Tag Archives: aboriginal art

Pentridge – more on prison art

At the bottom of a box of old books, mostly about Africa that my parents brought over to my house I found Denton Prout and Fred Feely, 50 Years Hard, the story of Pentridge Gaol from 1850 to 1900 (Rigby Limited,1967, Adelaide).

It was an enjoyable read although not entirely focused on Pentridge Prison, there is a lot of other details about the Melbourne colony. Sometimes the book lost focus but I wasn’t bored, there is a dramatic short story about a night ride from Geelong to Melbourne that was indirectly connected to Pentridge. Towards the end there is a bit of an examination of nineteenth century penal theory and practice but the book is more about historical story telling than any overall thesis.

There were also a few more anecdotal details about William Stanford, the convict who carved the granite fountain in Gordon Reserve (above Parliament Station) including speculations on who was the model for the boy. However, amongst all these details the authors fail to mention, the crucial detail that Stanford had been an apprentice stonemason before immigrating to Australia.

Stanford Fountain, Melbourne

Stanford Fountain, Melbourne

“Stanford was allowed the use of a shed for his work. The magistrate also supplied him with a kit of tools, and when the artist wanted a model for the eagles which were to ornament the rim of the fountain , he arranged for a stuffed eagle hawk to be sent to Pentridge from Bendigo. Mr Paton also came to Stanford’s aid when he wanted a child to act as model for the nude figure forming the finial of the work – a youth holding up a basket of flowers. Stanford, it is said, made many request to the warders to allow one of their children to pose for the nude, although the warders were willing their womenfolk had other views.” (p.139-40)

The vast site of the old Pentridge prison continues to be rehabilitated and redeveloped into a housing estate. However, apart from the residential development and a few eateries there is little going on in the area. I notice that people keep on searching for ghosts in the grounds of Pentridge prison but it appears rather soulless in the daylight. The old carved granite bluestones retain character but the development appears lifeless. Stone work was a major feature of Pentridge’s prison regime in the early years of the prison, some of it perhaps carved with William Stanford himself.

Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 1

Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 2

Walking around Pentridge Village, as it is now called, I finally found the preserved mural by the aboriginal artist, Elliot Ronald Bull (1942-1979) in a yet unnamed lane, between Pentridge Blvd and Sentry Lane. Like Stanford, Bull already had already studied painting before being sent to prison. In 1960 (or 1962 or 1964) Elliot Bull painted the mural with ordinary house paint in “F” Division. (See my post on Prison Art @ Pentridge.) Although Bull’s mural at Pentridge is his most important surviving artwork (S. Kleinert, ‘‘‘Blood from a Stone”: Ronald Bull’s Mural in Pentridge Prison’, Australian Journal of Art, 14, no 2, 1999, p 93) There was nothing about its history and it probably adds less to the lane than it did to the prison yard.

Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 3Elliot Ronald Bull, Pentridge 4


Concrete Improvement

I love being proved wrong. Last year I wrote in this blog:

“Although Melbourne has many footpath decorations and a great street art scene writing/tagging in wet cement has not become a street art form. I have never seen anything in sidewalk concrete that could be called art, no matter how broadly you want to apply the term. It is the most basic of text and slogans. Scratching into wet cement is a largely an opportunistic act. (The character of Wanda from the Canadian sit-com Corner Gas is a serial wet concrete graffiti writer, see Season 5, Episode 16 “Coming Distractions”.)”

As I love being proved wrong, I have been keeping my eyes open for art done in wet cement footpaths. The fish scales on the concrete of Ilham Lane in Brunswick were better than average but then on the Fitzroy housing estate, just behind the three giant Matryoshka Dolls, I saw the best incised drawing on wet concrete that I have yet seen.

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It was not by street artists but local aboriginal artists, not old school but ancient traditions. The traditional forms make the work both artistic and relevant in the area. These simple incised drawings shows that traditions can be kept alive in the urban environment and that even concrete paving can be part of street decoration.

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Antique Guide to the NGV

Cleaning up her piles of books that belonged to her aunt Catherine discovered a guide to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 1968, the year that it opened the St Kilda Road building. (Well, it is not yet an antique, but it soon will be.) This piece of ephemera is a portal to another time of art in Australia.

