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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 (www.art-museum.unimelb.edu.au/art_brow.aspx). The Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade Collection of books is in Special Collections at the Baillieu Library (www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/collections/special/collections/australiana/grim.html) while archival records are in the University of Melbourne Archives (www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/collections/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. Reg.no. 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). Reg.no. 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, [http://www.aboriginalartonline.com/resources/articles2.php]

[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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Review: Emerging Elders at the National Gallery of Australia

Below is the extended version of a review that first appeared in Art Guide Australia, January/February 2010

As the Indigenous art movement has developed in Australia, it has continually been refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated by the appearance of new, elderly artists. Whilst this has been something of a unique feature to Indigenous art, it follows a certain internal logic. It is these older artists who remain closest to the pre-colonial cultural traditions which make Indigenous art unique, and, as Indigenous culture places a premium on seniority, it is these ‘elder’ artists with the greatest cache of cultural knowledge to draw upon. The Indigenous art market, in particular, has helped reify the notion of ‘elder’, making it a common refrain of commercial gallery sales pitches, in which each and every geriatric Aboriginal artist is carefully positioned as a profound repository of arcane spiritual and cultural knowledge.

Unfortunately, this simple reification of age does not accurately reflect traditional Indigenous power systems, which are based on far more complicated stratifications of ceremonial knowledge, clan affiliations, gender, custodial rights and responsibilities. The reduction of cultural seniority to the egalitarian category of ‘elder’ fails to recognise the personalities and backgrounds of individual artists. Just because an artist is elderly, it does not necessarily follow that they are an Elder in a ceremonial, custodial or leadership capacity.

This may seem like a pedantic point – particularly in relation to an exhibition as gloriously celebratory as Emerging Elders (National Gallery of Australia, 3 October 2009 – 14 June 2010). And yet, it points towards a profound disjunction between traditional Indigenous cultural and aesthetic values, and the art market. On the one hand, the market supposes to hail the continuation of culture – celebrating Indigenous art for its ‘stories’ and cultural knowledge. On the other hand, it is often not the most culturally important works or artists who are most popular in the marketplace. In some instances, senior artists work is considered too ethnographic or rigidly traditional for a market which prefers bold, individual expressionism. In other cases, the more culturally knowledgable artists work across too many styles or stories – something which gives them great kudos amongst their peers, but is less attractive to a marketplace that favours easily identifiable ‘trademark’ designs.

These are questions that overshadow the reception of Indigenous art. They are questions in dire need of address if non-Indigenous Australians are to begin to have any meaningful engagement with Indigenous art. They are not insurmountable questions, but ones which require a patient, careful and considered cross-cultural dialogue on aesthetics and value.

Despite being evoked in the exhibition’s title, however, these urgent questions are not answered in Emerging Elders. First and foremost, Emerging Elders is a celebration of contemporary masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. Like the Gallery’s 2007 Triennial of Indigenous Art, it lavishly showcases the institution’s ongoing commitment to collecting and exhibiting the finest examples of contemporary Indigenous art. Indeed, many of the nation’s leading artists are represented with major works. Gulumbu Yunupingu’s shimmering bark paintings of Garak, The Universe make a majestic centrepiece to the exhibition. And yet, their presence inevitably causes one to question the category of ‘emerging’. Gulumbu is a former winner of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, her designs adorn the ceiling of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and in 2006 she was awarded the Deadly Award for Visual Arts. By every possible standard, Gulumbu is an established and major figure in Australian art. The same could be said of many of the artists in Emerging Elders – such as Ningura Napurrula, Shorty Jangala Robertson or Dorothy Napangardi – who have all had long and distinguished careers. Others seem to have emerged to the very point of over-exposure, such as the prolific Bentinck Island Elder Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, who has been a ubiquitous presence in recent Indigenous art exhibitions.

But perhaps more confusing, is the inclusion of artists whose position as ‘elders’ seems less assured. Anmatyerre painter Billy Benn Perrurle is represented with a monumental depiction of his homelands Artetyerre, whose glissandos of overlapping brushwork brilliantly reveal his development from a painter of small, delicate landscapes into a rugged, De Kooning like expressionist. In another room, a large canvas by Tiwi artist Timothy Cook shows the artist finding a new maturity – balancing his typically idiosyncratic sense of form with the addition of fine over-dotting. The work retains the raffish charm of Cook’s early paintings, but tempers it with a sense of cosmological delicacy. And yet, whilst both works are indisputable highlights of the exhibition, as outsider artists, neither Cook nor Benn properly fit the mould of ‘elder’ in the sense of cultural knowledge, leadership or responsibility. Both artists belong to communities from which there are both older and more culturally senior artists. One surmises, they have been included for their artistic rather than cultural pre-eminence. In this sense, they seem to fit neither categories of ‘emerging’ nor ‘elder.’

