ART + SOUL
Exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Oct 2010, accompanied by TV Series and Book. A shortened version of this article appeared at Sydney Time Out.
The Rainbow Serpent Ngalyod reminds me of the coiling sea-monsters illustrated on old maps. This powerful creator being is an important part of Aboriginal culture. Ngalyod hangs in the gallery surrounded by other bark paintings - Buluwana, a female ancestor stares out – her fate was to be turned to stone.
The Art+Soul exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is an exploration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork. What you might not realize is how significant this exhibition is. I’m wondering if it will make its way into the textbooks of the future - just like the Zero-Ten in St Petersburg is forever linked to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square.
Art+Soul accompanies a TV documentary that looks at three themes: ‘home and away’, ‘dreams and nightmares’ and ‘bitter and sweet’. Its aims are far bigger than even the titles suggest. One aim is to display the complexity of Indigenous art – from the desert to the inner-city.
As artist Shen Shaomin says – we are the sum of our ancestors. Tradition contributes greatly to this exhibition – traditional bark painting, fish and eel traps, other Indigenous objects and techniques. There are works by Papunya Tula Artists – in this community modern-day Aboriginal art evolved in the early 1970s.
(Image: Waiting for Goddess 1994 by Destiny Deacon, Courtesy of Art Gallery of NSW)
Alongside and intertwined with tradition there is also innovation and modernity. Take a work like Mardayin (2001) by John Mawurndjul. This nationally and internationally acclaimed artist is leading bark painting in a whole new direction. The delicacy and refinement of his crosshatching will dilate your pupils if you get in close. Harry Wedge and Ginger Riley Munduwalawala are extravagant with colours that will take your eyes back to pinpricks. The self-proclaimed “shy photographer” Destiny Deacon presents her stories on race and identity – in Over the Fence, from the series Sad & Bad – the dolls and composition produce an incredible image: haunting but also poetic.
What certainly stands out is beauty – look at Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s desert flowers and Judy Watson’s voile-like canvases. Also there’s a lot of skill and presence. Many of the most renowned artists are represented. Emily Kame Kngwarreye of course is one of Australia’s most significant artists – finding international success at about 80 years old.
Albert Namatjira’s western style landscapes made him a celebrity – but there’s a political edge to his story. The public rose up against the laws that restricted him as an Aboriginal. Namatjira and his wife were granted Australian citizenship ten years earlier than the rest of the Indigenous population – allowing them certain rights – such as the vote.
Ngalyod’s head perhaps sparked my memory of sea-monsters – and reminds me of the one my great-great grandfather saw. It appeared to him at a remote part of the shoreline in the far north of Scotland. The ocean frothed – the horse-like head evoked sheer terror. We don’t live in that time anymore – when map-makers illustrated the beasts of the ocean and the writer Sir Walter Scott could buy a witch’s spell to calm the wind. My great grand-aunt chose that time to capture the memoirs of our family, including her father’s honest account of the sea-creature – she knew without her record it might be lost to future generations.
(Image: Ngak Ngak and the Ruined City 1998 by Ginger Riley Munduwalawala , © Estate Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, courtesy Alcaston Gallery)
The frontier way of life for Indigenous Australians will soon be lost to living memory. Hetti Perkins, who wrote and narrates the documentary, believes this moment is crucial. But Art+Soul is only part memoir, and perhaps more manifesto. Another aim is that art is a vehicle for greater understanding and political change. The documentary also looks into how the spiritual and imaginative world of the ancestors is evolving to reside in our current experiences in new ways. It has been rumoured that Aboriginal art might have had its day – after all taste shifts with time. In contrast to the ancestor Buluwana who is forever petrified, this exhibition shows that Indigenous art is also on the move.
Images courtesy of the artists and The Art Gallery of NSW.