On 9 March 2013 a new collection display that focuses on the physical, spiritual and ecological importance of the natural elements to Indigenous people opened in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Qantas Airways Indigenous Galleries. Located in paen, freshwater Country of the Kulin Nation, the exhibition articulates specific ancestral narratives related to fire, water, earth and wind across a range of media.
In contrast to Living Water: Contemporary Art of the Far Western Desert, a recent NGV exhibition of vibrant twenty-first-century acrylic paintings from the far-flung reaches of South Australia and Western Australia, mostly by Aboriginal women artists, the new exhibition features sculpture, bark painting, fibre art, installation and glass and represents most of the art-producing regions of Indigenous Australia. It is designed to introduce audiences to the materiality, diversity and power of Indigenous art, its enduring traditions and daring transformations in the face of social change. The display pays particular homage to works composed of natural materials – earth pigments, Stringybark, Ironwood, Pandanus fibre, sedge and feathers – and the way these organic materials are fashioned into ritual objects or tangible manifestations of spirit beings.
In focusing on bark painting, the exhibition acknowledges two strategic events instrumental in the evolution of contemporary forms of Aboriginal art and in advancing Aboriginal claims for native title. Firstly, I am reminded of Baldwin Spencer’s encounter with Kunwinjku and Gagadju people in Western Arnhem Land in 1912. As then Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, Spencer, a Melbourne-based anthropologist and art collector, had observed iconic paintings on wet season bark shelters, as well as on Arnhem Land Escarpment. In commissioning Kunwinjku and Gagadju artists to create images on bark similar to those he had seen, in exchange for sticks of tobacco, Spencer communicated his interest in their art and culture and helped stimulate the production of paintings on single sheets of bark. A sophisticated art form evolved from this commission and the subsequent encouragement of art production from anthropologists and missionaries working at Oenpelli, Milingimbi, Yirrkala and Croker Island, where different regional styles developed and continue to change.
One object in the NGV collection sheds light on this important transformational moment, and is therefore central to the new exhibition. Bark shelter, 1987 (below), by Wamod Namok and Dick Ngulaynuglay Murrumurru, memorialises the wet season dwellings customarily made and decorated with ochre paintings in Western Arnhem Land and along the east coast of Australia. This work, commissioned by Czech rock art specialist George Chaloupka, is displayed on metal supports inserted into the ironbark flooring of the second gallery, without any intrusive platform, thereby enabling visitors to engage with its ephemeral structure and, by studying the intuitive drawings on its surface, understand the origins of the bark tradition. The presence of the artists’ signature handprints alludes to rock art; a reference accentuated by the positioning of the shelter amidst bark paintings by Kunwinjku artists inspired by images of ancestral spirits and animals found on the rock faces of the Arnhem Land Escarpment.
Secondly, 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the presentation of the Yirrkala bark petitions to Federal Parliament. The 1963 petitions, which are founding documents of our democracy, were provoked by the excision of a large area of the Gove Peninsula in the Arnhem Land Reserve for bauxite mining, without consultation with the Yolngu landowners. The bilingual petitions demanded that Yolngu people’s ancestrally sanctioned land rights be protected and recognised, and were sent attached to two sheets of Stringybark representing both Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties. The barks were bordered by absolute symbols of Yolngu political power – miny’tji (sacred designs) belonging to clans whose lands were most immediately threatened by bauxite mining and which represent title deeds to clan estates and sacred places according to Yolngu law. These miny’tji, bequeathed to Yolngu by ancestral beings many millennia before Europeans colonised Australia, effectively introduced a wildcard outside the terminology of legal parliamentary discourse into the official system of negotiation. The petitions established that Yolngu had not been consulted and did not consent to the destruction of their Country – their identity – where ancestral beings left reservoirs of spiritual power and where their spirit resides.
In acknowledging the historical importance of the bark petitions, the exhibition dedicates its first gallery to paintings and larrakitj (hollow logs) made by Yolngu artists of Buku Larrnggay Mulka, the art centre established at the former mission Yirrkala where the bark petitions were organised. Authoritative paintings by signatories of the petitions Mawalan Marika, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Mathaman Marika are hung alongside works by their direct descendants, revealing that the conceptual map of Eastern Arnhem Land designates lands, creation stories and law of many distinct groups of people. Together these paintings constitute a rich language imbued with many hermeneutic layers of meaning, and function in a similar way to metaphors in poetry or cadences in music. In contrast to the ordered geometry of Mungurrawuy’s Fire story at Caledon Bay, 1962 (below) the work of his three daughters, Gulumbu, Nyapanyapa and Barrupu, does not replicate preordained miny’tji and ordered sequences of crosshatching. Nyapanaypa, in particular, has initiated paintings of such intuitive markings, tonal nuance, materiality of surface and spontaneity of drawing that they have transformed our idea of Yolngu art and freed it from ethnographic taxonomy.
