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Tag Archives: aboriginal art

Indigenous Culture on the streets

On Friday 5 July I met the NAIDOC Week march as I was walking to Fitzroy. The march was coming the opposite way walking from Fitzroy to Federation Square. I felt inspired by the march – I want a treaty and truth (like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission). Australia needs a treaty with its Indigenous population; Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people.

I considered my options joining the march or continuing my walk into Fitzroy. I decided to continue on looking at public art, street art and art exhibitions but with a focus on indigenous history. My methodology for these walks is asystematic, random, and often without preconceived objectives. This is because I want to take unfamiliar routes and find new things.

This is No Fantasy, the Dianne Tanzer and Nicola Stien’s gallery on Gertrude Street was showing Vincent Namatjira’s exhibition Coming To America. Vincent is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the grandson of Albert Namatjira.It was Vincent Namatjira’s fifth solo presentation at this prominent Melbourne commercial gallery. Black dots beside the works showed that every painting had sold.

Vincent Namatjira’s crude but effective style has an absurd sense of humour. The exhibition has a series of paintings depicting his trip to America, including his time in Hollywood, the White House and relaxing on beach chair at the Miami Beach Art Basel. On one wall was a grid of black and white portraits of alternating black and white people. Namatjira seems to be saying: why so serious when this is fun?

Gertrude Street was named after the daughter of Captain Brunswick Smythe who acquired the land in 1839 in colonial exploitation; in spite of it colonial origins Gertrude Street has many reminders of Melbourne’s Indigenous history. There are several plaques by the City of Yarra Aboriginal Cultural Signage Reference Group and the Aboriginal Advisory Group: The Koori Club, the Aboriginal Housing Board and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. (As well as public art I am now looking at plaques — how dull can I get?).

At the corner of Lt. Napier Street, there is the recent ‘Sovereignty’ mural by Robert Young, Heesco and Makatron. They are all Melbourne-based artists but only Young is a Gunnai/Gunditjmarra/Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man – Heesco is from Mongolia and Makatron is probably from outer space, or Adelaide.

A bit further along Gertrude Street, at the corner of Gertrude and George Streets stand three “Delkuk Spirits”, 2002, by Kelly Koumalatsos, a Wergaia/Wamba Wamba woman from the northwest of Victoria.  The yarn bombed dress on one of thin bronze figures has been there for years, it implies that it a woman and makes the group more inclusive.

Kelly Koumalatsos, Delkuk Spirits, 2002, bronze

On the same corner is Maysar, the Melbourne Youth Sport and Recreation Co-Operative with glass design in the windows and glass doors by Mandy Nicholson, a member of the Wurundjeri-willam clan of the Kulin Nation. Nicholson’s work is familiar to me as she designed Gayip, the stainless steal spiral headed figure with wings perched on a rock on the South bank and the petroglyphs at Birrarung Wilam.

I turned left onto to Smith Street, named after Melbourne’s Mayor Smith 1855-64 a publican turned politician. At first there was much less reminders of Indigenous history on Smith Street, just on plaque for the Victorian Aboriginal Co-operative Limited at 108 Smith Street, one guy in an Aboriginal flag t-shirt getting lunch and a small flag painted on a house in one of the streets off Smith.

That was until I reached the corner of Stanley and Smith Street where the Glenn Romanis has designed the combination of a micro-park, seating, public art and a map. Glenn Romanis is from the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation, and like Nicholson, Romanis’s public work was familiar from his carving at Birrarung Wilam. The sites are mapped in fossilised wood with granite streets cutting across the sedimentary rock that flows like rivers. Carved in the rock “Wominjeka Wurundjeri Bik” (Welcome to Wurundjeri Country). It was a good place to continue an exploration of Melbourne’s indigenous culture.

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Reko and Turbo, from the street to the NGV

“From Bark to Neon: Indigenous Art from the NGV Collection” at the NGV in Federation Square includes works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, Emily Kam Kngwarray in the collection. But I want to focus on two local artists in the exhibition who both have street backgrounds: Reko Rennie and Trevor Turbo Brown.

