Indigenous Art: Where are we going?

Published June 18, 2021
Art News published this side-by-side comparison on 30 March, 2018. ie. Damien Hirst, Veil of Love’s Secrets (2017). Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. ©Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2018. Right, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled (1991). Courtesy of Sotheby's Australia.

“Aboriginal artists say that it is difficult to find any Aboriginal art that is devoid of spiritual meaning. Art is their culture, their work, their worship, their history. A painting is a chronicle of their country, a map of myths, a memoir of the great spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime. And their paintings are inextricably woven with their love of the land; they are ‘dancing, singing and painting for the land’.”

Who is it, you’re wondering, saying such respectful and sympathetic things about Aboriginal art? Is it one of our anthropologists or art advisors explaining the phenomenon to the general public?

Prepare to raise eyebrows, because the author of these words, from a 2009 book called We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples, is none other than billionaire celebrity artist, Damien Hirst. One hardly expects this supreme showman to reveal such sensitivity. For an arch-materialist to be attracted by the “spiritual” nature of indigenous art is almost enough to make one wonder whether Hirst believes there might be a higher power than the Almighty Dollar.

Any such suspicions were dispelled in March this year when the artist showed his new series, The Veil Paintings, at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. The major selling point was that these were the first works in decades that Hirst had actually painted with his own hand. Buyers found the lure irresistible, and the entire show sold out for a total of more than US$20 million. According to the New York Times, Larry Gagosian felt he may have underpriced the works.

For Australian viewers, at first impressions the Veil Paintings look like bad copies of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work. This was lost on the American reviewers and previewers, who praised Hirst’s daring tactic of actually painting the pictures himself (!) and accepted his claim that he had been inspired by Pierre Bonnard.

Because Hirst has already revealed his appreciation of Aboriginal art it’s hard to believe he painted these pictures in complete ignorance of Kngwarreye’s achievements. What’s more surprising and depressing is the indifference of those art writers who never raised the issue or bothered to follow up on the Australian protests. It’s clear they much preferred the idea of the western genius artist reaching a watershed in his career. The derivative nature of the paintings was not viewed as a problem. After all, Hirst is big star who goes to all the right parties and shows at the right galleries. Kngwarreye was an old Aboriginal lady who lived somewhere in the Australian desert.

It’s a syndrome in the contemporary art world that celebrity artists may borrow from amateurs, outsiders, and all manner of indigenous creators, while those who are systematically ripped off are omitted from the large-scale exhibitions. They are viewed as ‘unclubbable’ by those in the club. When Jean-Hubert Martin mixed indigenous artists with celebrities in his landmark show of 1989, Magiciens de la terre, he was widely criticised by other curators. When Massimiliano Gioni did something similar 24 years later, in the Venice Biennale of 2013, he was similarly derided by many of his peers.

In the age of full-scale Political Correctness it’s woeful that the same standards still seem to apply. Yet it’s not because of PC that Kngwarreye deserves to be acknowledged, it’s a matter of simple justice. One would think Hirst’s alleged borrowings should be deeply offensive to all those critics and curators that agonise over their ‘white privilege’, subsuming aesthetics to issues of race and gender.

The Australian art world’s belief in the global importance of Aboriginal art is clearly not shared by the rest of the globe. Despite a long line of international, indigenous exhibitions the world knows little about the best Aboriginal artists. Only Kngwarreye’s shows in Osaka and Tokyo in 2008, and John Mawurndjul’s retrospective in Basel and Hannover in 2005-06 have offered a glimpse of the limelight.

Instead, the international art market is coming to indigenous art by stealth. In Tim Klingender’s third London sale of Aboriginal art at Sotheby’s, in March this year, the vast majority of items were acquired by non-Australians. Klingender was surprised that the only two items sold to Australian institutions were relatively minor pieces bought by the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

There was another surprise at this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin, won by Gunybi Ganambarr, with Buyku, a 3 by 3 metre, deep-etched aluminium relief. It seemed obvious that this work should go to an Australian museum, but it was snapped up by an American collector. In fact, Gunbyi has produced three such pieces, and each of them has been purchased by Americans.

Visiting Darwin this year during the NATSIAA awards it felt as if the indigenous art scene has reached a level of self-confidence and innovation that refuted those long-held fears this art would fade away with the disappearance of an older generation of artists. It would be like saying that western art stopped after Picasso and Matisse left the stage.

The NATSIAA was filled with dynamic works by artists as diverse as Vincent Namatjira, Mabel Juli, Yarritji Young, Mantua Nangala and Warwiriya Burton.Elsewhere, two enterprising dealers, Paul Johnstone and Matt Ward, joined forces to present six different exhibitions under the title, Salon. The quality of these shows was exceptional, featuring rising stars such as Yolgnu bark painter, Barayuwa Munungurr, and painter/ceramicist, Pepai Jangala Carroll of Ernabella.

One had to be in Darwin this year to experience the energy and excitement that has come flooding back into Aboriginal art. I’m moved to note the contrast with the complacency one finds in so many biennales and other contemporary surveys.

Somewhere in the gap between institutional indifference, and the rising ardour of private collectors, there must be a strategy to raise the international profile of Aboriginal art. One suspects that it requires a spearhead: an exhibition of an important indigenous artist to be shown at a venue too big to ignore, in London, Paris or New York. It may not be such a far-fetched idea, judging from a conversation I had last year with Anne Baldassari, the former director of the Musée Picasso, who had just put together the landmark, Icons of Modern Art for the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

“After this show,” I said, “you could do any project. What would you like to do next?”

“What I’d really like to do, she replied, “is a big show of Emily Kngwarreye”.

Had such an exhibition appeared at the Louis Vuitton before the Veil Paintingsappeared in Los Angeles, it’s unlikely Damien Hirst could have escaped invidious comparisons – or even dared to show such pictures. Baldassari’s proposition is on the table if any Australian institution has the will and initiative to follow it up. The private collectors of the world may have discovered indigenous art as art, but the public museums still have to overcome an ethnographic mind-set.

It’s time for a change of emphasis. The Dreamings (Tjukurrpa) have always been the basis of indigenous art, and probably always will be. To accept that these beliefs can act as the impetus for a dynamic form of contemporary art is to add new implications to the ‘spirituality’ of abstract painting. The timelessness of Rothko, the mysticism of Malevich, the dynamism of Delaunay and Kupka, are all contained within an art that recognises no distinction between past, present and future. In indigenous art the idea of linear progress, so dear to historians of modernism, is blown away. It’s the ultimate endgame of the avant-garde, coming soon to a major art institution not near you.


Published in Artist Profile 45,  November 2018