Contemporary Indigenous Australian art
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Contemporary Indigenous Australian art is the modern art work produced by Indigenous Australians. It is generally regarded as originating with the Papunya painting movement that commenced at Papunya, northwest of Alice Springs, Northern Territory in 1971, facilitated by white Australian teacher and art worker Geoffrey Bardon. This began a widespread art movement across rural and remote Aboriginal Australia; contemporary Indigenous art of a different nature also emerged in urban centres. This art has become central to Australian art.
Leading Indigenous artists have had solo exhibitions at Australian and international galleries, while their work has been included in major collaborations such as the design of the Musée du quai Branly. Contemporary Indigenous artists have had an impact on Australia's most prominent art prizes: the Wynne Prize has been won by Indigenous artists on at least three occasions; Shirley Purdie won the religious-themed Blake Prize in 2007, while Linda Syddick Napaltjarri has been a finalist for that Prize on three occasions. Indigenous artists, including Rover Thomas, have represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and 1997. Works by contemporary Indigenous artists are held by all of Australia's major public galleries, including the National Gallery of Australia, which is constructing a new building to display its Indigenous collection.
Indigenous Australian art comes from "the world’s longest continuing art tradition". Prior to European settlement of Australia, Indigenous people used many art forms, including sculpture, wood carving, rock carving, body painting, bark painting and weaving. Some art forms have declined or disappeared since European settlement, including body decoration by scarring and the creating of possum-skin cloaks. However, Indigenous Australians also adopted and expanded the use of new techniques including painting on paper and canvas. Early examples include the late nineteenth century drawings by William Barak.
Early contemporary art initiatives
In the 1930s, artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner introduced watercolour painting to Albert Namatjira, an Indigenous man at Hermannsberg Mission, south-west of Alice Springs. His landscape paintings, first created in 1936 and exhibited in Australian cities in 1938, were immediately successful, and he became the first Indigenous Australian watercolourist as well as the first to successfully exhibit and sell his works to the non-Indigenous community. Namatjira's style of work was adopted by other Indigenous artists in the region beginning with his close male relatives, and they became known as the Hermannsburg School or as the Arrernte Watercolourists.
Namatjira died in 1959, and by then a second initiative had also begun. At Ernabella, now Pukatja, South Australia, the use of bright acrylic paints to produce degins for posters and postcards was introduced. This led later to fabric design and batik work, which is still produced at Australia's oldest Indigenous art centre.
A contemporary Indigenous art movement begins
While the initiatives at Hermannsburg and Ernabella were important antecedents, most sources trace the origins of contemporary Indigenous art, particularly acryclic painting, to Papunya, Northern Territory in 1971. An Australian school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon arrived at Papunya and started an art program with children at the school and then with the men of the community. The men began with painting a mural on the school walls, and moved on to painting on boards and canvas. Within a year, one of the artists, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, won a regional art award at Alice Springs and over 20 men at Papunya were painting. They established their own company, Papunya Tula Artists Limited, to support the creation and marketing of works. Although painting took hold quickly at Papunya, it remained a "small-scale regional phenomenon" throughout the 1970s, and for a decade none of the state galleries or the national gallery collected the works. However, the painting movement developed rapidly in the 1980s, spreading to Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Utopia and Haasts Bluff in the Northern Territory, and Balgo, Western Australia. By the 1990s artistic activity had spread to many communities throughout northern Australia, including those established as part of the Outstation movement, such as Kintore, Northern Territory and Kiwirrkurra, Western Australia. Since then, expansion has continued, with at least 10 painting communities developing in central Australia between the late 1990s and 2006.
Indigenous art cooperatives have been central to the emergence of contemporary Indigenous art. Whereas many western artists pursue formal training and work as individuals, most contemporary Indigenous art is created in community groups and art centres. In 2010, the peak body representing central Australian Indigenous art centres, Desart, had 44 member centres, while the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA), the peak body for northern Australian communities, had 43 member centres. The centres represent large numbers of artists – ANKAAA estimates its member organisations alone include up to 5000 artists.
