In 1981 the National Gallery of Victoria staged Aboriginal Australia, a major exhibition of 328 works that did not include a single exhibit by a named woman artist. In the next decade and a half, women throughout Indigenous Australia emerged as artists of invention and flair, culminating in their international acknowledgement in 1997 when Emily Kam Kngwarray, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. Thirty-five years after Aboriginal Australia, the NGV is presenting another huge survey of Indigenous art across media, Who’s Afraid of Colour? This interdisciplinary exhibition of more than 300 works by 118 artists considers in depth a number of great contemporary Indigenous innovators ‒ transformers of tradition and precedent ‒ who all happen to be women.
Most notable among them is Anmatyerr artist Kngwarray whose rise to prominence in 1988–89 catalysed the emergence of Indigenous women as artists of consequence and daring. Kngwarray, from Alhalker in the Central Desert, produced a remarkable body of paintings during the last seven years (1989–96) of her life spanning eighty-six years. She was an extraordinary mark-maker whose revolutionary works resisted interpretation as encoded map-making, sacred design or landscape. Her paintings of colour fields of layered dots, monochrome stripes or tangled lines were neither notation nor narrative, but visual music with mass appeal.
The vibrant canvases of senior Western Desert artists Maggie Napangardi Watson, Yulyurlu Lorna Napurrurla Fencer and Wingu Tingima pulse with lines of dancing women, the curved markings of body painting and hair-string belts that summon forth the spectacle, music and exultant rhythms of Indigenous women’s ceremonies. Whereas in their works an animated surface is built up through layering of spontaneous gestures and dotting, textured colour fields and fluid lines prevail over dots in the expansive works of Martu artists Nora Wompi and Pinyirrpa Nancy Patterson that invoke the vast salt lakes and sandhills of the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
Almost a decade after Kngwarray’s visionary paintings were exhibited at the Venice Biennale to international acclaim, three Gumatj sisters at Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, began creating ochre paintings on bark that transformed our idea of Yolngu art, formerly the preserve of men, by breaking free of replicating pre-ordained minytji (sacred designs) and ordered sequences of crosshatching. Gulumbu Yunupingu, an artist of myriad stars; Barrupu Yunupingu, of vigorous diamond gestures that encode fire; and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a compulsive maker of marks, are artists known for paintings of tonal nuance, materiality of surface and gestural freedom that defy Yolngu precedent. Nyapanyapa’s bark paintings and intuitive drawings on acetate are expressly without reference to sacred law or narrative: they are simply exercises in line and rhythm, which have been jokingly referred to by other Yolngu artists as mayilimiriw (meaningless).
The pre-contact art system of Indigenous Australia and its items of material culture find powerful and explicit expression in Who’s Afraid of Colour?, as exemplified in the weavings of cultural objects by Yolngu artists from Galiwin’ku, Milingimbi and Ramingining; the Kakan (Baskets), 2016, by Cairns-based weaver Delissa Walker; the maireneer shell necklaces of Tasmanian Aboriginal elder Lola Greeno; and the feather headdresses and horn shell necklaces of Lisa Michl from Cape York, Queensland.
Who’s Afraid of Colour? attests to the artists’ commitment to cherishing, stewarding and perpetuating their culture despite a history and reality of dispossession. It also subverts the stereotypical expectation that ‘real’ Aboriginal art only comes from ‘remote outback’ Australia. The exhibition privileges the important work of contemporary artists, including Bindi Cole Chocka, Maree Clarke, Destiny Deacon, Julie Dowling, Julie Gough, Sandra Hill, Yhonnie Scarce and Judy Watson. These city-based Indigenous artists use the language of their generation as well as the international language of art to express the politics of their identity and to comment on issues of universal concern.
The greatest challenge for artists living in the most densely populated coastal regions of Australia, where original Indigenous languages are no longer spoken due to the long-term presence of a foreign power, is to find a personal artistic language and master a modern medium. Yhonnie Scarce chooses to work in blown glass; Destiny Deacon and Bindi Cole Chocka work in photography and digital media; and Maree Clarke, Julie Gough and Treahna Hamm are interdisciplinary artists whose works venerate customary objects, designs and practices that are no longer part of the fabric of Indigenous society yet remain integral to their cultural identity. The work of these contemporary artists challenges commonly held assumptions and ideas about what Indigenous art should look like and mean.
Scarce shows us the potential of glass art to interrogate the social, environmental and cultural implications of colonialism. Instead of coil weaving with sedge, like Ngarrindjeri senior artist Yvonne Koolmatrie, Lorraine Connelly-Northey refashions the detritus of colonisation and consumerism into tiny narrbong (containers) of rusted metal that are deeply imbued with cultural meaning. Newly acquired by the NGV, Chocka’s Not Really Aboriginal series, 2008, offers a stinging rebuke of the obsession with Aboriginal people’s skin colour as a marker of authenticity, as she states:
I’ve always been told that I am Aboriginal. I never questioned it because of the colour of my skin or where I lived. My nan, one of the Stolen Generation, was staunchly proud and strong. She made me feel the same way. I’m from Victoria and I’ve always known this. I’m not black. I’m not from a remote community. Does that mean I’m not really Aboriginal? Or do Aboriginal people come in all shapes, sizes and colours and live in all areas of Australia, remote and urban? Not Really Aboriginal explores how black you need to look to be considered Aboriginal and how white Aboriginals cross the cultural divide. Ultimately, it is a celebration of Aboriginality in all its forms.¹
Who’s Afraid of Colour? challenges the viewer to look beyond stereotypes of Indigenous art practice and identity and questions narrow definitions of contemporary art that privilege artists with Western art-school training over those, such as Kitty Kantilla, Queenie McKenzie, Maryanne Mungatopi and Marrnyula Mununggurr, who prefer to use customary materials and iconography to express the truth of their culture. Rather than being defined by an ethnographic classification system of the past, Indigenous women artists, irrespective of their mode of training or medium, are justifiably positioned in the vanguard of contemporary art practice.
Bindi Cole Chocka, artist statement for the Not Really Aboriginal series, 2008.