It is the artists who fit most comfortably into both categories whose voices speak most commandingly in Emerging Elders. Born in 1928, Harry Tjutjuna of Ernabella is represented with a spectacular depiction of the Wangka (Spiderman) Tjukurpa. Glowing in an incandescent haze of orange, red, yellow and black, it is like a grand, pop-art rendering of an ancient Dream. It speaks with a bold visual inventiveness that asserts its presence and the authority of knowledge it contains.

Other works speak just as authoritatively, but in a hushed voice, whose gentle overtones whisper of a different time and place. Kimberley elder Alan Griffiths painting of dancers engaged in the Mindarr and Waringarr ceremonies bristles with the action of a giant carnival while locking into an ancient schemata that fills it with a still, silent nostalgia for past times. Elizabeth ‘Queenie’ Giblet’s Pa’anmu (Headbands) for Laura Festival (above) evokes a faded memory of ancient ceremonial markings through her understated and elegant use of grey, black and white. These works conjure the air of a passing epoch – a time when the ceremony ground would fall silent in anticipation of the Elders’ command. And yet, they also show the continuing power of this voice in contemporary art. They show how the Elders’ voice can continually emerge, to be reshaped into dynamic and relevant contemporary statements. It is these works with the power to once again strike us silent with awe.

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A Contemporary Spirit: The Art of Graham Badari

This following essay was written to accompany Graham Badari’s first solo exhibition, held at Mossenson Galleries Perth,  March 16 – April 25, 2010.

A pair of red eyes glowers from an angular, skeletal visage. Its snarling grimace revels sharp teeth, its razor-like claws borne forth ready to strike. This is one of the unseen dangers of the bush: Namarnde, the malevolent spirit of the box pandanus. When pregnant, Kunwinjku women avoid walking too close to pandanus bushes, in case Namarnde captures the spirit of their unborn babes. In Graham Badari’s painting, this terror is brilliantly evoked through a combination of jagged ferocity and delicate cross-hatching or rarrk. His painting transports the viewer to the mystical landscape of the stone country, where spirits inhabit every crevice and ancient paintings adorn the rock-faces. At the same time, Badari’s Namarnde is uncannily futuristic, bearing a striking resemblance to the cyborg Maria from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis.

Graham Badari was born in 1963 at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) in Western Arnhem Land. His country is Maburrinj, near Kudjekbinj, about 120 kilometers east of Gunbalanya. He was raised by the renowned artist Djawida Nadjongorle, but like many of the artist at Gunbalanya, credits the late Thompson Yulidjirri as his greatest artistic influence. From these senior men, Badari learnt the fluid and dynamic style that defines Kunwinjku painting at Injalak Arts. He began painting sporadically around 1990, but in recent years, his career has gained a new focus and momentum. Following the recent passing of many of the senior artists at Gunbalanya, Badari has become one of the leaders of a small coterie of dedicated artists, which includes Wilfred Nawirridj, Glenn Namundja, Gabriel Maralngurra, and Gershom Garlngarr. They are a ubiquitous presence at Injalak Arts, and are fiercely proud of their art, community and art centre. Their paintings show a faithful dedication to the visual language of their rock-art heritage, while remaining committed to artistic innovation. It is this beguiling balance of tensions – innovation and tradition, ancient and modern, beauty and terror – that energises Badari’s paintings. And yet, to understand how his work could so effortlessly embody these apparent dualities, it is necessary to understand how these competing positions coexist within Badari’s worldview, informing his unique and eccentric personality.

With his impish smile and cheeky sense of humour, Grahama Badari or ‘Grammy’ as he affectionately known, is the gentlest of souls. He is a popular figure at the art centre, a beloved tour guide and font of community news. And yet, as his paintings suggest, Badari has a fascination with the darker side of life. Walking in the bush, he is careful to warn of the dangers of Namarnde or other malicious spirits such as Namarrodoh. Always concerned with the safety of his guests, he cautions of the equal dangers posed by the very present Kinga (salt-water crocodile) and the more otherworldly Ngalyod (Rainbow Serpent). Badari believes wholeheartedly in the presence of these spirit beings; they are an intrinsic part of the cultural heritage that has informed his life.