Blek le Rat, Reko Rennie, Drew Funk, Reko Rennie et. al. in Hoiser Lane & on the internet.

Part of their street background both embraced one of the four elements of hip hop; for Reko it was writing graffiti and for Turbo, breakdancing.

Reko Rennie has a neon crown in his Regalia 2013; as in crown that a top graffiti writer would put a crown above their tag. I first saw his work at the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2008, a magnificent multi-layer stencil of a red kangaroo. Later I saw the same stencil sprayed on a wall in Hosier Lane alongside Blek Le Rat and Stormie Mills. I didn’t know that he was Kamilaroi all I knew is that he was amongst the best street artists in Melbourne. Many street artists were later represented by commercial art galleries but Reko Rennie navigated this transition better than most. In a few years he had work in the NGV’s collection was making public art. Rennie’s public art includes his Neon Natives, 2011 in Cocker Alley for the City of Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions and his Murri Totems, 2012 outside of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science building.

Trevor Turbo Brown, Getting their photo taken by tourists, 2007

The late Trevor Turbo Brown was a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. Turbo was a self-taught, outsider artist who had multiple disadvantages amongst them homelessness and an intellectual disability. Turbo had a clear relationship to the street. He got his nickname, ‘Turbo’ breakdancing on the streets in the 1980s and 90s. One day I ran into him Brunswick trying to sell his art. The NGV has three new acquisitions of Turbo’s paintings on exhibition; they acquired some of the best Turbo paintings that I’ve seen, there is a genuine sense of humour his dingos smiling and photobombing for the tourists. Dingos were very significant to Turbo for many reasons.

Hip hop and the street are now part of the greater cultural mix that influences urban Indigenous art in Melbourne.


No Turning Back: Artworks from The Torch 2018

No Turning Back is a group exhibition Art by Indigenous prisoners and former prisoners at Deakin Downtown Gallery, the one room gallery Deakin University’s elegant space at Collins Square in the Docklands.

Big Kev, Ceremony, 2017

Big Kev, Ceremony, 2017

Most of the paintings are about the artist’s country. The fire paintings about burning as land management by Pitjantjatjara artist, Veronica Mungaloon Hudson. Jeffrey Jackson’s paintings that represent Mutti Mutti country around Lake Mungo. Robby Wirramanda painting and ceramics inspired by the Lake Tyrrell salt flats with his hopeful dragonflies trailing after images of dots across the surface of the paintings. Ray Traplin’s large dot painting of a giant snake creating rivers in Kuku Yalanji country.

There are paintings about ceremony. Ceremony by Big Kev, a Ngiyampaa man has so much detail and about his culture. The clarity of information about an exchange ceremony held between Wiradjuri, Barkindji and Wailwan in this one painting is impressive. And Bora Rings (Ceremonial Grounds) by Bradley, a Dja Dja Wurrung/Yorta Yorta man is restrained in its ochre hues but has the intensity and concentration of design that is typical of much prison art where the painting is evidence of time well spent.

Not that Gary Scott’s painting looks out of place for not being about country or ceremony. New Beginnings is about changes in his own life and from all accounts Scott is making a career as an artist in the highly competitive Indigenous arts sector, even selling a couple of paintings to the Victoria Police Academy.

On Thursday morning Kent Morris, The Torch’s CEO and a Barkindji man gave a talk at the exhibition. Weaving his own personal story of finding his identity into the way that The Torch’s program works in helping Indigenous inmates find their identity, reconnect to their culture and earn some money through art. Morris talked about the many challenges for The Torch from getting the law changed so that Indigenous prisoners can sell their art, to giving art criticism to prisoners. If you think that some artist are sensitive (and believe me they can be) then consider the delicate art or giving prisoners art criticism. Having the resilience to work through criticism and failure is necessary for artistic development but it is a very tough thing for someone in prison when the rest of their life isn’t going well.

