Tag Archives: National Gallery of Australia

Imperialist Loot and Stolen Land

Since 2014 National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has returned millions of dollars in stolen antiquities to India. This year they announced that  $13 million of stolen antiquities would be returned. They are still cleaning up after Subhash Kapoor’s massive criminal enterprise exposed the box-ticking exercise that was the NGA’s provenance checking.

The Sri Puranthan Nataraja

The Nataraja from the village of Sri Puranthan in Tamil Nadu brought to light the quantity of stolen Indian antiquities in Australian public galleries. Kapoor had organised its theft, smuggling, restoration, and sale. However, in his career as director of the Gallery of South Australia and then the NGA, Ron Radford purchased not just one but two stolen Natarajas, antique bronze idols of Shiva as Lord of the Dance. As the old saying goes: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

After the extraordinary amount of stolen goods found in the NGA’s collection, it claims to have reformed its approach to provenance. Its website now contains the following statement: “Provenance decision-making at the National Gallery is determined by an evidence-based approach evaluated on the balance of probabilities, anchored in robust legal and ethical decision-making principles and considerations.” However, this new position on provenance decision-making does not include the land that the NGA is on. Even as the NGA acknowledges, in the footer of the webpage that explains their new ethical provenance standards, “the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country”. 

Based on robust legal and ethical decision-making principles, they would conclude that the land does not belong to Australia. The provenance for the land’s ownership is not “based on documents” as the Australian government has no treaty with Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, nor any other Indigenous people. And documents of ownership from the British Empire have as much veracity as the provenance documents issued by Kapoor’s gallery Art of the Past.

Empires pillage, destroy and steal items from other cultures, pillaging and destroying sacred places.  Consider the stolen Hindu gods and other parts of temples along with the local Indigenous sacred sites that Australian governments allow to be destroyed for mines, dams and roads. They part of the same process and reflect the same set of values.

Australian imperialism is a mutant strain of British imperialism that has become endemic in some Pacific and Indian Oceans islands. For there is an Australian Empire, however, few the islands (Australia, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Norfolk Island, and some uninhabited islands) that it currently consists of. This is not forgetting that until 1975 it included Papua New Guinea and Nauru from 1920-1968.

As an empire’s national gallery, the NGA needs to be an encyclopaedic museum, like the British Museum. Encyclopaedic museums have permanent collections of art from many parts of the world and periods of history. And like the British Museum with the Benin Bronzes and Parthenon marbles, the NGA acquired many items with dubious provenance for its collection. However, unlike the British Museum, the NGA has been forced to return some stolen items in its collection.

Why does provenance decision making at the NGA only apply to the objects in its collection and not the land it is on? How can you have an “Australian National Gallery” in Ngunnawal and Ngambri country? And how can the NGA, and the other Australian state galleries, resolve this contradiction between their provenance policies and the stolen land they occupy?


Vandals or Vanguards?

Who decides what the future will look like is always a political issue. Will it big business, big government or a network of creative individuals on the street?

As part of the “Space Invaders” exhibition at RMIT gallery there was a street art seminar, moderated by Jaklyn Babington, Assistant Curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books at the NGA (National Gallery of Australia). It was a panel discussion featuring Luke Sinclair from the Sticky Institute and artists: Nails, Civil and Jumbo.

The discussion looked both back at the exhibition and forward to the future of street art. And from this naturally lead onto the politics of the street and the politics of underground art. All of the speakers emphasised the importance of networking to the scene. Most importantly there is the power of networking through the internet but there is also the networks of collaborating street artists and the networks of zine distributions.

Some hardcore street artists and others might wonder at the inclusion of zines in the exhibition and Luke Sinclair from Sticky Institute on the panel. The NGA sees their collection of “street art as a paper based, alternative print making and drawing”, curator, Jaklyn Babington explained. And zines, like street art, are definitely an alternative tradition in print making and drawing. Zines are part of the same d.i.y. culture as street art. They are an urban sculptural object, a handmade art version of the common magazine that you pick up and hold in your hands.