On the other hand, Badari is sensitively attuned to the modern world. The ease with which he traverses this cosmology of the mystical and the everyday might go some way to explaining his attraction to western science-fiction and fantasy imagery. This passion is not only evident in Badari’s paintings, but in his distinctive choice of fashion, which favours the kind of lurid fantasy t-shirts more commonly seen on teenage heavy metal fans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Badari is also a keen follower of heavy metal music, with his favourite band being the Swedish group Hammer Fall. Indeed, it is worth comparing Badari’s depictions of Namarnde and Namarrodoh with the red-eyed, hammer-wielding leviathan featured on the group’s album covers, designed by renowned graphic artist Samwise Didier. That said, when questioned on these striking visual parallels, Badari is quick to refute such influences, preferring to highlight the traditional aspects of his work. To Badari, these are ancient stories that he holds in the deepest respect, and he rejects the suggestion that he might be trifling with them by bringing in profane external influences.

And yet, it is this disavowal that reveals the very essence of Badari’s paintings. For in suggesting that his works are a ‘fusion’ of the traditional and the contemporary, it is vital to note that this is not some sort of wry pastiche of ironic allusions and winking ironies. Badari’s work contains none of this post-modern disingenuousness; he is an artist of deep, abiding integrity. The meticulous care that he takes with his work, with its fine attention to detail and delicate rarrk, is a reflection of the reverence with which he holds both stories that he paints and visual tradition they embody. Badari’s paintings are heartfelt depictions of his cultural heritage, and he paints them with all his being, striving to make them as vivid, striking and beautiful as he knows how. If they are a fusion of old and new, it is because Badari’s worldview completely, comfortably and intuitively traverses both Indigenous and western episteme. His paintings are reflections on a living culture – one that encompasses both ancient tribal songs and heavy metal riffs. Like all great artists, Badari captures the spirit of his time, and through his unique artistry, brings tradition forward into a dynamic contemporary vision.

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Billy Kenda

The following essay was written to accompany Billy Kenda: The First Solo Exhibition held at Mossenson Galleries, Subiaco, Western Australia, April 13- May 9, 2009

A truck screams across the desert. The heat belting down upon the asphalt makes it glow a deep, languid blue. The driver has his eyes fixed forward upon the road as it stretches out onto the horizon. His face bears a wobbly smile, as though absorbed in the rhythms of the latest catchy tune blaring on his car radio. Around him, the desert rises in glorious majesty; purple mountains ascend into a crimson sky that beams down upon the desert’s gleaming yellow sands. But the driver does not note this grandeur for he is transfixed by his journey, his eyes planted firmly on the highway as it speeds him to his destination.

For Billy Kenda, the desert landscape is a place of Arcadian splendour. His depictions of country are the sanguine songs of a contented heart; prelapsarian odes to his beloved desert idyll. Rolling hills recede into the picture plain, enveloping the viewer and drawing the eye inwards in a transitory recession. Born in 1972, Kenda began painting in 2004 through the auspices of Mwerre Anthurre Artists (Bindi Inc) in Alice Springs. His father was a Ngaatjatjarr man from Docker River, but Kenda’s paintings are dominated by his mother’s country near Jay Creek in the West MacDonnell Ranges. This is the country where Kenda was raised in the shadow of the purple hills made famous by Albert Namatjira, and in many ways, Kenda’s paintings continue the halcyon vision of his artistic forebear.

And yet, increasingly, Kenda’s landscapes have become dominated by motor vehicles. Cars and trucks speed across the landscape, blocking it, and drawing the viewer to the foreground of the image. At times, these vehicles dominate the picture, and the landscape becomes little more than a hurried, unfocussed blur at the edge of the canvas. In Kenda’s paintings, the motor vehicle becomes a metonym for the encroachment of western modernity upon the Indigenous cultural landscape, offering a subtle, but powerful critique of western vision and our reluctance to embrace or acknowledge an Indigenous view of the land.

It is in this sense that the comparison between Kenda and Namatjira is perhaps most apt, for it was in the works of Namatjira that western audiences were first exposed to an Indigenous vision of the landscape. In his depictions of country, Namatjira appropriated the western tradition of landscape painting as a means of empowering Indigenous perspective. As Ian Burn has noted, “The Arrente style may be interpreted as a strategy to control what is secret and what is sacred, while still expressing to a white audience an Aboriginal relationship to the land,” in order, as Galarrwuy Yunipingu continues “to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and our rights and responsibilities we have to it.” Namatjira’s paintings present a defiant call to see the landscape from an Indigenous viewpoint. In doing so, he helped inaugurate the Indigenous art movement which has gone on to be one of the dominant frontiers upon which Indigenous peopl e have engaged with modernity and shown their culture to be relevant, contemporary and strong.

