Contemporary Indigenous Australian art


Contemporary Indigenous Australian art

Contemporary Indigenous Australian art is the modern art work produced by Indigenous Australians. It is generally regarded as beginning with a painting movement that started at Papunya, northwest of Alice Springs, Northern Territory in 1971, involving artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, and facilitated by white Australian teacher and art worker Geoffrey Bardon. The movement spawned widespread interest across rural and remote Aboriginal Australia in creating art, while contemporary Indigenous art of a different nature also emerged in urban centres; together they have become central to Australian art.

Leading Indigenous artists have had solo exhibitions at Australian and international galleries, while their work has been included in major collaborations such as the design of the Musée du quai Branly. Contemporary Indigenous artists have won many of Australia's most prominent art prizes: the Wynne Prize has been won by Indigenous artists on at least three occasions; Shirley Purdie won the religious-themed Blake Prize in 2007 with Linda Syddick Napaltjarri a finalist on three occasions. Indigenous artists, including Rover Thomas, have represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and 1997. In 2007, a painting by Emily Kngwarreye, Earth's Creation, was the first Indigenous art work to sell for more than $1 million. Works by contemporary Indigenous artists are held by all of Australia's major public galleries, including the National Gallery of Australia, which in October 2010 opened a new wing dedicated to its Indigenous collection.

Contents

Origins

Indigenous Australian art can claim to be "the world’s longest continuing art tradition".[1] Prior to European settlement of Australia, Indigenous people used many art forms, including sculpture, wood carving, rock carving, body painting, bark painting and weaving. Many of these continue to be used both for traditional purposes and in the creation of art works for exhibition and sale. Some other techniques have declined or disappeared since European settlement, including body decoration by scarring and the making of possum-skin cloaks. However, Indigenous Australians also adopted and expanded the use of new techniques including painting on paper and canvas.[2] Early examples include the late nineteenth century drawings by William Barak.[3]

Early contemporary art initiatives

Indigenous artist Albert Namatjira with prominent Australian portraitist William Dargie

In the 1930s, artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner introduced watercolour painting to Albert Namatjira, an Indigenous man at Hermannsberg Mission, south-west of Alice Springs. His landscape paintings, first created in 1936[4] and exhibited in Australian cities in 1938, were immediately successful,[5] and he became the first Indigenous Australian watercolourist as well as the first to successfully exhibit and sell his works to the non-Indigenous community.[6] Namatjira's style of work was adopted by other Indigenous artists in the region beginning with his close male relatives, and they became known as the Hermannsburg School[7] or as the Arrernte Watercolourists.[8]

Namatjira died in 1959, and by then a second initiative had also begun. At Ernabella, now Pukatja, South Australia, the use of bright acrylic paints to produce designs for posters and postcards was introduced. This led later to fabric design and batik work, which is still produced at Australia's oldest Indigenous art centre.[5][9]

A contemporary Indigenous art movement begins

While the initiatives at Hermannsburg and Ernabella were important antecedents, most sources trace the origins of contemporary Indigenous art, particularly acryclic painting, to Papunya, Northern Territory in 1971.[10][11][12] An Australian school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya and started an art program with children at the school and then with the men of the community. The men began with painting a mural on the school walls, and moved on to painting on boards and canvas. At the same time, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, a member of the community who worked with Bardon, won a regional art award at Alice Springs. Soon over 20 men at Papunya were painting, and they established their own company, Papunya Tula Artists Limited, to support the creation and marketing of works.[10] Although painting took hold quickly at Papunya, it remained a "small-scale regional phenomenon" throughout the 1970s,[13] and for a decade none of the state galleries or the national gallery collected the works.[14] However, the painting movement developed rapidly in the 1980s,[13] spreading to Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Utopia and Haasts Bluff in the Northern Territory, and Balgo, Western Australia.[15] By the 1990s artistic activity had spread to many communities throughout northern Australia, including those established as part of the Outstation movement, such as Kintore, Northern Territory and Kiwirrkurra Community, Western Australia.[16] Since then, expansion has continued, with at least 10 painting communities developing in central Australia between the late 1990s and 2006.[17]

Indigenous art cooperatives have been central to the emergence of contemporary Indigenous art. Whereas many western artists pursue formal training and work as individuals, most contemporary Indigenous art is created in community groups and art centres.[18] In 2010, the peak body representing central Australian Indigenous art centres, Desart, had 44 member centres,[19] while the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA), the peak body for northern Australian communities, had 43 member centres.[20] The centres represent large numbers of artists – ANKAAA estimates its member organisations alone include up to 5000 artists.[20]

Styles and themes

The Aboriginal Memorial, by Ramingining artists, from Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The work is part of the permanent display of the National Gallery of Australia, and one of the nation's most significant Indigenous art works. The image shows the Memorial as displayed in 2005, prior to its restoration and relocation to the new Indigenous art wing of the Gallery.

