Darwin will always be a frontier town, but at this time of year it is the most cultured place in Australia. Enjoying a brief window of perfect dry season weather, the Darwin Festival has become a keenly anticipated event, with a lively mix of local and international acts. Because the Northern Territory is the heartland of indigenous art industry there is also an unusual emphasis on the visual arts.
The list of current attractions includes the 30th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art Award (AKA. NATSIAA), at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and a first-ever Salon des Refusés, installed in a former bank building downtown. The Convention Centre, which didn’t exist the last time I was here, played host to the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (9-11 August). At the Hilton on the Esplanade there was a large commercial show of work by Tiwi artists – a group who see themselves as a completely distinct part of the indigenous art firmament.
There are about a dozen smaller shows that could be mentioned, the best being Joonba, Junba, Julu: Performance Artifacts of the Kimberley, in a tiny venue called tactileARTS, a stone’s throw from MAGNT. Cathy Cummins of Waringarri Arts has brought together a unique collection of headdresses, painted boards, and other objects used in ceremonial dances, along with videos of actual performances. It is a show in which aesthetics and anthropology are inextricably linked.
Along with the NATSIAA, the major drawcard this year is Luminous World: Contemporary Art from the Wesfarmers Collection, at the Charles Darwin University Gallery. This is the third large museum exhibition drawn from the Wesfarmers collection, following The Song of the Lamb in 1989, and Sublime in 2002.
It’s a long time since that first exhibition, which may be the reason why, when opening the show, Stefano Carboni, Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, accidentally called it The Silence of the Lambs.
Mi dispiace, Stefano, but it was a rare moment of hilarity among the formal proceedings. In my experience it’s only bettered by the opening of the new National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, in 2008, when the indigenous representative, Matilda House, seemed to refer to “the horrible Kevin Rudd” rather than “the honorable”. Her views on Tony Abbott were not made available.
The boys at Wesfarmers may have a voracious appetite for corporate acquisitions, but they are hardly serial killers. In its long-term engagement with the visual arts, Wesfarmers is one of the few large Australian companies that takes pride in its collection and constantly acquires works. Many other firms, including Fairfax, under the stewardship of Fred Hilmer, have distinguished themselves by dumping valuable collections on to the market, by way of turning over an asset.
Wesfarmers takes a different view, treating the art collection as a fundamental part of its identity. As always, the presence of art in the workplace exerts an influence on staff who go on to develop their personal artistic interests. This has been a source of satisfaction to Helen Carroll, curator of the collection, who is one of those rare beings who truly loves her job.
Carroll has selected 67 works by 55 artists from Australia and New Zealand for an exhibition on the overarching theme of ‘light’. In collaboration with Anita Angel of the CDU Gallery, she has reduced the show slightly for Darwin, following its debut in Perth earlier this year. Even so, it remains a very busy, closely hung display.
The small sin of crowding is offset by the pleasures of putting diverse works into dialogue with one another. Indeed, the show is structured as a series of complements and contrasts – indigenous and non-indigenous; 2D and 3D; Australian art alongside art from New Zealand. There is a strong emphasis on photography, including works by Bill Henson, Laurence Aberhart, Rosemary Laing, Brad Rimmer and Mark Adams.
Bill Henson has also contributed a piece of ‘inspirational’ writing for a catalogue which is a striking piece of design, with further unorthodox contributions by composer Richard Mills, and poet, John Kinsella.
‘Light’ plays such a fundamental role in art that one could call it a universally inclusive theme, although it seems refreshingly simple alongside the tortuous, equally all-encompassing themes of most biennales. One rarely thinks of indigenous art in terms of light but much of this work has a pronounced optical dimension. This applies to the small pictures of Tiwi artist, Raelene Kerinaula, and the dense patterning of the late Gulumbu Yunipingu. The same elements are even more pronounced in non-indigenous works such Two-step (2006) – a geometric abstraction by Debra Dawes; and the complex surfaces of Karl Wiebke’s works. Red on yellow (2003) reads as orange to the naked eye, but it is composed of thousands of thin red lines meshed on a yellow ground.