Despite their apparent joviality, the work of Billy Kenda sits at a forceful critical intersection of this visual engagement with the hegemony of western vision. As western society spread into the heart of the nation, highways were built across the desert – Kenda’s traditional homeland. But highways are built upon the principle of fastest movement between origin and destination; upon the assumption that what lies between is unimportant. Margaret Morse has theorised that the car becomes the de-realised ‘non-space’ that allows us to negotiate this distance. In the interior of the motor vehicle the traveller is insulated from the outside world, achieving what Morse calls a ‘mobile privatisation’ that serves to displace or separate us from our surroundings. This contrasts severely with an Indigenous cosmology, in which it is songlines and not highways that run across the country connecting all places, people and things. In this worldview, travel becomes a process deeply connected to the landscape; a process of continuity, identity creation and placedness.

But the songlines of the highway are insular; disconnected. This is how Kenda depicts his drivers, absorbed in the detached world of their mobile cabin, bopping along in ignorant bliss to the enveloping beauty of the world around them. When cars are absent from Kenda’s landscapes, the landscape recedes into the picture plain, inviting the viewer to travel across Kenda’s country, to footwalk his hot sands, to taste the desert air and feel the heat upon one’s brow. The inclusion of cars refuses this engagement, pulling the landscape up flat and disallowing travel into the picture plain. Here we find the metaphor of Kenda’s paintings. They are a call to return to the landscape, to escape western vision and to actively see and engage with the world around us. Kenda’s paintings are a challenge to look beyond our assumptions; to see our blindness to the beauty of the world just beyond our frame of reference. For it is here, in the Arcadian splendour of the landscape that the real joy of Kenda’s paintings can be found and from which stems their unique vision and joyful contentment.

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Book Review: Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

No matter where one is, no matter how strong the force of errantry, one can hear the mounting desire to “give-on-and-with,” to discover order in chaos or at least to guess its unlikely motivation: to develop this theory that would escape generalizations.[1]

In Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant sets himself a project that is both immense and ineluctable. If, as Glissant supposes, we cannot help but ponder our place in the world, such thoughts cannot avoid the realisation that our contemporary reality is one of accelerating multiplicity: the only universality today is one of relations based upon diversity rather than unity. The philosopher’s task then is to offer a framework to comprehend the totality of this condition – le Tout-monde – without resorting to generalisation or homogenising universals. To achieve this, Glissant incants the state of Relation: an amorphous category that he describes as “an open totality evolving upon itself … In Relation, the whole is not the finality of its parts: for multiplicity in totality is totally diversity.”[2]

By Glissant’s own admission, Relation cannot be defined, only imagined.[3] Poetics of Relation is an extended attempt to circle round this indefinable, that it might find focus in the margins where the text points to the fabric of its own construction. Glissant’s writing is fragmentary, filled with interjections, repetitions, and other tactical devices designed to delay or suspend the unilinearity of his argument. As his translator Betsy Wing notes, Glissant constantly destabilises French, creating new linguistic formulations in order to mimic the transformations of a living language and the collisions of culture that he sees as productive of Relation.[4] This circuitousness is intended to build a body of examples that intimate Relation without ever fixing it to the totality of a single definition.

Glissant’s argument is subtley woven, careful at every step to avoid generalization. As such, it is a perilous task to attempt to pin down his theory of Relation into a concise summary. Nevertheless, proceeding with caution one can note that the encounter with the Other is central to the emergence of Relation. For Glissant, all identity is produced and extended in relation to the Other. It is through the meeting (and clashing) of cultures that they evolve, creating the circumstances for Relation: “evolving cultures infer Relation – the overstepping that grounds their unity diversity.”[5] In the classical sense, identity was atavistic: constituted on the principles of origin (filiation) and territory. This meant that culture’s self-conception was dualistic; the Other was not considered to be different, but contrary, produced only in opposition.[6] Glissant contrasts this to the composite cultures of creolization, which unfold new forms of identity guided by the principles of errantry and hybridity. In these instances the Other is considered as one part of a multiplicity of difference that recognises our “unity-diversity.”[7] Put simply, “Relation is the moment when we realize that there is a definite quality of all the differences in the world.”[8]

As Relation is the result of encounter with the Other, it remains engaged in a complex relationship with the atavistic identity (and its attendant colonial oppressions). It is only through the spread of the atavistic identity that the encounters that lead to Relation are made possible. Thus, Relation has its genesis in the hulls of slave ships crossing the Atlantic, while the atavistic identity contains within it the antinomies that create the preconditions for the emergent subject positions that would eventually undermine its unified identity.