Indigenous art frequently reflects the spiritual traditions, cultural practices and socio-political circumstances of Indigenous people,[21] and these have varied across the country. The works of art accordingly differ greatly from place to place. Major reference works on Australian Indigenous art often discuss works by geographical region.[22] The usual groupings are of art from the Central Australian desert; the Kimberley in Western Australia; the northern regions of the Northern Territory, particularly Arnhem Land, often referred to as the Top End; and northern Queensland, including the Torres Strait Islands. Urban art is also generally treated as a distinct style of Indigenous art, though it is not clearly geographically defined.

Central Australia: desert art

Indigenous artists from remote central Australia, particularly the central and western desert area, frequently paint particular 'dreamings', or stories, for which they have personal responsibility or rights.[23] Best known amongst these are the works of the Papunya Tula painters and of Utopia artist Emily Kngwarreye. The patterns portrayed by central Australian artists, such as those from Papunya, originated as translations of traditional motifs marked out in sand, boards or incised into rock.[24] The symbols used in designs typically include those denoting place, those denoting movement, others that may indicate people or animals, and dot fields that may indicate a range of phenomena such as sparks, clouds or rain.[25]

The Top End

In Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, men have painted their traditional clan designs.[26] The iconography however is quite separate and distinct from that of central Australia.[27] In north Queensland and the Torres Strait many communities continue to practice cultural artistic traditions along with voicing strong political and social messages in their work.

'Urban' art

In Indigenous communities across northern Australia most artists have no formal training, their work being based instead on traditional knowledge and skills. In southeast Australia other Indigenous artists, often living in the cities, have trained in art schools and universities.[28] These artists are sometimes referred to as 'urban' Indigenous artists, although the term is sometimes controversial,[29] and does not accurately describe the origins of some of these individuals, such as Bronwyn Bancroft who grew up in the town of Tenterfield, New South Wales,[30] Michael Riley who came from rural New South Wales near Dubbo and Moree,[31] or Lin Onus who spent time on his father's traditional country on the Murray River near Victoria's Barmah forest.[32] Some, like Onus, were self-taught; others such as artist Danie Mellor and artist, curator and writer Brenda Croft have completed university studies in fine arts.[33][34]

Media

Anthropologist Nicholas Thomas observed that contemporary Indigenous art practice was perhaps unique in how "wholly new media were adapted so rapidly to produce work of such palpable strength".[35] Much contemporary Indigenous art is produced using acrylic paint on canvas. However other materials and techniques are in use, often in particular regions. Bark painting predominates amongst artists from Arnhem Land, who also undertake carving and weaving.[15] In central Australian communities associated with the Pitjantjatjara people, pokerwork carving is significant.[36]

Textile production including batik has been important in the northwestern desert regions of South Australia, in the Northern Territory's Utopia community, and in other areas of central Australia.[15][26] For a decade before commencing the painting career that would make her famous, Emily Kngwarreye was creating batik designs that revealed her "prodigious original talent" and the modernity of her artistic vision.[37] A wide range of textile art techniques, including dyeing and weaving, is particularly associated with Pukatja, South Australia (formerly known as Ernabella), but in the mid 2000s the community also developed a reputation for fine sgraffito ceramics.[38][39] Hermannsburg, originally home to Albert Namatjira and the Arrente Watercolourists, is now renowned for its pottery.[40][41][42]

Amongst 'urban' Indigenous artists, more diverse techniques are in use such as silkscreen printing, poster making, photography, television and film.[26] One of the most important contemporary Indigenous artists of his generation, Michael Riley worked in film, video, still photography and digital media.[43] Likewise, Bronwyn Bancroft has worked in fabric, textiles, "jewellery design, painting, collage, illustration, sculpture and interior decoration".[44] Nevertheless, painting remains a medium used by many 'urban' artists, such as Gordon Bennett, Fiona Foley, Trevor Nickolls, Lin Onus, Judy Watson, and Harry Wedge.[45]

Exhibitions and collections

The National Gallery of Australia's extension, completed in 2010, which houses a representative collection of Indigenous art, including the Aboriginal Memorial (above).

