Critiquing the Critics » Aboriginal Art Directory

Three recent heavy reviews of Indigenous art in three newspapers – The Wall Street Journalthe Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian – raise intriguing questions about how and why non-Indigenous critics treat Australia’s most important contemporary art form so differently here and abroad.

Of course, my thinking is shaped in part by the questions I’ve been asking myself lately about the display of our First Nations art at home – specifically why the Kluge/Ruhe Museum in Virginia, USA, has found the three most important exhibitions this year – twice the 50th anniversary of the Papunya Tula Artists Company and 80 years of Yolngu Barks from Arnhem Land in a single exhibition that will tour America for several years. And why no Australian institution has done anything quite like it.

Let’s start at the top! ‘MADAYIN: EIGHT DECADES of Australian Aboriginal bark painting from Yirrkala’ presents artworks largely unknown in the US While recent decades have shed light on Aboriginal ‘dot paintings’ in Australia’s western deserts, these works from north-eastern Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory – also patterned, abstract, occasionally figurative, but visually very different—had a lot less exposure”.

This is how Judith H. Dobrzynski begins her review in the Wall Street Journal the showing in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, ahead of its official opening this coming weekend. She continues: “As the wall texts explain, the artists are from the Yolngu people and their paintings are considered as family, as part of a so-called kinship system gurrutju and linked through raki, which connects land, sea, plants and all living things. Within the Yolngu relationship system, there are two complementary groups called entities, and people must marry someone from the other group. When making art, each clan uses their own distinctive one miny’tjithe design traditions going back many millennia that are considered Madayin – both sacred and beautiful”.

I quote extensively because I wonder how many native critics of Aboriginal art would bother to even enter this complex world that is so integral to the creation of these works. Oddly enough, I stumbled upon a delightful attempt last night Bandrightarightrighta Singer/songwriter Ursula Yovich interrupted her performance at Sydney’s Ensemble Theater with a statement from gurrutju! And yes, the Tarnanthi exhibition two years ago, which featured some of the Dartmouth barks before they left for America, also covered Gurrutju, but how many reviews were disturbing.

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Too much like hard work? Dobrzynski makes fun of it: “Perplexed? Don’t worry. While these and other concepts are vital to Yolngu art, the curators offer assistance. Wukun Wanambi – a recently deceased artist who was part of the exhibition’s large (mainly Yolngu) curatorial team – notes that they share the paintings to provide an understanding of their world, saying in the opening wall text: “Like the surface of water, beneath is an ocean of knowledge. We can only show you the surface.”

But….” The surface is spectacular. Measuring between 19 inches and 12 feet in height, these vertical paintings are rendered almost entirely in natural shades of white, ochre, grey, maroon, beige and black. Her mesmerizing designs draw the viewer in, and their meaning – however unfathomable – leaves the viewer wondering and lingering.”

Dobrzynski is even looking for the deeper motives that make her suddenly wondering about the timing of this artistic production in the 80s: “The rights of the Yolngu to their ancestral land were particularly endangered by mining interests, assimilation politics, claims to maritime law or war . Believing that their art is the most powerful way to document that they have lived on their land since the dawn of creation, they decided to display and sell it to spread this message to westerners and the Yolngu -curators had these contentious times in mind.” .

It’s a comprehensive review that certainly justifies the Yolngu curators’ multi-year efforts. How often do you feel that in Australia I wonder?

Because I’m pretty sure Robert Andrew, the Yawuru/Blak artist whose speech-based works using high-tech gadgets are featured in all the major Australian First Nations shows these days, wouldn’t be happy with Christopher Allen’s review of his current ones MONA show in Hobart. The Australianis an art critic has a habit of contextualizing shows he reviews with up to 50% scholarly background before getting to the art. Here is his context for his doubts about Dr. Andrew’s decision to identify as aboriginal, although his ancestry includes only one great-great-grandmother who was Yawuru.

But then Allen fails to acknowledge the word “identify,” which is the choice of many contemporary mixed-race Blak artists. Not just artists. The latest census shows that the number of people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander increased by 25% in 2021 – from 649,171 in 2016 to 812,728. The largest increase was in Victoria, where the increase was 37.4%, rather than NT, where the Aboriginal population increased by just 5%. This certainly indicates that more people are choosing to identify themselves.