There is also a metaphorical aspect to the way light is invoked in many of these works. Timothy Cook’s Kulama (2010) represents a broad, expressionist strand of Tiwi art, as opposed to Kerinaula’s tight grids. Cook’s invariable subject is the cosmos, seen through the medium of a traditional coming-of-age ceremony. There is an equally cosmic preoccupation in Brian Blanchflower’s work, represented here by a long, thin, compacted piece called Concretion: Oceanic 1:8 (2007), which defies reproduction.
Another work that uses light in a transcendental manner is Howard Taylor’s Bushfire sun (1996), with its blurred, red disc in a field of smothering grey. The same artist’s Tree fork fragment (1997), is records a piece of wood as if it were a found sculpture, with clear and precise outlines. It invites comparison with Andrew Browne’s Visitation (2009) – a vision of tangled tree roots, seen as if through night vision goggles.
It is appropriate that a large proportion of Luminous World is devoted to indigenous art, including many artists from the Northern Territory. The standard of work was consistently higher than in the NATSIAA, although it’s unfair to compare a carefully chosen collection put together over a period of years to the lucky-dip of an annual competition.
I’m at a disadvantage in assessing the 30th NATSIAA, as I haven’t seen this show for years. The consensus among locals was that it was a disappointing show. It was certainly a smaller and less exciting affair than I remembered from earlier occasions. The gallery allows the exhibition only half the space it once enjoyed. The quality of art was patchy, being less engaging than many of the commercial shows I’ve seen recently, such as the Yirrkala exhibition currently at Annandale Galleries.
As with all competitions this is not exclusively the fault of the judges, who are constrained by the entries they receive. The Salon des Refusés proved to be equally small and disappointing, with only a handful of stand-out pieces.
In the NATSIAA the major award went to Canberra-based artist, Jenni Kemarre Martiniello for a glass sculpture called Golden brown reeds fish trap. It was a brave decision, given the condescension with which the art world greets anything that smacks of ‘craft’. Yet there was no denying this was a beautiful and innovative piece.
The painting award was taken out by Mavis Ngallametta of Aurukun, for Yalgamuken #3. Ngallametta has developed an original style of landscape painting that seems much more fluid and organic than those familiar indigenous works that rely on a lexicon of signs and symbols. Her pictures tell stories, but her tiny figures are engulfed by swirling forms, lines and dots. Yalgamuken #3 is an impressive work, but hardly offers an entry point to the viewer.
The judges must have been tempted by Jukaja Dolly Snell’s Kurtal – a simpler painting with tremendous iconic force. Kurtal is the waterhole where Snell was born, near Fitzroy Crossing, but also the name of a spirit, portrayed many times by Jarinyaru David Downs. Snell’s Kurtal is a landscape, but it might also be seen as a figure with a large, Cyclopean eye and multiple rows of teeth.
There was a Gothic element to the sculpture award, which went to Rhonda Sharpe for an unsettling group of small figurines, called They Come From Nowhere. Their individual names, she tells us, are Sad, Worried, Frightened and Hopeful. They might be representative of the Aboriginal art market, which has gone through each of these phases over the past few years.
This slightly fragile environment was reflected in the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, which was geared for quick sales, with most stands featuring small paintings and carvings, prints, souvenirs and textiles. Of all the works on display, the weavings and textiles were the most consistently high quality. It demonstrated a new level of sophistication in design and manufacture, as the indigenous art market adapts to changing circumstances. It could be that the road to recovery will not be lined with big, memorable paintings, but glass sculptures and a range of artful textiles. The heroic age of Aboriginal art may be over, but an era of successful pragmatism will still produce works that can take us by surprise.
Luminous World: Contemporary Art from the Wesfarmers Collection,
Charles Darwin University Gallery, August 8 – October 4, 2013 then touring nationally
30th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award
Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, August 9 – November 10, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 17, 2013