When Europeans arrived, the old ways of painting changed. 1 John Mawurndjul, ‘My head is full up with ideas’, in Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu, Au centre de la Terre d’Arnhem: entre myths et réalité: art aborigène d’Australie, Maningrida Arts and Culture, Maningrida, 2001, p. 56. A conversation between John Mawurndjul, Murray Garde and Apolline Kohen that took place in February 2001.
From Bark to Neon: Indigenous Art from the NGV Collection celebrates Indigenous art in Australia and explores some watershed moments of invention in its recent history. The exhibition looks at forward-thinking individuals who have shaped and transformed Indigenous art in Australia. It acknowledges key artists across time and place who have created new forms of art and regenerated customary cultural practices and iconography. From Bark to Neon avoids a linear chronology in order to look at concurrent innovations and continuities led by artists from different language groups and cultural traditions across bush and city environments.
This essay echoes the thematic layout of the exhibition, which begins with a ‘Dreamtime / machine time’2 ‘Dreamtime / Machine time’ is a metaphor coined by artist Trevor Nickolls to express the dichotomies and incongruities of an Aboriginal man existing within an alienating white-dominated, Western nation. mashup of singular contemporary artists from disparate centres of art production, from Melbourne and Adelaide to the Kimberley and Far North Queensland. Rover Thomas, leader of the East Kimberley School of landscape painting, and Trevor Nickolls, the so-called ‘father of urban Aboriginal art’, who were the first Indigenous artists chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale (1990), share the space with three prominent Melbourne-based artists: Lin Onus, Destiny Deacon and Brook Andrew. Alec Mingelmanganu’s Wanjina, 1980, and Andrew’s Sexy & dangerous, 1996, give a modern frisson to ancestral rock images and archival photographic negatives by translating them into modern materials. These palpable icons are in marked contrast to Sally Gabori’s daring fields of brilliant colour that honour places on Bentinck Island that stand out clearly in her Kaiadilt cultural memory. Different again is Deacon’s subversive brand of humour, which she uses to elevate collectable objects of Aboriginal kitsch and to play on stereotypes of Indigeneity.
Women emerge as creators and inventors
During the 1990s, the great Anmatyerr artist Emily Kam Kngwarray transformed women’s striped body designs from Awely ceremonies into momentous acrylic paintings of her birthplace, Alhalker, and her Dreaming, Anwerlarr (the pencil yam). Unlike early Western Desert works, Kngwarray’s paintings resist interpretation as map, diagram or landscape; her work is not notation, but a daring form of visual music. Kngwarray’s meteoric rise to prominence, acknowledged internationally by her representation at the 1997 Venice Biennale alongside fellow Indigenous artists Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson, signalled the emergence of Indigenous women as contemporary artists of invention and opened up opportunities for others to work in modern and customary mediums previously unavailable to them.
Pintupi artist Naata Nungurrayi also works with different combinations of layered dots, nuances of colour and lines to represent women’s ritual designs specific to place, whereas fellow Pintupi artists Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Charlotte Phillipus Napurrula devise bi-chrome compositions of parallel chevron designs to represent the sandhill terrain of sites on their Country. May Moodoonuthi from Bentinck Island strengthens her connection to family and Country by painting burrkunda (scarification marks) that senior Kaiadilt people made on their bodies to connect them to family in times of mourning. Male Pitjantjatjara artist Patju Presley, by contrast, expresses his deep connections with Makurapiti through a geometric colour field of kinti (close dots), whereas Gija artist Paddy Bedford devises a minimalist geometry of ochres to represent Joowarringayin, the place of a ‘dangerous Devil Devil Dreaming’. These artists maintain their cultural traditions of language, ritual and customary law by living and working for Indigenous-owned art centres on Country and painting their true stories for dissemination to a wider public.
From cave walls to neon: 1950s to now
During the late 1950s until the early 1960s, artists living at Minjilang (Croker Island) in the escarpment country of Western Arnhem Land made tangible, as ochre icons on bark, Mimih spirit beings who left their images on rock faces. Paris-based Czech artist Karel Kupka collected and published bark paintings by Paddy Compass Namadbara, Yirawala and Jimmy Midjawmidjaw in Un art à l’état brut: peintures et sculptures des aborigènes d’Australie (1962), contending that they represented ‘an elemental form of plastic art, the source of conceptual representation, conserved in a miraculous state of purity, texture and materiality’.3 Karel Kupka, Dawn of Art: Painting and Sculpture of Australian Aborigines, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1965, p. 10 (the English translation of Kupka’s Un Art a l’Etat Brut: peintures et sculptures des aborigènes d’Australie, La Guilde du Livre et Editions Clairefontaine, Lausanne, 1962). The figures stand out in space as living beings in their wholeness, with features omitted, enlarged or distorted to intensify their power and to accentuate their sexuality.
