This year sees the first ever Biennale of Sydney with an exclusively indigenous theme. It’s not the only large exhibition to have taken this approach – the Havana Biennial has been devoted to ‘the developing world’ since its inception in 1984 – but it’s probably the most high-profile. It’s an irony that such a globalised show should be forced on-line by a pandemic.
Regardless of current circumstances it’s worth asking if this biennale is simply a flash in the pan or a symptom of an historical shift in the way institutions and international exhibitions decide on the art that best represents our age. Throughout the 20th century it was taken for granted there was an unbridgeable gulf between ‘progressive’ and ‘primitive’ art. Today we are dismissive of both terms and unwilling to accept that indigenous art must always be static or backward looking.
This uncertainty is reflected in a more scrupulous use of language. Just as it’s no longer permissable to refer to native peoples as “savages” it’s equally taboo to present our own version of civilisation as definitive. This could hardly be clearer than in the controversy over a prospective course in Western Civilisation funded by the Ramsay Centre that has caused uproar on one campus after another. All civilisations are worthy of study but the critics of this course believe it is an ideological Trojan horse intended to trumpet the superiority of the west.
Whether such suspicions are justified or not, the dispute indicates the distrust engulfing long-established western cultural values. Terms such as “primitive art” are now completely unacceptable, leading to unwieldy new coinages such as “the art of First Nations peoples”.
This ongoing re-alignment of values has occurred in little more than a generation. We can trace its roots back to two crucial exhibitions. The first was ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1984. The inverted commas in the title anticipated the wave of criticism the show would attract, with MoMA being attacked for placing tribal art in an implicitly inferior position to the works of the great modernists such as Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse, who drew freely on its forms.
The Museum was accused of cultural imperialism for exhibiting objects by anonymous tribal artists alongside pieces by the certified geniuses of modern art. Where it hoped to demonstrate an “affinity”, a more critical observer might say the Europeans had simply ripped off visual ideas with no concern for the religious or ceremonial purposes for which an object had been created.
The curators accepted a hierarchy in which Picasso and his peers represented a clear advancement on their tribal counterparts. Whatever an anonymous African carver might have done it was but a stepping stone on the road to high Modernism. The flood of criticism directed at the show made ‘Primitivism’ a benchmark in the way museums have subsequently dealt with these issues.
Curator, Jean-Hubert Martin, had the MoMA exhibition in mind when he put together Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) for the Centre Pompidou in 1989. Half the exhibition was devoted to work by wellknown western contemporary artists, the other to living artists from the “margins” – Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America. Each of the artists was identified by name, scorning the usual practise of relying on ethnographic labels for tribal objects.
The show included works by John Mawurndjul, Jimmy Wululu, Jack Wunuwun, and artists from Yuendumu, but also Ken Unsworth. The exhibition was much criticised, by defenders of the western status quo who resented this rude insertion of the margins into the centre, and by those who argued Martin had simply chosen works according to his own aesthetic standards, with little thought given to deeper cultural meanings. These critics saw a refinement of the MoMA approach rather than a rebuttal.
The curator argued that Magiciens de la terre was a first step in breaking down the narrow institutional hierarchies and attitudes he saw as signs of “cultural arrogance”. Time has proven the justice of that claim, making Martin’s project appear flawed but visionary.
The habits of centuries would not be broken down overnight in neither the museums nor the art market. In 1994, five years after Magiciens de la terre, the Exhibition Jury for the Cologne art fair wrote to Melbourne dealer, Gabriella Pizzi, to inform her she had been rejected from an event where she had previously enjoyed some success. The reason given was that “folk art is not permitted at Art Cologne.” The ‘folk art’ in question meant works by John Mawurndjul, James Iyuma, Mick Namarrari, Mick Kubarrku and Linda Siddick, all of them high-profile names in the Australian indigenous art world.
By way of explanation the letter continued: “…you do not exhibit authentic Aboriginal Art, as the ’93 Exhibition Jury observed, but contemporary art by artists following in this tradition.”
As Art Cologne is predominantly a contemporary art fair, one might have imagined this would have made the Australian work more rather than less eligible. By declaring that work by Aboriginal artists who lived in remote communities was, by definition, inauthentic, the letter revealed a brutal double standard. The Jury believed the only authentic indigenous art was by dead artists, while living artists could not be indigenous and contemporary at the same time.
A secondary implication was that contemporary art was somehow free from any links with tradition, as if western artists who lived in big cities created ex nihilo, relying exclusively on their imaginations. Contemporary art became the domain of inspired individuals, while “folk art” was a debased form that reflected the traditions of a community.
Call it arrogance, call it snobbery, call it protecting one’s own turf, but for the past three decades curators who have tried to step outside the accepted hierarchies of contemporary art, have had to weather a good deal of criticism – and unspoken disapproval – from their peers. The most striking instance was Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale of 2013, in which many non-western artists and outsiders were featured alongside the accepted stars of the moment.
Gioni’s detractors deemed it acceptable to show work by a European artist who borrowed extensively from an outsider, but not from the original source of inspiration. One gets the impression of an exclusive club intent on protecting itself from undesirables. The same might be said of some earlier Sydney Biennales, which were overwhemingly focused on artists from Europe and America.
Within the past few years the blockade has been lifted, with the world’s leading museums now exploring a more globalised approach to acquisitions and exhibitions. In 2103 the Centre Pompidou began to frame its displays in terms of “plural modernities”. The rehang of Tate Modern in 2016 revealed a new commitment to the works of non-western artists, which the museum has been steadily acquiring for the past decade. Even MoMA has now committed itself to a truly global view of art, as made clear by the works on display when it reopened in October following a major renovation. Already, the museum had begun to host shows by non-western artists such as Bodys Isek Kingelez from the Congo.
This change of direction, occurring in so many institutions simultaneously, doesn’t feel like a fashonable whim. The museums of the world have awoken to the idea that contemporary art can be made by artists outside of the mainstream. It is but a small step to accept that artists can work within traditions that have a direct relationship with a particular place and community, and still produce innovative, experimental art. The revolutionary idea is that this art may have not merely local, but universal appeal. Like Magiciens de la terre 31 years ago, the current Sydney Biennale feels like a beginning.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April, 2020