As a public collection, the NGV Collection of art and design exists for all to enjoy, and with its enormous wealth of styles, stories, perspectives and experiences, there is something for everyone to connect with. In this series, NGV team members share the artworks that they love and return to – the works that offer limitless intrigue, inspiration, or a sense of connection and common ground.
Make your way through galleries 10, 5 & 13 to find the stories of the favourite works of NGV team members.
Russel Drysdale Tree form
Looking at this painting I’m transported back to a Queensland summer, where as a child I remember looking out the car window at row upon row of lifeless, grey trees. In 1944 Drysdale was commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald to document the devastating droughts occurring at the time in western NSW. This had a monumental effect on Drysdale, which he communicated to his friend, artist Donald Friend: ‘I feel very much like a new man – all this has done something to me which is difficult to explain’.
I experienced a similar change in 1997 as our car slugged its way through the heat. I saw a single ancient tree, an island refuge amongst the yellowed grass, a herd of cows sheltered in its shade. I asked my mother why all the other trees were dead, and she told me stories of how ringbarking was used to kill trees in order to clear land for livestock. At this revelation I felt a heavy sensation of loss and wondered how humans could be so at odds with another living thing. This feeling is summoned again in the twisted and tortured form of Drysdale’s tree, its sculptural shape giving it an anthropomorphic quality which evokes a sense of empathy for this landscape, suffering from a habitation which seems to be working in its exact opposition.
By Stephanie Pohlman, Youth and Families Coordinator
This piti was made sometime in the nineteenth century by an Aboriginal artist whose name was not recorded. Though unassuming in appearance, this object speaks to the sophisticated technologies of Aboriginal material culture prior to European arrival. The annual movements of early Aboriginal people required the development of portable material objects which served many functions. This piti would not only have been used as a vessel for carrying water and food, but would also have functioned as a shovel for digging, and when lined with a possum pelt, have served as a cradle for a baby. Objects like these would also most likely have been painted with natural pigments and complex designs which told stories about an individual’s identity as well as their connections to place.
Peter Japanangka Blacksmith Warna Jukurrpa (Snake Dreaming)
Peter Japanangka Blacksmith’s Warna Jukurrpa (Snake Dreaming) holds a very special place in my curatorial history. It is the centrepiece of our unique holding of the first paintings of Lajamanu, an acquisition I negotiated on my first field trip to an Indigenous community. Moreover, the work was reproduced on the cover of the 1989 publication Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, which accompanied the first major Indigenous exhibition I curated at the NGV.
I initially declined the work due to its paint loss, but the artist begged me to reconsider, offering to retouch the pigment that had weathered. Japanangka worked with freshly purchased acrylics and a makeshift brush, assisted by his wife Florrie Napurrurla Blacksmith, who applied only dots but touched none of the kuruwarri (signs or marks of Ancestral power). Japanangka said he was ‘making the snakes and the waterholes strong and alive again’. This encounter showed me that for Japanangka the act of painting is one of ritual renewal whereby the true stories break through into the present from the Ancestral past. The power of the snake had been ‘sung’ into the painting; the law had been fulfilled.
H. J. Wedge’s Blind faith is a work of defiant protest that matters to me. It bristles with daring forms and colours that are seen with Wedge’s inner eye rather than taught or appropriated to him. The work communicates, in cryptic images of nightmarish intensity, Wedge’s childhood experience of growing up on Erambie mission and cries out against the racism and injustice that he experienced, and which still exists in Australia. A street-wise, dispossessed Wiradjuri man who was failed by the education system, Wedge sees straight into the ‘heart of darkness’. His Blind faith forces the viewer to ponder this ‘image of modern evil’, laid bare in a vision of Blakean power.
Four electrifying figures with staring eyes and huge heads suggest images from urban popular culture, cartoons and TV shows, rather than classic forms of Aboriginal art. A demonic snake – like barbed wire threaded through the eyes of these four colonised Indigenous Australians – is shown blinding them to the truth of their own culture, for as Wedge explained, ‘men, women and children are being killed because they placed their trust in the strangers, but the strangers like a snake blinded them with false promises and false hopes’.