Almost six decades later, Gumatj sisters Nyapanyapa Yunupingu and the late Barrupu Yunupingu began to make bark paintings that transformed the idea of Yolngu art, formerly the preserve of men. They broke free of replicating preordained minytji (sacred designs) and ordered sequences of crosshatching. Barrupu, a painter of vigorous diamond gestures that encode fire, and Nyapanyapa, a compulsive maker of marks, are Gumatj artists known for their paintings of tonal nuance, irregularity of surface and gestural freedom. Painting in natural ochres on individual sheets of stringybark was in itself an innovation devised and refined by generations of artists across Arnhem Land, in response to European contact. Of vital significance in this respect was anthropologist Baldwin Spencer’s 1913 commissioning of Gagudju artists to paint figurative images on bark similar to those on their bark wet-season shelters and on rock faces of the escarpment. These pioneering artists shared elements of their culture with balanda (Europeans), initiating a political dialogue between black and white, which continues unabated in Indigenous Australia through the mediums of art, music, drama and literature.
Contemporary city-based artists Brook Andrew, Reko Rennie and Jonathan Jones adopt the language and mediums of contemporary art and popular street culture to give visibility to customary visual and spoken language, to challenge and subvert negative and romantic stereotypes of Indigenous people, and to comment on the racial politics of postcolonialism. Their bold use of neon and fluorescent light juxtaposed against the matte materiality of ochre works on stringybark by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu and Barrupu Yunupingu challenges preconceptions of what Indigenous art should look like and mean and encourages the viewer to question narrow definitions of contemporary art that exclude artists who prefer to work with customary media and iconography.
Place and identity in postcolonial Australia
The optimistic figurative landscapes of self-taught ‘outsider’ artists Robert Campbell Junior, Ian Abdulla and Trevor Turbo Brown narrate the artists’ personal experiences of colonialism in pictures of their own making. Equally inventive artists Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, from South East Arnhem Land, and Billy Benn Perrurle, of Harts Range, Central Australia, by contrast, encountered the great Arrernte watercolourist Albert Namatjira while working as stockmen in the Northern Territory and were inspired to create their own forms of landscape painting, which celebrate his legacy. Namatjira, the first Aboriginal artist to be included in the biographical book series Who’s Who in Australia, met Anmatyerre artists Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri in 1959 at Papunya, a government settlement north-west of Alice Springs, and introduced them to watercolour technique, which influenced pictorial elements of their painting practice and is exemplified by the artists’ Spirit Dreaming through Napperby Country, 1980. This epic vision of their life experience as hunters and artists traversing their homeland, which had been usurped and turned into a pastoral station, was included in the first Australian Perspecta exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1981, signalling the transition of Indigenous art to the mainstream.
Artists living on Country across Arnhem Land create hollow logs (customary mourning objects) that display designs symbolic of identity and place for contemporary art contexts. The transformation of bone coffins into art objects was popularised by the powerful political statement of The Aboriginal Memorial, 1987–88, made for the Bicentennial of 1988 and shown as part of that year’s Biennale of Sydney.4 The original installation of The Aboriginal Memorial took place in the end section of Pier 2/3, a nineteenth-century enclosed wharf structure that projects into Sydney Harbour, located only about a kilometre away from the original landfall of the colonial settlers. The work comprises 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land that signify Indigenous deaths and loss during 200 years of white contact. By contrast, Michael Cook’s cinematic Invasion series of 2018 re-imagines the colonisation of Australia, recasting the invaders as oversized Australian animals and UFOs and the invaded as 1960s residents on the streets of London.