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Which isn’t the same as Allen’s odd phrase “a kind of racial mysticism” as he interprets the choice “making a particular genetic component crucial and all-determining.” And is his judgment of Andrew’s art kinder? “In reality he is engaged in what he himself sees as a sort of archaeological quest for the remnants of his own past, long obscured by the passing of generations and a process of willful forgetting”?

Robert Andrews’Within an utterance‘ runs at MONA in Hobart until October 17, when presumably the words he borrowed from Palawa Kani will finally be revealed mechanically.

Finally we come to John McDonald’s apt review in the Sydney Morning Herald the current National Gallery/Wesfarmers touring exhibition of indigenous art in Singapore – only until this weekend. He begins by noting the ubiquity of indigenous art today in the international arena compared to 20 years ago. But continues: “I had to think about these issues after finally seeing Always present: First People’s Art of Australia, at the National Gallery Singapore. With more than 170 works by 150 artists, this is reputedly the largest exhibition of Aboriginal art ever held in a museum in Asia.

But…… “I felt that the main downside to the selection was that it was too crowded with photography, video and activist art, at the expense of pieces with more aesthetic and spiritual power. For example, it was surprising to see no fewer than three works by Vernon Ah Kee, but not a single work by an artist like Guynbi Ganambarr. The inevitable Richard Bell was represented by a huge painting from the Wesfarmers collection and the world-spanning Embassy installation, but there was nothing by such eminent artists as David Malangi, Mick Kubankku, Jarinyanu David Downs, Eubena Nampitjin, Ginger Riley and so on . One of those blue barks from Dhambit Munungurr would have been a sensation.

“I know it’s good policy to review the works in the exhibition and not the ones you might have preferred to see, but the main point is that the selection seemed skewed by political considerations. This also applies to NGA curator Tina Baum, who writes her catalog entries and wall labels in the first person plural, as if speaking for all Aboriginal people.”

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And given that this is supposed to be a promotion for Australia, “It’s an odd show that gives the impression that Aboriginal people are in constant conflict with an oppressive white state. There is so much we can learn from Indigenous society in terms of tolerance, sharing and concern for the land that it would have been desirable to highlight these aspects more.”

I’m sorry to say that my connections to SMH and The Australian are behind paywalls, but the Wall Street Journal seems generous enough to share with the world!

By the way, when MONA opened in 2011, I toured with founder David Walsh and of course asked him why there was a complete lack of Indigenous art. His reply was intriguing: ‘The basic building block in Aboriginal art is the sentence, which uses a set of symbols that are frequently referred to. We haven’t had that in the West since the Renaissance. There are three ways to create a written language – with an alphabet, with syllables, with a symbol for each, and with pictograms or logograms like in Chinese. The symbolic level in Aboriginal art is more at the level of the first two, while Western art today uses logograms. In other words, Aboriginal art is more sophisticated – and I just need to know more to understand it.”

This understanding is significant. It should have broader topicality and discussion (I noted it in 2011); and may actually lead to the appearance of Aboriginal art in MONA. Now it has!


Artist: Wukun Wanambi, Robert Andrew, Vernon Ah Kee, Guynbi Ganambarr, Richard Bell, David Malangi, Mick Kubarkku, Jarinyanu David Downs, Eubena Nampitjin, Ginger Riley, Dhambit Munungurr, Long Jack Phillipus, Naminapu Maymuru-White,

Asia , Australia , Blog , Exhibition , Feature , Industry , News , Newspaper , North America ,

Christopher Allen, David Malangi, Dhambit Munuŋgurr, Eubena Nampitjin, Ginger Riley, Guynbi Ganambarr, Jarinyanu David Downs, Jeremy Eccles, John McDonald, Judith H. Dobrzynski, Kluge-Ruhe Museum, Madayin, Mick Kubarkku, MONA, National Gallery Singapore, Papunya Tula Artists, Richard Bell, Robert Andrew, Ursula Yovich, Vernon Ah Kee, Wukun Wanambi,

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