See my earlier posts for more on The Torch: Confined 9, Confined 8, Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art.


The Intervention 10 Years On

“A Widening Gap: The Intervention 10 Years On” at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is an exhibition marking the tenth anniversary of “the Intervention”.

Jacky Green, Seán Kerins and Therese Richie, Open Cut, 2017

Jacky Green, Seán Kerins and Therese Richie, Open Cut, 2017

“The Intervention.” it sounds like something that might be staged for an alcoholic friend. The Norther Territory National Emergency Response, as it is officially called, sounds like it might be doing something urgent however when it only implementing two of the ninety-seven recommendations in the NT Government’s Little Children are Sacred Report (2007) in a decade, you know that it is bullshit. So let’s call it for what it is a racist abuse of human rights and a land grab for miners that both the ALP and LNP support.

Curated by Jo Holder and Djon Mundine, from Cross Art Projects in Sydney, the exhibition is a wide examination of the issues imposed on the Aboriginal people in the NT from inadequate housing to inadequate justice; including artwork by an anonymous young artist from the infamous Don Dale Detention Centre.

Holder and Mundine have balanced the large polemic pieces with smaller works, such as the lively paintings and screenprints by Margaret Nampitjinpa Boko and Sally M. Mulda Nagala, that depict NT life with humour and passion, or the engaging series by artists in from Ntaria/Hermansburg, working in the watercolour tradition of Albert Namatjira, of mining operations dominating the landscape. Painting some of the landscapes that Namatjira painted with the addition of big yellow mining trucks in the foreground and, in one painting, a crashed UFO.

Benita Clements, Tjuritja (#396-16), 2016

Benita Clements, Tjuritja (#396-16), 2016

The mining trucks, and the UFO, are symbols of the alien invasion, a lack of consultation, the control of land, along with the environmental damage caused by mining. There are a number of works by Jacky Green, Seán Kerins and Therese Richie about the environmental impact of the McArthur River Mine where thousands of tons of waste released dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide.

This is not the first exhibition that the Counihan Gallery has held about this subject; in 2013 there was “Ghost Citizens: witnessing the intervention” curated by Holder and Mundine and featuring some of the same artists. Although it is a timely exhibition, considering that Victoria and NT have just announced that they would started treaty negotiations with the Aboriginal people, I have no confidence that, in 2023, there will not be yet another exhibition about the continuing “Intervention”.

Chips Mackinolty, "and there'll be no more dancing", 2007

Chips Mackinolty, “and there’ll be no more dancing”, 2007


The life and art of Ronald Bull

In 1960 in a corridor of F-Divison in Pentridge Prison a young 19- or 20-year-old artist was painting his largest and most important artwork. The young Gunai (Kurnai) artist was Elliot Ronald Bull, known as Ronald Bull. Nobody is sure about why Bull was in prison; it might been for nothing as F-Division was used for both remand and short-term prisoners. He may have been in and out of there a couple of times for minor offences.

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Detail of Ronald Bull’s mural in Pentridge

While Bull was in prison painted a mural that is still visible today. In it he depicted an idealised Aboriginal camp scene with three lean and muscled men. In the background there is a variety of trees and other vegetation. The landscape has hidden images of kangaroo heads; something extra in the painting for those with time to look. Hidden faces and bodies in the landscape were a feature of Bull’s paintings.

In the mural, Bull depicts an idea of life before European colonisation. It was not a scene that he was at all familiar with, but rather an idealised traditional life. Bull was a member of the Stolen Generation; he had twice been removed from his family, who lived at the notorious government-run Lake Tyers Station. The first time he was taken he was only four months old; in the legal process of this removal Bull would have acquired his first police record, one that would influence all later interactions with the courts and police. He was returned for primary school only to be sent to Tally Ho Boys Training Farm, a Methodist Church institution in Burwood East when he turned 12. At the age of 15 he was fostered out in Melbourne. Along the way he became very interested in art.

