A reluctance to criticise and evaluate is central to a crisis of authenticity in the world of indigenous art, argues
Only a decade ago, at the frantic crescendo of the Aboriginal art boom, it was almost impossible to imagine the sheer collapse in prestige and financial value that lay ahead for the most prominent works by indigenous masters from the desert, the Kimberley and Arnhem Land.
No follower of trends in the market, or connoisseur of the fast-shifting painting styles of remote communities, no dealer or corporate art adviser ever dreamed that frontline desert pieces that once commanded six-figure price-tags might come to linger, unsaleable, in the backrooms of struggling galleries or gather mould and dust in outback storage sheds.
But then, no expert predicted the impact of the global financial crisis that struck with full force in 2008, nor the compound blows rained down on the art trade by the federal government when it imposed tight restrictions on artworks held in superannuation funds and brought in a resale royalty system.
One besetting problem of the Aboriginal art scene was already very much in evidence, though, and its long-term consequences were entirely predictable. This was the silence of the critics — the near-total absence of any meaningful or clear-eyed assessment of indigenous art-making; the reluctance of specialists and enthusiasts to provide an index of quality, to judge or assess the outpouring of works from all across indigenous Australia, or construct a solid framework against which an artist’s adherence to tradition or their originality and particular brilliance might be gauged.
Diverse factors, historical and political, lay behind the blanket reluctance to critique and judge. This absence of conventional review or appraisal could be easily enough overlooked in the movement’s golden days, when a sharp expansion in the indigenous art sector was taking place, and promotion and presentation claimed priority. But in today’s conditions, in a period of extended market downturn, the lack of any critical language for Aboriginal art has a different impact. For if there is no well-developed, coherent or secure account of what constitutes good or bad work, what aspects of an indigenous composition are strong or beautiful, or repay close attention and the decoding efforts of the eye, it becomes hard to find one’s way.
Critical judgment is the bond that joins an artist to the surrounding world of viewers and admirers, and when judgment is absent or atrophied, even a prominent work on high-profile exhibition hangs in a void, undifferentiated, uncharacterised, almost invisible despite the spotlights on it. No conversation springs up around it, no response or signal travels back to its maker, it occupies the weightless space of a dream. The failure of critical endeavour here is intellectual and moral, for denying serious appraisal on racial grounds, because of an artwork’s Aboriginality, is the most patronising
May 2-3, 2015 condescension of all. A kind of wilful blindness is the inevitable result. Consider two of the most keenly promoted indigenous art events of 2014, the Telstra-funded National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, held at Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art’s late season survey exhibition, Martu Art from the Far Western Desert. The work that won the $50,000 NATSIAA prize, Tony Albert’s We Can Be Heroes, was a photographic montage depicting a set of young Sydney Aboriginal men with red targets stencilled on their chests. It was a piece of political art.
In 2012, police at Kings Cross shot and wounded two Aboriginal car thieves, aged 14 and 17, who had lost control of their vehicle, struck a woman on the pavement and failed to stop. Albert saw friends of the two young men painted with the target emblems at a protest rally, and took this as the inspiration for his work, finding their gesture “incredibly profound”. Not one of the gathered critics took issue with Albert’s decision to present car-jackers as victims, or bothered to address the whiting-out in the work itself of the episode’s first casualty and true contours. Gelded of all its controversy, the piece was treated as an aesthetic jewel, and its success was another feather in the artist’s cap.
When the MCA’s much-hyped Martu exhibition opened at Circular Quay in September, it was plain at once that it was a visual disaster: a series of vast collaborative paintings, messy, vapid and overblown. One of Australia’s bestknown desert anthropologists went to that first night and came away shocked by the impression he was left with: of images that were so sketchy they seemed almost to be fading before his eyes, and traditional story-cycles that were dissipating and losing all their force.
Other experts shared his reactions. None went public, for fear of damaging the Aboriginal cause. The process of art-world publicity continued: no reviews engaged with the look or the material presence of the paintings. Two kinds of silence, then: one, a reluctance to face or take seriously the propaganda element in much contemporary indigenous art; the other, a refusal to consider remote community works as art, deploying the tools of shape and colour, and subject to formal assessment on stringent lines.
Hence the present crisis of value. Thanks to heavy public funding and the conviction of cultural bureaucrats that indigenous art should be supported, and spun as a viable economic “suc- Merrmerrji Queensland Creek cess story”, there is a huge oversupply of Aboriginal art but no clear basis for grading it.
The problem has been long in the making. When Aboriginal artefacts were first traded and collected by European pioneers and field collectors, their beauty was evident but little attempt was made to find a way of absorbing them into the visual culture of the wider nation. They were exotic, they were tribal. When the western desert art movement began in the early 1970s, there was little fanfare.
When dot painting at last caught the imagination of the art world in the mid-90s, there was no extended process of appraisal, critical reception or exposition. The work was taken up by its advocates as a close cousin of modernism. The art’s first backers caught its formal grandeur and its seriousness: it was a fait accompli. Ever since, converts have typically fallen for the genre and loved it, or what it represents for them, unconditionally. A handful of scholars, such as John Kean and Vivien Johnson, have tried to build an approach road to these works, while the mainstream art historian Roger Benjamin has made bold efforts to respond to early desert paintings down strongly subjective lines.
But the fundamental problem has always been there, and it lingers still. Who will say which of the early boards painted in Papunya in 1972 and now hanging in pride of place in the National Gallery of Australia are the best of the group, on what criteria? And which of the 200odd decorated poles from Arnhem Land that make up the Aboriginal Memorial are worthy of the most praise and attention? For many insiders of the indigenous art world, even to pose such questions is heretical and betrays a disrespect for traditional belief systems. But we routinely make just such judgments about quattrocento altarpieces depicting the Madonna and infant Christ, and rank these masterpieces of our own tradition and assign them market value on aesthetic grounds.
Several dilemmas constrain the would-be critic. No distinction between strains of Aboriginal identity can be drawn in polite discourse in Australia, and this complicates consideration of the relative strengths and merits of remote and urban indigenous art-making currents and their complex relationship. In the early days of Aboriginal art, advocates such as Rex Battarbee or Karel Kupka, promoters respectively of Albert Namatjira and early Top End bark painting, stood outside the state-funded culture network. They could say and write what they pleased. Hardly any such autonomous voices exist in today’s indigenous art world.
The high-end media is almost defined as a class product by its support for Aboriginal culture: a dismissive or strongly negative review of an indigenous art project in the elite news publications would be almost unthinkable. The
(2005) by Paddy Bedford
by Sally Gabori