The materiality of these bark paintings and their relationship to customary ritual is heightened both by the inclusion of newly acquired Mokuy (trickster spirits) made at Milingimbi in 1963, which illustrate how miny’tji are worn on the body in ritual contexts, and by groupings of beautifully painted Yolngu larrakitj and Kuninjku lorrkon (hollow logs). Also associated with the poetics of mourning is the NGV’s set of 1950s Pukumani poles, installed into the floor of the fourth gallery, and a mass of suspended Bänumbirr (Morning Star Poles). These ethereal feathered poles, made by outstanding practitioners Gali Yalkurriwuy and Henry Napurru of Galiwin’ku, are associated with the planet Venus and the cycle of life and death.
Conceptual abstractions of Country occupy the expansive spaces of the third gallery, in which works from the Kimberley, the Western Desert, Western Arnhem Land and Peppimenarti are displayed. Paintings by leaders of the modern Aboriginal painting movement Rover Thomas, Mick Namarari, Emily Kam Kngwarray, Makinti Napanangka, Naata Nungurrayi and John Mawurndjul differ from paintings by senior Anangu artists Tiger Palpatja and Reggie Jackson, who both rose to prominence after 2005. In contradistinction to these works by individuals, Kanaputa, 2010 (below), is a great collaborative work by twenty-two senior, mid-career and emerging Pintupi women artists. The effect of so many hands on the one canvas is electric.
At variance to these works that use an inherited visual language encoding the artists’ profound affiliation with Country, the exhibition’s second gallery includes installation works by leading city-based Indigenous artists, including Julie Gough, Yhonnie Scarce and Lorraine Connelly-Northey, all from south-eastern Australia. Beautifully wrought, often unexpected materials and found objects are fundamental to all three artists’ works and to their conceptions of loss. Gough’s art and research focus on uncovering and re-presenting often conflicting and subsumed histories and instances of trauma in her native Tasmania. Her neckpieces are mute memorials on monumental scale to the Tasmanian shell necklace tradition, an immediate family inheritance she was denied by dispossession of Country and loss of language. These coal, pumice and driftwood neckpieces, which echo the necklaces of Gough’s Tasmanian ancestors, bear the shared load of her history and add a dark edge to the emphasis on natural elements in this exhibition.
Scarce takes the medium of glass out of its comfort zone and exploits its potential to be emotionally and politically expressive. Informed by research into her family’s experiences, Scarce’s glass installations engage with the wider issue of containment of Aboriginal people, including their forcible removal from Country and consequent death. Scarce’s The collected, 2010 (below), references the scientific analysis of Aboriginal people and their subjection to insidious scrutiny in life and death. Their graves were robbed during settlement, bodies dissected for ‘scientific’ research and skeletal remains stored in museums. Scarce uses long yams as metaphors for body parts that have been classified and stored in museum containers.
Unlike the great Ngarrindjeri weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie who weaves with sedge and whose work is displayed in the second gallery (below), Connelly-Northey works with discarded industrial materials, the detritus of colonisation, which she refashions into objects resonant with cultural meaning. Her Fish trap, 2005, daringly wrought from rusted barbed wire, has connotations of the harsh shanty-town existence led by Koorie people shut out of prosperous regional centres in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Victoria. Moreover, the work is suspended in a new three-dimensional guise, embellished by the addition of three life-sized fish also sculpted from barbed wire: a Murray cod, a European carp and an endangered European carp.
Thus across the cities and regional centres of Indigenous Australia a number of artists, often working in circumstances of cultural dissonance, have composed a language of stylistic innovation and an aesthetic unique to their way of experiencing and interpreting the world. Their works strike a chord with those of other Indigenous artists living and working in communities less ravaged by colonisation and, while still working with materials and iconography of their ancestors, are also concerned with universal themes and the human condition.