Archives for category: eminent artists


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.


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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


What I should like to bring home to you is the incredible heroism

                of a man such as Picasso whose moral isolation at that period

was something frightful, for none of his painter friends had followed him.

                                                                                                                                  Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884 – 1979)


In 1907 a work that revolutionised artistic conventions, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was conceived by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It has only been since his estate was left to the state of France in 1987 that it has been possible to trace the progressive thoughts and ideas that evolved to become this monumental landmark painting. After examining the origins of Picasso, this essay will endeavour to reveal the major influences, features and reactions to a work of art that has become the cornerstone of modern art.

 Picasso was one of the first artists to challenge artistic convention and move into the realm of abstraction. This artist, whose contributions into new ways of representing the world made him one of the most important in art history, prolifically explored almost every artistic medium in his long life. By the time he had entered the Barcelona Academy of Fine Arts at age fourteen, he had already mastered the 19th century Realist technique, thanks to early tuition from his father who was a drawing teacher. Through a deep curiosity and capacity for assimilation, his determined spirit shook off all family and social restraints and, after settling inParis in 1904, began an enduring experiment with innovation.

 Picasso was in constant dialogue with all the art he had ever seen; the European tradition, Spanish history, other civilizations, as well as his contemporaries. In her article on Picasso’s influences, Miriam Cosic informs that Picasso’s Spanish roots were with Velaquez, El Greco and Goya, whom he would have studied as a student. The masters of his immediate past were Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, as well as the Paris-centred modernism of contemporaries such as Matisse and Braque. Anne Baldassari, the director of the Musee Picasso inParis, says that maybe the real idea for Picasso was to grab the essential, ‘art could never be decorative or symbolic for him.’(Cosic, 2008, p.4). He cross-examined works intensely, searching for the key idea or the ‘revolutionary aspect that bestows power and longevity’(ibid. p.5). Cosic also reveals that Picasso greatly admired Cezanne, whose method taught him that ‘painting has intrinsic value, independent of the realistic representation of the objects portrayed and inherent in the spatial construction and brushwork. Archaic Iberian sculpture and masks from the Ivory Coastwere also to hold a fascination for him and it was the examination of this art that would influence further breakthroughs in 1906.

 There was widespread interest at the time in ‘primitive art’ which was thought to articulate a primal force of human expression. Picasso came into contact with this art for the first time when he was shown a small wooden statue in the studio of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The art historian Lorraine Levy informs that it was said that Picasso was overwhelmed by it and held it in his hands all night (Levy, 1990, p.48). With a simple language of two holes for eyes, a triangle for the mouth, the geometry of such statues transfigured reality. Picasso realised that one should not ‘seek to paint what one saw, but what one felt, even if it meant deforming the subject in order to arrive at its essence’ (ibid. p.48).

 However, it was in 1905 that modern art’s truly new idiom began. Developing backwards, Picasso made a well-considered and multi-layered engagement with tradition. He cut back his deployment of colour, reinforced his forms by simplifying them to a concentrated essential. 1905 was also the year that the Fauves provoked controversy with their revolutionary use of autonomous colour at the autumn Salon in Paris. That Salon also had an Ingres retrospective and a small showing of Cezanne’s paintings. From Cezanne, Picasso took his laws of rendering form and colour, whereas from Ingres he took the academic draughtsman’s perfection of form. By the summer of 1906, after a trip to Gosol in the Spanish Pyrenees, a rudimentary simplicity appeared in Picasso’s work. He had begun depicting human form in terms of its plastic volume, simplifying it to a few blocks and therefore something much less naturalistic. Picasso biographer, Ingo Walther, declares that the two portraits in 1906 were precursors to this new idiom; Self Portrait with Palette and Portrait of Gertrude Stein. The principles upon which Picasso was working were seen as beginning in these two works. He ignored perspective and the logic of natural appearance in Gertrude Steins’ portrait, giving her a head that is an irregular block with asymmetrical eyes and nose. In his self portrait, a professional technique is ignored altogether with colour being rawly applied, making no illusions but merely establishing a form (Walther, 1992, p.14).