Glissant is careful not to suggest Relation as a counter, but equally dualistic identity position. This poses certain difficulties, for Glissant recognises the value of stable identity positions as the sites of decolonial resistance. Relation is an attempt to move beyond the dialectic positions that such identities have tended to assume (such as Negritude, Historical Marronage or even Aboriginality), recognising that such subject positions are necessarily limited from the very beginning by assuming subject position made available only in opposition to the oppressor.[9] This is not to suggest that Glissant is opposed to identity, as he explicitly notes, Relation is neither a rejection of identity, nor “inconsistent with the will to identity.”[10] Glissant recognises that concrete identities (just like the specific places of the archipelago) are a necessary part of exchange. For Glissant, identity construction enforces the sense of Relation, but this self-realisation is not enough, it requires the realisation of Relation.[11] Thus, although Glissant clearly sees Relation as a political intervention, it can never be an organizing form of resistance.[12] In part, this is because Relation takes its fullest expression in the poetic realm, where poetic thought safeguards the particular, relating all possibilities.[13] This poetics is exemplified in the process of creolization, where the emphasis is placed upon the processes and not by the contents on which these operate.[14] Open to constant transformation, for Glissant, creolization represents the clearest illustration the concept of a poetics of human relations.

As it is open to all possible particulars, creolization necessarily excludes the possibility of futurity. For Glissant, futurity is one of the driving forces of the atavistic identity, which reaches exhaustion in Relation. While concluding that the age of classicism is past for all cultures,[15] the importance of this antinomic relationship between Relation and the era that precedes it, suggests that Glissant is not only interested in defining the contemporary situation, but also in revising our understanding of modernity.[16]

Despite its elusiveness, Relation provides a most useful framework for considering decolonial identity beyond the polar terms of resistance or submission to the dominant colonial power. For although Relation is the ultimate tool of decolonisation, Glissant notes that it was also born from the long and painful quest to assert identity “in opposition to the processes of identification or annihilation triggered by these invaders.”[17] That this tendency has led to a dialectical tension within decolonial self-identification can be seen clearly in Marcia Langton’s canonical discussion of ‘Aboriginality,’ in which she intuitively recognises both the political power of identification to “lessen the pressure of assimilation,” while simultaneously noting that this only has meaning when understood in terms of inter-subjectivity that dissolves particularlity in favour of the unity of a singular Other.[18] In the concept of Relation, Glissant offers a framework to move beyond these polarities, to instead see them as the first step towards recognising our shared world of infinite difference. Instead of fixed places of origin, he offers sites of connectivity, where multiple histories and ways of being can coexist. Instead of roots, he offers the dynamic process of creolization, a poetics defined by its openness to transformation. Instead of a world of nations, he offers the archipelago, an image of the world in which we are all connected while remaining distinct.

Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997)


[1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 183.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Ibid., 170-171.

[4] Betsy Wing, ‘Translator’s Introduction’, in Glissant, Poetics of Relation, xii.

[5] Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 1.

[6] Ibid., 14-15.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] Édouard Glissant and Manthia Diawara, “One World in Relation: Édouard Glissant in Conversation with Manthia Diawara,” Nka Journal of Contemporary Aftrican Art 28 (2011): 9.

[9] Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 17.

[10] Ibid.,18, 20.

[11] Ibid.,, 137, 147-8.

[12] Ibid.,200.

[13] Ibid.,32.

[14] Ibid.,89.

[15] Ibid.,91.

[16] See particularly Ibid., 78-79, where Glissant suggests that Relation has been present from the beginning of modernity, reaching its complete fulfilment in the contemporary moment.

[17] Ibid., 17.

[18] Marcia Langton, “Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television…” (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993), 32.

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Geographic Cosmology: The Art of Lucy Ward

Below is an extended text of the article, “Geographic Cosmology: The Art of Lucy Ward” published in Craft Arts International, no.78, 2010, pp.34-39

It is June 2005 and a heavy thunderstorm has just erupted, pouring noisy torrents of rain upon the tin roof of Mossenson Galleries in Perth, Western Australia. Entering the gallery, octogenarian Kimberley artist Lucy Ward wears a beaming smile as she shakes the rain from her snow-white hair. Approaching a large brown canvas covered in a dozen or more images of her ancestral Wandjina spirits, she runs her hand across the painting, as though affectionately stroking a long lost friend. “My Wandjina,” she exclaims. “You’ve brought the rain!”

