers’, Tactility: Two Centuries of Indigenous Objects, Textiles and Fibre, exhib. cat., National Gallery of Australia, 2003.

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Shane Pickett: 19 February 1957 – 15 January 2010

The following is an extended version of a tribute that was first published in Art Monthly Australia, Issue 227, March 2010, pp.29-30.

Shane Pickett, On the Horizon of the Dreaming Boodja 2005, National Gallery of Australia

I last saw Shane Pickett in the week before his death. Ever an industrious artist, he was busy putting the final touches on a series of delicate figurative landscape paintings intended for a solo exhibition in Melbourne. Spindly gum trees and gently undulating hills glowed with an outback haze against the white walls of his studio. In the past decade, Pickett had garnered widespread acclaim for his commanding abstract paintings, but few outside of Western Australia were aware that this was where his artistic journey first began. Flashing his famously impish smile, he quipped at the surprise that these works would elicit amidst the cosmopolitan Melbourne scene.

Although lauded as an abstractionist, Pickett never ceased to consider himself a landscape painter. In returning to figuration, he hoped to draw attention to the continuity of his concerns; to show the close connection his paintings maintained to his Nyoongar landscape. At the same time, he wanted to show just how much he had developed, to reveal the cultural, spiritual and artistic journey that underpinned his career. He titled the exhibition Djinong Djina Boodja – a Nyoongar phrase meaning ‘look at the land that I have travelled.’

It was a rare moment of retrospection from an artist whose career had been characterised by a restless forward trajectory of transformation and reinvention. After a career spanning three decades, Pickett had much to look back upon with pride. He had held at least 27 solo exhibitions and been involved in nearly 100 group shows. His works had travelled to America, Europe and Asia, and had been acquired by many of Australia’s most important collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

And yet, these were not the things that most interested Pickett. Although a proud man, he was never vainglorious and rarely spoke of his successes or achievements. When questioned, he preferred to speak on the cultural aspects of his art and career, measuring his journey not by accolades, but by his deepening knowledge of his Nyoongar heritage. For Pickett, art and life were united in an ever-expanding process of learning, in which spiritual and artistic developments were combined in a continually evolving process of creation.

A metaphor for this process can be seen in Pickett’s many representations of the moment of creation. This was the theme of his first important abstract work – Supernova 1988 – and it culminated in one of his best known paintings On the Horizon of the Dreaming Boodja 2005 (National Gallery of Australia). In the latter work [pictured above], delicate beams of light break through an abyss of white impasto, signifying “the birth of life, breaking through the warmth of eternity, bringing the beginning of the Dreaming Boodja, a place mankind calls earth.” In visualising this moment, when everything is born from the vacuum of nothingness, Pickett created a profound meditation on the nature of being. The viewer is held in suspense, literally stuck in the space between existence and non-existence, suspended forever on the horizon of being.

Shane Pickett, Three Faces of the Sun 1986, Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Pickett’s life and career presents a similar ontological conundrum. Like a supernova, he was an incredible creative source. Through his inspiration and influence he helped guide three decades of development and change in Indigenous art, culture and identity, particularly amongst the Nyoongar community of Western Australia. On the other hand, Pickett was very much a man of his time, with much of the resonance of his artwork and personal philosophy coming from their perfect articulation of the changing moods and attitudes of the world around him.

The son of Fred and Dorcas May Pickett, Shane Pickett was born in 1957 in the wheat-belt town of Quairading, about 170 kilometres east of Perth. Surrounded by athletic siblings but suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, Pickett gravitated to art from an early age. In 1988 he recalled, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a pencil or brush in my hand.” The Nyoongar people had a strong artistic lineage, springing from the figurative landscape style that emerged from the Carrolup River Native Settlement in the 1940s. It was a style that Pickett quickly mastered, taking the intense colours of the Carrolup school and matching it with a rugged lyricism. After completing high-school, he moved to Perth, where in 1976 he held his first solo exhibition at the New Era Aboriginal Centre.

Much like the school of watercolour painting that evolved around Albert Namatjira and the Luthern Mission at Hermannsburg, the Carrolup style represented a very particular Indigenous response to colonialism. In an era in which assimilation remained official policy, these styles allowed a subtle communication of the significance of the Indigenous landscape, camouflaged within a palatably European medium. The spiritual and cultural underpinnings of these works remained largely unnoticed, and their subversion of Western perspective unrecognized.

By the early 1980s, as issues such as land rights and Indigenous self-determination began to gain momentum Pickett, like many Indigenous people, had begun to seek a more assertive vision of Indigenous identity. Taking the skills learnt as a landscape painter, he moved into the realm of magic realism. Again, a landmark work from the period concerned the moment of creation. Waagle – The Rainbow Serpent 1983 (Art Gallery of Western Australia), was a graphic, fantasy-style representation of the Rainbow Serpent in the act of creating the Nyoongar people. Swathed in atmospheric layers of paint, it was a lurid visualization of an epic story, and showed Pickett assertively extending himself beyond the picturesque boundaries of the Carrolup style.

Shane Pickett, Waagle – Rainbow Serpent 1983, Art Gallery of Western Australia

Pickett’s confidence in his Nyoongar cultural identity was matched with an increasing visibility in the local community. Pickett moved in a circle of supportive and ambitious young Nyoongar men, which included playwright Richard Walley, actor Ernie Dingo and artist Lance Chadd, all of whom cite him as a source of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. In 1981 Pickett produced the sets for Jack Davis’ play Kullark – The Dreamers, and he volunteered his time to many Indigenous groups including the Aboriginal Planning Group, the WA Aboriginal Artists Advisory Council and the Australia Council’s Visual Arts and Craft Committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts. It was around this stage that Pickett’s career began to flourish. In 1986 he was awarded the Museum and Art Galleries Award at the Third National Aboriginal Art Awards (for the work Three Faces of the Sun reproduced above) and in 1988 he was declared Western Australian Aboriginal Artist of the Year.

While his landscape and magic realist tableaus brought him great respect and admiration in Western Australia, it was his move to abstraction in the late 1990s that saw Pickett‘s recognition as an artist of truly national standing. This coincided with a long association with gallerist Diane Mossenson of Indigenart, Mossenson Galleries. At Mossenson Galleries, Pickett found the stability and encouragement to experiment, developing a unique personal style of gestural abstraction. His decade-long association with Indigenart was the most productive and successful era of his career, and saw him included in numerous important exhibitions including South West Central (Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2003) and Culture Warriors: The National Indigenous Art Triennial (National Gallery of Australia, 2007). In 2006 he was granted a retrospective at the Perth Institute for Contemporary Arts. In the same year he won the Sunshine Coast Art Award and the Joondalup Invitation Art Award, and in 2007 he was awarded the $40,000 first prize in the inaugural Drawing Together Art Award.

Pickett’s move to abstraction was driven by a desire to find deeper, more intuitive spiritual meanings in the landscape. According to Nick Tapper, “Pickett came to feel that representation of the skin and hair of the environment – its landforms, flora and fauna – missed the resonant undercurrents flowing amongst these elements.” As he matured, and his cultural knowledge increased, Pickett increasingly felt that traditional representations were incapable of expressing his deeper understanding of the landscape.

Shane Pickett, Wanyarang the Calling Season for Rain, 2006, Caloundra Regional Art Gallery.

With this knowledge, he realised, came a greater responsibility. This was something that Pickett felt strongly about – both in respecting his elders and passing his knowledge to a younger generation of Nyoongar people. Shortly before his death, he confided that his proudest achievement was his participation in the monumental Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heartland) canvas produced on behalf of the Nyoongar elders for the 2006 Perth International Arts Festival. Pickett took great pride and pleasure in the extensive consultation with both the community and elders of the Nyoongar nations that occurred before commencing work on the monumental piece. He saw the project as being an important galvanising moment in the Nyoongar community, and felt that it was imperative that it correctly reflected the teachings and values of his elders.

Between 1980 and 1983, Pickett completed a Diploma in Fine Arts at the Claremont School of Fine Arts in Western Australia. Although he valued the technical skills he had learnt there, Pickett often lamented the lack of Indigenous teachers. He sought to redress this imbalance, offering his services in numerous community workshops, primary and secondary colleges, along with teaching Aboriginal prisoners at Canningvale Prison. An important role model in his community, he dedicated considerable time to assisting with troubled or disaffected youth, guiding them quietly and calmly with his gently spoken cultural teachings.

Pickett was also influential for young Nyoongar painters. Between 1996 and 2003, he worked as a lecturer at TAFE in Midland and Bunbury, helping to develop the Diploma of Aboriginal Visual Arts course. Pickett’s influence and stewardship led to the widespread adoption of his style amongst a younger generation of artists. The success of his abstractions inaugurated a new school of Nyoongar painting whose influence can be seen in the work of many young artists, including Ben Pushman and Troy Bennell.

At its heart, Pickett’s move to abstraction had a cross-cultural mission. From his earliest works, he saw himself as an ambassador for Nyoongar culture. Although a softly spoken, quiet advocate, Pickett was unwavering in his championing of Nyoongar cultural values. Generous with both his time and knowledge, he was a popular speaker, always willing to patiently explain the complex philosophical minutiae of Nyoongar teachings.

Shane Pickett, Wanyarang Lightning Calling 2005.

Pickett’s abstract paintings communicate these teachings intuitively to an uninitiated audience. According to Pickett, “A lot of them don’t know what they are seeing, but often they’ll have an idea. When they do know what the story is about, they get drawn in.” For Pickett, abstraction was a method for leading people to their own personal communication with the Dreaming, and through this, to a respect and understanding of Indigenous values. Perhaps this explains the popular appeal of Pickett’s work, for like Pickett, they were never judgemental, but softly guided the viewer into a dialogue with the magical world of the Dreaming. In 2007, he noted, “The Dreams do run strongly through the views of my life.” This is perhaps his lasting legacy; in Pickett’s Dreaming we find a dialogue that crosses all cultural barriers, uniting all people within his a powerful cosmology of reconciliation.

Shane Pickett died on Friday 15 January 2010 following a sudden bout of illness. He is survived by his wife Violet, his sons Roger and Trevor, and his five grandchildren.

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Gladdy Kemarre: Anwekety (Bush Plum)

The following essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue Utopia produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2010 Melbourne Art Fair. It was later reprinted in both English and Korean in the exhibition catalogue Josie Kunoth Petyarre & Gladdy Kemarre, produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2011 Korean International Art Fair.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

There is a transformative element to the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre. As we stare into their delicate calligraphy of dots, we could be gazing into the night sky, watching the seven sisters be chased across the Milky Way. If we squint, perhaps we can imagine ourselves looking from the window of an aeroplane as it whisks us over the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney or Perth. Or perhaps is it a more distant, empty landscape that we are viewing from a great height: a landscape that seems to move beneath us as the shifting light of the sun dances across its open plains.

In the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre, the viewer floats into the canvas, just as her delicate skeins of dots shimmer across our horizon. Once immersed, the effect is very literally like that of a dream, the gentle soaring feeling of stepping into the engulfing desert heat, whose thick red winds swelter round the body as though bobbing in a flooded river of extraordinary antiquity. We are transported to places that we have never been, and yet which haunt us with an uncanny familiarity. For in the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre we are transported to her country, a county that she knows intimately; so intimately, that it cannot be expressed in words, but requires a language of intuition and emotion. With a patient refinement, they offer a gentle, motherly reflection on the interconnectedness of all things, a sparkling meditation on the Dreaming as it binds us all together. These are women’s stories, told through generations as part of a contract with the landscape. This contract ensures its fertility, its regenerative power, and its ability to spiritually and physically nourish the Anmatyerre.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

Gladdy was born around 1950 at Mount Swann in her father’s country. The daughter of Clara Kngwarreye and Kwementyay Pwerle, she was brought up in the Harts Range region with her late sister Ally Kemarre and her brother Billy Benn Perrurle. The siblings grew up learning the traditions of their Anmatyerre people and how to paint through ceremonial body designs. From the 1970s, she was involved in art at Utopia, firstly through the Utopia Women’s Batik Group and later as a painter of considerable acclaim. She was involved in the landmark exhibitions A Picture Story (1988) and A Summer Project (1988-9) and has participated in major exhibitions in Australia, Europe and America. Her works have been acquired by many major public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 2009 she was a finalist in the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and was awarded first prize in the both the Mount Buller Art Awards and City of Swan Art Awards. This year, Gladdy’s success has continued to rise through her selection as finalist in The King’s School Art Prize, The Stanthorpe Art Prize, The Albany Art Prize, The Fletcher Jones Painting Prize and The Waterhouse Natural History Prize.

In a career spanning four decades, a single motif has dominated Gladdy’s paintings, continually finding new expressions, just as the rolling seasons bring new life to the desert.  Anwekety or ‘bush plum’ is a Dreaming story given to Gladdy by her grandmother. A type of bush tucker with needle-like leaves and small round edible berries, women collect the fruit into coolamons, to be eaten fresh, dried or mixed into paste. Viewed from above, the changing seasonal colours of the bush plum dominate the flora on the ground in Ahalpere Country. The story of the bush plum is crucial to Alywarre and Anmatyerre women’s ceremonies, and is intricately intertwined with the Dreaming songlines of the whole country. It is a story not only of physical nourishment, but also of spiritual sustenance, being closely connected to the sacredness of Ahalpere Country.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

Shimmering constellations of fruit emerge in these paintings from tiny points of colour that are meticulously worked into shifting layers that evoke the desert landscape. As a result, they produce a sparkling vision of country that shows the unity of all things – of place, people, flora, ceremony – with the sacred Dreaming.  Through their reference to ceremonial body painting and their invocation of the continuum of the Dreaming, the present both a spatial and temporal circularity that acts as a metaphor for the relationship between the local and the universal. The joyful rhythms of the canvas reflect Gladdy’s pride in passing down the story of the bush plum, just as her grandmother did before her, and her keenly felt joy of renewing her traditions. Just as the changing seasons come to renew the landscape, the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre challenge us to transform the way we see the world, to float upon their Dream into the far reaches of the Eastern Desert to the sacred Ahalpere Country.

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Josie Kunoth Petyarre: Sugarbags

Below is an extended version of the essay, ‘Preview: Josie Kunoth Petyarre: Sugarbags’, first published in Artist Profile Magazine, Issue 15, May 2011, pp.122-123. It was later reprinted in both English and Korean in the exhibition catalogue Josie Kunoth Petyarre & Gladdy Kemarre, produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2011 Korean International Art Fair.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 151 cm.

For many people, Aboriginal art is an impenetrable mystery. Despite its stunning beauty, there is a lingering sense that it will forever speak of a distant world, unreachable to those uninitiated into its sacred mysteries. But for those who take up the exquisite challenge posed by Aboriginal art, the question remains: how do we interpret these works, which speak such an alien visual language? Faced with this problem, many viewers first response is to ask for the story or ‘Dreaming’ that informs the artwork, in the hope that this narrative might offer some entry point into these difficult abstract works.

In approaching the latest body of paintings by the Anmatyerre artist Josie Kunoth Petyarre, this is certainly one interpretative route that we could take. Although best known as a figurative painter, this new body of work represents the most sustained body of abstract paintings in Petyarre’s 25-year artistic career. However, one should be careful not to limit one’s reading of these paintings to a breakdown of their ‘Dreamings’, nor should one make too much of Petyarre’s recent moves into abstraction. For that would be to miss the clear lessons of Petyarre’s career, and to replay the primitivist desires that have sought to continually cast Aboriginal art as part of an arcane, primeval cultural context.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 122 x 183 cm.

If we survey Petyarre’s career, we find a marked continuity of concerns. Central to these concerns has been the centrality and adaptability of the Dreaming cosmology that shapes the Indigenous worldview. In his influential 1956 essay, ‘The Dreaming’, W.E.H Stanner described the Dreaming as the guiding principle by which Aboriginal Australian’s understand the universe. It is, he argued, “a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man.”[1] While it is easy to conceive this concept in the complex iconographies and hidden spiritual depths that underpin the cryptic forms of Aboriginal abstraction, in the paintings of Josie Kunoth Petyarre we see the Dreaming, not as something distant and mysterious, but something ever present, which runs through all places, people and things, from the past to the present, the sacred and the everyday. In this sense, they are a perfect illustration of the pervasiveness of the Dreaming logos described by Stanner.