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His 3 metre long and 2 metre high mural in Pentridge is painted with ordinary house paint on a terracotta orange background that also serves as the sky. The other colours stand out against this orange background and, along with the confident painting technique, shows that Bull, although young, was no self-taught painter. Indeed, Bull hadn’t learnt to paint in prison; prior to his incarceration he had studied painting with Melbourne painter Ernest Buckmaster and exchanged letters with the Adelaide-based landscape painter of great eucalyptus trees, Hans Heysen.

Bull’s mural was followed by others in K- and G-divisions at Pentridge. Based on their content, they all appear to have been painted by Indigenous artists, although none were as talented a painter as Ronald Bull. Although it is not currently on public display, Bull’s mural was preserved after Pentridge Prison was closed in 1997. The mural is on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register and protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, as well as the Heritage Act 1995, because it is on the Victorian Heritage Register as part of Pentridge Prison.

 

Ronald Bull’s first exhibition was at Morwell in 1965. In 1966–67 he exhibited with Keith Namatjira, the fourth son of Albert Namatjira. In 1973 he sold a landscape painting for $1,150 at the Melbourne Art Show. By the 1970s Bull was exhibiting regularly in Melbourne galleries with notable, non-Indigenous artists, including Ernest Vogel and Pro Hart. I have been able to piece together information about his career from newspaper advertisements.

In 1975 on Sunday afternoon 25 October, Sir Douglas Nicholls, a Yorta Yorta man, footballer, pastor and Aboriginal rights activist, opened An exhibition of Paintings by Ronald Bull at Kew Gallery on Cotham Road. At the time Bull was not called as an ‘Aboriginal’ artist; an advertisement in 1981 described him as: ‘Australia’s greatest Native artist’.

A 1976 advertisement described the ‘the tranquil paintings by Ronald Bull from $95 regarded by many as one of the finest and most gifted landscape artists of the present time’ ($95 then is worth about $550 today). In the ads Bull’s paintings were claimed ‘To Increase 100% in Value’. This all seems over the top given that Bull’s paintings were not expensive to start with; a 1979 advertisement offered Ronald Bull paintings ‘from $65’ (that’s about $280 today and you can buy one for under $300, they have just kept pace with inflation).

Melbourne’s art world was far less sophisticated in the 1970s and early ’80s. It’s hard to imagine buying one of Bull’s paintings from a private sale in Surrey Hills along with paintings by Heysen, Bell and Streeton; or purchasing them from the 1983 Brighton Art Exhibition, a classy affair with an opening night preview hosted by celebrity chef Peter Russell-Clarke and featuring a chicken and champagne supper and a body painting demonstration.

In 1979 Bull was not a well man; ominously a clearance auction of his art was held on Saturday morning 30 June 1979 in the Plaza Arcade in the run-down eastern suburb of Clayton. On 8 September 1979, Ronald Bull died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease at his home at Mont Albert.

Bull’s art was almost forgotten as two new wave of Indigenous Australian artists emerged during the 1980s. Conventional European landscape paintings, like those of Albert Namatjira and Ronald Bull were out of fashion, replaced by Central Desert dot painting by the likes of Michael Jagamara (also spelt Jagamarra or Tjakamarra) and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. It was the popularity of these Central Desert dot paintings that would develop into a generic Aboriginal ‘prison art’ style. At the same time, there were urban Indigenous artists, like Gordon Bennett, Lin Onus and many others, who were continuing Bull’s practice of using European media and techniques.


Confined 9 – Indigenous prison art

Not every Indigenous person who goes to prison is an amazing artist and far too many Indigenous people are going to prison in Australia. Far too many, land rights activist Noel Pearson’s claim that Indigenous Australians are ‘the most incarcerated people on the planet Earth’ is an accurate claim according to the best available data; well over five times the rate that African–Americans are jailed. And you don’t have to be an amazing artist to do worthwhile art because something that is worth doing is worth doing. Even a first painting by a prisoner, like Ricky W trying to connect with his culture.

