A re­luc­tance to crit­i­cise and eval­u­ate is cen­tral to a cri­sis of au­then­tic­ity in the world of in­dige­nous art, ar­gues

The Weekend Australian - Review - - ESSAY -

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

Mir­did­ingkingathi Juwarnda

(2005) by Paddy Bed­ford

by Sally Ga­bori

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