The daughter of Polly Kngale, Josie Kunoth Peytarre was born in 1959 at Utopia Homestead. Occupying 1800 square kilometers of the remote Eastern Desert, Utopia Station was been part of the last great push of pastoral expansion into Australia’s wilderness. Its red open plains, dusted lightly with Spinifex and wildflowers, offered the promise of serenity and prosperity. However, scorching hot days and freezing nights, scarcity of surface water and sparse vegetation, untold legions of flies and mosquitoes, all conspired to make conditions intolerable for the new settlers. By the 1970s, only the crumbling Ozymandias-like remnants of the station era remained, paving the way for a successful land rights claim, which in 1980 returned the newly designated Utopia Aboriginal Lands to their traditional owners.

Like many women at Utopia, Josie Kunoth Petyarre began creating art as part of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group that emerged in the late 1970s. In 1987, she was included in the landmark exhibition, A Picture Story, which brought the practice of batik to its sumptuous conclusion. Containing all of the major artists from Utopia, it highlighted the resplendent diversity of approaches to the medium. The following year, she was included in the exhibition A Summer Project, which introduced these same artists to the practice of acrylic painting on canvas, creating the conditions for emergence of one of Australia’s most important painting movements.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 122 x 183 cm.

In 1987, Josie Kunoth Petyarre was still a young woman. The catalogue for A Picture Story shows her as a beaming 28-year-old, a young mother with a wistful smile and an unflappable demeanour.[2] It was the older artists in the exhibition who garnered the most attention, in particular, Petyarre’s aunt Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-1996). With their striking visual affinity to American abstract expressionism, Emily’s grand abstractions opened new possibilities for the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous art. At the same time, they cast a long shadow that has obscured the diversity of artistic practice that has been a continual presence at Utopia.

Whether bold and gestural (such as the paintings of Emily Kngwarreye or Minne Pwerle) or delicate and ethereal (Kathleen Petyarre or Gladdy Kemarre), the art of Utopia quickly became indelibly associated in the popular imagination with abstract painting. However, as the batik created by Petyarre for A Picture Story reveals, abstraction was always only one part of the art tradition at Utopia. Ngayakweneme (The Hungry People) is a vibrant Dreaming tableau in which armed warriors feud over the distribution of food, while tiny ethereal spirits haunt the crevices of the landscape. Twenty years later, this flair for action and detail would culminate in Petyarre’s grand narrative paintings of bush football carnivals and community life at Utopia.

In the shade of Utopia’s celebrated abstractionists, the work of figurative artists has often been dismissed as naïve or ‘inauthentic’ fusions of western and Indigenous traditions. Such criticisms are nearsighted, ignoring the fact that figurative elements were present from the genesis of Utopian art, even amidst the artworks of celebrated abstractionists like Emily Kngwarreye and Kathleen Petyarre. The distinction that is commonly assumed between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ works is a peculiarly western one. In part, this is because western aesthetics does not have the same sense of the inherent sanctity of decoration that is present in Indigenous culture (that is, the power of abstract designs to convey secret or sacred meanings). For Indigenous artists, traditional designs are rarely non-objective in the way that is implied by the categorisation of ‘abstract art’. Historically, when Indigenous art-styles have become more abstract, it has been through either a desire to hide or obscure secret/sacred content, or in an effort to tailor the work to suit market trends. If we move beyond this dichotomy of abstract and figurative, we can begin to see the figurative tradition at Utopia as offering its own peculiar insights into the development of art at Utopia. This neglected movement offers a unique insight into both traditional and contemporary existence at Utopia, while revealing its own internal processes of artistic innovation and development.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 91 x 121 cm.

For most of her life, Petyarre has lived on remote outstations, where the production of art is a ubiquitous part of the daily routine. Petyarre, however, remained in the background, producing occasional works, but never really stepping out of the shadow cast by her celebrated elders. This would change rapidly in 2005, when she began working with the art-advisor Marc Gooch. Starting primarily as a carver, Petyarre produced one of the most innovative bodies of carvings to ever emerge from Utopia.

Using wild colours and unexpected forms, she produced works that reflected her life and personality. According to Marc Gooch, “Each one was like a self-portrait, revealing her spontaneity and individuality.”[3] Petyarre’s first body of sculptures contained all the conventional motifs of Utopian carving – there were extraordinary figures in ceremonial dress, feathered birds, and a colourful array of dogs, echidnas and camels. But alongside this wild menagerie, a different picture of life at Utopia began to emerge, as Petyarre produced a series of more contemporary objects including a bright pink Toyota and a meticulously detailed police van.

Soon, Petyarre’s husband Dinni Kunoth Kemarre also began producing sculptures. Together, the pair would ‘head out bush’ with their axes to find the soft-wooded Bean Trees (Erythrina vespertilio). Sometimes these trips would require 100 kilometre long drives to find appropriate trees. After felling the tree, they would bring the trunk back to their camp, where they would carve it using tomahawks, files, sandpaper and a large rasp. Together, the pair would produce 16 football players (one for each team in the Australia Football League) which would be make up the exhibition Centre Bounce held at the AFL Hall of Fame in Melbourne between March-July 2007.

The opening of Centre Bounce afforded Josie and Dinni the opportunity to visit Melbourne. It was an eye-opening event for the pair, never having travelled before to such a metropolis. While older artists often view cities with an unflustered nonchalance, Josie and Dinni were captivated. The scale, the lights, the country and the fauna (including Melbourne’s ubiquitous possums) inspired a new body of works that perfectly captured the meeting of these two very different worldviews.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Melbourne Story 2007, 153 x 122, acrylic on canvas.

Returning to Utopia, Petyarre unexpectedly embarked on a series of paintings that sought to synthesise all of the complex experiences of their visit to Melbourne. They produced several extraordinary large-scale canvases that assimilate the cityscape of Melbourne into a Central Desert sense of geography. These maps of the city incorporate Melbourne landmarks – the MCG, St Kilda beach and pier, Luna Park, the Royal Exhibition Building, Fitzroy Gardens, Swanston Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and Federation Square – into an Anmatyerre spatial logic. In a fascinating and vivid meeting of two visual experiences, the paintings present an engrossing, enlivening picture of the urban landscape as seen from a radically different cultural background.

What was most notable about these paintings, was that for Petyarre, urban and remote were placed in an even and connected system of exchange – in a very similar way to which sites of significance are connected in Tingari paintings. This equality of exchange was made brilliantly explicit in a spectacular diorama that Josie and Dinni created for the inaugural Basil Sellers Art Prize held at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University in 2008. In this installation, scenes of professional and community football were literally placed side by side as part of a co-joined narrative. The cultural diaspora of football was no longer framed as one-directional, but working along a songline mentality in which all action and places are connected. By this relational logic, travel and movement unites significant places – the MCG becoming just one stop on a football songline that unites Utopia with the capital cities of Melbourne or Perth.

A similar episteme can be seen the series of ‘bush football’ paintings which Petyarre commenced around the same time. Structurally, these works bear a striking visual affinity to the classic ‘circle and grid’ paintings of first generation Papunya Tula artists like Old Walter Tjanpitjinpa or Anatjari No.III Tjakamarra. In the archetypal Tingari painting, a central circular motif is used to represent a significant gathering place, ceremonial ground or waterhole, from which travel lines radiate outwards to other points of connected significance. Just as the circle provides both the visual and narrative focal point in these Tingari paintings, in Josie’s bush football scenes the centre point is provided by the oval football field. From this point in the painting, action radiates outwards in a series of dramas that are both connected and independent of the central event. As Nick Tapper has observed:

In these football paintings, the central motif of the oval as a capacious elliptical space organises two different types of action: the regulated play on the field, and the carnival atmosphere off it. The representation of football becomes not just about the players’ participation, but about the overall participatory spirit enjoyed by sportspeople and spectators alike.[4]

The result is a vivid tableau of all-over action. Although it acts as pivot to this action, the football match itself is not exclusively preferenced, and in some works is completely overwhelmed by the scale of events going on around it. In this way, the whole world is absorbed and united within this immutable and adaptive cosmology of the Dreaming.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Bush Football Carnival 2010, acrylic on canvas, 151 x 151 cm.

How then, might we extend this logic to a reading of Josie Kunoth Petyarre’s most recent paintings of ‘Sugarbags’, which explode across the canvas like fireworks of brilliant colour? Dr. Diane Mossenson, who has represented and championed Petyarre’s work since 2005, and knows her paintings intimately, has described these paintings as an artistic breakthrough for Petyarre. Mossenson is undoubtedly correct; in these works, there is a clear sense of an artist refreshing herself, finding liberation with a representational form that is both tradition, but open enough to allow for considerable personal expression. Bruce McLean of the Queensland Art Gallery has noted:

Josie and Dinni are true innovators within their tradition, effecting change and integrating it into everyday practice. Tradition and change are intrinsically linked. Change is inevitable in all living cultures, and the form that change takes relies on the vision of the instigator. In the [art] of Josie Kunoth Petyarre and Dinni Kunoth Kemarre we get a sense of past, present and future.[5]

This fusion of innovation and tradition is clearly evident in Josie’s Sugarbag paintings, where the recognisable forms of desert paintings are flung together with a compelling joie de vivre that shows an artist clearly relishing the experimental possibilities of the motif. After several years of mining the world around her for inspiration, the openness of this format is clearly vivifying.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 cm.

However, it would be wrong to overstate the extent that this expressive freedom is derived from the ‘abstract’ nature of the sugar bag motif. In Indigenous Australian parlance, the term ‘sugar bags’ is used to describe the sweet honey made by one of around 14 species of native stingless bees found across Australia. As a visual motif, it is one of the most variable and iconic in Australian Indigenous art. For thousands of years, sugar bags have adorned the faces of rock-art sites in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and the Central Desert. With the dawn of the Indigenous art movement, the sugar bag emerged as an emblem of seemingly endless iconic possibility. In the paintings of artists as diverse as Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek, Jack Britten, Barney Ellaga, Jimmy Wululu and Lucy Ward, it has provided both a source of sweet inspiration and potent formal potential.

In most instances, the sugar bag is a symbol of tripartite significance. On the one hand it refers directly to the bush honey collected from the hollows of trees or crevices of rock shelters. On a more abstract level, the sugar bag usually refers to a particular Dreaming associated with a specific place. Lastly, the painting of sugar bags is often used to assert a totemic or ancestral connection to that particular place. In this sense, therefore, it is a visual metaphor of physical, personal and spiritual dimensions. According to Petyarre, these paintings contain ‘all the sweetness of the bush’ – not just the sugar bags themselves, but also the colourful bush grevillea and corkwood flowers that produce the honey, the changing colours of the season, and the travel of the bees across the landscape. In Petyarre’s case, this is landscape of her father’s Alhalkere country of Utopia in the eastern desert, to which the sugar bag Dreaming is associated.

In Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings we can see an artist using a stored cache of visual ideas – circles, dots, dashes – and twisting them in order to find new ways to depict the overlap of country and culture; to represent the shifting metaphors of the physical, geographical and spiritual. What could be waterholes or sandhills, winding rivers or desert blooms all come together in a personal experiment in colour and form. This is not a form of experimentation structured along modernist lines of non-objectivity, but rather, one structured around a particularly Anmatyerre reasoning, in which the sugar bag as bush tucker is as much a lived reality as the ancestral connections that it connotes in both the spiritual and everyday environment. If we see Josie Kunoth Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings, not as a break from her figurative works, but as a parallel articulation of the same episteme, we can begin to see them as two different, but complimentary articulations of a world is absorbed and united within the immutable cosmology of the Dreaming. The alchemy of Petyarre’s innovation is her ability to continually find new ways to express this ancient cosmology.

[1] W.E.H. Stanner, “The Dreaming,” (1958) reprinted in The Dreaming and Other Essays (Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2009), 58.

[2] Annemarie Brody, A Picture Story: 88 Silk Batiks from the Holmes à Court Collection (Perth: Heytesbury Holdings, 1990)

[3] Marc Gooch, personal correspondence with author, 2010.

[4] Nick Tapper, “Bush Football: The Kunoth Family,” exhibition room brochure, Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne, 18 August-5 September 2009.

[5] Bruce McLean, “Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and Josie Kunoth Petyarre,” in Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award, exhib. cat., Queensland Art Gallery, 11 July-12 October 2008.

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Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi

The following essay was written to accompany Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi: The First Solo Exhibition held at Mossenson Galleries, Perth, November 10 till December 5, 2009. The exhibition was presented in conjunction with Tjarlirli Art (Tjukurla, Western Australia).

Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi, Walatu, 2009, acrylic on canvas.

In a haze of incandescent orange and green, a series of concentric squares pulsate with the searing heat of the Western Desert. The colours meld and overlap, creating a transparency of paint that flutters across the ground of the painting. These are the designs of the Tingari ceremony – secret men’s business that takes place near the remote community of Tjukurla on the edge of Lake Hopkins. Each square is roughly painted, revealing the artist’s hand as it moves with a gestural intensity across the canvas, giving them a pulsating irregularity. These works sing of the majesty of the Western desert with a tongue rough-hewn by the shifting sands.

Bob Gibson Tjungarrayi was born at Papunya in 1974, before moving with his family to Tjukurla during the time of the homelands movement. The son of renowned artist Mary Gibson, Bob paints his ancestral stories with a raw intensity. His palette of wild hues reveals an unrestrained joy for experimentation, tempered with nostalgia as he recalls his father’s country around Patjarr and his mother’s country of Kulkuta.

Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi, Walatu, 2009, acrylic on canvas.

In Bob Gibson’s paintings, the raw, physical experience of country is transmuted into paint. Underpinning this representation is the attendant spiritual and cultural knowledge that informs the Anangu view of the landscape. Gibson’s works are not simply unmediated depictions of country, but integrated and resolved extensions of cultural knowledge. His works are filled with uncanny, indefinable artistic allusions – whether the rigid Tingari of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, the dense over-painting of Lorna Fencer Napurrula or the fiery brushwork of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula. Each is transformed into Gibson’s personal style. The artist’s hand becomes an expression of the cultural continuum, picking up on a wealth of knowledge and influence, and using it to create something entirely new.

The Dreamings that underpin Gibson’s ancestral country are brought forward via his unique painterly style. This double-take between the familiar and the idiosyncratic is the central tension that drives the work. This distinction between the shared/communal cultural experience and the highly personalised artistic vision – between the iconic and the aesthetic – creates a visual metaphor for the difference between ‘seeing’ the country and ‘knowing’ the country. This latter form of viewing is not the unmediated sight of the tourist or visitor, but rather, the informed understanding of an initiated viewer. It sees beyond the physical manifestations of the landscape, focusing instead on the underlying spiritual dimension. This is why, under Gibson’s hand, the Dreaming sites at Lake Hopkins can be portrayed in such a myriad of ways, each revealing a different aspect of this sacred geography.

Bob Gibson Tjungurrayi, Walatu, 2009, acrylic on canvas.

For the Western viewer this is a highly challenging visual problem. After four decades of the Aboriginal art movement, there has developed a familiarity with the classic iconographies of desert painting, along with its predominant artistic styles. Some may even consider themselves ‘connoisseurs’ of Aboriginal art, able to rattle off the names of collectible artists from every corner of the country. And yet, what is this but the superficial frosting of a market driven appetite? Perhaps all we can see are brush-strokes on the canvas, the expressions of a profound knowledge of which we will never truly comprehend. The secrets of the Tingari remain hidden.

In the work of Bob Gibson we find an invitation. Gibson’s paintings are all about inter-relation; of colour and form, of tension, reaction and interplay; the challenge of raw brushstrokes against flat planes of colour. They are a celebration of individual expression within the cultural continuum. In doing so, they ask us to question the nature the aesthetic, the very ways in which ancient iconographies can be remodeled and innovated, and show us how one artist can create a unique artistic statement, while remaining true to their ancient cultural knowledge.

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Peter Newry: History Paintings

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Peter Newry: History Paintings at Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne from April 7 till May 2, 2010.