NGV Guide 1968

NGV Guide 1968

The guide is small booklet with a purple paper cover, stapled binding and 32 pages with black and white illustrations. Printed by the Aldine Press Pty Ltd., a commercial printer specialising in book and periodicals, still operating in Prahran. There is no price on the booklet but the cover does fold out to include a membership form for the Gallery Society.

The purple cover has the stylised image of the roof of the gallery with the three central courtyards. In the plan of the gallery the courtyards are named both by the architect and after the donors: the oriental courtyard, named ‘Coles Court’; the sculpture courtyard, named ‘Lindsay Court’ and the ‘playhouse courtyard’ named ‘Keith Murdoch Court’.

It starts with a dry introduction from Eric Westbrook, the then director of the NGV, mostly about the gallery’s benefactors. There are maps of the two floors of the gallery, showing the original layout of the exhibition space.

The rest of the publication is an introduction with illustrations to the main areas of the galleries collection. It is interesting to note what is missing from the text. The term ‘ethnic art’ is used instead of ‘aboriginal art’. Reading about the European art collection it is remarkable to notice how much is about English art and that France is not mentioned, although the Impressionists are.

“Highlights of the European twentieth century are works by Modigliani, Rouault, Delaunay, de Stael, Tapies, Soto and others.” (p.23)

The description of Australian art, then housed on the second floor of the St. Kilda Road gallery, clearly shows Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’.

“Australian Art is essentially a colonial art drawing its stylistic impetus from the metropolitan centres of the world. Originally English traditions were paramount while in the later nineteenth century, French influences predominated. To-day, the styles of Western European Art have become universal and interacting. American abstract expressionism and the kinetic experiments of the French Groupe de Recheche d’Art Visuel mingle with traditions of the School of Paris and have their influence there. However, the particular life of this country and the individual attire of its people, flavour the work of its artists creating a distinctive Australian art. Though the idiom has brome international, the accent remains Australian.” (p.27)

Many aspects of the NGV have changed but I did note that the galleries collection of William Blake drawings remains a consistent feature of the galleries exhibition of Prints and Drawings department; Blake’s “The Whirlwind (Angel Crossing Styx)” is illustrated on page 11 and his drawings were on exhibition again this year.


Public Sculpture @ Footscray

Working on my book on Melbourne’s public sculpture has given me an excellent excuse to explore Melbourne. In Footscray I wanted to see and photograph two public sculptures. Adding to my desire of explore the city was watching The Secret History Of Our Streets an excellent BBC Two production that introduced me to the work of Charles Booth (1840-1916), a pioneer sociologist mapping the streets of London. (There is an online archive of Charles Booth’s work.)

In the busy commercial centre of Footscray at the intersection of Nicholson and Hopkins Streets in the pedestrian mall. There was a gentle mist rising around the rocks of Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom. The fine spray of water at the base of the rocks is intended to represent the smoke in aboriginal ceremonies. The series of rocks helps define the intersection, adds to the pedestrian area and the rocks connects the place to earth.

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom, detail

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom, detail

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom, detail

The sculpture is very recent but people are taking to it; it was hard to get a photograph without someone’s child or dog getting in the way.

Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom is a sculpture by Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins. Vicky Couzins is from the Western Districts of Victoria and is a descendant of the Gunditjmara and Kirrae Whurrong clans and she was one of the trio of artists that created with Birrarung Wilam at Birrarung Marr. Maree Clarke is from the Mutti Mutti, Wemba Wemba and Yorta Yorta; she was one of the many indigenous artists involved with Scar – A Stolen Vision in Enterprise Park along the Yarra. (For more about Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom.)

Looking for Bruce Armstrong sculpture, Two People Hugging I found myself in a well designed neighbourhood of mostly public housing. The traffic of busy Moore St was gone; the pavement changed to pavers rather than concrete and even the sound of my footsteps changed. There were several small squares (sunburnt from the recent heatwave – I hope the trees grow in) in the area and public seating.

Bruce Armstrong, Two Persons Hugging

Bruce Armstrong, Two Persons Hugging

Two Persons Hugging located in a square midway down Vipont Street, a quiet street; you wouldn’t know that it was there unless you were a local. This square at the start of a series of stepped parks and playgrounds that lead down to the parklands along the Maribyrnong River.

Two Persons Hugging is an early work by Armstrong; I haven’t been able to find an exact date. The monumental carved wood is solid and the two persons are inseparable and awesome. The wide plinth at the base of the sculpture adds to the seating options in the square.

