Image

Judy Watson

touching my mothers blood 

1988 etching and black ink

A New York University academic, Fred R. Myers states that an intractable problem with Aboriginal art is that while it exists outside the art system the more it is valued. However, once it is in the art system unprepared viewers do not know how to respond to it because, without the information they receive in an ethnographic museum, they cannot relate it to other contemporary art. They cannot see an informed consensus providing the basis for the work (Myers 1998). This retrogressive view of the adaptability of Aboriginal art is fortunately not the way it is viewed within the Australian contemporary art world. Changing attitudes have allowed both remote and urban artists to benefit from a growing popular interest. Aboriginal artists have extended the parameters of how their art is viewed, and this has allowed them to present their work in new contexts such as installation art and photography. This essay will explore the background to the advent of the careers of the artists Gordon Bennett, Robert Campbell Jnr, Fiona Foley, Tracy Moffatt, Lin Onus and Judy Watson. It will also explore how these artists have contributed to change through their work.

By the 1970s, viewing Aboriginal art through a primitive paradigm was becoming unpopular. New ways were being developed to look at global arts and liberate them from the pigeon holes of Western art history. An exhibition in Paris in 1989, Magiciens de la Terre, attempted to challenge primitivist paradigms by showing the work of fifty artists from the West together with a similar number of artists from non- Western traditions. The exhibition presented all the artists as ‘contemporary’ with an example being a huge mud circle painted on a wall by the British environmental artist Richard Long, alongside a ground sculpture by a group of Aboriginal artists from the Yuendumu community in Central Australia (Morphy 1999).

The background to this exhibition began in the early 1980s when, for the first time, Aboriginal artists were included along with other contemporary white artists in the Sydneyexhibition of Perspecta 1981. In 1983, the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris exhibited a large ground painting made by twelve Warlpiri men from the Lajamanu community. The ground painting’s ephemeral quality reflected the exhibition’s theme of Dream and Reality. It also created an avant-garde interest because it was an ephemeral ‘dematerialized’ art object and was considered to follow on the legacy of avant-garde challenges to mainstream expectations of an object-orientated art world (Myers 1998). However, although the recognition of Aboriginal art as being contemporary rescued it from being marginalised, it was only the art of remote communities in the north and centre ofAustralia that were achieving recognition. The art of the south that was being done by Aboriginal people in urban and rural areas remained unrecognized in what W.E.H. Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’ (Morphy 1999).

Although Aboriginal artists in south-eastern Australiacontinued to produce art and craftworks, and some such as Ronald Bull (1942- 79) gained a reputation in the art world, they were negatively viewed as either producers of tourist art or, if they were mainstream contemporary artists, as being assimilated into Western culture. In 1993 the Aratjara Exhibition that touredEurope attempted to rectify the situation. The curators adopted the broad conception of Aboriginal art because, as the art historian Ian McLean notes, it was ‘not until 1990 were there signs of an institutional shift towards the inclusion of urban Aboriginal artists’ (Morphy 1999, p.378). Many of the artists included in this exhibition had been developing from the 1970s onwards in the art world and art schools of urbanAustralia. They drew their inspiration from many different sources reflecting the diversity of their backgrounds. Many found inspiration through personal pilgrimages back to the country of their forebears or in visiting fellow artists in remote communities (Morphy 1999).

Dijon Mundine facilitated communication between Aboriginal artists in the south-eastern states and those in Central Arnhem Landcreating ‘an environment of shared experiences in which mutual understanding developed’ (Morphy 1999, p. 392). Some of the artists that visited Arnhem Landduring this time were Campbell, Fiona Foley (b.1964) and Gordon Bennett (b. 1955). Bennett, a Brisbane-based artist, says that his paintings are ‘an ethnography of representation’ (Morphy 1999, p.399). He characteristically uses a representational system to draw complex analogies between Western art history and the colonial domination of Aborigines. In Outsider (1988) he uses Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles (1889) to show a headless Aboriginal person standing over a bed with two classical heads lying upon it. This postmodernist appropriation seems to challenge both his understanding of his formal art education and his sense of identity within that framework.