The public recognition and exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art was initially very limited: for example, it was only a minor part of the collection of Australia's national gallery when its building was opened in 1982. Early exhibitions of major works were held as part of the Sydney Biennales of 1979 and 1982, while a large-scale sand painting was a feature of the 1981 Sydney Festival.[46] Early private gallery showings of contemporary Indigenous art included a solo exhibition of bark paintings by Johnny Bulunbulun at Hogarth Gallery in Sydney in 1981, and an exhibition of western desert artists at Gallery A in Sydney, which formed part of the 1982 Sydney Festival.[46]

There are a number of regular exhibitions devoted to contemporary Indigenous art. Since 1984, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award exhibition has been held in the Northern Territory, under the auspices of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.[47] In 2007, the National Gallery of Australia held the first Indigenous Art Triennial, which included works by thirty contemporary Indigenous artists such as Richard Bell, Danie Mellor, Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Shane Pickett.[48]

Several individual artists have been the subject of retrospective exhibitions at public galleries. These have included Rover Thomas at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994,[49] Emily Kngwarreye, at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1998, John Mawurndjul at the Tinguely Museum in Basel Switzerland in 2005,[50] and Paddy Bedford at several galleries including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2006–07.[51]

Internationally, Indigenous artists have represented Australia in the Venice Biennale, including Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls in 1990, and Emily Kngwarreye, Judy Watson and Yvonne Koolmatrie in 1997.[52] In 2000, a number of individual artists and artistic collaborations were shown in the prestigious Nicholas Hall at the Hermitage Museum in Russia.[53] In 2003, eight Indigenous artists – Paddy Bedford, John Mawurndjul, Ningura Napurrula, Lena Nyadbi, Michael Riley, Judy Watson, Tommy Watson and Gulumbu Yunupingu – collaborated on a commission to provide works that decorate one of the Musée du quai Branly's four buildings completed in 2006.[54]

Contemporary Indigenous art works are collected by all of Australia's major public galleries. The National Gallery of Australia has a significant collection, with a new wing (pictured) constructed for its permanent exhibition. The extension was announced in 2006[55] and opened in October 2010. Some state galleries, such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales,[56] the National Gallery of Victoria,[1] and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory,[57] have gallery space permanently dedicated to the exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art. Galleries outside Australia acquiring contemporary Indigenous art include the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Permanent displays of Indigenous art outside Australia are found at Seattle Art Museum, Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art and the Kluge–Ruhe Museum at the University of Virginia.[58][59]

The Araluen Centre for Arts and Entertainment, a public art gallery in Alice Springs, hosts the country's largest collection of works by Albert Namatjira. It also hosts the annual Desert Mob exhibition, representing current painting activities across Australia's Aboriginal art centres.[60] The National Gallery of Victoria holds the country's main collection of Indigenous batik.[61]

Prizes

Contemporary Indigenous art works have won a number of Australia's principal national art prizes, including the Wynne prize, the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award and the Blake Prize. Indigenous winners have included Shirley Purdie, 2007 winner of the Blake Prize with her work Stations of the Cross;[62] 2003 Clemenger Award winner John Mawurndjul, and 2006 Clemenger winner Judy Watson.[63] The Wynne prize has been won by contemporary Indigenous artists on several occasions, including in 1999 by Gloria Petyarre with Leaves; in 2004 by George Tjungurrayi; and in 2008 by Joanne Currie Nalingu, with her painting The river is calm.[64]

As well as winning major prizes, Indigenous artists have been well represented amongst the finalists in these competitions. The Blake Prize has included numerous Indigenous finalists, such as Bronwyn Bancroft (2008),[65] Angelina Ngal[66] and Irene (Mbitjana) Entata (2009),[67] Genevieve Kemarr Loy, Cowboy Loy Pwerl, Dinni Kunoth Kemarre, Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray (2010), and Linda Syddick Napaltjarri (on three separate occasions).[68]

Australia's major Indigenous art prize is the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Established by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in 1984, the award includes a major winner that receives A$40,000, and five category awards each worth $4000: one for bark painting, one for works on paper, one for three-dimensional works and, introduced for the first time in 2010, one for new media.[69] Winners of the major prize have included Makinti Napanangka in 2008,[70] and Danie Mellor in 2009.[71] In 2008, the Art Gallery of Western Australia established the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards, which include the country's most valuable Indigenous art cash prize of A$50,000, as well as a A$10,000 prize for the top Western Australian artist, and a A$5000 People's Choice Award, all selected from the field of finalists, which includes 15 individuals and one collaborative group. The 2009 winner of the main prize was Ricardo Idagi, while the People's Choice award was won by Shane Pickett.[72] Wayne Quilliam was awarded the 2009 NAIDOC Artist of the Year for his many years of work on the local and International scene working with Indigenous groups throughout the world.