Bruce Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1957 and after he graduated from RMIT in 1981 his sculptures are influenced by many mythologies creating archetypal beasts. Along with being represented in major art galleries and international collections Armstrong has public sculptures in several other Melbourne’s suburbs including Moonee Valley, Ascot Vale and Chadstone Shopping Centre.

The position of both of these sculptures, in their different parts of the suburb makes them landmarks for that small area, defining the way that people see, move and talk about the place. These two sculptures might only get a small mention in my book amongst the other work their sculptors have done but I’m glad that I took the time to see them and how they work with their locations.

The centre of Melbourne’s art scene will continue to move slowly counter clockwise around the centre of the city towards the western suburbs. It had already moved through St. Kilda and Prahran by the 1970s and was moving up to Fitzroy by the 1980s. Look out Footscray.


Birrarung Wilam and other public art

The aboriginal population of this area didn’t have a say in the establishment of Melbourne. They were dispossessed, their land was declared empty and unowned and Australian law legally reduced them to being part of the fauna and flora. Consequently they rarely figure in Melbourne’s public sculpture, they were not part of the collective consciousness of Melbourne for most of its history. They were being officially ignored and neglected.

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Ray Thomas and Megan Evans, “Another View Walking Trail”, 1995

Australian aborigines briefly appear on the bas-reliefs on the Burke and Wills Monument by Charles Summers. The story of the expedition is told in four low relief panels around the base of the statue. Burke and Wills were unwilling to deal the local aboriginal people, the sole survivor John King was help by the Yandruwandha people and lived with them until found by the rescue mission. To prepare the panels Summers lived for six weeks with local aborigines to design the figures on the lower panel and depicts them as dignified, well-proportioned people.

This is the first time that aboriginal figures appear in the history of Melbourne’s sculpture. After that public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population vanished. For over a century Aboriginal art and identity was official ignored. In the last twenty years it has slowly changed and there is public art representing Melbourne’s aboriginal population by indigenous artists.

Birrarung Wilam  shields

Birrarung Wilam shields

Amongst the new aboriginal art along the Yarra River in Burrung Marr there is Birrarung Wilam (meaning river camp) by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm.

Made of stone, wood, stainless steel, bronze, nickel and audio installation, 2006, this is a complex installation with many elements. The twisting, textured eel path represents a major food source, the feminine mound “camp site” and the masculine the five metal shields along the riverfront. Marking the site’s eastern and western ends stand intricately carved hardwood message sticks representing the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation. The metal shields represent the five clans of the Kulin Nation.

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

Birrarung Wilam detail of rocks in performance area.

The performance space is magnificent even remembering that the stones were moved by machines and not by hand while remembering that these ancient British monuments are themselves reconstructions. The best part the ancestral stones the petroglyphs of animals carved on the stones. The monolithic carved ancestor stones are placed to form a semi-circular performance area. Unfortunately they are sort of hidden behind ArtPlay, the children’s arts centre next to a playground.

Birrarung Wilam may be a very large and complex work but it is still dwarfed by the scale of this riverside park. There is room for an entire north bank of the Yarra River and meeting up with the carved poles of Scar – a Stolen Vision (see my post).

Indigenous artist were also represented in 2011 the Laneways Commissions with an all indigenous year that included Reko Rennie Neon Natives, a neon light display, Yhonnie Scarce’s Iron Cross in Brien Lane, Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council: Judy Nicholson, James McFayden, Asley Firebrace-Kerr and Derek Smith is still up on a wall off Burke Street, and Urban Doolagahl by Steaphan Paton. Very few people in Melbourne would have heard of the Doolagahl before Steaphan Paton introduced them by his retelling of the story in an urban context revives an ancient tradition.

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council

Melbourne: Two Worlds a painting by the Wurundjeri Council, off Burke St.

This public art publicly acknowledges the existences of Aboriginal Australia in Melbourne’s collective consciousness.


Seven Exhibitions

The weather was perfect for a bicycle ride to Melbourne University today; I had various reasons to go including having another look at the sculptures on campus for a future blog post. I also saw a couple of galleries on the campus, the George Paton Gallery and Ian Potter Museum of Art and on the way back I stopped in to have a look at Brunswick Arts Space.

