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Asiru Olatunde (1918 – 1993)

Asiru Olatunde (1918 – 1993) was one of a small group of artists in the 1960s who were part of a creative community known as the Oshogbo School. The Oshogbo School is important because it was at the start of modern art in Nigeria and it helped preserve a place that is now a recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is characterised by stylised figures and unusual and diverse media.

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Asiru Olatunde, Dance scene, c.1969

The Oshogbo School or movement developed in the town of Oshogbo in the 1960s. At the time Oshogobo was a market town on the cross roads of road, river, rail connections and a population of about 120,000 people. The town had a tradition of music, wood and stone carving, brass and iron work, and two storey houses with elaborate balustrades.

The Oshogobo movement started when a group of people began to repair local shrines. Encouraged by the German artist Susanne Wenger and her husband the linguist, Ulli Beier who emigrated to Nigeria in 1950s. It was a response to the desecration of the Osun-Osogbo Grove in the 1950s. The Yoruba river and love goddess Osun is the patron of the town. Her festival his held in the last two weeks in August each year. In 2005 the Osun-Osogbo Grove was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Asiru Olatunde, photo from Tyler Collection, University of Tasmania 

Asiru Olatunde was from a family of blacksmiths. He had learnt ceremonial drumming as a boy, but was forced to give it up by his Muslim father. Later he took it up again; playing the talking drum every four days at the shrine of Obatala in Osogbo. Considering the recent conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria Olatunde’s life and art are worth considering as a more sophisticated and creative response to cultural tensions. He was a Muslim who supported local Yoruba festivals and did commissions for Churches.

Olatunde had a ‘heart disease’ (another source claims it was tuberculosis). The illness prevented him from working as a blacksmith but allowed him to be an artist. It was an ‘illness’ as a transformation is a shamanic aspects to the identity of the artist. Please forgive this digression into a structuralist analysis and not discounting the facts of Olatunde actual medical condition. Was this structurally, not pathologically, the same kind of illness that struck down Paul Cézanne and prevented him from following his father into banking. Or the many others who became artists after illness? This point has to be made as there are several illnesses and transformative cures in this story. For Susanne Wenger Iwin Funmike Adunni contracted tuberculosis in Nigeria and she turned to the Yoruba religion and became an Osun priestess. A protege of Ajagemo a priest, she promised him to build dwellings for each of the Yoruba pantheon, a task she completed. She lived for 94 years.

At first Olatunde made jewellery, before hammers his art onto copper panels and then aluminium panels. A nail punch produced a circle for the background. Another larger one struck circles that would become eyes. Straight lines were scratched into the panel before being followed and then decorated with a straight edged tool. It is not repoussé, reverse hammered panels as some commentators have written. The design was roughly scratched onto the front and then hammered from the front. The dented background was beaten back making the foreground stand out.

Hammering and drumming to a rhythm, Olatunde beat the metal to create lively scenes. Dance scenes, scenes of hunting, Biblical scenes, as in Adam and Eve, or Yoruba stories, as in Animal Tree or Tree of Life. These scenes are surrounded by a border that fills in gaps in the design with decorative triangles and hemispheres.

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Asiru Olatunde, Fishing scene, c.1969

I have been looking at two aluminium panels by Olatunde that were purchased at an exhibition of Oshogobo Art held at the British Council Centre in Ibadan June 23 – 28, 1969. Also exhibiting were Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Rufus Ogundele, Twins Seven Seven, Asiru Olatunde, Jacob Afolabi, Buraimoh Gbadamosi, Jinadu Oladepo, Adebisi Fabunmi, and Samuel Ojo. In the catalogue there was a short biographies of the artists; Olatunde is incorrectly identified as born in 1932. Part of his biography reads: “… was prevented by ill-health from taking up the profession of his forefathers. He became a drummer, but could not cut himself off entirely from Ogun, the God of Iron and began supplementing his income by making panels from beaten copper and aluminium.” It also claims that Susanne Wenger discovered his work rather than, as is more commonly reported, Ulli Beier.

Are these panels made of recycled materials? Did Beier encourage him to recycle scrap metal? Did Beier help fund materials? Stories of apprentices filling in areas or doing the ‘heavy work’ suggest that either Olatunde was working as a blacksmith with apprentices or that he was taking on apprentice artists. There is so much that remains unknown and uncertain about this artist.