After graduating in 1988 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Bennett had first major solo exhibition in 1989 and has since achieved critical acclaim. He continues to engage his work in questions of cultural and personal identity (National Gallery of Victoria 2008). He describes this personal journey: “I was socialized into a Euro-Australian system of representation which included an art school education. However, my approach to aesthetics is to seek to extend my concepts of it and by extension to expand my concepts of representation’ (Morphy 1999, p.403). His paintings include much graphic detail, narrative, words, grids and commercial logos During the 1990s his  Home Décor series uses the aesthetics of the De Stijl art movement to depict stylized Aboriginal figures, (appropriated from the work of 1940s print artist Margaret Preston), as decorative artefacts entrapped upon a Modernist grid. After travelling toNew York in 1998, he developed a street-style appropriated from the 1980s neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat to convey the graffiti of racial and political activism.

The complex nature of the influences and history that involves much contemporary Aboriginal art is exemplified in the work of Fiona Foley. After graduating from the SydneyCollegeof the Arts in 1986, Foley, along with other ‘urban’ artists such as Tracy Moffatt, Bronwyn Bancroft and Michael Riley, was a founding member of the Boomali Aboriginal Arts Cooperative in Sydney. She has worked in many different types of media and became well-known for her collaboration with the artist Janet Laurence on the installation The Edge of Trees (1994) for the Museum of Sydney (Allas 2008). Drawing on other Aboriginal art forms, Foley’s work becomes a commentary on the history of racism and oppression. The sculpture The Annihilation of the Blacks (1986) looks much like Fish on Poles (1962) an Aurukun sculpture that formed the focal point for a ceremonial dance. Foley’s sculpture, rather than being hunted fish, show dead bodies of Aboriginal people being hung upon poles. Also, in 1996 she made a ground sculpture much like traditional ground sculptures. Using flour as a material signified its importance in subjugating Aboriginal people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Foley’s photographic work, such as Native Blood (1994), explores the Western representational genre through photographing herself as an ‘erotic primitive’ (Morphy 1999). Again, like Bennett, she works from the position of postmodernism to change historical context.

The academic Chris Healy describes Foley as a witness; ‘her work is all about determined efforts of remembering- bearing witness to both specific instances and pan-Aboriginal experiences of colonialism- and refusing to remain silent’ (Healy 2003). Originally from FraserIsland, also the birthplace of the poet Oodgeroo Noonucal, her work brings a connection between art, Aboriginality, and place. Djon Mundine observed about her work; ‘this raw material- [is] a form of cultural memory- from FraserIslanditself… For Foley, this was an art practice carried out in a custodial role, a way of reclaiming the history of her people and their land’ (Healy 2003). In her piece Lie of the Land (1997), Foley lists the names of objects traded with Aboriginal people in the 1835 ‘treaty’ with John Batman. These words are engraved on seven sandstone slabs three metres in height and effectively records on giant headstones the objects which cost so many lives (Healy 2003).

While the urban Aboriginal art movement has grown in significance since the 1990s, the focus of it being somewhat marginalised has changed into it joining, without differentiation, to mainstream contemporary art. With this change, artists such as Bennett, Foley and photographer Tracy Moffatt (b.1960) insist on their recognition as artists not simply ‘Aboriginal artists’ (McCulloch 2001). Moffatt explores issues of race, history and gender through staged Surrealist photographs and films. Nice Colored Girls (1987) was a film that staged contemporary encounters between Aboriginal women and European men montaged with references to colonial history and racist attitudes (Morphy 1999).

Like Bennett and Foley, Moffatt was born in Brisbane, and took her first snapshots at the age of 13 in the backyard. These formed a series of coarse-grained off-set prints called the Backyard Series (1998), with one of the photos featuring a nativity scene played by children. Moffatt was adopted into a white family and these garden photographs reflect both the normality and surreal undercurrents which strain relationships in society. The film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) is an ambiguous story about the relationship between an elderly white woman and her half-Aboriginal child (Versloot 2000). In a Moffatt wrote to theNew York curator Lynne Cooke she explained: ‘Making art is quite therapeutic, like chopping vegetables, it calms me and keeps me off the streets’ (Moffatt 1997). She went on to state how important it is to advance your art and be influenced by others; not to be scared of taking anything new. She also states that her influences were mainly women artists such asFrida Kahlo,Georgia O’Keefe and the photographer Anne Brigman (Moffett 1997).