Western Desert artists transform ephemeral ritual designs into modern art
In 1971‒72, the artists who would become the founding members of the Papunya Tula Artists company transformed previously ephemeral ritual designs from body, ground and object into startling paintings of bold geometry and multiple dots that defied then-known forms of Aboriginal art. Through the creation of these acrylic works on scraps of board, artefact became art. Artists used a visual language of concentric circles, geometric symbols and dots to conceptualise place and the presence or trace of creator ancestors who entered into and became the land. Papunya Tula Artists, established in 1972, was a precedent for numerous Indigenous-owned art centres now operating successfully across Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait.
During the 1980s and 1990s Pintupi male artists built on the daring inventions of the first Papunya Tula artists by making the transition from scraps of composition board the size of a man’s body to large canvases. They developed a sophisticated circle-path iconography to represent songlines of named resting places interconnected by travelling paths of Tingarri ancestral beings, and to map the topography of large tracts of land. Moreover, innovators such as Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri went further by developing a radical minimal style that played on subtle variations of tone, texture and straightness of line within an apparently regular grid. In their horizonless paintings of linear solemnity, Pintupi male artists express their intimate connections with sources of spiritual power in Country and distance themselves from direct allusions to ceremony.
The rise of colour and gesture
The advent of a new millennium marked the emergence of several painting movements led by senior women, notably across the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in the north-west of South Australia and the East Pilbara in Western Australia, as well as in north Queensland. During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s most of these artists had parallel experiences of first encountering Europeans and of being forced to leave their lands and waterways and move to missions or pastoral stations. The artists’ resilience in adapting to the enormous social and economic changes that ensued and their drive to make art with introduced materials is shown in their monumental canvases, most of which celebrate pujiman (bush or desert-born) days of living on Country and practising their law/lore.
Art by performative painters such as Wingu Tingima and Nora Wompi of the Western Desert and Sally Gabori and Paula Paul of Bentinck Island, Queensland is an explosion of iridescent colours, forms, textures and stories, and of tactile sensations that express deep connections with Country. Their work runs counter to the 1990s stylistic tendency evident in many parts of Indigenous Australia towards ever finer and more nuanced abstraction, focused on lines, dots and movements generated by fluctuating linear rhythms and shifting tonalities of an increasingly restricted palette. Rather, the expansive designs issue from an artist’s whole body ‒ the strength of a body’s gesture ‒ not just from fingers trained to hold a pencil, and extend beyond the frame to conjure the vastness of freshwater and saltwater lands. Much of the art’s radical edge and pizzazz results from its daring break with the ethnographic essentialism of ochres and its embracing of expansive gesture and negative space.
This positive and powerful exhibition reveals how Indigenous art has shifted and diversified across time and space. Clearly positioned in the twenty-first century, these artists, both female and male, are adventurous in their use of materials and their willingness to defy convention. The ephemeral designs that were once confined to ceremony have become everlasting in the hands of artists such as Emily Kam Kngwarray or Uta Uta Tjangala. Ochre images of spirits on the rock faces of Western Arnhem Land and the Kimberley have been given new life on bark and canvas and shared with the world. Incised markings on Kamilaroi shields and carved trees have dynamic contemporary presence in the neons of Reko Rennie. Working in different social environments, each of the artists in From Bark to Neon has drawn inspiration and certainty from ideas, designs and laws absorbed from within their own culture, and observed in nature. Their deep rootedness in Country is often intensified by the use of modern materials or the subversion of preconceptions about what Indigenous art should look like and mean.
John Mawurndjul, ‘My head is full up with ideas’, in Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu, Au centre de la Terre d’Arnhem: entre myths et réalité: art aborigène d’Australie, Maningrida Arts and Culture, Maningrida, 2001, p. 56. A conversation between John Mawurndjul, Murray Garde and Apolline Kohen that took place in February 2001.
‘Dreamtime / Machine time’ is a metaphor coined by artist Trevor Nickolls to express the dichotomies and incongruities of an Aboriginal man existing within an alienating white-dominated, Western nation.
Karel Kupka, Dawn of Art: Painting and Sculpture of Australian Aborigines, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1965, p. 10 (the English translation of Kupka’s Un Art a l’Etat Brut: peintures et sculptures des aborigènes d’Australie, La Guilde du Livre et Editions Clairefontaine, Lausanne, 1962).
The original installation of The Aboriginal Memorial took place in the end section of Pier 2/3, a nineteenth-century enclosed wharf structure that projects into Sydney Harbour, located only about a kilometre away from the original landfall of the colonial settlers.