In Indigenous communities across northern Australia most artists have no formal training, their work being based instead on traditional knowledge and skills. In southeast Australia other Indigenous artists, often living in the cities, have trained in art schools and universities. These artists are sometimes referred to as 'urban' Indigenous artists, although the term is sometimes controversial, and does not accurately describe the origins of some of these individuals, such as Bronwyn Bancroft who grew up in the town of Tenterfield, New South Wales, Michael Riley who came from rural New South Wales near Dubbo and Moree, or Lin Onus who spent time on his father's traditional country on the Murray River near Victoria's Barmah forest. Some, like Onus, were self-taught; others such as artist Danie Mellor and artist, curator and writer Brenda Croft have completed university studies in fine arts.
Styles and themes
Themes and styles in Indigenous contemporary art vary across regions. Indigenous artists from the remote communities of northern Australia, particularly the central and western desert area, frequently paint particular 'dreamings', or stories, for which they have personal responsibility or rights. In Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, men have painted their traditional clan designs. The patterns portrayed in paintings by Papunya artists originated as translations of traditional motifs marked out in sand or incised into rock.
Much contemporary Indigenous Australian art is produced using acrylic paint on canvas. However other materials and techniques are in use, often in particular regions. Bark painting predominates amongst artists from Arnhem Land, who also undertake carving and weaving. Textile production including batik has been important in the northwestern desert regions of South Australia, in the Northern Territory's Utopia community, and in other areas of central Australia. In central Australian communities associated with the Pitjantjatjara people, pokerwork carving is significant. Hermannsburg, originally home to Albert Namatjira and the Arrente Watercolourists, is now renowned for its pottery.
Amongst 'urban' Indigenous artists, techniques and themes are more diverse, with techniques such as silkscreen printing, poster making, photography, television and film all being adopted. One of the most important contemporary Indigenous artists of his generation, Michael Riley worked in film, video, still photography and digital media. Likewise, Bronwyn Bancroft has worked in fabric, textiles, "jewellery design, painting, collage, illustration, sculpture and interior decoration". Painting is a medium used by many 'urban' artists, such as Gordon Bennett, Fiona Foley, Trevor Nickolls, Lin Onus, Judy Watson, and Harry Wedge.
Collections and exhibitions
Contemporary Indigenous art works are collected by all of Australia's major public galleries. The National Gallery of Australia has a significant collection, with a new wing being constructed in which it is to be exhibited. The extension was announced in 2006 and is due to open in 2010. Some state galleries, such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, have gallery space permanently dedicated to the exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art.
The Araluen Centre for Arts and Entertainment, a public art gallery in Alice Springs, hosts the country's largest collection of works by Albert Namatjira. It also hosts the annual Desert Mob exhibition, representing current painting activities across Australia's Aboriginal art centres. The National Gallery of Victoria holds the country's main collection of Indigenous batik.
There are a number of regular exhibitions devoted to contemporary Indigenous art. Since 1984, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award exhibition has been held in the Northern Territory, under the auspices of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. In 2007, the National Gallery of Australia held the first Indigenous Art Triennial, which included works by thirty contemporary Indigenous artists such as Richard Bell, Danie Mellor, Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Shane Pickett.
Several individual artists have been the subject of retrospective exhibitions at public galleries. These have included Emily Kngwarreye, at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1998, John Mawurndjul at the Tinguely Museum in Basel Switzerland in 2005, and Paddy Bedford at several galleries including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2006–07.
Internationally, Indigenous artists have represented Australia in the Venice Biennale, including Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls in 1990, and Emily Kngwarreye, Judy Watson and Yvonne Koolmatrie in 1997. In 2003, eight Indigenous artists – Paddy Bedford, John Mawurndjul, Ningura Napurrula, Lena Nyadbi, Michael Riley, Judy Watson, Tommy Watson and Gulumbu Yunupingu – collaborated on a commission to provide works that decorate one of the Musée du quai Branly's four new buildings.
