Tag Archives: Aboriginal art

What have I been doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lisa Uhl: Seeing the Forest and the Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letter from Pittsburgh: Aboriginal art in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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New lines of flight: Bark Painting as Contemporary Encounter

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

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

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

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

http://artguide.com.au/articles-page/show/new-lines-of-flight-bark-painting-as-contemporary-encounter/

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

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Lisa Uhl: Repetition and Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kutungka Napanangka and the sticky question of aesthetics

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Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2004

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

Kutungka Napanangka, Morning Sickness Dreaming 2005

 

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

 

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Kutungka Napanangka, Claypan Site of Yulkarpa, 2007

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

 

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Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2000

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

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Aboriginal Art and the Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Mungkuri, Ngura (Country), 2012

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

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

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

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