I thought that I might give George Paton Gallery a miss because the exhibition “Make it New” was just a student union photography competition and exhibition but as I was passing by the Melbourne Student Union building I felt that this reason was snobbish. I was glad that I saw the exhibition, the variety and quality was impressive; I had seen some of the photographs before in other exhibitions.

Ian Potter Museum had three exhibitions: Heat in the eyes, Colour Me Dead and Under the Sun.

“Heat in the eyes: new acquisitions 2010–13” has more than fifty works recently acquired through purchase and donation. This included works by some familiar names: Jenny Watson, Mike Kelly and Peter Tyndall. Trevor Nickolls’ exuberant painting “Gertrude Street, Fitzroy” is definitely worth acquiring for so many reasons.

“Under the sun” is exhibition for the Kate Challis RAKA Award 2013 is an annual award for Indigenous creative artists. The $25,000 award winner is Mabel Juli for her minimal painting “Garnkeny Ngarranggarni (Moon Dreaming)”. The artists on exhibition are Teresa Baker, Daniel Boyd, Hector Burton, Timothy Cook, Mabel Juli, Kunmarnanya Mitchell, Alick Tipoti, Garawan Wanambi and Regina Wilson. I was taking note on the fibreglass resin masks by Alick Tipoti from the Torres Strait Islands, Hector Burton’s paintings of the trees around the waterhole with their fantastic colours, and the woven patterns in Garawan Wanambi (NT) paintings when my pen ran out of ink and so did my notes at this point.

Philip Brophy’s exhibition “Colour Me Dead” is about “changing perceptions of the nude in art from Neoclassicism and Romanticism”. It sounds more like an art history thesis than an art exhibition but Brophy has created an attractive and clever multi-media exhibition from his research. There is a movie, works on paper, digital art, sounds, lights and plenty to cogitate on. And here was I with out a functioning pen.

On my ride back I looked at the graffiti covered Upfield bike track (more research for future blog posts) and I stopped at Brunswick Arts Space. Where there were three good exhibitions. “I need a life, where can I download one? A drawing investigation by Alice Alva” fills two walls with drawings of debatable quality in a Barry McGee style hanging. Jess Kelly’s “Photosynthesis” has alchemical jars and life-size paper cut-outs of the lamppost growing leaves evoking a mysterious atmosphere. And Andy Robertson’s “Works, 2012” took a wry look at the documentation of contemporary art.


The Intervention @ Counihan

Jason Wing’s “Intervention: Criminal” speaks powerfully. It is a giant paste-up photocopy of a photo of himself with the words “An Australian Government Initiative: Criminal” on a sign hung around his neck. The image has all the sympathy of a mugshot. In 2007 by act of federal legislation the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation better known as “the intervention” removed the rights of the Aboriginal population in the NT. The Australian government gains political power by marginalizing and criminalizing minority groups.

Jason Wing’s image is the centre-piece image of the exhibition “Ghost Citizens: witnessing the intervention” at the Counihan Gallery and features on the exhibition flyer. (In 2009 I wrote about Jason Wing’s first solo exhibition of  in this blog.)

My favorite images from the exhibition are Chips Mackinolty’s digital prints “National Emergency Next 1,347,525km” “…and there will be no dancing”; signpost the incredibly vast territory that as an emergency is absurd. I had seen Bindi Cole’s work at the NGV’s Studio space last year but her series of photos are well worth another look to see the absurdity of the idea of the standard image of aboriginal Australia.

The paintings of Dan Jones, Kylie Kemarre, Sally M. Mulda and Amy Napurulla provide a colorful accompaniment to the other works and the bleak subject of the exhibition. Fiona MacDonald’s woven archival print of the landscape of James Cook Island at Sylvania Waters in NSW provides the contrast and made me question who is need of an intervention. There is so much balance in this exhibition between the works of 8 Aboriginal and 5 non-Indigenous artists.

The excellent curatorial skills of Jo Holder and Djon Mundine OAM make this exhibition a powerful experience. The Counihan Gallery has done another great job at bringing together art and politics in this exhibition, a feature of their program this year.

The subject of the exhibition is extraordinarily important to Australia’s culture and its claim to be a civilized nation. Considering the up-coming federal election everyone should make an effort least see this exhibition and try to understand what is happening with the “Basic Card”, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT and the “intervention”.


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