During his lifetime Olatunde had many exhibitions. In 1965 he had a solo exhibition Viruly Gallery Amsterdam. He was also exhibiting at the IMF headquarters in Washington, in Prague, and in 1967 group show Contemporary Art from Africa – Institute of Contemporary Art in London. He has work in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute, Museum of African Art and DePaul Art Museum Chicago, the University of Bristol and the University of Tasmania. For more read Molara Wood blog on the exhibition at John Martin Gallery in 2005.

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Models of Milk Bars, Shops and Galleries

A few thoughts about the history and aesthetics of artists making model buildings, shops, art galleries and other architecture in response to Callum Preston’s Milk Bar 2017.

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Callum Preston behind the counter of his Milk Bar (photo thanks to Callum Preston)

In tracing the art history genealogy of similar installations we could look back to the pop artist Claus Oldenburg’s 1961 Store. Store was a pop-up gallery in a lower east side Manhattan shop front where he sold roughly painted and moulded plaster versions of products from undergarments to cakes and pastries. Or more recently to Barry McGee (aka Twist), Todd James (aka REAS) and Stephen Powers (aka ESPO)  bodega-inspired installation, Street Market 2000 that was exhibited at the 2001 Venice Biennale.

Looking at local examples a different aesthetic and intentions are apparent. In Ivan Durrant’s Butcher Shop (1977-1978) a butcher shop window display of dead animals that was on permanent exhibition next to the entrance to the NGV’s restaurant. Although the square, tiled front of the shop with a window and door wasn’t precisely detailed the window display was uncannily accurate and gross.

Callum Morton Reception 2016

Callum Morton Reception 2016

Callum Morton’s work Reception 2016, is a one to one replica of the reception foyer of Anna Schwartz Gallery on Flinders Lane was complete with an animatronic model of gallery director, Anna Schwartz. Entering the gallery and moving through the real foyer to the replica in the gallery was uncanny. It is similar in aesthetic and subject to Dan Moynihan’s Lost in Space 2013. Moynihan’s two-third scale replica of the outside and interior of Neon Parc gallery on Bourke Street built in the front gallery space at Gertrude Contemporary created a similar mood. Two-third scale is uncanny because although you can fit inside you know that you are too large to be comfortable. Like Morton, Moynihan’s work is about architecture and the uncanny feeling. There was no art in either model of the art galleries.

What Preston’s Milk Bar offers is comfortable nostalgia. It is not uncanny, the wooden versions of the familiar products are hand-painted and flat. Perhaps I should be considering it in relation to David Wadelton’s series of black and white photographs, Milk Bars of Melbourne 2010-2013 that documents the terminal decline of these shops.

All my examples are the work of male artists, this trend is even more obvious if you consider the male street artists, Goonhugs for example, making smaller models of shops and other buildings. I haven’t included the Hotham Street Ladies icing sugar models because their work was about interior decoration rather than architectural space or shops. At least the men are making models rather than groping models.


What big eyes you have…

All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed is the summer show at the Ian Potter Museum of Art’s 2017. Curator Samantha Comte has filled all three floors with works by notable local and international contemporary artists on the subject of fairy tales in an exhibition suitable for adults and children.

We all know what fairy tales are but like so many things that we all know they are hard to define. How do fairy tales differ from folktales? Are they the last remnants of ancient cultures thousands of years old? Including Patricia Piccinini’s sci-fi inspired creatures is probably pushing the definition a bit far although Piccinini, like many of the other artists in this exhibition, does employ pathos in her art.

There is the pathos of the lost child in Polixeni Papapetrou photographs from her Fairy Tale and Haunted Country series. Diana Goldstein’s Fallen Princess series takes a different approach with iconoclastic photographs of Cinders drinking in a bar, Snow White with toddlers in suburbia and Princess Pea on her stack of old mattresses in a rubbish dump. Although there is work in a wide variety of media in this exhibition from painting and ceramics through to a computer game, The Path (2009) by Tale of Tales. It is the photographs, or work based on photographs like Tracey Moffat’s photo-silkscreen Invocation series, that gave this exhibition the bulk of its substance and depth.

The contemporary art work is given a context with a selection historical fairy tale books from the rare books collection of Baillieu Library including some with illustrations by Gustave Dore and Arthur Rakham. Along with five silhouette animation films of fairy tales by Lotte Reiniger from the 1950s.

