As colonial values spread across the continent in the nineteenth century it was widely believed that the first Australians were doomed to disappear. This was a fixed idea even for pioneering anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer, who spent the year 1901-02 touring the outback, visiting the inhabitants of those remote regions. For Spencer and his partner Frank Gillen it was a matter of urgency to record the customs and lifestyles of those tiny communities before they were lost forever.
It is easy nowadays to sneer at these doom-laden attitudes, fuelled by Social Darwinism, but the resilience of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and customs has been one of the miracles of Australian history. With the confiscation of their land and the bungled attempts at welfare that resulted in episodes such as the Stolen Generation, there haven’t been many positives for indigenous people. Yet they have survived and in some cases, following the art boom that began in the 1970s, have experienced a small renaissance.
This is the good news, but everybody associated with today’s multi-million dollar Aboriginal art industry harbours the same niggling concerns about the future. It is a fact that the most celebrated artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye started very late in life and enjoyed little more than a decade of activity. This pattern has been repeated many times, creating a widespread anxiety that when those old people pass away there will be no-one to replace them.
The continuity of Aboriginal art does not depend solely on the transmission of skills; it requires an elaborate spiritual education and a critical mass of receptive students. Artists have to learn the Creation stories, lore and doctrines that underpin cultural identity and determine the ownership of subject matter. The freedoms that western artists enjoy have no place in the hierarchy of those Aboriginal communities in which trespassing on another’s subject – or totem, to use an old-fashioned term – is treated as a matter of life and death.
Few of us appreciate the rigidity of those rules and the seriousness with which they are observed. One has to bear this in mind to understand the significance of the work of Gunybi Ganambarr (b.1973), currently on display at Annandale Galleries, along with pieces by two other Yolgnu artists, Boliny Wanambi (b.1957) and Dhurrumuwuy Marika (b.1981).
I’ve written a catalogue essay for this show but make no apologies for revisiting the topic because it rarely happens that one finds an artist who manages to completely revamp one of the world’s oldest art forms in the space of a single exhibition.
Bark paintings have probably been around for at least 40,000 years, although the ephemeral nature of the medium means that the earliest surviving examples date back only as far as the late nineteenth century. With the growth of the Aboriginal art market, barks became self-conscious works of art rather than anthropological curios. There is no precedent for the scale and complexity of the paintings being created today. Compared to the tiny, crude works of the past they are a new kind of art, although the market for such pieces has lagged far behind that for paintings on canvas. This is largely because buyers have mistrusted the materials, feeling there is something fragile about ochres on bark.
This is a view that can no longer be sustained. Mixing glues in with the ochres has given a greater stability to the paint, while slabs have been more carefully prepared to provide a better surface. The greatest single innovation, as Yirrkala art co-ordinator Will Stubbs points out, has been the lightweight aluminium supports designed by conservator, Karen Coote, which have allowed artists to dispense with the sticks formerly attached to the top and bottom of the bark. The best comparison is with the liberating invention of metal tubes, which allowed the Impressionists to paint in oils en plein air
Many of Gunybi’s inspired innovations have been born from this framing system. Now that the bark does not require two stabilising bars, he realised that it does not need to be a basic rectangle. In works such as Wurran and Dhangultji, the long neck of a bird is carved out of the bark, curling upwards like a coat hanger. The sinuous Baraltja is an hour-glass shape, while Munbi is circular in form, with a distinct top like the lip of a vase.
This is only the beginning of Gunybi’s inventions. Dhangultji is probably the first bark painting to have been attached to an external frame resembling an easel. In one of his ceremonial poles, Gunybi has the heads of two intertwined snakes separate themselves from the trunk. In another, he incorporates a natural bulge in the wood as part of the design.
In Buyku, which combines fish and human imagery with hypnotic abstract patterning, he has carved away the top layer of bark to create the effect of a bas-relief. Not content to stop there, he has gathered up the shavings, made them into a paste and reapplied them to the slab, resulting in a textured segment. In this, and the rest of Gunybi’s work, the design is not merely painted onto the surface, but incised like a woodcut and coloured with fastidious care.
Gunybi is a natural innovator, who is also known for having painted on both sides of the bark. But even without this mind-boggling procession of new ideas, his works would be acclaimed for the beauty and variety of his patterning, which juxtaposes the most delicate cross-hatching with lozenges, dots, areas of flat colour and rhythmic, flowing lines. It is a measure of his prodigious inventiveness that the other two artists in the show, Boliny and Dhurrumuwuy, seem to be painting the same picture over and over. In other company the skill and power of their works would be beyond dispute, but their subtle variations on a theme – by far the more conventional approach among bark painters – are overshadowed by Gunybi’s creative dynamism.
At the age of thirty-six, Gunybi is not only the brightest new talent in the ranks of indigenous artists, he provides a reason for feeling optimistic about the future of Aboriginal culture. His emergence is thrown into relief by the deliberate withdrawal of one of the leading painters of the western desert, Yannima Tommy Watson, who has declared that his show last month at Agathon Galleries in Sydney, would be Kutju wara – “the last one”.
Watson’s career has followed a more established pattern for indigenous masters. He picked up the brush in his seventies and was recognized as special talent from the very beginning. In a brief time he became the most desirable of painters, with works going for huge sums at auction. The only hiccup in this tale of success is that John Ioannou, the dealer who put Watson on the map, has become the particular hate-object for the many of his peers in the Aboriginal art business. He has been accused of endless crimes, but as far as I can see his sole offence has been to pay his artists the kind of percentages that non-indigenous artists routinely expect from their dealers.
Under the long-established art centre system individual artists may expect to receive smaller sums, as the money is channeled back into the community. Yet no-one in the Irrunytju community, which Ioannou has backed, seems to be clamouring for the restoration of the previous system. The moral of the story is that there is no true and holy method that works perfectly every time. The industry, like the art itself, must be free to evolve and change, even if this is not to everyone’s taste. Armed only with gossip, Ioannou’s detractors would do well to adopt that old but sound maxim: live and let live.
Tommy Watson is now in his eighties and feeling his age, but his “last one” doesn’t mean that he will never paint another picture, merely that he no longer wants to leave his home territory to appear at exhibitions. His paintings will be smaller, and perhaps a bit more roughly executed, but his reputation rests on his extraordinary abilities as a colourist, and the deep spiritual underpinnings of a life spent on his own country
Watson may be one of the last of a great and unique generation of artists. Gunybi is a young man who is already recognised in his community as a person of exceptional promise and importance. In both cases, the power of the artist’s work cannot be dissociated from their immersion in the life and lore of their people. That art may be changing all the time, but it holds fast to traditions that command the respect of small, close-knit communities. Perhaps Baldwin Spencer and his Victorian peers got it completely wrong. It may be that indigenous values will eventually outlast that need for constant stimulation we laughingly call our civilisation.
Gunybi Ganambarr, Dhuwa Saltwater, Annandale galleries, October 28-November 5, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 7, 2009