Benefits and costs

The flowering of Indigenous art has delivered economic, social and cultural benefits to Indigenous Australians, who are socially and economically disadvantaged compared to the Australian community as a whole.[73] The sale of art works is a significant economic activity for individual artists and for their communities. Estimates of the size of the sector vary, but placed its value in the early 2000s at A$100 to 300 million, and by 2007 at half a billion dollars and growing.[74] The sector is particularly important to many Indigenous communities because, as well being a source of cash for an economically disadvantaged group, it reinforces Indigenous identity and tradition, and has aided the maintenance of social cohesion.[75] For example, early works painted at Papunya were created by senior Aboriginal men to help educate younger generations about their culture and their cultural responsibilities.[76]

"There is currently an upsurge in interest in Aboriginal art among the Australian public and overseas visitors...The resultant pressure on artists to produce has led ultimately to a collapse or emasculation of the art form. Aboriginal art is now under incredible strain to fulfil white demands on Aboriginal culture.[77]

Indigenous Australian activist Djon Mundine, writing during Australia's bicentennial year, 1988.

Fraud and exploitation are significant issues affecting contemporary Indigenous Australian art. Indigenous art works have regularly been reproduced without artists' permission, including by the Reserve Bank of Australia when it used a David Malangi painting on the one dollar note in 1966.[78] Similar appropriation of material has taken place with fabric designs, T-shirts and carpets.[79] There have been claims of artists being kidnapped, or relocated against the wishes of their families, by people keen to acquire the artists' paintings.[80][81]

Artists, particularly in the remoter parts of Australia, sometimes paint for outlets other than the Indigenous art centres or their own companies. They do this for economic reasons, however the resulting paintings can be of uneven quality, and of precarious economic value.[82] Doubts about the provenance of Indigenous paintings, and about the prices paid for them, have spawned media scrutiny[83] and an Australian parliamentary inquiry.[84] Questions regarding the authenticity of works have arisen in relation to particular artists, including Emily Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas, Kathleen Petyarre, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri; in 2001 an art dealer was jailed for fraud in relation to Clifford Possum's work.[85] These pressures led in 2009 to the introduction of an Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct, intended to establish "minimum standards of practice and fair dealing in the Indigenous visual arts industry".[86]

Prices fetched in the secondary market for Indigenous art works vary widely. Until 2007, the record at auction for an Indigenous art work was $778,750 paid in 2003 for a Rover Thomas painting, All That Big Rain Coming from the Top Side. In 2007, a major work by Emily Kngwarreye, Earth's Creation, sold for $1.056 million, a new record that was however eclipsed only a few months later, when Clifford Possum's epic work Warlugulong was bought for $2.4 million by the National Gallery of Australia.[87] At the same time, however, works by prominent artists but of doubtful provenance were being passed in at auctions.[88] In 2003 there were 97 Indigenous Australian artists whose works were being sold at auction in Australia for prices above $5000, with the total auction market worth around $9.5 million. In that year Sotheby’s estimated that half of sales were to bidders outside Australia.[89]

Assessment

Art historian Wally Caruana called Indigenous art "the last great tradition of art to be appreciated by the world at large",[90] and contemporary Indigenous art is the only art movement of international significance to emerge from Australia.[91][92] Modern Indigenous art has been described by leading critic Robert Hughes as "the last great art movement of the 20th century",[93] and by poet Les Murray as "Australia's equivalent of jazz".[94] Paintings by the artists of the western desert in particular have quickly achieved "an extraordinarily widespread reputation", with collectors competing to obtain them.[95] Some Indigenous artists are regarded as amongst the foremost Australian painters; Emily Kngwarreye has been described as "one of the greatest modern Australian painters",[96] and "among the best Australian artists, arguably amongst the best of her time."[97] Critics reviewing the Hermitage Museum exhibition in 2000 were universal in their praise, one remarking: "This is an exhibition of contemporary art, not in the sense that it was done recently, but in that it is cased in the mentality, technology and philosophy of radical art of the most recent times. No one, other than the Aborigines of Australia, has succeeded in exhibiting such art at the Hermitage".[53]

Not all of the assessments have been universally favourable. Museum curator Philip Batty, who had been involved in assisting the creation and sale of art works in central Australia, expressed concern at the effect of the non-Indigenous art market on the artists – particularly Emily Kngwarreye – and their work. He wrote "there was always a danger that the European component of this cross-cultural partnership would become overly dominant. By the end of her brief career, I think that Emily had all but evacuated this intercultural domain, and her work simply became a mirror image of European desires".[98] Outstanding art works are mixed with poor ones, with the passage of time yet to filter the good from the bad.[99]

The contemporary Indigenous art movement has influenced many non-Indigenous Australian artists, particularly through collaborative projects. Indigenous artists Gordon Bennett and Michael Nelson Jagamarra, have engaged in both collaborative artworks and exhibitions with gallerist Michael Eather, and painter Imants Tillers, the Australian-born son of Latvian refugees.[100] The Australian Research Council and Land & Water Australia supported an artistic and archaeological collaboration through the project Strata: Deserts Past, Present and Future, which involved Indigenous artists Daisy Jugadai Napaltjarri and Molly Jugadai Napaltjarri.[101]

See also

  • List of Australian Indigenous art movements and cooperatives

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