The exhibition is a retrospective of look at the NGA’s street art collection and any examination of the history will naturally lead on to politics. Civil looked back at the exhibition as street art from the Howard-era when there were mass protests against the Iraq war and the World Economic Forum. Looking back Sydney artist, Jumbo spoke about how he began experimenting on the street beyond the formula of aerosol graffiti. Nails was interested in the legitimisation of street art through the communication between street and art gallery. And the concern expressed by some parts of street art community that something was being taken away through the legitimisation. Luke Sinclair also talked about the politics of underground work, the responses from both the mainstream and the underground to being exhibited or included in a zine book, as in the case of Fanzine, by Thames and Hudson. (For more information than anyone could want about this controversy see the website.)

Civil spoke about the politics of street art as the “broad conversation off different voices” on the streets, of “the handmade gesture in the city”, “markers” and “memorials” in the street. The title of the seminar, “Vandals or Vanguards?” contrasts the ‘vandals’, the way that street artists are portrayed in the mass media, or the ‘vanguard’, the leading front line position. Nails said that the vanguard is frustrated with how slow the mainstream responds, that he has become middle-aged waiting for it to catch up. But like the other speakers Nails is hopeful about the future of street art, comparing it to the punk scene “that died and then became even more interesting.”

Civil, "Freedom" 2010


Newspaper Wrecks City

Which is the bigger problem for Melbourne: tagging or the poor quality of reporting in the Herald Sun, one of Melbourne’s two metropolitan daily newspapers? “Space Invaders” at RMIT Galley has attracted negative media coverage before the exhibition even opened: “Government-sponsored graffiti art show angers campaigners” by Jessica Craven (Herald Sun September 01, 2011).

The Herald Sun is owned by the Murdoch media empire and has all the ethical standards associated with that organization. And yet has chosen to attack The Australian National Library and the National Gallery of Australia for collecting and archiving street art. The Herald Sun’s agenda is clear in their article: “The exhibition comes after the Herald Sun revealed the National Library had archived a Melbourne graffiti website glorifying illegal tagging for its social and cultural value.” The Australian National Library and the National Gallery of Australia, unlike News Corporation, have never been accused of any crimes, have never been accused of overt bias and are staffed by highly trained professionals.

The Herald Sun has no interest in the arts and closed down their entire arts section last year. However, the Herald Sun finds it profitable to generate anger and to create controversies where there are none. The ethical standards of Adelaide Now, who reprinted the article, appear hypocritical after publishing a comment that suggests that people go and vandalize the exhibition.

Jessica Craven, the reporter for the Herald Sun, does not regularly cover the arts. She is also known for being one of the two reporters to write about: “Oprah sparking controversy over golliwogs”. (See Crikey for the full details of that stupid piece of reporting by Jessica Craven)And the Independent Media Centre Australia has also accused Jessica Craven of “distorting the news to fuel racism”.

If the Herald Sun had a real arts reporter they might have written something better. The reporter could have attended the exhibition before writing about this important travelling exhibition from the National Gallery of Australia. The story ignores the local angle that the exhibition is a homecoming for the art Melbourne’s major street artists including: HaHa, Rone, James Dodd, Meek, Ghostpatrol, Miso and Civil. A competent reporter would have at least mentioned the range of art in this exhibition: the stencils, posters, paste-ups, zines, artist’s sketchbooks and stickers. Even discussed the themes in the exhibition: the politics, the ad-busting and the return of the hand.

A good reporter would have also included quotes from opening speeches from Rupert Myer, the Chair of National Gallery of Australia, who hoped that the exhibition would provide a safe place for public debate. I’m not that optimistic. The intellectual and cultural vandalism of the Herald Sun is a significant problem for Melbourne, making all the tagging in the city trivial in comparison. In attempting to generate controversies the newspaper creates problems rather than fairly reporting and informing the public.


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