Contemporary Indigenous art works have been finalists in a number of Australia's principal national art prizes, including the Wynne prize, the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award and the Blake Prize, and Indigenous artists have won several of these awards in recent decades. Indigenous winners have included Shirley Purdie, 2007 winner of the Blake Prize with her work Stations of the Cross; and 2003 Clemenger Award winner John Mawurndjul. The Wynne prize has been won by contemporary Indigenous artists on several occasions, including in 1999 by Gloria Petyarre with Leaves; in 2004 by George Tjungurrayi; and in 2008 by Joanne Currie Nalingu, with her painting The river is calm.
Australia's major Indigenous art prize is the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Established by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in 1984, the prize consists of an annual exhibition held in Darwin, and four awards: a General Painting award worth A$40 000, and three prizes for specific media: one for bark painting, one for works on paper, and one for three-dimensional works. Winners of the General Painting award have included Makinti Napanangka in 2008, and Danie Mellor in 2009. In 2008, the Art Gallery of Western Australia established the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards, which include the country's most valuable Indigenous art cash prize of A$50 000, as well as a A$10 000 prize for the top Western Australian artist, and a A$5 000 People's Choice Award, all selected from the field of finalists, which includes 15 individuals and one collaborative group. The 2009 winner of the main prize was Ricardo Idagi, while the People's Choice award was won by Shane Pickett.
Contemporary Indigenous art is the only art movement of international significance to emerge from Australia. Paintings by the artists of the western desert have quickly achieved "an extraordinarily widespread reputation", with collectors competing to obtain them. Some Indigenous artists are regarded as amongst the foremost Australian painters; Emily Kngwarreye has been described as "one of the greatest modern Australian painters", and "among the best Australian artists, arguably amongst the best of her time."
The flowering of Indigenous art has delivered social and cultural benefits to Indigenous Australians, who are socially and economically disadvantaged compared to the Australian community as a whole. For example, in central and western desert areas early works at Papunya were created by senior Aboriginal men to help educate younger generations about their culture and their cultural responsibilities.
The sale of art works is a significant economic activity for individual artists and for their communities. Estimates of the size of the sector vary, but placed its value in the early 2000s at A$100 to 300 million, and by 2007 at half a billion dollars and growing. The sector is particularly important to many Indigenous communities because, as well being a source of cash for an economically disadvantaged group, it reinforces Indigenous identity and tradition, and has aided the maintenance of social cohesion.
"There is currently an upsurge in interest in Aboriginal art among the Australian public and overseas visitors...The resultant pressure on artists to produce has led ultimately to a collapse or emasculation of the art form. Aboriginal art is now under incredible strain to fulfil white demands on Aboriginal culture.
—Indigenous Australian activist Djon Mundine, writing during Australia's bicentennial year, 1988.
Fraud and exploitation are significant issues affecting contemporary Indigenous Australian art. Indigenous art works have regularly been used without artists' permission, most famously by the Reserve Bank of Australia when it used a David Malangi painting on the one dollar note in 1966. Similar appropriation of material has taken place with fabric designs, T-shirts and carpets. There have been claims of artists being kidnapped, or relocated against the wishes of their families, by people keen to acquire the artist's paintings.
Artists, particularly in the remoter parts of Australia, sometimes paint for outlets other than the Indigenous art centres or their own companies. They do this for economic reasons, however the resulting paintings can be of uneven quality, and of precarious economic value. Doubts about the provenance of Indigenous paintings, and about the prices paid for them, have spawned media scrutiny and an Australian parliamentary inquiry. Questions regarding the authenticity of works have arisen in relation to particular artists, including Emily Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas, Kathleen Petyarre, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. In 2001 an art dealer was jailed for fraud in relation to Clifford Possum's work.
In 2009 an Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct was introduced, intended to establish "minimum standards of practice and fair dealing in the Indigenous visual arts industry".
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