Like Ward, these Wandjina are a long way from their Kimberley homelands. And yet, this distance does not weaken their spiritual or elemental power. For the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people of the north-west Kimberley, the Wandjina are the central figure of religious significance. According to legend, they were the physical manifestation of great spirit beings who controlled the elements, such as wind, lightning and rain. During the Ngarrangarni or Dreaming, their actions and adventures shaped the landscape and helped create Indigenous law. At the end of creation time, they left their images on the rock faces and escarpments, in order to watch over the country and its Indigenous inhabitants, and to ensure the continuity of traditional law. Over milenia, the repainting of the Wandjina has become a sacred act of passage, connecting the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people in an unbroken link with both their ancestors and the Ngarrangarni.

The power of this ancestral connection, and indeed, the power ascribed to the imagery of the Wandjina, reflects the unique spiritual temporality of the Ngarrangarni or Dreaming. As W.E.H. Stanner notes, although the concept of the Dreaming evokes a heroic time when ancestral spirits roamed the earth, “one cannot ‘fix’ the Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen … a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal men.” The essence of Ngarrangarni runs through all things and connects every point in time and space. Adherence to its fundamental and mystical truths is the driving force for senior Indigenous people like Ward, shaping their lives and world-view. It is this essence that explains the power ascribed to the image of the Wandjina. This is not only a spiritual and elemental power – such as the power to bring on rain in Perth, hundreds of miles from their ancestral homelands – but also their power as profound visual statements that challenge our western preconceptions of time, space, aesthetics and value.

Lucy Ward began painting in 2003 and has since established herself as one of the leading contemporary painters of the Wandjina. She has exhibited throughout Australia, as well as in Asia, Europe and America, and has held eight solo exhibitions through Mossenson Galleries in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Her works are held in several important public collections, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Western Australian Museum, the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia and Macquarie University. In 2006 she was awarded the City of Stirling Art Award, and she has been a finalist in numerous major art prizes, including the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, the Wynne Prize, the Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize, The Alice Prize and the Waterhouse Natural History Prize.

In the jubilant glow of Ward’s paintings there is a reflection on her long life lived in the Kimberley. She was born around 1920 at Ngarangarri country – the land of the Honey Dream – in what is now known as Beverley Springs Station. Her mother died while Ward was still an infant, so her father carried her around the bush in a bark coolamon, before finding a woman who was breastfeeding a little boy. According to Ward, “That little boy and I went share for her ngaman (milk), She was a good woman. That is why I am still alive today.”

Ward’s childhood was spent traversing the Ngarangarri and Winyiduwa clan estates with her father and grandfather. From these old men, she gained first-hand knowledge of the hunter-gather lifestyle: hunting kangaroo, emu, fish and prawns and gathering yam and edible water lilies. They also introduced her to the ancient artistic practices of the Ngarinyin, and she recalls fondly watching them paint “the really Wandjina in the caves.” As she matured, Ward worked on the burgeoning Kimberley cattle stations, both as a domestic servant and well as mustering and tailing cattle. But the formative experiences of her childhood remained with her, and during the wet season, when monsoonal rains locked the cattle industry down, Ward and her Ngarinyin kin would return to their ancestral estates for ceremony and to tend to their country.

Like her life, Ward’s paintings are a balance of sorrow and joy. In many of her canvases, a single Wandjina is painted in isolation, surrounded by swathes of colourful dotted squares, signifying the ‘sugarbag’ or bush-honey pod. According to Ward, in the Ngarrangarni, this Wandjina broke with traditional law, and took another man’s promised wife. This angered the man’s family, who pursued him across the country, seeking to punish him for this indiscretion. They finally caught him in Ngarangarri country, where he was beaten, speared and killed. From his prostrate body rose the sugarbag trees, making Ngarangarri country the land of honey. It is a powerful story of the connection of all things. In death there is creation; in punishment there is redemption; in the bitterness of tears, the sweetness of honey.

This sense of connectivity can be seen even more clearly in Lucy Ward’s signature image of ngara (the sugarbag). Ngara refers to the honey made by the stingless native bees. There are two types of bees native to the north-west Kimberley, the tree-dwelling bee (Waningga) and those that build their hives in rocks (Namri). Ngara is an important totem for Lucy Ward – not only was she born in Ngarangarri (the land of the Honey Dream), but according to Ward, she was also born under the shade of a sugarbag tree. Along with the image of the Wandjina, the sugarbag has been one of Ward’s defining motifs. However, whilst Ward’s depictions of Wandjina have remained relatively unchanging – undoubtedly due to the sacred nature of the image – the sugarbag has provided her with a motif of incredible flexibility. Over her diverse artistic career, it has been an endlessly malleable aesthetic form, in which she has found a seemingly boundless array of conceptual and aesthetic variations. Ward’s gallery representative, Dr Diane Mossenson, notes with amazement Ward’s “capacity for artistic re-invention. Unlike many Aboriginal artists who paint a limited number of images, Lucy has remained strong to her stories, but she continually recreates the imagery, finding new ways to express her stories.”