Peter Newry, Laargen, 2009

A series of meandering lines roll across the canvas. Each one wavers delicately, but determinedly, as it breaks through rich veins of fulvous ochre. This is Laargen, located deep within the Keep River National Park, where during the wet season, dozens of small creeks unite to become a gushing torrent of water that breathes life into the desert landscape. It is the ancestral country of the Miriwoong, and in Peter Newry’s painting, it is depicted with a majestic solemnity. Newry’s hand is one of dignified restraint; his marks dance on the canvas like an arcane calligraphy, each line a Zen-like meditation on time and space.

In Hitsuzendo, the Zen art of calligraphy, a single line can evoke an entire world of meaning. The aim is to reach Samaai: the unification of the individual with the highest reality. In the act of calligraphy, Zen masters focus intensely to become one with the meaning of the characters that they depict. In the paintings of Peter Newry, a similar focus can be found. The landscape pours from his brush in simple lines that cut across broad swathes of ochre, invoking both the spiritual essence and material presence of place.

As Darren Jorgensen has noted, Newry is one of the Kimberley’s most restrained minimalists, taking the already austere planar style of East Kimberley painting – popularised by artists like Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford – and reducing it to an enigmatic sparsity. In western art and literature – from Sidney Nolan to Patrick White – the desert’s broad spaces induced fear as identity was dissolved amidst the oppressive infinity of the wilderness. For Newry, however, it is from these seemingly empty spaces that identity is revealed. Through his simple lines, the form of the landscape is evoked in absence. Landmarks are not so much depicted, as alluded to; space is evoked along cragged ridges, whose jutting edges speak of a long life in the Kimberley.


Peter Newry, Ngirnginy, 2009


Peter Newry was born around 1939 at Newry Station in the East Kimberley, where he lived for the next fifty years. According to Newry, he “grew up on the back of a horse.” A skilled stockman, he worked on the station until the 1970s, after which he was employed in numerous hard labours, including picking cotton and working as a builder’s labourer during the construction of the township of Kununurra. Although an important cultural man of the Miriwoong, Newry approaches this role with a dignified humility, reticent to reveal too much of his knowledge to outsiders. The spiritual content of his work and the sacred places it depicts, is often left understated or unexplained in Newry’s paintings.

Nevertheless, it was the very task of recording his sacred geography that inspired Newry to commence painting in 2002. Newry was persuaded to commence painting by the late, great Gadjerriwoong artist Paddy Carlton (c.1926-2006), who extolled the importance of Newry recording his knowledge of his traditional country. Charged with this weighty task, Newry’s early works were frenetic cartographic exercises, as he attempted to depict vast areas of country in great detail. More recently, however, Newry has restricted himself to a smaller number of specific locations – those places with a profound personal resonance. These works are not so much about mapping, as becoming one with the country through painting. Newry is no longer attempting to produce encyclopaedic maps of Miriwoong country, but rather, trying to achieve a unity that embodies the landscape, becoming more realistic by its ability to transcend representation to embody the very essence of the landscape.

Newry describes these paintings as “history paintings.” For Newry, ‘history’ is a term filled with gravity; his use of it reflects the weight and seriousness with which he views his art practice. The history to which it refers is that of his Miriwoong country: the true stories of how places were made. In ascribing them the gravity of ‘history’, Newry confirms his paintings as stories told the ‘right way’, as they were passed down by his ancestors. And yet, this is not history painting in the western sense, for unlike his academic predecessors, the ‘history’ of Newry’s paintings is not something limited to the past, but rather, is continually unfolding. Unlike the paintings of David or Vernet, the history embedded in Newry’s paintings is not depicted, but revealed via the residual ancestral presence that sanctifies the landscape and connects it to the sacred Ngarrangarni or Dreaming.

Peter Newry, Laargen, 2010

According to Cathy Cummins, Manager of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, “Peter Newry’s paintings invite us to acknowledge a level of understanding that is poetic, intelligent and deeply connected. At a time when Indigenous art teeters on the balance of what it has achieved and what more is possible Peter Newry stands up and reminds us that the land is poetry, it is history, it is the story of a culture whose truths are increasingly vulnerable.” In Newry’s paintings, we find a Zen-like unity with the landscape whose power derives from its temporal and spatial connection with Ngarrangarni. As he works to pass this knowledge onto his children, grandchildren and relatives at Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Newry creates his own history, moving East Kimberley painting to profound new boundaries.

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Loongkoonan and Lucy Ward: Ngarranggarni Mananambarra

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Loongkoonan and Lucy Ward: Ngarranggarni Mananambarra at Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne, March 23 – April 23, 2006.

Loongkoonan, Bush Tucker in Nyikina Country, acrylic on canvas, 2006

When I was young I footwalked all over Nyikina country. Footwalking is the proper (only) way to learn about country and remember it. I paint Nyikina country the same way that eagles see country when they are high up in the sky.


I remember when I first saw the paintings of Loongkoonan. It was December 2004, and although aged in her 90s, Loongkoonan had only recently commenced painting. Sparse and raw, with ragged and scratchy brushstrokes jutting awkwardly across the canvas, her paintings betrayed little of the refinement and elegance that would soon emerge in her art. And yet, exhibited as a body of 26 small canvases in the exhibition River Stories,[1] they evinced a palpable sense of experimentation. Each canvas revealed an artist eagerly trialling a range of iconographies and styles in order to depict her beloved Nyikina country. Within the blank expanse of the canvas, Loongkoonan was exploring the sacred places that defined her and her people. By depicting them on canvas, she was at once revisiting these places and at the same time entering new territory. In these crudely painted canvases, the artist was setting to work on an epistemic project that would mature into a uniquely Nyikina representation of place. As the first Nyikina artist to undertake such a project, they represented a profoundly significant and unmediated ‘first sight’.[2]

Installation image showing Loongkoonan: River Stories, Mossenson Galleries, Cartlon, 2005

If this first exhibition signaled the commencement of such a project, the past twelve months have seen Loongkoonan refine it into a singular vision that balances grace and delicacy with an unmistakable emotive urgency. Far from the sparse roughness of her early paintings, Loongkoonan’s new works are gentler, softer – yet at the same time much more busy. Covered in overlapping dots, they shimmer with a delicate melding of colour and form that is reminiscent of early post-Impressionism. Beyond a purely painterly or aesthetic refinement, however, this development is indicative of an intense distillation of the culturally specific visual language that Loongkoonan was searching for in her earliest works. In order to grasp the significance of such a development, it is necessary to understand the social and cultural circumstances that define and bound the art and life of Loongkoonan and her painting partner Lucy Ward.

Although they belong to different language groups, the experiences that shaped Loongkoonan (born circa 1910) and Lucy Ward (born circa 1920) have considerable parallels. Both artists were born on the burgeoning cattle stations of the Kimberley. As young women, they worked on these stations, cooking, riding horses and mustering sheep and cattle. Like many Indigenous pastoral workers, they looked forward to the arrival of the Wet Season when they would footwalk their clan estates collecting bush tucker, medicine and spinifex wax. These experiences were formative for both artists and instilled in them a respect for the traditional systems of culture and learning that had guided their people for millennia. This knowledge is encapsulated in the concepts of Ngarranggarni and Mananambarra referred to in the current exhibition’s title.

In his book Mates: Images and Stories from the Kimberley, the anthropologist and sociologist Kevin Shaw describes the Mananambarra[3] as the senior custodians of Indigenous Law. Their lives and world-view, he argues, are shaped by their adherence to the fundamental and mystical truths of the Ngarranggarni. Usually equated with the concept of the Dreaming, Ngarranggarni is an all-encompassing term that refers to creation, history and traditional law of the Indigenous people of the Kimberley.[4] According to Shaw, the Mananambarra are “barometers of community spirit, respect for individuality, creativity and passion for environment and justice”. Their principle value system, derived from the Ngarranggarni is based on a complex agglomeration of knowledge and learning acquired through persistence and hard work. These values are clearly reflected in the dedication with which Lucy Ward and Loongkoonan have thrown themselves into painting. Both artists choose to paint almost every day, and the focus and energy of these women is testament to the incredible work ethic of the Mananambarra, which rejects idleness and sloth. In a more profound sense, however, this dedication reveals a desire to record their stories as part of the duty of Mananambarra to preserve this knowledge for future generations.

Loongkoonan, Bush Tucker in Nyikina Country, acrylic on canvas, 2006

It is this desire to document and preserve the knowledge of the Ngarranggarni that has propelled the visual program within Loongkoonan’s painting. This can be seen in the subtle shift in Loongkoonan’s work between specificity and totality. Take for instance, the distillation of themes that has occurred in her work since River Stories. Of the 26 paintings included in River Stories, most works depicted specific places within Nyikina country. In both their titles and imagery, the paintings referred to clearly identifiable locales, such as Mount Anderson (Jarlmadanka), Udialla and Liveringa Hill. In contrast, most of Loongkoonan’s new works bear the seemingly generic title of Bush Tucker. Far from being generic, however, these works perform a complex double-take between specificity and totality. Whereas the early works were sparse in their composition and generally referred only to a single geographical locale, Loongkoonan’s new works are packed with detail. Snakes, rivers, bush plums, coolamons, mountains, floodwaters, dancing grounds and springs all jostle for position in these loaded canvases, as though Loongkoonan is trying to literally enact Emily Kngwarreye’s metaphysical claim to paint the ‘whole lot’.

That said, in a more figurative or allegorical sense, these works are complex mappings of substantial cultural knowledge. This is clearly evident in the proud and central discursive position that Loongkoonan places on knowledge of bush skills.

In my time there was plenty of tucker in the bush. My mother and the old girls who grew me up taught me how to find sugarbag (bush honey) in trees and in the ground. They showed me how to make limirri (processed spinifex wax). Limirri from Nyikina country is Number One.

Beyond a simple botanical reference, ‘bush tucker’ acts as a metonym for the accumulated knowledge of the Mananambarra. Just as Loongkoonan laments the declining availability of ‘tucker in the bush’ – undoubtedly due to the ecological degradation caused by the pastoral industry – ‘bush tucker’ serves as a referent for a different time, when the hierarchies of knowledge and learning were respected. In many ways, this nostalgia lends the works a sense of solemnity and loss. And yet, this sorrowful tenor rarely impedes the sense of pride and joie de vivre that dominates Loongkoonan’s paintings. As much as these works lament the decline of the cultural values upheld by the Mananambarra, they are also defiant statements of the continuation of Indigenous culture, offering a vision of hope that this cultural knowledge can be saved and passed on to future generations.

Lucy Ward, Wandjina, acrylic on canvas, 2006

This optimism is, in part, due to the temporal resilience of the Ngarranggarni, the way in which it resists being defined purely in terms of the past but is instead involved in a constant back-and-forth dialogue between past, present and future. This is clearly evidenced in the paintings of Lucy Ward. As a Ngarinyin woman, painting plays a central role in the remembering process that connects Ward to her country and culture. For thousands of years, the Ngarinyin have used the painting of Wandjina spirits to forge a direct connection to the Dreaming. During the Dreaming, Wandjina controlled the elements and were instrumental in shaping the landscape and law. The Wandjina left their images on the cave walls in order to watch over the land and the Ngarinyin people. By repainting the Wandjina, the Ngarinyin create a direct and unbroken link to the Dreamtime. It is with immense fondness that Ward recalls watching her father and grandfather paint these spirit figures on the cave walls, and it is with great reverence that she continues this tradition on canvas.

Like Loongkoonan, Ward also paints ‘bush tucker’. Ward’s bush tucker, however, is generally restricted to the painting of ‘sugarbags’ or bush honey pods. These ‘sugarbags’ are Ward’s personal totem and connect her to the country of her birth. “I was born in Ngarangarri country,” she declares. “Ngarangarri is the honey dream; ngara minbinya, honey is good tucker.” Ward’s sugarbags are depicted as an array of brightly coloured dots, often organised into irregularly shaped squares. As a simultaneous symbol of the physical, spatial and the personal, these seemingly abstract shapes create a complex metaphor for identity and country. They become part of a sacred and personal geography that Marcia Langton has termed ‘placedness’ or “site-markers of the remembering process and of identity itself.”[5] This ‘placedness’ transcends Western notions of temporality. For Ward, the past is not, as L.P. Hartley famously suggested, ‘a foreign country’, but rather a familiar (and specific) country that situates and unites all moments in time.

Lucy Ward, Wandjina and Sugarbag, acrylic on canvas, 2006

As it is the act of painting that constitutes this ‘remembering process’, placedness preferences the process of painting over the final product. Each mark on the canvas becomes like a fingerprint, betraying the trace of its creator’s application. Both visually and semiotically, this trace becomes a potent metaphor for the shuttling between time and space that underlies these paintings. Just as this shuttling allows Loongkoonan to balance nostalgia with hope, so it also allows Ward to balance an idiosyncratic playfulness with the profound pathos that emerges from her heartfelt respect for the traditions and rituals of her people. Simultaneously innovative and traditional, these works inhabit a temporality that is neither past, present, nor future, but is rather part of the sacred link that connects Loongkoonan and Lucy Ward to the timeless and sacred Ngarranggarni.

[1] Omborrin and Loongkoonan: River Stories, Indigenart, The Mossenson Galleries, Carlton, Victoria, 23 February-23 March 2005.

[2] Prior to Loongkoonan, the only noted Nyikina artist was Butcher Joe Nangan. Born around 1902, Nangan established a reputation for his skilful engravings on boab nuts and pearlshell, before turning his talents to producing delicate and detailed figurative images of flora, fauna, along with scenes of ceremonial, historical and mythological significance. Whilst Nangan’s works reveal an immense cultural knowledge, they remained rooted in the Western figurative style and therefore signify a markedly different visual and epistemological project than that of Loongkoonan. See Kim Ackerman, ‘Butcher Joe Nangan’ in Sylvia Kleinhart and Margo Neale, The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000.

[3] The plural form of the singular Manambarra.

[4] Kevin Shaw, Mates: Images and Stories from the Kimberley, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2004.

[5] Marcia Langton, ‘Sacred Geography: Western Desert traditions of landscape art’, Hetti Perkins and Hannah Fink (eds.), Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, exhib. cat., Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 2000, p. 267 and Marcia Langton, ‘Dreaming Art’ in Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Complex Entanglements: Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference, Rivers Oram Press, London,
2003, 42-56.

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Shane Pickett: Kaanarn

Kaanarn: ‘There is Truth in the Landscape’

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Shane Picket: Kaanarn at Mossenson Galleries in Perth from February 17 till March 11, 2006.

Shane Pickett, Guardians of the Good Energy Spirit, 2006

For three decades, Shane Pickett has defined himself as a painter of the landscape. “There is truth in the landscape,” he declares. “It is from the landscape that all our culture and beliefs come.” In recent years, this project has seen Pickett move from the delicate figurative landscapes of his youth, into large-scale abstract paintings of the type that have culminated in his current exhibition Kaanarn. The title of Pickett’s exhibition draws on the Nyoongar word meaning ‘true.’ Consistent with his statements, Pickett cites this move into abstraction as being part of his progress towards uncovering the illusive ‘truth’ in the landscape.

In the works I have made and the life I have lived I have been very much honest to nature. Nature is honest and I try to bring that out. My career has been a journey, expanding in scope; as I have grown in maturity, my work has become less like a photograph and has tried to explore the deeper meaning of the landscape.

I would like to begin this catalogue essay by asking the meaning of this transformation in Pickett’s work. In the history of Western art, the movement from figuration to abstraction has been a common one for many artists. Amongst Indigenous artists, however, it is a decidedly less common phenomenon. This question takes on an added pertinence when one considers Pickett singular role in inaugurating a revitalised tradition of Nyoongar abstraction as seen in the recent works of emerging artists like Troy Bennell and Ben Pushman.[1] In order to answer this question, I would first like to return to the unlikely time and place of France in 1905.

Considering Pickett’s invocation of the ‘truth’ in nature, it is difficult not to recall Cezanne’s famous letters to Emile Bernard. In a letter dated 23 October 1905, Cezanne wrote to Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” In the letters that followed, Cezanne argued that in order to achieve ‘truth in painting’ it was necessary for the painter to absorb him or herself in the study of nature, and to “forget everything that has gone before us.” Truth in painting could not be achieved through imitation, but rather by learning to create paintings that worked like nature.