Polemics fosters an intense emotional conflict within me. At first, I am surprised to see an Indigenous language emblazoned across a government building’s walls. I am thrilled at Brook Andrews’ calls for outward political expression and opinions, and to shed fear of passionate declarations.
Then I am jealous. My joy melts away to reveal an ugly green monster bristling because not only can this man compose an entire sentence in his native language, but he has also given it physical form, and another dimension of life. He can hold these neon letters in his arms and shield them from colonial clutches, never to be taken from him again.
Finally, I am heartbroken. I don’t know these words, but I am not Wiradjuri. Had the neon been coerced into the language of my ancestors, could I decipher it without English translation? No. The luminescent neon of Andrews’ work stands in stark contrast to my dismal grief for a language I never knew under the legacy of colonisation.
By Kayla Clinch, Children’s Programs Administration Assistant
Regina Pilawuk Wilson is a Ngan’gikurrungurr woman from the Daly River region of the Northern Territory. Regina is a strong cultural leader for the Peppimenarti community and an acclaimed artist and weaver. She is also my family. Syaw (Fish Net), 2008 is a significant painting that translates into acrylic on canvas the traditional weaving practices that Regina has protected throughout her life.
In the early 1970s, Regina and her husband, Harry Wilson, moved away from the Daly River mission, where language and culture were strictly prohibited, and set up an Aboriginal community at Peppimenarti to ensure the survival of their culture. My grandfather, Albert Presley, was from Peppimenarti. When he was a child, the government took him from his mother and his siblings and placed him at the Bungalows, at the Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs. Syaw (Fish Net) is a particularly important work to me as it connects me to my grandfather’s Country and reminds me that I have a strong cultural connection that Regina fought for, and that her family and community have ensured survives for our new generations.
If I was white, 2002, is the first work of art I encountered in a public art gallery after moving to Melbourne. I was, and continue to be, enthralled with this work that articulates numerous internal anxieties that I, and many non-white people, feel. Ah Kee’s blunt expression of how the Indigenous experience differs to the white experience captured my 14-year-old self and never let go.
My ordinarily boisterous and playful family stood in front of this work carefully taking in every word on every panel; momentarily united in silent admiration and awe of this blak man who used his position in a white space to elevate the feelings and experiences of our marginalised people.
The validation this work afforded me is something I will never forget, and I return to it again and again.
By Kayla Clinch, Children’s Programs Administration Assistant
This work captures my imagination in a thousand ways. It’s not a picture of something; the image is a character, perhaps a ghost or some sort of divine being. Its expression mirrors the way I feel now, and, to be honest, a lot of the time: Off kilter. Uncertain. Floating in space. The eyes of this presence hover over adjoining blocks of texture and colour and give the impression that it is wobbling across multiple dimensions. It’s wobbling, but it’s floating, not sinking. The space it inhabits is rich, the textures are creamy and luminous. The character maintains a clownish buoyancy in a transitional realm. I love the ways this image is awkward and serene at the same time. It has goofy cartoon eyes, yet it is built from exquisitely textured paper that has been printed, foiled, flocked, and had colour worked into its structure. It reminds me that beauty exists in paradoxes and puzzles. The work compels us to reflect upon our own uncertainty and find richness there.
I have always loved dogs, so it is no surprise that I am drawn to this work by Louise Hearman. It is more than just the dog that lures me in though. I find it difficult to identify the mood of the painting, and perhaps that is what intrigues me. I find it both calming and unsettling at the same time. The artist has captured so much emotion in the dog’s expression and my eye is immediately drawn to the sadness in its eyes. Who is the dog watching over? Is this the ghost of a dog that has passed, leaving behind their companion? The angle of its head, leaning on what appears to be a mountain in the distance, reminds me of the way a beloved dog rests its head on your knee, and the comfort and security this can bring. This painting reminds me that in dark times, or when things seem absurd and surreal, companionship can bring us solace.
Philip Hunter’s work is about conveying an experience of place rather than a depiction of place. His work almost represents a simpler time, an extended period that is shown in multiple overlapping layers. Looking at this work, it challenges you to decipher its layers.
To me, being with this work is as if you are viewing a time lapse. Its strength is in its ability to convey a very Australian landscape in such a limited palette. From the representation of wind, clouds and wildlife to the stillness of the plains, this etching reminds me to slow down and re-engage with my surroundings.