During his fieldwork in the Kimberley in the early 1960s, anthropologist Ian Crawford noted several rock-art sites in which the sugarbag motif was prominent. Reproduced in his landmark 1968 volume Art of the Wandjina, the cave paintings of sugarbags are clear artistic precursors to Ward’s early paintings. Like her Wandjina, this comparison reveals how much Ward’s work takes its core inspiration from her rock-art heritage. This etymology is easily overlooked in Ward’s work, particularly in light of the explosive acrylic palette favoured in her early paintings.

Like the cave paintings of sugarbags, Ward’s earliest depictions show the sugarbag motif as distinct, individual objects. Each honey pod is depicted as an irregular square or circle filled with coloured dots. Sometimes these squares or circles are sub-divided, while in other cases they are not. In late 2005, however, a major development began to occur in Ward’s portrayal of sugarbags. The sugarbag became an increasingly open signifier, whose individual unity slowly disappeared. In her most recent works, such as the monumental diptych Ngara (Sugarbag) Story 2008, exhibited at the Arthur Guy Memorial Art Prize, any sense of this indivisible unity has been shattered in favour of an all-over dotting that covers the canvas in a pulsating invocation of the aerial landscape.

There are many probable reasons for this development. One reason is certainly Ward’s exposure to artworks outside her immediate cultural experience. In 2006, Ward visited Melbourne for the launch of her exhibition Ngarrangarni Manambarra. During her visit, she attended the National Gallery of Victoria, where she was given a guided tour by senior curator Judith Ryan. Ward was particularly taken with both the style and scale of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri’s monumental Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming 1980. Following the visit, she repeatedly expressed her desire to work on larger canvases, referring back to the Tjapaltjarri’s canvas as an example. In the proceeding months, Ward not only completed several larger canvases, including the majestic 2007 Wandjinas in Ngarangarri Country (198 x 298 cm) which was exhibited in the 2008 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, but Ward began to cover much larger sections of her canvas in shimmering dot-work, creating constellation like backgrounds to her tableaus of Wandjina, sugarbags and country.

On a more local level, 2005 also saw the arrival of another profound artistic influence on Ward’s work. In that year, the senior Nyikina artist Loongkoonan began painting at the same Derby based workshop as Ward. Although belonging to a different language group, Ward and Loongkoonan began a highly competitive and influential artistic relationship. Painting alongside each other, they became like a Braque and Picasso of the Kimberley – taking on the visual lessons of each other’s work, and continually challenging each other to find new ways of developing their very different painterly practices.

Despite these external prompts, however, Ward’s development has shown a clear and uniquely personal epistemic trajectory. In the paintings of Lucy Ward, each mark upon the canvas is like a fingerprint, betraying the trace of its creator’s movement. In painting her ancestral homelands, her marks revel her ownership of the country, like footprints in a landscape that she has traversed by foot, understood instinctively and known intimately. But just like a footprint, they exist as the memory of presence, a nostalgic echo of past travels.

In the wake of colonial incursion, elders like Ward cannot live on their traditional lands, but return only occasionally to tend to the country of which they are the sacred custodians. Returning to her sacred sites, Ward sings out to the spirits, warning them of her arrival. Her song echoes through the stony ridges and it is as though she is a young woman again. It is this memory of the landscape that reveals itself in Ward’s paintings. Each mark connects Ward to her landscape, making her one with the Dreams, songs and topography of her land of honey.

In this context, the sugarbag is a profound tripartite symbol for the personal (as Ward’s totem), the physical (the bush honey pod) and the spatial (Ngarangarri country: the land of the sugarbag dream). In shattering the individual unity of the sugarbag – literally opening it up – Ward fuses these three categories. Rather than fingerprints, the dots meld into a pointillist landscape that shimmers into being with a cosmological unity.

These seemingly abstract shapes thus become a complex metaphor for the inter-relationship of identity, culture and country. They are part of a sacred and personal geography that Marcia Langton has termed ‘placedness.’ For Ward, the past is not, as L.P. Hartley has famously suggested, ‘a foreign country’, but rather a familiar country that situates and unites all moments in time. Ward’s paintings become what Langton has described as “site markers of the remembering process and of identity itself.” They inhabit a temporality that is neither past, present nor future, but part of the sacred link that connects Lucy Ward to the timeless Ngarrangarni.

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Col Jordan: A Play on White

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Col Jordan: A Play on White at Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne from 5-31 October 2010.