Through this distinction, Cezanne was attempting to establish a viable relationship between imitation and abstraction – between the desublimated, haptic act of being ‘in nature’ and the sublimated, mediated and perspectival act of painting. Sadly, Cezanne would die in 1906 without ever really reconciling this space between vision and representation, and the negotiation of this space would remain one of modernism’s defining problems.Whilst this may seem a digression, it is my belief that Pickett’s work presents a profound and critical response to the epistemic space created by this question – a question that might be seen to propel the course of Western modernism and its colonising claims toward universalism. In order to explore this connection, it is necessary to return to the very beginning of Pickett’s artistic journey where we might find the seeds of Kaanarn.

Shane Pickett was born in 1957 in the wheat-belt town of Quairading, east of Perth. From an early age, he was encouraged and inspired by artistic family members. By his late teens he was exhibiting regularly in a landscape style that was easily reconcilable with the Carrolup tradition of Parnell Dempster, Revel Cooper and Reynold Hart. And yet, despite his familial and cultural connections to this tradition, Pickett’s works were quite markedly different to those of his Carrolup predecessors. Unlike his cousin and contemporary Lance Chadd/Tjyllyungoo, Pickett did not appear to adopt the theatrical schemata that distinguished landscape painting of the South West. His approach to the landscape was considerably more lyrical and textured – characteristics that have led Brenda L. Croft to rightly suggest a closer affinity to the works of Albert Namatjira.

This comparison is illuminating. Like his cousin Tjyllyungoo and his elder brother Byron, Shane Pickett began painting in the 1970s at a time when young Indigenous Australians were finding a new faith in their Aboriginal voice. Whilst Shane’s work was never as politically explicit as that of his elder brother, its political dimension should not be dismissed. As Brian Fitzpatrick has noted, Shane has always exhibited “a quiet form of social activism.” The desire for recognition and respect of Nyoongar cultural values is a regular refrain of Pickett’s artist statements and interviews.

Shane Pickett, Bunuroo Heat Wave, 2006

If artists like Bryron represented a very visual and politically explicit side of urban Indigeneity, Tjyllyungoo and Shane Pickett were more concerned with the spiritual and metaphysical side of Nyoongar culture. Their political defiance lay less in activism than in the reclaiming and preserving the long held spirituality of their Nyoongar people. One of Pickett’s earliest works in the Art Gallery of Western Australia quite literally encapsulates this spiritual dimension. Entitled Waagle – Rainbow Serpent 1983, the work presents a fantasy-style representation of the Rainbow Serpent in the act of creating the Nyoongar people.

It is in this context that the attraction and influence of Namatjira must be understood. For although Namatjira’s landscapes were depicted in the realist Western mode of watercolour painting, by the late 1970s the hidden cultural depths of these paintings were beginning to be recognised. In the subtle differences between Namatjira’s paintings and those of his tutor Rex Battarbee, critics began to see a critical space in which Namatjira used mimicry to present a concealed Indigenous view of the landscape. Through this tactic, Ian Burn and Ann Stephen argued that Namatjira created a ‘double vision’ that articulated “a crisis of authority” in which the hierarchy of Western vision was disrupted. In Namatjira’s art, they declared, “for the first time, the landscape looks back at us: it meets and deliberately crosses the viewer’s gaze of possession.”[2]

For an advocate of ‘quiet social activism’, this strategy must have seemed an ideal way of slyly reempowering Nyoongar cultural values. Certainly it offered a culturally specific way of exploring and representing the ‘deeper meaning’ of the landscape. And yet, by his abandonment of figurative landscape, we might presume that this was a tactic whose usefulness Pickett soon exhausted. A clue to his reasoning can be found in Pickett’s comments regarding one of his first tentative explorations into abstraction.

In 1988, Shane Pickett was commissioned to produce an image for the Fifth Marcel Grossman conference at the University of Western Australia. Whilst the choice of the art of a young Nyoongar artist to represent a conference of international physicists might have seemed incongruous, Pickett took the conference’s theme ‘Views of the Universe’ as an invitation to explore the possible intersections between his Nyoongar spirituality and the conference’s focus on universal phenomena. Entitled Supernova, the painting Pickett produced combined dappled areas of texture with brilliant bursts of colour in a symbolic depiction of an exploding star. Speaking on the work, Pickett commented:

I see the supernova as a natural force that is the source of all energy and all life. Some people might call it ‘God’ but I see it as a spiritual creator with no name.We try to tie everything down with a title, but when we do most people mistake the title for reality.[3]

Whilst Pickett’s comments rearticulated the metaphysical and spiritual concerns of his earlier works, they also signify one of his earliest articulations of a suspicion of the space between nature and representation – precisely that space that preoccupied Cezanne. That this acknowledgement of this space occurs with his first moves away from figuration provides a telling insight into the motives behind Pickett’s move from figuration into abstraction and reveals the conceptual limits that Pickett found in the strategy of mimicry adopted from Namatjira.

The strategy of mimicry is a typically postcolonial strategy of resistance. And yet, as a strategy it is forged with difficulties. The most central of these is that it necessitates difference and therefore repeats the very structures of otherness that it attempts to subvert. In an incisive article on the problems of postcolonialism, Rasheed Arareen notes that in this situation, cultural difference is not situated as a site of continuity, but rather as a sign to maintain difference.[4] Namatjira’s work then, gets caught in an inescapable circularity in which it can only be defined by its similarity and difference to the dominant cultural paradigms. Namatjira’s art can only be critical in so much as it assimilates Western art, but at the same time it can only be critical in so much as it is incomplete in this assimilation. In a passage that helps shed considerable light on Pickett’s move away from the allegorical landscape style of Namatjira, Rex Butler comments:

If in one way the first [desublimated, tactile, preceding vision] precedes the second [sublimated, panoramic, perspectival], in another way it can only be perceived within it, it is only a retrospective effect of it … it is lost in being found, and thus found in being lost. It is not a blindness opposed to sight, but a blindness within sight or a blindness that allows sight … The problem set by the painting , therefore, is … how do we pass from a seeing without reading (that first, haptic experience of the landscape, that of the explorer making his way through it) to a reading without seeing (that second, exclusively visual experience of the landscape, that of the art historian)?[5]

It is precisely this difficulty that we can see in Pickett’s frustration at the ontological space between nature and representation articulated in his comments about Supernova. When I pressed Pickett on the meaning of these comments, the artist provided a fascinating and thoroughly unpredictable response. “Naming’, he declared, ‘has done a lot of damage to Indigenous families. It has caused a lot of struggle hurt and hate.” Pickett’s direct association of this passage between nature and representation as being inherently colonial provides a direct answer to Butler’s question of how one passes between this space. As Butler continues, the problem is the missing ahistorical kernel that propels the whole system – that allows this system of Western vision to take place in the first place. For Pickett the answer is stunningly obvious. This whole process, from Cezanne to Namatjira and beyond, is propelled by modernity and its attendant bugbears of imperialism, capitalism and colonialism.

It is this system that Pickett seeks to evade in his transition to abstraction. Signalling a move away from the ‘photographic’ (synecdoche) to the ‘deeper meaning’ (totalised), Pickett attempts to entirely evade the paradigm of modernism by entering an entirely different temporal zone. Pickett achieves this through the metaphysical nexus of the ‘Dreaming.’ In a symbolic rejection of the notion of modernism’s progress, Pickett adopts the supposed peak of modernism’s progress (abstraction) while at the same time using this abstraction to refer to an older origin (that of pre-colonial Nyoongar culture). In entering into the secret and sacred cosmology of the Dreaming, Pickett distances himself from the problematic space between seeing and reading, and instead places the emphasis on a hierarchical system of information and learning. In a gesture that completely confuses Western teleology, Pickett creates a new tradition from these origins, while at the same time abandoning another tradition (that of the Carrolup painters.)

Shane Pickett, Campfires of our Yesterday’s People, 2006

This temporal zone of the Dreaming is however, intrinsically linked to the world of the present. As David Abram has noted, the Dreaming “was never wholly cut off from the sensuous world of the living present. They were not projected entirely outside of the experienced world, but were felt as the mystery and hidden depth of the sensuous world itself.”[6] It is this secret ‘truth’ that Pickett uncovers in the landscape and it is this truth to which Pickett refers in two of his most majestic works included in Kaanarn. In the paintings Campfires of our Yesterday’s People at Closing Day and its companion piece Embers of the Dreaming during Wanyarang, Pickett allows the glimpse of fire on the horizon. “In the Dreamtime’, he tells us, ‘the properties of fire were stored in a number of places: the Balga and Banksia bushes, harder timbers such as Jarrah and Redgum, and the flints of certain rocks.” Pickett has defined his aims as a painter as being the ‘rekindling of cultural strength’ amongst young Nyoongar people. In this context, the metaphor of the balga and the banksia bushes is a powerful one, for it reveals the emergent possibilities of the Dreamtime. This fire is always within the Dreaming, ready to rekindle and renew to those who know where to look.

[1] It is a remarkable fact that in 2003 when the Art Gallery of Western Australia surveyed Western Australian Indigenous art from the South West for their landmark exhibition South West Central, there was an almost complete absence of abstract painting. Pickett was included with eight works spanning his career, of which only one – the monumental triptych Traditional Story 2001 could be considered truly abstract.

[2] Ian Burn and Ann Stephen,“Albert Namatjira:The White Mask”, in Rex Butler (ed.), Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2005, p.231.

[3] Shane Pickett quoted in Alex Harris, ‘This artist brushes up on science’, The West Australian, 18 June 1988.

[4] Rasheed Arareen, ‘Come What May: Beyond the Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Complex Entanglements, Artspace, Woolloomooloo, p.138.

[5] Rex Butler, A Secret History of Australian Art, Craftsman House, 2002, p.116.

[6] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, New York, 1996, p.220.

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Patrick Kunoth Pwerle

The following is an extended version of a catalogue essay published in Nicole Foreshore and Brian Parkes, (eds.), Menagerie: Contemporary Indigenous Sculpture, Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design, Strawberry Hills, New South Wales, 2009, pp.80-83.

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle, Thipe (Yellow Bird) 2008

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle was born in 1981 at Artekerre in the remote eastern desert region of Utopia. Since commencing his art practice in 2007, Kunoth Pwerle’s oeuvre has been singularly devoted to the subject of birds. A wild aviary has sprung from his artistic imagination. Whether eagle, owl, emu or hawk, each is created unique, coloured with its own eccentric disposition. But beyond revelling in natural variety, Patrick Kunoth Pwerle’s dedication to avian form reveals an intuitively modernist project of repetition and refinement in which the artist explores the reductive potential of both the sculptural medium and his favoured motif.

Kunoth Pwerle is not the first sculptor to become obsessed with the figure of the bird. Almost a century earlier, the image of the bird in flight launched Constantin Brâncuşi on a forty-year journey of artistic refinement. Brâncuşi saw his art practice as an evolutionary search for pure form, never abandoning the natural world, but reducing it to its most basic elements in order to lay bare the underlying nature of the image. Comparing the sculptures of Brâncuşi and Kunoth Pwerle, the attraction of the streamlined avian form becomes readily apparent. For both artists, it is a form that is easily suggested using only a small number of oblique visual cues (the curve of the body for instance, or the point of the beak).


Constantin Brâncuşi, Bird in Space 1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Over his short career, Kunoth Pwerle has developed a skilful sculptural shorthand for depicting birds, which often relies on no more than a few brief incisions to indicate wings, tails or beaks. Unlike Brâncuşi, who saw the reductive process as a means of capturing the essence of the image, in Kunoth Pwerle’s work this process is used in deference to the unaltered natural medium. Carved from the soft wood of the bean tree (erythrina vespertilio), it is the medium (rather than the image) that dictates form, allowing the natural object to express itself in a totemic intensity. Not only does this enable Kunoth Pwerle to exploit a boundless, naturally occurring variety of forms; more importantly, it offers a distinctly Indigenous metaphor for the connectedness of all things. The figure and the form are united, not in opposition, but in a holistic union, with obvious parallels to the poetic mythos of the Dreaming. The birds are literally returned to the branches as the figure returns to the form; the object to the subject; the aesthetic to the natural order; and so on. Kunoth Pwerle’s project takes on an evolutionary aesthetic logic that provides a striking metaphor for the intersection of modern art and Indigenous cosmology; something that we might begin to see as a uniquely Indigenous modernism.

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle began making art in 2007 under the influence and encouragement of his parents Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and Josie Kunoth Petyarre. Since 2005, Josie and Dinni have spearheaded a revival in the Utopian sculptural tradition that first emerged in the late 1980s under the stewardship of art co-ordinator Rodney Gooch. Since 2007, Dinni and Josie have risen to prominence as consummate observers and compulsive chroniclers. In their art, the minutiae of everyday life becomes a worthy subject for artistic exaltation, demonstrating an artistic vision unencumbered by restrictive binary notions of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary.’ Art has always been a part of the Indigenous cultural backdrop, connecting Indigenous people to the world around them and the immutable Dreaming. The art of Dinni and Josie showed just how adaptive this cosmology could be.

Kunoth Pwerle’s earliest works show a clear debt to his parents’ observational style. And yet, as Kunoth Pwerle gained confidence as an artist, he quickly abandoned their astute attention to detail in favour of a plastic freedom. As his parents’ work became more detailed and naturalistic, Kunoth Pwerle’s sculptures became more abstract, dispensing with all unnecessary representational elements.


Patrick Kunoth Pwerle, Thipe (Red Bird) 2008

Compounding this move towards a sculptural abstraction, Kunoth Pwerle’s works have more recently developed a painterly dimension that further distances any suggestion of naturalism. Drawing upon the broad gestural brushstrokes and overlapping dot-work that has characterised Utopian painting, Kunoth Pwerle’s use of paint often seems less about defining the form, than highlighting its very objecthood. At times, Kunoth Pwerle’s paintwork seems to allude to the ceremonial body painting tradition, further highlighting the totemic nature of the object. At other times it seems to almost camouflage the form, as though the sculptural object was no more than a sounding board for a painterly experiment. And yet, whilst Kunoth Pwerle’s sculptures push referentiality to its very limits, they maintain a confidence in their connectedness to the landscape, defiantly foregrounding the link between his modernist project and his Anmatyerre homelands.

Patrick Kunoth Pwerle was born at the dawn of the Utopia art movement. If artwork has been one of the principle fields upon which Indigenous Australians have engaged with the wider world – through which they have bridged the tribal and the modern and showed their traditions to be both contemporary and relevant – then Patrick Kunoth Pwerle has grown up at the frontier of this exquisite intersection of Indigenous cosmology and modernity. His work offers us a way to look beyond these rigid binary positions and see the very possibilities of a Utopian modernism.

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Drawing NOW: Jus’ Drawn’

The following article was written as an exhibition preview of Jus’ Drawn by proppaNOW at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. It was published in Art Guide Australia, September/October 2010, pp.34-35. The exhibition ran from Saturday, 7 August 2010 – Sunday, 12 September 2010.

Tony Albert, Bullet, 2010


A single black bullet is drawn starkly upon a plain white ground. It doesn’t look much like Aboriginal art; there are no dots or cross-hatching, nor any esoteric reference to an arcane Dreaming. It is just a simple, solemn image. It is a drawing by Tony Albert, one of the youngest members of the Brisbane-based Indigenous collective proppaNOW, included in the group’s first Victorian exhibition, Jus’ Drawn, on display at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art. In the extended text panel that accompanies the work we are told that it refers to the artist’s grandfather, Edward Albert, who like many men of his generation, served in the Australian army during the Second World War. The text makes little overt reference to race; it is only in its final paragraphs that we are told that Edward belonged to the Kuku-Yalanji, Yidinji and Girramay language groups. Despite his distinguished service on the battlefields of Europe, as a result of his heritage he received none of the benefits afforded to other returning servicemen. In this tragic denouement, race becomes the sombre, inescapable reality that lurks disquietly within the silent image on the gallery wall.