Lin Onus (1948-1996), who was also introduced to the artists of Arnhem Land by Mundine, had a different background to Foley, Bennett and Moffatt. His art also grew from a personal pilgrimage, but he was born in Melbourne where his father was an Aboriginal entrepreneur and craftsman, and his mother was Scottish. Onus grew up in an atmosphere full of Aboriginal art and, although he had no art school training, by the age of seventeen his early paintings were being sold by his father. These paintings were landscape inspired by the work of Albert Namatjira (1902-59) and Ronald Bull. However, the late 1970s and early 1980s brought a change in his work inspired by Trevor Nickolls (b.1949), an Aboriginal artist who went to art school in the early 1970s and was exposed to a wide range of contemporary art. He then spent much time in Arnhem Land and was taught clan paintings by artists such as Jack Wunuwun and Johnny BulunBulun. He painted a series of portraits of these artists in a hyperreal style on a background of their own paintings.

Towards the end of his life Onus turned increasingly to sculpture, using parody as a theme. His group Dingoes (1989) are realistically formed but painted in ochred colours of the Aboriginal flag. The group illustrates the life cycle of a dingo and includes a dingo breaking through a dingo-proof fence which was, according to Onus,  ‘a commentary on the treatment of these native animals which in Aboriginal eyes approximates the treatment of Aboriginal people themselves’ (Morphy 1999, p.391). He also used three-dimensional installations to display his strong sense of irony and humour. Fruit Bats (1991), is an example of the cross-cultural references and meticulous detailing for which he became so well-known (McCulloch 2001).

Aboriginal art has now become part of the mainstream in contemporary art inAustraliaas it is collected by the same institutions, exhibited within the same gallery structures, and written about in the same journals. This has come about because of the struggle by Aboriginal artists to have their work incorporated rather than assimilated into the institutional structure. Artists such as Judy Watson (b.1959) show how the adaptability of Aboriginal art contributes to an overall push in it being judged on its aesthetic qualities rather than its story-telling properties (McCulloch 2001).

Watson uses painting, sculpture and print media to create complex, subtle works that evoke the spirit and feeling of place. Her style is predominantly non-figurative, using the texture and surface qualities of the painted canvas, lithographic stone, or plywood base to express meaning. Her set of sculptures the guardians/ guardian spirit (1986-87) represent the matrilineal part of her family. The figure forms allude to termite mounds and the spirits that they represent. Many of her paintings are designed to hang without frames like textiles (Morphy 1999). Another Brisbane-based artist, in 1990 she was able to experience her Aboriginal heritage when she visited her grandmother’s country in north-westQueensland.

Although art from the south-east of Australia generally fits into a global category of contemporary art that emphasizes individual style, there are common themes and patterns of influence that distinguish Aboriginal art. Many artists draw on themes of their identity, past and also shared experiences of oppression. The subject matter of Robert Campbell (1944-1993) ranged from the history of racism in rural NSW to its mundane existence. Growing up in Kempsey, he learnt to draw at the primary school at Burnt Bridge Mission where he also helped his father decorate boomerangs. Whilst working as a seasonal worker around Kempsey and a labourer in Sydney, he developed what Djon Mundine calls a ‘confident’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ style (Mundine 2008) painting for tourists and local art shows using available materials.

Campbell’s work is both humorous and insightful and he wrote: ‘As an urban Aboriginal artist my work does not look “typically Aboriginal”… My paintings are in fact very much what I feel in my own heart. Very personal’, (Morphy 1999, p.380). A characteristic of his work is the contrast between the bright optimism conveyed in the colours of the paintings and the dark themes they explore. In Death in Custody (1987) he documents an important issue of contemporary Aboriginal politics; that Aboriginal people are the most imprisoned segment of the Australian population and the number of young men who die in custody (Morphy 1999).