 

I was only a small boy when I first visited St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived, and the fading winter light did little to break through the cold Byzantine depths of the cavernous basilica. Near the altar, a lone curate was busily engaged in preparing the evening service. Noticing us enter the transept, he gestured enthusiastically towards the heavens, before scurrying out of sight. All of a sudden, the building was lit up – the darkness expelled by the glittering brilliance of the basilica’s golden ceilings. Above our heads, Adam and Eve circled in an endless repetition of humanity’s Fall, while higher still, a bearded Heavenly Father separated the heavens from the earth, the land from the sea, and the darkness from the light. It was like a divine evocation of the curate’s act in switching on the electric lights. With our mouths agape, we became one with the million shimmering tesserae, subsumed into the vision unfolding above us – like each tile, we gave up our individuality to partake of the majestic unity of the divine order.

Col Jordan refers to his latest series of paintings as ‘The Mosaic Paintings’, but they are not mosaics in any traditional sense. Over the past four decades, Jordan has established himself as one of Australia’s foremost practitioners of hard-edge, optical abstraction, finding in it an unceasingly fertile ground for artistic experimentation and conceptual exploration. In his latest works, an overlapping selection of geometric shapes jostle for position across the white ground of the canvas, fragmented and unified by the interplay of different patterns. Jordan is a master of visual impact; high-keyed colours are offset against a ground of crisp white, giving the works an impressive bombast similar to the ceilings of St Mark’s.

However, Jordan is not a religious man, and his Mosaic Paintings must be seen in a very different conceptual light to those of his religious precursors. In the mosaics of St Mark’s, the individuality of each tessera is willingly conceded to the whole – a metaphor for the believer’s role in the divine hierarchy – but Jordan’s works have none of this spiritual certainty. In fact, throughout his entire career, Jordan has relentlessly explored the boundaries of paradox, ambiguity and uncertainty. In the dynamic tensions of the picture plane, Jordan draws attention to the entirely subjective nature of vision. His paintings are, in his own words, “celebrations of the infinite variability and unpredictability of the human condition”. This exploration of paradox has reached a new zenith in Jordan’s Mosaic Paintings.

In order to understand the height of this achievement, however, it is worth returning to a work he completed in 1968, Daedalus Series 6, which was exhibited in the landmark exhibition The Field and is now held in the National Gallery of Australia. In 1971, Bernard Smith praised the visual tension of the work, noting that “the tyranny of the frame as structural determinant is challenged increasingly the greater the distance from the edge, as forms and shapes arise which assert a kind of plastic freedom.” Arriving in the late 1960s, when Australian society was being reconfigured as a multicultural panoply, this conscious evocation of visual subjectivity seemed a perfect metaphor for the new, postmodern subject, which was constructed, as Chantal Mouffe has suggested, “at the point of intersection of a multiplicity of subject positions”. Indeed, in 1969, Jordan confirmed the suggestion, drawing a link between pictorial complexity and this changing sense of society and selfhood:

My paintings are about paradox. Visual embodiments of literal impossibility. A work is good to the extent that it reconciles irreconcilables. Daedalus is about directions, tied down and boxed by the stripes of its own identity.

In these stripe paintings of the 1960s and 70s, Jordan set up a tension between the unifying factor of the frame and the individuality of the coloured lines. In a sense, this is the exact opposite to the unifying of tesserae into a single image that occurs in traditional mosaics. And yet, both conceptually and visually, this strategy has its limitations. For Jordan’s paintings are not simply celebrations of unfettered individualism – rather, at their heart they recognise the need to create a “unified visual statement.” They should be seen as explorations of the delicate balance of individuality and community needed to create a democracy of vision.

In this sense, Jordan’s paintings must be considered as paintings of their time. For if, on first viewing, the Mosaic Paintings appear to present a cacophony of individual voices – each shape jostling for dominance – slowly, under Jordan’s skilful hand, they unite beautifully. The artist presents the cacophony of community: a dynamic harmony forged from many voices, as in musical counterpoint. Unlike the Daedalus series, where individuality was bound by the tyranny of the frame, in the Mosaic paintings the picture plane is burst open, threatening the unity of the image. However, under Jordan’s direction, a profuse joy emerges from this confusion. From the many unfettered voices comes a vision not of tyrannically bound unity, but of participatory community.

Jordan’s Mosaic Paintings are extraordinarily complex works, and they do not attempt to suggest that this sense of unity is easily achieved. In a world in which ethnic tensions and religious extremism threaten the stability of communities around the world, these paintings recognise the grand complexity of our epoch. Jordan’s paintings ask us to visualise the hardest paradox of all: how a seemingly chaotic jumble of individual entities can combine to make a world of poetry and beauty.

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