Jus’ Drawn is the first exhibition in which the diverse group of artists that make up proppaNOW have worked across a single medium. It offers a unique opportunity to assess the marked continuity of their artistic concerns. At the centre of these is a desire to challenge the notion that ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art comes from remote regions or is concerned with the continuity of pre-colonial traditions and forms. For Albert, this distinction between urban/contemporary and remote/traditional is facile: “All Aboriginal art is urban,” he muses. ‘None of it is produced by artists living within a purely traditional setting. It’s all contemporary art.”[1] Fellow artist Richard Bell is less diplomatic, labeling remote Indigenous art as ‘Ooga Booga Art’, and arguing that it is based upon a false notion of tradition that casts Indigenous people as the exotic other. According to Bell, ‘Ooga Booga Art’ is a product of the white, primitivist gaze – an argument summed up in his much quoted “Bell’s Theorem: Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing.”[2]

For the artists of proppaNOW, it is their art that represents the real, ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art – one that speaks of the everyday realities of Indigenous experience while critiquing the ways in which Indigenous identity has been shaped by colonial vision. This theme runs throughout Jus’ Drawn in works such as Bianca Beetson’s text drawings, which opine, “SORRY for not being white enough. SORRY for calling myself ‘blak’” or those of Andrea Fisher, in which brown paper bags are delicately refigured as “everyday dilly-bags.”


Andrea Disher, Kurloo (From the Dilly Bag Series), 2010


And yet, the implication of Bell’s critique goes one step further suggesting an Indigenous complicity in the creation of a subjugated identity. In Bell’s own work, identity is forged from a mad jumble of appropriated signifiers, from sources as disparate as Roy Lichtenstein and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The implication is that identity is created at the intersection of historically shifting subject positions. This destablises any claim to an ‘authentic’ Identity position of any kind, and problematises the entire paradigm of ‘Aboriginal’ art. What is the point of being the most ‘authentic’ Aboriginal art, if the very category is inalienably ‘A White Thing’ which facilitates its own othering?  As Stephanie Radok has speculated, “surely as long as we call it Aboriginal art we are defining it ethnically and foregrounding its connection to a particular culture, separating it from other art and seeing it as a gift, a ‘present’ from another ethnography.”[3] Whichever way the dichotomy is presented – between urban and remote, traditional and contemporary, proppaNOW and Ooga Booga Art – at the core is an essentialised notion of Aboriginal identity that is clearly unsettled by artworks whose raison d’etre is to explore the endless variety of experiences that inform contemporary Indigenous existence.


Vernon Ah Kee, Unwritten, 2010


According to Tony Albert, “The most important thing is how you choose to be labelled.”[4] And yet, as the story of his grandfather reveals, this is a freedom that has long been denied to Indigenous people. Indeed, Albert has literally enacted this classificatory violence, defacing pop-cultural images of Indigenous people with racist labels like ‘Coon’, ‘Abo’ and ‘Halfcaste.’ If, as Bell’s work suggests, identity construction is a continuing act of negotiation, the art of proppaNOW is about taking control of this constructive process. This is, perhaps, most poetically articulated in the drawings of Vernon Ah Kee. Since 2004, Ah Kee’s art practice has been dominated by a series of large-scale portraits of his family members. The source material for his first portraits came from archival photographs of his grandparents, in exile on Palm Island in the 1930s. According to Ah Kee, the photographs were taken by the administrators of the Aboriginal penal settlement as “a scientific record of the dying species of subhumans … this exotic ‘other’ that had been set aside.”[5] In enlarging these images to an imposing scale, Ah Kee returns power to their gaze. As their faces shimmer into being amidst an urgent flurry of pencil lines, they do not evoke an elegiac longing, but rather, a profound moment of presence – the immediacy of a unique, individual identity slowly taking shape from the haze. In this coming into being, we get a glimpse of the subtle but immense shift between the old paradigm of Aboriginal art, and a new understanding of contemporary art, produced by singular Aboriginal artists.


[1] Tony Albert, phone interview, July 30, 2010.

[2] See for instance Archie Moore, “‘Black Eye = Black Viewpoint: A Conversation with proppaNOW,”’Machine, 1:4: (2006): 4.

[3] Stephanie Radok, “The ethnographic present: Aboriginal art today – the gift that keeps on giving,” Artlink 29:1 (2009).

[4] Tony Albert, phone interview, July 30, 2010.

[5] Vernon Ah Kee, quoted in Message Stick: Born in this Skin, ABC1, first broadcast Sunday 13 December 2009.

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Kirrily Hammond: Swoon

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Kirrily Hammond: Swoon, Chapman & Bailey Gallery, 350 Johnston Street, Abbotsford, Victoria, 22 September – 10 October 2009.

Kirrily Hammond, Flight JQ3, 2009, oil on linen, 30 x 30 cm.

It is a crisp summer evening in Alpine Victoria. Across the vista, the dusk clouds roll in, changing the light from a gentle mauve into a rich dark blue. Soon nightfall will turn the clouds into a shapeless darkness upon the horizon, but for now each one is trimmed with a brilliant glow, as though they have been delicately edged by a heavenly seamstress. For one passing moment the world is still.

As I recall this scene, I am immediately struck by the dull inadequacy of language to describe such majesty. How could any representation, be it literary or painterly, capture the profound, haptic experience of being in nature? How could a painting evoke the encompassing awe that causes one to swoon in the face of the sublime?

Over the past fifteen years, Kirrily Hammond has explored many different landscapes in her paintings, prints and drawings. Her early works reveled in a fantasy world of the imagination, in which anamorphic trees jostled with ethereal spirits and circus ghouls. More recently, however, she has found her inspiration in the real world, taking the landscapes of Gippsland, Mount Buller and Japan as her subject. In doing so, she has pushed away from the enclosed, personal world of the subconscious, towards a much more universal experience. For as much as we have shared dreams and fantasies, the surrealist vision is a highly personalised one. In her most recent landscapes, Hammond has gravitated towards intentionally unspecific or generic settings. Her paintings, she stresses, “are not about the landscape” and she intentionally seeks scenes that are geographically unrecognisable. In Hammond’s paintings, the landscape is clouded with the hazy light of dusk or dawn, and seems to exist as little more than a prop for her experiments in light and texture. As such, they take on the uncanny possibility that they could be anywhere. Although impossible to pin down their precise location, each one has a striking sense of familiarity, as though it is a place that one has visited in the distant past.

Concurrent with this thematic development, Hammond has settled into a small format that perfectly suits her cause. Each work exists as an exquisitely sealed hermetic portal onto a distant, but disquietingly familiar world. Looking at her paintings of clouds, such as Flight JQ3 2009, it is impossible not to be reminded of the tiny cabin windows of commercial airliners, while in her Gippsland Twilight series, the format evokes the view from a speeding car window, or perhaps that of a blurry Polaroid snap-shot.

Kirrily Hammond, Gippsland Twilight XXX, 2009, oil on linen, 30 x 30 cm.

In these paintings, Hammond is asking how we frame the sublime. Not simply how we represent the majesty of nature, but also how we recall it, how we package it, and how we consume it. More pertinently, they question how we overlook this majesty in our everyday lives. In the safe, comfortable space of the aeroplane or automobile, how often do we fail to notice the sublime as we speed on by? Margaret Morse has termed this the ‘precondition of distraction.’ The car interior becomes a de-realised ‘non-space’ in which the traveller is insulated from the outside world, achieving what Morse calls a ‘mobile privatisation’ that displaces us from our surroundings.[1] A similar sense of ‘distraction’ might be conjured by the image of the tourist, unable to quantify any experiences not captured through the prism of their camera.

This is the challenge set by Hammond’s paintings, prints and drawings. For they are not about replicating the sublime, or even using paint to imitate nature in order to create a virtual swoon. Rather, Hammond’s vision is driven by a much more profound romanticism. As her paintings have become less reliant upon fantasy, they have insistently drawn attention to the beauty inherent in the world around us. Rather than being portals to an imaginary world, they point to a world just outside our windows; rather than a mystery beyond reality, these works point to the mystery within reality. It is this sentiment that causes one’s heart to swoon before Hammond’s paintings. As Sasha Grishin notes, “In Hammond’s depiction of the sublime, we do not experience the quality of terror and awe, but a sense of glowing inner radiance.”[2] This is not the classical sense of the sublime, for there is no fear in this world. The mystery of Hammond’s work comes from seeing the familiar anew; realising beauty where before there was only the ordinary; finding majesty in the mundane; grandeur in the generic; the sublime in our everyday lives. Hammond challenges us to be constantly aware of the wonder and beauty that surrounds us, and that through this mystery we might learn to swoon again.

[1] Morse, Margaret, “An ontology of everyday distraction: The freeway, the mall and television,” in Patricia Mellancamp (ed.), Logics of television: Essays in cultural criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990): 193-221.

[2] Sasha Grishin, “Formidable artist shows strength,” Canberra Times, Wednesday November 12, 2008

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Experimental gentlemen: Making the past present in the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Collection

The following is an extended version of an essay published in University of Melbourne Collections, no.10, June 2012, pp.15-23

Installation image of Experimental Gentlemen, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 19 March – 25 September 2011. Photo by Viki Petherbridge.

There are both duties and obligations upon those of a civilized people who, for their own or their country’s advantage, enter a strange and almost empty land … Once a man is housed against weather, has food in the larder and can keep in touch with his neighbours, he has won to a position where he can begin to study his surroundings and satisfy the inborn curiosity that is the prime cause of man’s accumulated knowledge. The thoughtful man in a new country like this then, becomes aware of his obligations to his successors … No country has been so violently disturbed in its age old rest, and consequently in no country does the responsibility of preserving a knowledge of the past rest quite so heavily upon its people.

Sir Russell Grimwade[i]

Obligation is a common theme in the writings of Sir Russell Grimwade. It gained particular force in his later years, when the question of his own mortality caused him to linger upon the many privileges his life had accorded him. It is a central theme of the above-quoted preface, penned in 1954 to celebrate the centenary of the National Museum of Victoria, and it is equally evident in a lengthy, heartfelt letter of two years earlier, in which he declared his intention to bequeath his estate to the University of Melbourne:

I have been one of the privileged and fortunate ones who has had a long and happy life. The fact that we have not been blessed with children makes such a scheme possible, and it is an endeavour to express my gratitude to the country that has done me so well and made me so happy. I believe firmly in the principle succinctly expressed by Noblesse oblige.[ii]

The Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest was an extraordinarily munificent gesture, establishing the Miegunyah Press and bequeathing a trove of Australian artworks, rare books and archival materials to the university collections. From William Strutt’s painted masterpiece Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852[iii] down to personal correspondence with premiers and prime ministers, items from the Grimwade bequest count amongst some of the most prized of the university’s treasures. The generosity of this gift should not be measured in purely financial terms, but as the embodiment of an obligation that Grimwade held dear: his noble and civilised duty to preserve and record Australia’s history for future generations.

William Strutt, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 1887, oil on canvas, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0038

This duty was, in part, motivated by Grimwade’s affinity for a version of Australian nationalism to which he felt a close familial link. This nationalism was not founded on images of swagmen, bushrangers and larrikins, but was a genteel brand that celebrated the pioneering efforts of explorers, pastoralists and industrialists: men like James Cook, John Macarthur and Grimwade’s own father, the industrialist Frederick Sheppard Grimwade. These interests are clearly reflected in the material that Grimwade collected, reaching its zenith in 1934, when he arranged for the purchase of ‘Captain Cook’s Cottage’ and its transportation from Great Ayton, North Yorkshire, to the Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne.[iv]

We might today consider this to be an eccentric gesture, just as we might see Grimwade’s version of Australian identity as quaintly antiquated (or even chauvinistically anachronistic). Contemporary Australian history has been opened to many competing voices. It no longer offers a single, unified view of the past, but a multiplicity that recognises that our vision of the past is shaped by, and contributes to, our understanding of the present. Politically conservative, Russell Grimwade would most likely have bristled at such a postmodern conception of history, yet it is a current that I believe he intuitively understood. For if, in one way, the transportation of Cook’s Cottage embodied a very traditional view of history (the literal reconstruction of the past), in another way, it revealed a much more radical ‘faith in the imaginative work that can be performed with the raw materials of history’.[v] In the transplanted stones and mortar of Cook’s Cottage, Grimwade was attempting to bring the force of the past into present view, and in doing so, create a space through which the national narrative could be shaped. Likewise, by donating his collections of Australiana to the University of Melbourne, he hoped that future generations would continue to engage with this task. In an era in which the narratives of Australian nationalism are more often hijacked by the odious parochialism of Hansonism, the Cronulla riots, and racially motivated violence, the obligation upon thoughtful men and women to reconstruct the past in order to understand the present has never been more urgent.

From July 2010 to June 2011, I was the direct beneficiary of Sir Russell Grimwade’s desire for such engagement. Under the auspices of the Grimwade Internship at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, I had the opportunity to research the Grimwade collections and curate the exhibition Experimental gentlemen (Ian Potter Museum of Art, 19 March to 25 September 2011). In doing so, I hoped to use the boundaries of Sir Russell Grimwade’s collection, with all its pointed omissions and exclusions, not as a limitation to the stories that could be told, but rather as an epistemological opportunity. If Griwmade’s collecting passions revealed his explicit desire to reinterpret the present through the past (and vice versa), Experimental gentlemen drew attention to the ways in which our own vision is equally preconditioned. Most importantly, the exhibition contended that history is not disconnected from the present, finished and done with, conforming to Erwin Panofsky’s conception of the modern historical consciousness as ‘a phenomenon complete in itself and historically detached from the contemporary world’.[vi] Rather, as I believe Grimwade recognised, Experimental gentlemen posited that the past retains an inescapable imaginative pull on the present, a lingering force that shapes how we see the world. As William Faulkner famously opined, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’[vii]

Installation image of Experimental Gentlemen, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 19 March – 25 September 2011. Photo by Viki Petherbridge.

Through the use of exhibition design, text panels, and listening stations featuring contemporary music and interviews with songwriters including Don Walker (Cold Chisel), Kev Carmody, Gareth Liddiard (The Drones) and Mick Thomas (Weddings, Parties, Anything), Experimental gentlemen attempted to present the past as a continual process of discovery. The exhibition’s title was derived from the name given by ordinary seamen to scientists and intellectuals like Joseph Banks, T.H. Huxley and Charles Darwin, who accompanied explorers like Cook on their great sea voyages. The title also provided a useful metaphor to connect Grimwade to this colonial heritage. With varied interests that extended to astronomy, botany, photography, automobiles, history and environmentalism, Grimwade was very much a modern experimental gentleman. The exhibition included objects such as a beautiful timber cabinet made by Grimwade to house his collection of eucalypt specimens,[viii] along with his 1920 publication An anthography of the eucalypts, for which he provided both the text and the artistically arranged photographs.[ix]

Not only did this serve to connect Grimwade to his revered explorers, it also helped position the exhibition as an unfurling succession of encounters, continuing into the modern era. Rex Butler has argued that the discovery narrative—the act of literally seeing a place for the first time—is constantly replayed in Australian art and art history.[x] Reading Butler’s observation against the grain, Experimental gentlemen aimed to use this repetition to create the contemporary anew in each historical instance. Rather than seeing the past as a series of compartmentalised, completed events, Experimental gentlemen recast it as a succession of unfolding presents, coalescing from the colonial period into the contemporary moment. Entering the exhibition, the viewer was immediately thrown into the first-person role of the explorer, confronted with a text panel that offered the following spatial and temporal challenge:

Stepping ashore, the moist sand gives way gently underfoot, embracing the soles of your shoes. After nearly a year on ship, it is like a giddy caress to your weary sea legs. The shore is golden, reflecting the bright autumnal light with the sizzling clarity of finely wrought crystal. It catches your eye and you are briefly stunned. It is as though you have passed into a brand new world, a world of untamed novelty where every plant and animal seems to astonish and confound. Everything is different here. You have stepped into the antipodes, where the natural order is reversed and nothing is as it seems.