It is because of the starkness of the statistics of Aboriginal poverty, infant mortality, sickness, and prison populations that these artists continue to address these issues. However, this should not necessarily pigeon-hole them as “Aboriginal” artists. Their work is political as well as being concerned with identity. These are subjects which interest many contemporary artists. By extending the boundaries of popular response through the use of new contexts, these artists have been able to change attitudes to the way their art is viewed. Furthermore, there is a need for Aboriginal artists to continue to explore their Aboriginality and through their work, aid non-Aboriginal people in understanding the impact of racism and disinheritance.

References:

Gordon Bennett, 2008, Retrieved January 23, 2009 from http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/gordonbennett

Healy, C., 2003, Fiona Foley. Silent witness? Retrieved January 26, 2009, from http://www.anu.edu/hrc/research/WtoS/Healy.pdf

McCulloch, S., 2001, Contemporary Aboriginal Art- A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture-Revised Edition, Allen & Unwin Sydney

Moffatt, T., 1997, A letter from Tracey Moffatt to Lynne Cooke, curator of Dia Centre for  the Arts, New York, in advance of her show “Free Falling”, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs/moffatt/project/traceymoffatt.html

Morphy, H., 1999, Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press,London

Myers, F., 1998, Uncertain Regard: An Exhibition of Aboriginal Art in France, Ethnos Vol. 63, No.1, Retrieved January 22, 2009 from http://www.homepages.nyu.edu

Versloot, A., 2000, Roller Queens and Narrow-minded Machos- The World of Tracey Moffatt, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.radionetherlands.nl/features/cultureandhistory/moffatt000602.html

Bibliography:

 

Allas, T. (n.d), Fiona Foley, Retrieved January 30, 2009 from http://www.daao.org.au/main/read/2575

Gordon Bennett (n.d.), Retrieved January 29, 2009 from http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/gordonbennett/

Green, C., 1999, Beyond the Future: The Third Asia-Pacific Triennale Art Journal Vol.58, No.4 pp.81-87, College Art Association

Healy, C., 2003, Fiona Foley. Silent witness? Retrieved January 26, 2009, from http://www.anu.edu/hrc/research/WtoS/Healy.pdf

Judy Watson (n.d.), Retrieved January 26, 2009 from http://www.nga.gov.au/Landscapes/Wat.htm

Ladds, A. (n.d.), The Reconciler, Retrieved January 31, 2009 from http://www.theblurb.com.au/Issue27/LinOnus.htm

McCulloch, S., 2001, Contemporary Aboriginal Art- A guide to the rebirth of an ancient culture-Revised Edition, Allen & Unwin Sydney

Moffatt, T., 1997, A letter from Tracey Moffatt to Lynne Cooke, curator of Dia Centre for  the Arts, New York, in advance of her show “Free Falling”, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.diacenter.org/exhibs/moffatt/project/traceymoffatt.html

Morphy, H., 1999, Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press,London

Mundine, D. 2008, Robert Campbell (Junior), Retrieved January 26, 2009 from http://www.daao.org.au/main/recent

Myers, F., 1998, Uncertain Regard: An Exhibition of Aboriginal Art in France, Ethnos Vol. 63, No.1, Retrieved January 22, 2009 from http://www.homepages.nyu.edu

Nelson, R., 2007, Gordon Bennett, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.theage.com.au/news/arts-reviews/gordon-bennett/2007/09/19/11898815568

Through artists eyes: Tracey Moffatt and Gordon Bennett Retrieved January 29, 2009 from http://www.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/index.html?page=97971&pid=0

Versloot, A., 2000, Roller Queens and Narrow-minded Machos- The World of Tracey Moffatt, Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.radionetherlands.nl/features/cultureandhistory/moffatt000602.html

White, A., 2000, Aboriginal Art: Sacred and Profane, Review of Susan McCulloch, Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A Guide to the Rebirth of an Ancient Culture, Art Journal Vol. 59, No.4, pp.105-107, College Art Association

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