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Last year 130 Indigenous artists filling the walls of the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery; this year the annual exhibition by The Torch is even larger. With almost 200 work of art in the annual Confined 9 exhibition there is a great variety in quality and styles. There are some exceptional paintings including works by Bex, Daniel Harrison, Ray Taplin, and Robby Wirramanda. Gary Wilson Reid’s painting Wati Ngintaka Story is an intense and dynamic image from a traditional Pitjantjatjara/Yankuntjatjara story.

So if you think that Indigenous art is all about dot painting then this exhibition will show you there is a lot more. There isn’t one homogenous, big dot of Aboriginal culture, but hundreds of cultures, each with its own traditions and motifs. There are the sunset silhouette landscapes influenced by the Carrolup (Noongar) Art Movement and plenty of art combining traditions.

There is also wood carving, textiles, baskets and ceramics. And an awesome three storey model house Shane J’s Dream House. The house, like a lot of the art, shows what awesome things can be done with persistence, dedication, 5,500 paddle pop sticks, and 4,950 matches.

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The Torch is an organisation that supports Indigenous offenders and ex-offenders by running an Indigenous arts in prison and a community program. It works with hundreds of prisoners in fifteen out of the seventeen Victorian correctional facilities and it continues to work with them after they are released, providing career and in-community support. One focus of The Torch’s program is in assisting Aboriginal prisoners to emphasise a professional approach to art. But the most important part of The Torch’s program is that it is teaching cultural learning and cultural strengthening, which help the prisoners reconnect with their culture. Aboriginal prisoners didn’t want art classes about how to draw or mix colours; what they wanted was to learn more about their own backgrounds and country. They wanted to know about their culture. They wanted to know their totem animal, consequently there are many paintings of turtles from Yorta Yorta people.

There is parallel exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga – Talking Knowledge on at the Eildon Gallery at Alliance Française in St Kilda of the art by the Torch’s arts workers and ex-offenders who have continued an arts practice. Such an exhibition is a necessary part of their professional development so that they can still be practicing artists. The Torch’s founder and CEO Kent Morris’s exhibited two art photographs of natives birds. These are not the kind birdwatchers take yet his carefully constructed images originate with the artist “walking on Country.”

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Robby Wirramanda, Colours of Tyrell #1 and detail of Old Man Goanna


The Story So Far…

Twenty works by Indigenous and Torees Strait Islander artists from the Moreland Art Collection curated by Kate Ten Buuren at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. This exhibition demonstrates not only the long commitment of Moreland City Council in collecting art Indigenous and Torees Strait Islander art since the early 1980s but also the diversity of that art.

It was good to see two colourful prints, Magpie and Echidnas 2011, by the late Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown who died in January 2017. Turbo was a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. The exhibition is particularly strong in printing with screen-prints by Lin Onus and Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown, etching by Regina Karadada, Judy Watson and Janic Murray, and Brian Robinson’s magnificent linocuts. Although Indigenous Australian art is better known for its dot paintings printmaking is an important media for many Indigenous artists. The first was the artist and playwright Kevin Gilbert who started making lino-prints made from old lino floor tiles in Long Bay prison in the 1960s.

Lin Onus shows great technique in screen-printing with the transparent layer of the water in his Gumbirri Garginingi (Five Tortoises) 1996. The rarrk crosshatching work on the shells of the tortoises is not traditional for Koori artists but Onus had been taught and given permission to use the rarrk work by Maningrida artists.

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On a plinth is a fantastic tiny paper sculpture only 55 x 35 x 20 mm by Archie Moore. On a Mission From God (Goulburn Island) uses a little Bible to make a big point about the Mission Days destroying Aboriginal spirituality. Best use that I’ve seen made of a Bible for a long time.

What will the Moreland City Council’s collection look like in another forty years? The story continues.


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