One of the first works encountered upon entering the exhibition was a singular treasure from the Grimwade collection: Alexander Shaw’s A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook to the southern hemisphere (1787).[xi] This small, leather-bound volume is a compelling relic of Cook’s voyages, a rich reminder of the history of indigenous presence, and a thrilling portent to the stunning designs that would flower into the rich contemporary art movements of today.[xii] If these tiny swatches have the ability (like so much indigenous art) to look both forward and backward, they stand in stark contrast to European representations of the people who created them. Experimental gentlemen contained several depictions of indigenous people encountered during Cook’s voyages, including John Webber’s etchings The fan palm, in the island of Cracatoa[xiii]and Waheiadooa, Chief of Oheitepeha, lying in state,[xiv] as well as Francis Bartolozzi’s A view of the Indians of Terra del Fuego in their hut, which accompanied John Hawkesworth’s 1773 account of Cook’s voyage.[xv]

Installation view of Experimental Gentlemen, showing Francis Bartolozzi’s A view of the Indians of Terra del Fuego in their hut and Alexander Shaw’s A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth … Photo by Viki Petherbridge.

Bartolozzi’s engraving, which was created after a drawing by the fellow Florentine Giovanni Battista Cipriani, is a striking example of the ways in which European vision was altered by convention and imperial desire. James Cook visited Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America, in 1869, less than five months into his first voyage of discovery. On board the Endeavour were two artists, Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson. Unfortunately, Buchan died of a seizure shortly after the expedition left Tierra del Fuego. His few sketches from the voyage were passed onto John Hawkesworth, who had been commissioned by the admiralty to edit Cook’s journals into a publishable form. In Cook’s journal, the captain rather bluntly referred to the natives of Tierra del Fuego as ‘perhaps as miserable a set of People as are this day upon the Earth’.[xvi] Never having been to Tierra del Fuego, and under the spell of a neo-classical fantasy, Hawkesworth transformed Cook’s account into a rhapsodic hymn to the virtues of the Noble Savage.[xvii] So too was the visual representation of the ‘Indians’ of Tierra del Fuego distorted to suit prevailing tastes. Commissioning Cipriani to re-imagine the Fuegians in a neo-classical mode, they are depicted in elegant profile, lounging in restrained contentment, unsullied by the trinkets and excesses of modern concern. This vision is in marked contrast to Buchan’s original watercolour (held in the British Museum), which shows them as a dank, huddled mass of humanity, much closer to his captain’s assessment.

The representation of Cook as the paragon of empire was equally prone to distortion, as revealed in Francis Juke’s large etching A view of Owhhee, one of the Sandwich Islands in the South Seas (1788) after John Cleveley’s Death of Cook (1784). Juke’s etching, which conforms to the written accounts of Cook’s death, shows the captain as a heroic martyr for Pax Britannia. Under siege from warring natives, the hero turns to his men and gestures them to cease fire. In 2004, however, the original Cleveley watercolour was discovered in a private collection in Buckinghamshire. Rather than showing Cook as conciliator, it shows him leading the charge, with the bodies of several Hawaiian warriors strewn at his feet.The distortions of colonial vision were not, however, always a deliberate manipulation. In many instances they were the by-product of artists grappling with the challenges of representing the new world within the visual strictures of old-world convention. This tension famously animates the paintings of John Glover, who wrestled to reconcile the idyllic image of Europe with the wilds of Tasmania. Glover was represented in Experimental gentlemen with a literally transitional work, created in 1831 on the island of Porto Praya, during his voyage from England to Australia. Glover’s delicate watercolour Porto Praya[xviii] was displayed alongside works by his two eldest sons, John Richardson Glover and William Glover. We believe this to be the first time these three artists have been exhibited together since the 19th century.

Installtion view of Experimental Gentlemen showing William Glover, Untitled (Classical landscape with figures and animals crossing a bridge), 1830, oil on canvas, 79.9 x 115.8 cm (sight). Reg. no. 1997.0034, purchased 1997, the Russell and Mab Grimwade Miegunyah Fund, University of Melbourne Art Collection. Photo by Viki Petherbridge.

While John Richardson Glover is relatively well known, William Glover is a much more mysterious figure. The second son of John Glover, William was born in Leicestershire in 1791, less than a year after John’s illegitimate first son John Richardson Glover. In 1827, William purchased 80 acres of land in Van Diemen’s Land, and in 1829 he sailed to Tasmania with his younger brothers Henry and James. William and Henry eventually took up land at Bagdad, north of Hobart, but their partnership was soon dissolved due to a personal disagreement. William had little luck in farming, and filed for bankruptcy in 1842, before moving to Melbourne where he lived out his days as a coachman, dying in 1870.

In Basil Long’s 1924 biography of John Glover, there are several mentions of William Glover’s artistic achievements. He is recorded as a drawing master in Birmingham from 1808, making him a prodigious young talent, and he is noted exhibiting alongside his father and brother at Old Bond Street in 1823 and 1824.[xix] Despite this documentation, the locations of William Glover’s paintings remain largely unknown; the large oil painting in the University of Melbourne Art Collection is one of only two works in Australian public collections, the other being a small watercolour in the National Library of Australia. The untitled landscape in the Grimwade collection, purchased in 1997 with funds from the Miegunyah bequest,[xx] was conserved for Experimental gentlemen, revealing a wealth of detail previously obscured beneath discoloured varnish (illustrated). Amongst the details revealed was a series of pseudo-Egyptian hieroglyphs, carved across the building to the right of the canvas. The presence of these hieroglyphs suggest that the painting depicts the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt, but this reading does not account for the mysterious presence of the other three characters in the painting, including the strange, hermitic John the Baptist-like figure near the centre of the composition.

Shown alongside the works of his father and brother, Glover’s untitled landscape tells a very different story in the development of art in Australia. John Glover holds a canonical position as the first artist to successfully capture the Australian landscape; despite being painted in Australia, William Glover’s landscape shows how persistent the forces that shape our vision can be. This is thrown into stark relief by John Skinner Prout’s Fern tree valley, Van Diemen’s Land.[xxi] One of the most under-appreciated colonial landscape painters, in 1960 Bernard Smith declared Prout to be ‘a prophet of taste in the visual arts’,[xxii] citing him as the first artist to be able to paint the Australian landscape free of the constraints of topographic accuracy. In Fern tree valley (illustrated) we see the veil of European vision slowly crumbling as the artist comes to terms with the expressive potential of the Australian landscape and his place within it.

John Skinner Prout, Fern tree valley, Van Diemen’s Land, c. 1847, watercolour, 74.5 x 55.5 cm (sight). Reg. no. 1993.0024, purchased 1993, the Russell and Mab Grimwade Miegunyah Fund, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

It is hardly coincidental that this marks the precise moment when Aboriginal Australians begin to disappear from the represented landscape. As Australians began to shape their own identity in relation to this place, it became necessary to cast the original owners out of the visual record. Until this point, however, indigenous people are an inescapable presence in the colonial visual record. Drawing on the Grimwade collection, Experimental gentlemen was able to present a remarkably detailed account of the colonial representation of Australia’s indigenous inhabitants, starting with early works such as William Blake’s noble and elegant A family of New South Wales[xxiii] after a sketch by Governor Philip Gidley King, through the mockingly comic Wambela by the convict artist Richard Browne, [xxiv] and culminating in a series of extremely unusual pencil drawings of indigenous people of South Australia. These previously unidentified works[xxv] were discovered to be the preparatory drawings for the lithographic plates included in J.D. Wood’s 1879 book The native tribes of South Australia.[xxvi]Wood’s text, alongside pioneering works by George Taplin, Alfred Howitt and Lorimer Fison, signalled the genesis of Australian anthropology.

Installation image from Experimental Gentlemen showing Unknown artist
after Gottlieb Meissel, A stage with dead body c. 1879 and Samuel Thomas Gill, The Australian sketchbook, 1865. Photo by Viki Petherbridge.

This new interest in the customs and traditions of indigenous Australians was spurred by the emergence of orthogenetic theories of evolution in which Aboriginal culture was seen as an earlier stage in the teleological progress of human civilisation. Aboriginal culture was likened to an archaeological remnant of primeval man. Once contact was made with the more ‘advanced’ cultures, it was inevitable that this ‘primitive’ culture would disappear. Not only did this lead to a sense of urgency on the part of early anthropologists to record and collect ethnographic data for the information it could shed on the development of humanity, but it also inspired artists like George French Angas and S.T. Gill to create detailed visual records of indigenous dress, material objects and cultural practices. Angas and Gill documented these observations respectively in their lavish illustrated books South Australia illustrated (1847) and The Australian sketchbook (1865). Sir Russell Grimwade had an extraordinarily complete collection of colonial Australian illustrated books, including fine copies of both these important volumes.

In contrast to the detailed attention paid to traditional indigenous dress and custom in these volumes, S.T. Gill’s lithograph Native dignity offers a striking counterpoint.[xxvii] It is likely that Gill, like many of his contemporaries, saw indigenous Australians as part of a dying race, but I wonder whether this work was also intended as something of a critical commentary on the adverse impact of the encroachment of modernity upon both indigenous and non-indigenous subjects? Penelope Edmonds has argued that the colonial city was a charged site in which ‘issues of civilisation and savagery; race, gender and miscegenation were played out’.[xxviii] By the 1860s, images of indigenous Australians in the urban setting were increasingly rare, not because indigenous people were not present in Australian cities, but because their presence was a source of great anxiety amongst non-indigenous Australians. Beyond a simple racist stereotype, by picturing such a transgressive image of the urban frontier, Native dignity plays upon the full range of urban anxieties of about the non-indigenous colonial subject. Confronted with the realities of the urban frontier, the non-indigenous subject is forcibly cast into the role of both coloniszer and coloniszed. Although imbued with all the prejudices of its time, the very act of picturing this violence is, in a small way, an act of resistance against the imperialism of silence.

Samuel Thomas (ST) Gill, Native dignity 1866, lithograph, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0648

The propagandistic power of this silence is epitomised by Robert Dale’s impressive Panoramic view of King George’s Sound.[xxix] The panorama, which stretches nearly three metres in length, presents a series of detailed vignettes of the King Ya-nup people in their traditional country near the present site of Albany in Western Australia. In the most striking of these tableaux (illustrated in header), a group of British naval officers are shown returning from a hunting party with a group of King Ya-nup men. The leader of the British party, identified as Dale himself, is depicted shaking hands with one of the King Ya-nup. This scene paints the cross-cultural encounter between the British and the King Ya-nup as one of peaceful co-existence. At a time when British newspapers were filled with reports of violent indigenous insurrections, Dale’s panorama was a prime work of propaganda to entice settlers to the new colony. But the harmony of this scene masked a grim reality. In the booklet that accompanied the panorama, Dale wrote of the violent capture and murder of the indigenous leader Yagan, concluding with an ‘expert’ phrenological reading of the slain warrior’s skull, which Dale had taken back to London where it was displayed as an ‘anthropological curiosity’.

While the violence of this encounter seems at odds with our understanding of the present day, it is perhaps more important to note the tensions, contradictions and ambivalences that are at play in works like Dale’s Panorama shows that the relationships across cultures and between individuals are rarely straightforward. We can see this explicitly in James Taylor’s triptych view of The town of Sydney in New South Wales.[xxx] Despite its topographic style, it also served the propagandistic function of showing Sydney as a safe, industrious town in which the forces of darkness and light were in harmonious balance. Although intended to be a 360-degree view, the panorama runs left to right as an allegorical tale, from civilisation into barbarism. While the panels on the left and right are relatively obvious in their contrast, depicting cultivated Europeans at one end of the spectrum, and ‘primitive’ tribesmen on the other, the middle panel offers a greater conceptual challenge to the artist. In this panel, indigenous figures are shown as a strange hybrid, neither entirely European nor entirely other, dressed in peculiar, neo-classical togas. Terry Smith has described them as the ‘savages transformed’ of a utopian fantasy.[xxxi] Nevertheless, their presence in the middle of Taylor’s clearly ordered hierarchy reveals an inescapable tension between the dialectic of civilisation and barbarism. This tension is only partly resolved by the creation of the Noble Savage of Taylor’s imagination, which undoubtedly looked as implausible to viewers in 1823 as it does today.

Pointing to these ambivalences and uncertainties, where the rigid order of European vision came unstuck when confronted with the new world, is not to suggest that we are smarter, better informed, less racist or less blinkered than our colonial counterparts. Rather, it is to show that every present requires re-evaluation, revision, argument and debate. Questioning the ways in which our predecessors’ vision shaped their world is also to question how we see the world today, how our vision is shaped by the past, and how we wish to shape it for the future. Sir Russell Grimwade’s efforts to preserve the past in order to understand the present challenge us to consider how we wish to shape our own society. In taking up this task, we should not seek to preserve a single, unchanging vision of either the past or present, but one that is ready and open to the questioning of the scholars of tomorrow.

The Russell and Mab Grimwade Collection is held in the Ian Potter Museum of Art ( The Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade Collection of books is in Special Collections at the Baillieu Library ( while archival records are in the University of Melbourne Archives (

[i] Russell Grimwade, ‘Preface’, in R.T.M. Pescott, Collections of a century: The history of the first hundred years of the National Museum of Victoria,Melbourne: National Museum of Victoria, 1954, p. ix.

[ii] Russell Grimwade, quoted in John Poynter, Russell Grimwade, Melbourne University Press at the Miegunyah Press, 1967, p. 306.

[iii]William Strutt, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852, 1887, oil on canvas, 75.7 x 156.6 cm. 1973.0038, Gift of the Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest 1973, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[iv] See Lisa Sullivan (curator), A collection and a cottage: Selected works from the Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest, University of Melbourne (exhibition catalogue), Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2000.

[v] Chris Healy, From the ruins of colonialism: History as social memory,Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 35.

[vi] Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the visual arts, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957, p. 4.

[vii] William Faulkner, Requiem for a nun, New York: Random House, 1951, act 1, scene 3.

[viii] Russell Grimwade, Timber eucalypt specimen cabinet, c. 1919–20, eucalypt with brass handles, 85.0 x 72.3 x 53.0 cm. Reg. no. 1973.0755, Gift of the Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest 1973, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[ix] Russell Grimwade, An anthography of the eucalypts,Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1920. Several copies of the original 1920 edition and one of the second (1930) edition are held in the Grimwade Collection, Special Collections, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.

[x] See Rex Butler, A secret history of Australian art, Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002, and Rex Butler, Radical revisionism, Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2005.

[xi] Alexander Shaw, A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook to the southern hemisphere, London: Printed for Alexander Shaw, Grimwade Collection, Special Collections, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.

[xii] See for instance, Judith Ryan (curator), Wisdom of the mountain: The art of the Omie, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009.

[xiii]John Webber, The fan palm, in the island of Cracatoa, 1788 (published 1809), hand-coloured etching, 44.1 x 32.7 cm (sight). Reg. no. 1973.0525, purchased by the Department of History 1973, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[xiv]John Webber, Waheiadooa, Chief of Oheitepeha, lying in state 1788 (published 1809), hand-coloured etching, 32.6 x 45.0 cm (plate). 1973.0523, Purchased by the Department of History 1973, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[xv] John Hawkesworth, An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of his present majesty, for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, 3 vols, London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1773. Grimwade Collection, Special Collections, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.

[xvi] James Cook, quoted in Bernard Smith, European vision and the South Pacific, London: Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 22.

[xvii] Hawkesworth, An account of the voyages,vol. 2, p. 59.

[xviii]John Glover, Porto Praya, 1831, watercolour (sepia wash) on paper, 3 sheets: 6.1 x 13.0 cm; 6.9 x 11.5 cm; 7.5 x 12.7 cm. Reg. no. 1996.0014.001.003, purchased 1996, the Russell and Mab Grimwade Miegunyah Fund, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[xix] Basil Long, John Glover, London: Walker’s Galleries (Walker’s Quarterly,no. 15, April 1924

[xx]William Glover, Untitled (Classical landscape with figures and animals crossing a bridge), 1830, oil on canvas, 79.9 x 115.8 cm (sight). Reg. no. 1997.0034, purchased 1997, the Russell and Mab Grimwade Miegunyah Fund, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[xxi]John Skinner Prout, Fern tree valley, Van Diemen’s Land, c. 1847, watercolour, 74.5 x 55.5 cm (sight). Reg. no. 1993.0024, purchased 1993, the Russell and Mab Grimwade Miegunyah Fund, University of Melbourne Art Collection

[xxii] Smith, European vision and the South Pacific,p. 228.