In the summer of 1907, these experiments culminated in the major work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, recognised as a key work in modern art. For decades little was known how this work came to be painted- therefore vague opinions were formed to fill the gaps of knowledge. The painting was begun in the autumn of 1906 upon Picasso’s return fromSpain. After doing sketches all winter, the first composition was ready in March 1907, which shows seven people in a brothel. Picasso then altered the form and composition considerably by cutting the number of figures to five, and it was this version which he transferred to canvas. He did not stop sketching further ideas but by July 1907 had painted the final work after a staggering 809 preliminary sketches. Walther contests that the sheer rigorousness of Picasso’s application shows that this work was executed in a rational and consistent manner (Walther, 1992, p.155). 

Each part of the picture has a fundamental importance, beginning with the size of the canvas, which looks like a square, but is not. It is a difference that creates an impression of irresolution. ‘Everything in this picture teaches us of the inadequacy and randomness of customary concepts in visual representation’ (Walther, 1992, p.153). The colour scheme is both monochromatic and contrastive with the figures coloured from whitish yellow to brown, contrasting with the blue that divides the right group from the left. The blue tonal differences weaken the shock of the transition, and are modified again by being placed casually with the classical golden section. The illuminating effect of light is abandoned with light and dark areas merely used to point out the drama of the figures. ‘Empty space disappears- this is the greatest organisational innovation- and a spiky design jerks across the surface and shatters spatial continuity (Haftmann, 1965, p.70) 

An irregular tripartite scheme is given with the triangular table that points upwards as the centre axis. The axis is also occupied by the middle figure whose arms restate the axis by inverting the triangle. This is a classical symmetrical composition of an ideal yet austere kind. In contrast, classical perspective has been obliterated with the only spatial depth in the work being held by the overlapping of figures. Picasso has also painted contradicting viewpoints, with the lower half of the painting looking up to the subjects, while the upper section is indefinite. The bodies are seen at once from the front and the side, lines and blocks of colour being used to make de-formations in parts of the figures. The painting is ‘a meticulously considered, scrupulously calculated visual experience without equal’ (Walther, 1992, p. 160).

 The picture that he had painted seemed to all of them something crazy

or monstrous. Braque…declared that it seemed to him that it was as if

someone had drunk paraffin in order to spit out flames, and Derain told

me to my face that one day Picasso would be found hanging

behind this big picture of his, so desperate did the enterprise seem.

                                                                                                                                                                   Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler

For weeks Picasso had not allowed anyone to look at what he was working on, and when he finally showed his contemporaries the work ‘he was completely and unanimously disowned’ (Levy 1990, p.52). The collector,Leo Stein, asked facetiously if Picasso was trying to paint the fourth dimension, whereas Matisse was furious and mystified. Only Kahnweiler, who was later to become Picasso’s art dealer, understood the genius that was Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso turned the painting to face the wall and did not show it again for another twenty years. However, the effect on his contemporaries was profound and the painting is seen to be the beginning of Analytical Cubism.

 Contemporary analysis of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and of its preliminary studies, show that the painting was truly radical. Walther asserts that Picasso had reconceived European art tradition in its entirety and used its elements to create a new visual language. He had not intended to break with tradition but he did want to disrupt, perhaps destroy convention. ‘This painting, more than any other work of European Modernism, is a wholly achieved analysis of the art of painting and of the nature of beauty in art’ (Walther, 1992, p.163).

It is recognised that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon not only broke with tradition but destroyed the whole concept of beauty in Western art. Cubism and modernist doctrines were derived from it. Hidden from view for such a substantial amount of time, the effects of the painting continued to reverberate through the minds of the artists who reacted so violently to it. The painting continued to influence its effect exponentially through their work and, even today, retains its ability to disturb and shock.





Cosic, M., Cezanne’s Grandson, May 24-25, 2008, Weekend Australian, News Limited, Sydney

Haftmann, W., Painting In The Twentieth Century, 1965,Lund Humphries,Munich

Ed. Kleiner & Mamiya, Art Through The Ages, 2005, ThompsonWadsworth,Los Angeles

Levy, L., Picasso, 1990,Konecky&Konecky,New York

Ed. Richet, M. The Musee Picasso, Paris II, 1988, Thames andHudson,London

Walther, I.F., 1992, Picasso I, Benedikt Tasken Verlag ,Cologne