[xxiii] William Blake (engraver), Philip Gidley King (artist), A family of New South Wales 1793, engraving from John Hunter, An historical journal of the transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, John Stockdale, London, 1793, Special Collections, Baillieu Library, the University of Melbourne, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973

[xxiv] T. (Richard) Browne, Wambela, 1820, watercolour and gouache, 31.0 x 23.0 cm (sight). Reg. no. 1992.0012, purchased 1992, the Russell and Mab Grimwade Miegunyah Fund, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[xxv]Unknown artist after Gottlieb Meissel artist, A stage with dead body c. 1879, pencil preparatory sketch for the lithograph Stage with dead bodies from JD Woods (ed.), The native tribes of South Australia, ES Wigg and Son, Adelaide, 1879, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973,  1973.0372.  Unknown artist after Bernard Goode photographer,  A camp of Aborigines at Point Macleay c. 1879, pencil preparatory sketch for the lithograph Native encampment from JD Woods (ed.), The native tribes of South Australia, ES Wigg and Son, Adelaide, 1879, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0371

[xxvi] J.D. Woods (ed.), The native tribes of South Australia, Adelaide: E.S. Wigg and Son, 1879.

[xxvii] S.T. Gill, Native dignity, c. 1855, lithograph, 31.4 x 22.5 cm (image). AccessionReg. no. 1973.0648.005, gift of the Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest 1973, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[xxviii] Penelope Edmonds, Urbanizing frontiers: Indigenous peoples and settlers in 19th-century Pacific rim cities. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010, p. 12.

[xxix] Robert Dale (artist), Robert Havell Jnr (engraver and publisher), Panoramic view of King George’s Sound, part of the Colony of Swan River, 1834, steel engraving, aquatint and watercolour, 16.5 x 211.7 cm. 1973.0225, gift of the Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest 1973, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

[xxx]  James Taylor (artist), Robert Havell & son (engravers), The entrance of Port Jackson, and part of the town of Sydney, New South Wales 1823, The Town of Sydney in New South Wales 1823, Part of the harbour of Port Jackson, and the country between Sydney and the Blue Mountains, New South Wales 1823 aquatint, engraving and watercolour, The University of Melbourne Art Collection Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0381–83.

[xxxi] Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian art, vol. 2: The nineteenth century – landscapes, colony and nation,St Leonards, NSW: Craftsman House, 2002, p. 22.

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Choosing Who Will Keep the Stories Strong: The Garrawurra Artists of Milingimbi

Ruth Nalmakarra and Joe Dhamanydji at the opening of Goyurr Manda Dja’nkawu and the Morning Star at Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne, January 2007

The following article appeared in Artlink, Vol 29, no. 3, 2009

In the wake of the Federal Government’s 2007 Emergency Intervention in the Northern Territory, negative portrayals have dominated media coverage of remote Indigenous communities. Reports of violence and substance abuse have been held as symptomatic of the breakdown of Indigenous family structures and the annihilation of Indigenous culture. This narrative has spilt into art criticism, where the works of senior Indigenous men and women are often viewed through the prism of a cultural mausoleum. In a discourse steeped in the melancholy longing for lost authenticity, each mark upon the canvas is framed as the last glimpse of a fading world.

This is the story of group of contemporary Indigenous artists on the small island of Milingimbi, off the coast of central Arnhem Land. It is not a story of cultural annihilation, but rather, one of renewal. It shows the resilience and adaptability traditional Indigenous family systems, and how one community has internally guided transformations in familial and clan relationships in order to meet their changing needs in the modern world.

In early 2006, the renowned Liyagauwumirr painter Mickey Durrng Garrawurra passed away in his home on Milingimbi. For many years, Durrng (1940-2006) and his brother Tony Dhanyala (1935-2004) were the only people authorised to paint the Liyagauwumirr’s most important clan designs: the Djirri-didi painted on the body during the Ngarra cleansing ceremony. There is a refined elegance to these designs: at their simplest they consist of nothing more than a series of austere horizontal bands of yellow, red and white. To the Liyagauwumirr, however, they contain all the mysteries of their ancestral homelands. According to Durrng, “These designs are the power of the land. The sun, the water, creation, for everything.”[1] Rich in ‘inside’ meanings, the full ‘story’ contained within these designs was traditionally known only to initiated Liyagauwumirr men. Before his death, however, Durrng made the seemingly unorthodox decision to pass this knowledge and authority to his sister Ruth Nalmakarra (b.1954) and her family. What followed was a flowering of tradition, as Nalmakarra and her sisters used this broadened authority to instigate a cultural revival that united their community around these ancient designs.

The striking visual power of the Djirri-didi first came to widespread attention in the early 1990s, when Durrng began painting them on bark. His combination of strict geometries and flat-plane fields of colour was in marked contrast to the fluidity and fine cross-hatching for which much Arnhem Land art was admired. As Djon Mundine has noted, Durrng’s work was met with a mixed critical response, with many curators, collectors and critics claiming that his paintings looked “too modern.”[2] In some cases, the crispness and formal order of Durrng’s barks was mistaken as a calculated acquiescence to the aesthetic of late-modernist abstraction. In other instances, it was simply that his cool contemporaneity was out of step with an art market that festishised the primitive.

But Durrng’s primary concern was always tradition and continuity, as opposed to any aspirations towards modernism. Although ‘modern’ in appearance, his designs adhered strictly to those painted on the body during the Ngarra ceremony. Ostensibly a mortuary rite performed to remember the dead and to prepare their spirits for the afterlife, the Ngarra ceremony is also a celebration of regeneration and renewal that recalls the ancestral travels of the Dja’nkawu Sisters. According to legend, during creation time, the two sisters Dhalkuwrrngawy and Barradawy crossed the landscape giving birth to the first people of the Dhuwa moiety. The sisters created the Dhuwa’s clans, languages, names, ceremonies and customs. During the Ngarra ceremony, the Liyagauwumirr paint their bodies and ceremonial objects in the tri-colour of Miku (red), Watharr (white) and Buthjalak (yellow) in recollection of the Dja’nkawu Sisters’ travels. The participants hands are painted white to signify the Sisters’ landing on the mainland at Yalangbara (near Groote Eylandt), while other markings symbolise key moments on their journey, such as sites at Garriyak and Dhambala, where they created sacred waterholes by piercing the ground with their digging sticks.

Lena Walunydjunalil, Djirri-didi, ochre on canvas, 100 x 75 cm, 2006. Private Collection, Melbourne. Courtesy of Milingimbi Art Centre and Mossenson Galleries.

Chris Durkin recalls vividly the first time he met Mickey Durrng. Fresh from a tenure as a field-officer for Papunya Tula Artists, in 2005 Durkin was employed by the Milingimbi Council to re-establish an art centre on the island. As an artist at the end of his life, Durrng was desperate to continue recording his stories and designs. The artist approached the newly appointed arts coordinator saying, “I’m Mickey and I’m a famous artist. I’ve had exhibitions in Paris and London. You’ve got to give me materials to paint.”[3] Through the auspices of the new Milingimbi Art Centre, Durkin began providing the ailing artist with materials so that he could produce what would be his final body of work.

As Durrng’s health deteriorated, Durkin got to know the artist’s extended family. Durrng was one of the last senior men of the great Garrawurra family of ‘seven fathers’. Durrng’s grandfather sired seven sons, of whom Durrng’s father Nupurray Garrawurra was the youngest. An artist in his own right, Nupurray fathered around 10 children of his own, including the artists Margaret Rarru (b.1940), Lena Walunydjanalil (b.1944) and Helen Ganalmirrawuy (b.1955). After the death of his elder brother Madanggala Garrawurra, Nupurray also raised his brother’s children, which included Ruth Nalmakarra.

In the often-patriarchal systems of Indigenous law, Durrng’s decision to pass clan authority to his sister may seem like a drastic measure, indicative of the breakdown of family structures and the lack of male role-models. In reality, the reasons for Durrng’s actions are far more complex. Firstly, by chance, both Madanggala and Nupurray fathered more daughters than sons, meaning that Mickey’s generation was dominated by women. More importantly, however, the decision was based on a considered concern for the survival of these stories. Ruth Nalmakarra explains:

Elders have a responsibility to choose who should take over the leadership to carry on the stories. It happens this way because people are passing every day, every month, every year. In that case, before they pass, they have to call on those people that they can choose to keep the stories strong. They look to people with strong feelings and a strong voice. They appoint them to know and to carry on the story.[4]

The key responsibility for elders such as Durrng is to ensure they select the person best suited to keeping the stories strong. In the case of the Liyagauwumirr, it was not simply that there were no available men, but rather, that Durrng saw Nalmakarra as the best advocate for these stories. In his view, she was the strongest cultural person; more knowledgeable, committed and vocal than her surviving brothers. Moreover, it is important to note, that although these were traditionally ‘men’s’ stories, no cultural knowledge was lost in this transaction. Lindy Allen, Senior Curator of Northern Australian Indigenous Collections at Museum Victoria argues that often senior women’s knowledge of important ceremonial stories is underestimated: “They are not expected to speak about such things, but they often know them.”[5]

In October 2006, after a period of mourning for their brother, Nalmakarra and her sisters began to revive the clan designs that he had entrusted to them. Although many of the women were accomplished weavers, the gender restrictions on their clan designs meant that none had painted before. After tentative beginnings, soon a prolific outpouring of paintings began to emerge. Durkin recalls:

It was unforgettable! They left it for a while after Mickey’s death, but then all of a sudden all these paintings started coming in from everywhere. And they were not ordered or repetitive, but crazy, like they had been hanging out to paint them forever. There were so many amazing designs.[6]

Helen Ganalmirrawuy, Gapu Milminydjarrk ( Waterholes at Garriyak), ochre on bark, 2007, 113 x 63 cm (variable). Private collection Perth. Courtesy of Milingimbi Art Centre and Mossenson Galleries.

John von Sturmer has argued that in Yolngu art, “Every painting carries with it the claim or the assertion: ‘I am entitled to paint this.’”[7] In Durrng’s work, this manifest itself in his commanding understatement; as though his aesthetic restraint alluded to the power withheld from his representations. In the women’s paintings this sense of entitlement was revealed quite differently. Where these works lacked the crisp precision of Durrng’s paintings, they replaced it with a keen sense of excitement, spontaneity and formal inventiveness. Whilst this was undoubtedly due in some part to their lack of training, Durkin argues that it was also indicative of their excitement at their new authority. He notes, “While big law-men often paint in a strict controlled manner, these works are about playing with the designs, having great passion that reflects love, enjoyment and family. The women are embracing the opportunity to own it, to be proud of it.”[8]

This is best illustrated in a comparison between Durrng and his sisters’ depiction of one of the key Liyagauwumirr stories: the Gapu Milminydjarrk or Waterholes at Garriyak. In Durrng’s depiction of the story, the waterholes are always evenly sized and spaced, gaining their charge from the contrast of light and dark colours in a rigid geometric order. In approaching the same design, his sister Lena Walunydjanalil abandons this sense of order, irregularly arranging her waterholes so that they pulsate unevenly across the bark in a movement that comes more from her use of line than from tonal contrast. Margaret Rarru, on the other hand, utilises the irregular shape of the bark as a springboard for her designs, creating a tension between frame and content as her forms appear to push outwards against the border. In 2007, one of Rarru’s works was awarded the bark painting prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Helen Ganalmirrawuy maintains some of Durrng’s geometric order, but has developed a much busier and complex decorative schema that relies heavily on white outlines – a technique rarely seen in her brother’s work. In fact, of the sisters, it is Nalmakarra whose work remains the strictest adherent to tradition. Nalmakarra’s paintings maintain a stately restraint, and in some instances, such as her use of cross-hatching, appear to hark back to even older aesthetic modes. Durkin speculates that this strict adherence is a result of both Nalmakarra’s respect for her brother’s legacy, but also the intense sense of responsibility that she feels for these designs. According to Durkin, “She knows she must be beyond indictment.”[9]

In the variations of the Liyagauwumirr women, we see a cultural and epistemic moment when shifts in family structure result in the rapid influx of new approaches to a traditionally restricted and highly formalised mode of art production. Howard Morphy has noted, that although Indigenous geometric designs appear stable over time, in reality they are “the springboard for creativity and diversity … responsive to the subtleties of aesthetic practice and the parameters of possible variation.”[10] For the non-Indigenous art historian – necessarily ignorant of the restricted ‘inside’ meanings of the Djirri-didi – this presents a singular moment for aesthetic engagement when judgements can be made upon precisely those elements with remain constant and those which are open to experimentation and change. In doing so, it suggests alternative critical methodologies which are responsive to both cultural continuity and aesthetic innovation. Put simply, as Nalmakarra clarifies, “There are different ways of painting and different patterns, but they mean the same thing. We know the stories, so we know which ones to choose.”[11]

If this broadening of cultural authority has created a unique moment for non-Indigenous engagement with Liyagauwumirr design, under Nalmakarra’s stewardship it has also been an important moment for engagement within the community at Milingimbi. With Durrng’s authority, Nalmakarra and her sisters have made their clan designs available to a wide range of Liyagauwumirr artists, including a younger generation of artists such as Susan Yirrawuy (b.1974), Jocelyn Gumirrmirr (b.1974), Angelica Bulurruwuy (b.1986) and Durrng’s son Robert Djawdjawku (b.1971). Not only has this kept the designs strong within the Liyagauwumirr, but it has provided an important economic and cultural outlet at Milingimbi. The biggest problem facing the community at Milingimbi, according to Durkin, is “a lack of meaningful engagement with the Balanda (non-Indigenous) world.”[12] Whilst young people at Milingimbi have strong traditional culture, they struggle to find value for this knowledge in the wider world. Durkin continues, “The only way this can be reconciled is by employing people in culturally relevant ways, such as at the art centre and school.” And this is precisely what Nalmakarra hopes to achieve through painting the Djirri-didi:

We want the children to learn that it is important for their culture, it is important for their art to be alive. That is why we have the art centre: to keep the paintings that the old people passed onto us, to keep them alive so we can pass them on to the next generation.

[1] Mickey Durrng, quoted in Brenda Westley and Steve Westley, ‘Mickey Durrng: Artist of East Arnhem Land’, Aboriginal Art Online, []

[2] Djon Mundine, The Native Born: Objects and Representations from Ramingining, Arnhem Land, exhib. cat., Museum of Contemporary Arts, Sydney, 1996, p105.

[3] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[4] Ruth Nalmakarra, phone interview 29 May 2009.

[5] Lindy Allen, interview, Melbourne Museum, Carlton, Victoria, 11 June 2009.

[6] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[7] John von Sturmer, ‘A Limping World: Works in the Arnott’s Collection – Some Conceptual Underpinnings’, They Are Meditating: Barks from the MCA’s Arnott’s Collection, exhib. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2008, p.50.

[8] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[9] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

[10] Howard Morphy, Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories, University of NSW Press, Sydney 2008, p77.

[11] Ruth Nalmakarra, phone interview 29 May 2009.

[12] Chris Durkin, phone interview 12 June 2009.

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What have I been doing?

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t updated this blog in some time. It isn’t because I haven’t been writing, but quite the reverse. So, what have I been up to?


Well, last week I headed to Buffalo to give a talk at the Albright-Knox Museum, entitled “Ancient Endless Infinity: The Rise of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art.” It was magnificent to visit the Albright-Knox, and take in their extraordinary collection. As it happens many of their “masterpieces” were actually off on tour as part of the show Van Gogh to Rothko: Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery… And while some might have found this disappointing, I found it really great to see such a varied selection of artists who are often underrepresented: Karel Appel, Joaquin Torres-García, Marisol, not to mention all those big Clifford Stills. It really shows the depth of this collection, that even without their “masterworks”, the collection still packed a pretty powerful punch.


Gabriel appreciating Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation Performance 1977-80.

But probably the biggest highlight for me, was to see the installation documenting Mierle Laderman Ukele’s Touch: Sanitation Performance. The work was a central part of Cathleen Chaffee’s really smart temporary exhibition Overtime: The Art of Workwhich also included the quite compelling Harun Farocki video piece Workers Leaving the Factory. Alongside Chaffee’s exhibition was an equally well considered collection show by Holly Hughes titled Eye to Eye: Looking Beyond Likenesswhich adroitly managed to offset 19th century portraiture from the collection with more recent efforts, ranging from a very awkward Warhol portrait of Seymour Knox, through to a profound and understated Felix Gonzalez-Torres paper piece.

So, what did I talk about? Although I’ve lectured a fair bit on Aboriginal art, I’d never given a sweeping introduction like this one before, so it took a little bit of thinking about. I structured the talk into three sections: in the first, I tried to establish some of the key concepts for understanding Aboriginal culture: concepts such as Country, Law, Dreaming and so on. Then, I made my case that, rather than seeming arcane, such concepts gave Aboriginal artists a unique position from which to engage with the contemporary world. In the second section, I attempted to sketch a very brief history of Aboriginal contemporary art, starting with the artists who painted for Baldwin Spencer in 1911, moving through the great Yolngu renaissance led by Wonnggu Mununggurr, then I quickly moved through Papunya Tula, the diaspora of desert painting, the rise of urban artists around Boomali, and the emergence of the East Kimberley school. Finally, I tried to do a quick scan of recent developments, looking first at some of the stars: Paddy Bedford, John Mawurndjul, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Richard Bell, and then some more recent artists carrying the torch: Nyapanyapa Yununpingu, Bob Gibson, and Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula. Forty-five minutes is hardly enough to cover the entire history of Aboriginal art, but it was an interesting exercise, and one that I feel like I will probably spend the next couple of decades refining.

NT1012036 61x55cm

Nyilyari Tjapangati, Untitled 2010, acrylic on linen, 61 x 55 cm.

In terms of writing, I have been pretty busy too. I recently wrote an long-ish essay on the Papunya Tula artist Nyilyari Tjapangati for a solo exhibition of his work in Paris at Stephané Jacob’s Gallerie Arts de Australie. The essay was published in a very lovely publication, richly illustrated with works by Nyilyari as well as some spectacular photographs by Paul Sweeney and Ben Danks. You can download a PDF of the catalogue here, or you can purchase a hard copy here.

I have also recently finished writing a piece for the catalogue of the momentous looking exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia curated by Stephen Gilchrist for the new Harvard Art Museum. The works that Stephen has selected are truly extraordinary: it is a great credit to him that he has been able to secure such amazing loans from Australia’s premier institutions. I can’t wait to see the work assembled in Cambridge in February: and let me tell you, they would have to be pretty remarkable to convince me to go to Massachusetts at that time of year! The essay I wrote for the catalogue is called “A Stitch in Time: How Aboriginal Australian Artists are Reweaving Our World.” It gave me me the opportunity to delve into the work of an artist I have long admired: Regina Pilawuk Wilson. Regina was kind enough to give me an interview for the piece. She is such an impressive woman and she really helped set straight my thoughts.


Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Syaw (Fish Net) 2008, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 198 x 200 cm, National Gallery of Victoria.

One of my favorite lines from the interview, which didn’t quite make it into the essay, was a bit where I asked Regina what she thought non-Aboriginal viewers might get out of looking at her paintings. She laughed this big, hearty laugh and said: “I have no idea what whitefellas can get. But my way—the story—it’s there, from a hundred thousand years ago.” Well then, I pressed, what would you like them to think. To which she replied: “I would like them to think that, you know, Aboriginal people living out in the bush are doing this painting and are proud. I’m really proud that my paintings are in America. It’s a long road from home.”

Writing the Harvard piece was really useful for me. For the past six months or so, my head had been in the question of abstraction, mostly due to my working on the exhibition No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting. But with this piece, I wanted to leave that aside and return to the essential elements of world-making, connectivity and contemporaneity that I see as the more pressing and fundamental questions in relation to Aboriginal contemporary art. Paradoxically, the exercise gave me a new appreciation for the profound differences between contemporary Aboriginal and EuroAmerican abstraction, so I am currently working on a piece entitled “The Living and the Dead: Aboriginal Contemporary Art and Zombie Formalism.”


Bob Gibson, Warlurtu 2014, acrylic on-Canvas 100x121cm.

I’ve also written a few recent things for Art Guide Australia. The first is an “Art Radar”: a pretty general wrap up of the state of the industry that I actually wrote shortly after returning from Australia in September 2014 but which just took a bit of time to make it to press. A few people picked me up on my suggestion that figurative elements are making a comeback in contemporary Aboriginal painting. Broadly speaking, I think this claim is correct, but it might take a bit of time to establish whether or not it is enough to constitute a “trend.” So, at this point it remains something of a speculation. But once you think about it, you start to see a lot more footprints, animal tracks, snakes, spears, woomera and shields turning up in recent paintings than we have seen in many years. But even more notable, I think, is the resurgence of the classic track-and-circle iconography. Johnny Yungut is a prominent example, but he is not alone. Scanning the website of Papunya Tula, you can see a plethora of magnificent recent examples of the style by Willy Tjungarrayi, Hillary Tjapangati, Morris Gibson, Yakari Napaltjarri and so on. I think this is mirrored in other communities, particularly in the NPY lands (think of people like Jimmy and Maringka Baker) but also in the work of artists like Peter Mungkari and Alec Baker.


Morris Gibson, Untitled 2013, acrylic on linen, 107 x 91 cm.

The other thing I wrote recently was a short preview of the exhibition Earth and Sky on display at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. I must admit, it was strongly influenced by reading Will Stubbs punchy essay in the exhibition’s catalogue. Will’s take-no-prisoner’s style of writing is quite infectious… I am not entirely sure why I started moving into boxing metaphors at the end, but I think I will just blame Will!  I have also written a short piece for a forthcoming show at JGM Gallery in London, to accompany their May exhibition Transformations: Aboriginal Art TodayFinally, the other thing I have been doing is slowly adding bits and pieces to my page. So, if you are really interested, you can find a selection of more recent writings there too!

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Letter from Pittsburgh: Aboriginal art in America

The following review appeared in Art Guide Australia, January/February 2013, 68-72.

Installation image from Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.

Installation image from Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.

In his recent compendium, How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art, Ian McLean observes that the rise to prominence of Aboriginal art in the 1980s was due, in no small part, to timing. Buoyed by the radical ideas that percolated in the 1960s and 70s, a younger generation of artists and critics sought out more performative and visceral modes of art production, to which Aboriginal art seemed a perfect fit. At the same time, these formally brilliant canvases (with their uncanny visual affinity to late modernist abstraction) also appeased the desires of nostalgic modernists, hoping that these desert prophets could reinvigorate the formalist tradition. McLean is rightly dismissive of this latter tendency: “Whatever cheer modernists may have got from Papunya Tula painting, its artworld ascendency was only possible because of the perceived exhaustion of modernism. Whatever its transcendental beauty, Papunya Tula painting did not rescue modernism, but discovered a way for painting to continue after it.”[i]

I write this from Pittsburgh, the once famed industrial centre in the rust-belt of the north-east United States. It is a city that has played its own small part in the development of contemporary art: it is the birthplace of Andy Warhol and the Carnegie International, which since 1896 has been one of the world’s longest running contemporary art exhibitions. It is also a city in which the realities of the end of modernity and Euro-American industrial dominance are unmistakably evident. In the ruins of a once thriving steel industry, it is a city that has been reborn in the model of 21st century globalism; its economy structured around universities, medical technologies and IT companies like Google whose worker-friendly offices inhabit a former factory on the city’s revitalised east end.

Abie, Loy Kamerre, Bush Hen Dreaming, Sandhill Country, 2004, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 71 5/8 x 71 5/8 in, Seattle Art Museum, Promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

Abie, Loy Kamerre, Bush Hen Dreaming, Sandhill Country, 2004, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 71 5/8 x 71 5/8 in, Seattle Art Museum, Promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

2012 has been a pretty big year for Aboriginal art in America; it would be an overstatement to suggest that it stormed the citadels of contemporary art in the USA, but two major exhibitions on opposite sides of the country asserted the global significance of the Australian Indigenous art movement. On the west coast, Ancestral Modern at the Seattle Art Museum (May 31-September 2) exhibited the promised bequest of collectors Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, while in New Hampshire, Crossing Cultures at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College presented the equally beneficent gift of collectors Will Owen and Harvey Wagner (September 15, 2012 – March 10, 2013).

Both exhibitions presented a radiant picture of the strength and diversity of contemporary Indigenous art practice in Australia, with their differences resting mostly in the peculiar strengths of the collectors’ respective visions.  For Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, the collection was the result of a premeditated desire to create a “museum-quality collection.”[ii] As a result, Ancestral Modern was dominated by large, abstract works, highlights of which included a spectacular canvas by Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, a commanding collaborative painting by the Spinifex Mens Collaborative, and a judicious selection of elegant works from Utopia in the Eastern Desert; a potent reminder of the formidable power of these artists before many fizzled into a repetitive artistic paralysis. And yet, it would be wrong to characterise Ancestral Modern as only presenting the abstract, modernist-eque tendencies of contemporary Aboriginal art; the exhibition was punctuated with wonderfully surprising figurative works by Alan Griffiths, Jarinyanu David Downs and Stewart Hoosan, all of which helped present a vibrant picture of contemporary artistic practice in remote Australia.

Installation image of Crossing Cultures at the Toledo Museum of Art, showing Patrick Tjungarrayi’s Illyatjara 2001 (left) and Naata Nungurrayi’s Marapinti 2005 (right).

Installation image of Crossing Cultures at the Toledo Museum of Art, showing Patrick Tjungarrayi’s Illyatjara 2001 (left) and Naata Nungurrayi’s Marapinti 2005 (right).

In contrast to Ancestral Modern, most of the works in Crossing Cultures were domestic in scale, reflecting the more modest aspirations with which Will Owen and Harvey Wagner assembled their collection. Nevertheless, their collection has grown to be almost encyclopaedic in scope, and despite their modest size, works like Patrick Tjungarrayi’s Illyatjara 2001 (121 x 91 cm) or Naata Nungurrayi’s Marapinti 2005 (121 x 91 cm) are expansive in their aesthetic achievements, proving that quality always trumps scale. But the real strength of both exhibitions lies in the extraordinarily coherent visions brought to their collections by these very different collectors. In both exhibitions, the tastes, aspirations and passions of the collectors was readily apparent, allowing the sensitive curating of Pamela McClusky and Stephen Gilchrist to tease out rich parallels within both collections. Both exhibitions were accompanied with substantive catalogues (for the sake of disclosure I should note that I provided one of the ten catalogue essays for Crossing Cultures) and a rich program of talks and symposia, which brought together leading thinkers in the field from Australia and abroad.

At both these symposia, the overriding question seemed to be how to capitalize upon the success of these shows: how to stake Aboriginal art a central position in the global narrative of contemporary art. Those who gathered took for granted that the art of Aboriginal Australia is some of the most serious and important work being produced in the world today. The difficulty, it would seem, was communicating this to the rest of the world. When reflecting on these two shows, and their reception in the USA, I am inclined to return to McLean’s analysis, to wonder whether the battle for the critical soul of Aboriginal art has been adequately resolved. For instance, in one of the more lengthy critical reviews of Crossing Cultures, art critic Kyle Chayka begins with the question “Is Aboriginal Abstraction Modernist?”[iii] While Chayka’s review is thoughtful and perceptive, there is a staggering Eurocentrism in the insistent tendency to frame Aboriginal art in these modernist terms. In the 1980s, Aboriginal art was discussed critically in terms of postmodernism, conceptualism, performance and land-art. Thirty years later, we seem stuck ad-nauseum on the fabled tale of when Rover Thomas thought a Mark Rothko looked vaguely like his, or how much Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work looks a bit like a Jackson Pollock. These are specious formal comparisons that neuter Aboriginal art into an outdated visual regime.

No. 2 Whale Fish Vomiting Jonah

Jarinyanu David Downs, Whale Fish Vomiting Jonah 1993, acrylic on canvas, 112 x 137 cm, Seatle Art Museum, promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

The persistence of such comparisons cannot be attributed to a paucity of good criticism; at the present, many of the finest minds in Australian art history, anthropology and journalism are turning their pens to Australian Aboriginal art with increasing sophistication. One can only presume that more insidious motives are at play. As McLean notes, modernism is exhausted, but this cannot prevent it clinging to the crumbling residues of its power, attempting to exert the supremacy of a centre that looks increasingly Ozymandias-like. Aboriginal art is not simply a defence mechanism against the onslaught of colonialism, it is a powerful weapon that exposes the contradictions and antinomies inherent in the modernist imperial project. This is why Aboriginal art stands at the vanguard of contemporary art: it is able to express the coevality of difference, while maintaining its own identity; to show the coexistence of multiple ways of being in the present; and to reveal the connective fibres of relation that make the contemporary world comprehensible. Aboriginal art shows us what it means to live in a world of accelerating multiplicity – literally, what it means to be contemporary.

So what is the solution? Firstly, we need a forceful definition of contemporary art: one in which modernism is merely a single possibility, neither more inevitable nor valuable than any other.[iv] Secondly, there is an urgent need for curators to begin working across the fields of Indigenous and non-indigenous art, in order to move beyond superficial visual affinities towards serious conceptual engagements. In the catalogue for Ancestral Modern, the curator Lisa Graziose Corrin  attempts precisely this task in a way that it rarely encountered. In comparing the work of artists like Mawukura Jimmy Nerrimah and Mitjili Napanangka Gibson to contemporaries like Julie Mehretu and Raqib Shaw, Corrin attempts to create ‘conversations’ in which the expressive and conceptual forcefulness of Aboriginal art is able to participate in a truly planetary conversation. This is a far cry from the often limp politeness with which Aboriginal art is so often included in Australian biennials and group exhibitions.

Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Wilkinkarra 2007, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 305 cm, Seattle Art Museum, promised gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan.

It is time for curators to begin thinking in these planetary terms. It is shameful how few curators in Australia are working across the fields of Indigenous and non-indigenous contemporary art. Aboriginal artists have long been engaged in this conversation, offering a munificent cross-cultural dialogue with the non-indigenous world, through which the strength and vitality of their culture has been displayed with ever increasing aesthetic poise and finesse. This is the brilliant lesson of exhibitions like Ancestral Modern and Crossing Cultures; judging from their popularity, it is a lesson that has been warmly received in the USA. Most importantly, through the generosity of these collectors, there are now three significant collections of Aboriginal art in the United States (the third being the Kluge-Ruhe collection at the University of Virginia). Aboriginal art might not have stormed the barricades yet, but these collections are like splinter cells, biding their time ready to strike.

[i] Ian McLean, How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2011): 44-47.

[ii] Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, “Collectors’ Statement,” in Pamela McClusky, ed., Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2012): 11.

[iii] Kyle Chayka, “Is Aboriginal Abstraction Modernist?Hyperallergic, October 16, 2012.

[iv] See for instance, Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009).

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New lines of flight: Bark Painting as Contemporary Encounter


Yirawala, Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent, 1968, ochre on bark, 58 x 35.6 cm, National Museum of Australia

There are few artworks that can rival the power of the master bark painters from Arnhem Land. Australian audiences are lucky enough to have two fantastic opportunites to view superb early examples in the exhibitions Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists at the National Museum of Australia, and Transformations: Early Bark Paintings from Arnhem Land at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.

For those unable to get to Australia, both exhibitions have some fantastic online content. The NMA has a set up a terrific digital platform which allows you to view most of the works in the exhibition, along with images and biographies of the artists. The Potter recently hosted a fantasic panel discussion featuring Lindy Allen, Howard Morphy, Wanyubi Marika, and the exhibition’s curator Joanna Bosse, which can be viewed below.

I also wrote a brief opinion piece on the two exhibitions for Art Guide Australia, the full text of which can be found here:


Transformations: Early Bark Paintings from Arnhem Land, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne. Photo by Viki Petherbridge.

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