Silhouettes are used by many artists starting with Rakham and Reiniger and on to the contemporary art of Kara Walker and Kylie Stillman. Fairy tales stand out in two dimensions, shadows of in our collective imagination from an ancient world of magic thinking.

There is an over representation of work based on Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel is something that not even the books of Japanese Fairy Tales or the contemporary fairy tale by Tobsha Learner, and illustrated by Peter Ellis, can offset. The brothers Grimm’s tales still dominate our idea of fairy tales.


Forgery Trial Book

When the authenticity of two million dollars paintings sold comes into question the stage is set for a major legal battle. Were the two large paintings forgeries or were they innocent? Was it an elaborate art fraud? Or were they by the Australian superstar artist Brett Whiteley’s whose tragic death from a heroin overdose meant that he wasn’t around to dispute its authenticity.

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In her book Gabriella Coslovich takes the reader step by step through this complex case of art forgery. From the first suspicions and the police investigation, through the committal hearing in the Magistrates Court to the trial in the Supreme Court and the subsequent appeal. She interviews, or attempted to interview, everyone involved in the story from the artist’s widow Wendy Whiteley through to witnesses, millionaire victims, police and defence lawyers. Not surprisingly not everyone want to talk but surprisingly one of the defendants, Peter Gant does. Not that she was the only journalist that he talked to; Gant seemed to bask in the media attention that his trial brought.

In the book Coslovich considers the difference between the art world and the laws assessment of the authenticity of the paintings. The issue of connoisseurship, of having “a good eye” is important to the art world but provenance is also important. People repeatedly say about Gant that he had a good eye for saleable art. Was this the same as selling a fake Rolex watch? As one of the lawyers in the case posited. Or is there a difference that the law should recognise? The damage to art history is rarely considered.

By the time it got the trial in the Supreme Court Coslovich had been investigating Peter Gant’s dodgy art deals for six years, both as the arts reporter for The Age newspaper and as an independent writer. So it was not surprising that she is passionately that she wants to see a conviction. It is her depth of knowledge of the case that made her bristled with anticipation every day of the four week trial. I know because I was sitting next to her. I am referred to once in her book as “one of my fellow scribes” (p.151) discussing with her how the dock influences juries.

I think that Coslovich may have solved one piece of the puzzle with her careful analysis of the various versions of the catalogue. The difference in gallery address and the missing printer corrections are crucial details. She doesn’t make a big thing about it in the book and unfortunately her discovery comes too late.

Gabriella Coslovich Whiteley On Trial (Melbourne University Press, 2017)


Counihan Politics and Protest

Thursday evening as I am going to the Counihan Gallery on the tram along Sydney Road. I am thinking about the theme of the exhibition: ‘people – politics – protest’ and Noel Counihan in a cage demonstrating the lack of free speech in 1933. Thinking that if I don’t see the police, or ultra-conservative demonstrators then the art isn’t great protest art… and then I saw the sandbag barricade out the front of the Brunswick town hall. Have the battle lines been drawn? Has Moreland seceded from Australia?

Rushdi Anwar

Rushdi Anwar, Art Like Morality, Consists of Drawing a Line Somewhere… is it?

Too good to hope for; the barricade were just an art installation. It wasn’t even part of the inaugural Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award. It was Kurdish Australian artist Rushdi Anwar’s Art Like Morality, Consists of Drawing a Line Somewhere… is it? and it was part of Morearts 2017, the annual temporary art exhibition. It made me consider the possibility that the best art about people, politics or protest in Moreland was possibly not in the Counihan Gallery’s Moreland Summer Show.

Perhaps, the most best protest art this year in this local came, not from artists but from the Moreland City Council. This year has been a turning point in Australia as sections of society, represented by three inner-city Melbourne councils are officially no longer celebrating Australia Day/Invasion Day. This symbolic act of removal is a clear protest that has not been ignored by the politicians Canberra or by other elements of the far right. Iconoclasm destroying the sacred and creating absence is part of a long tradition in contemporary art as in Marcel Duchamp’s rasée L.H.O.O.Q or Robert Rauschenberg’s work Erased DeKooning. So does the influence of the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys on organisation and political action as contemporary art.

Noel Counihan would not have understood that kind of post-modern art. Nor do the Moreland City Council consider that their removal of budget items for Australia Day/Invasion Day as a work of art; they weren’t even at the exhibition opening as there were holding a council meeting at the night. However, although they did not intend to be art, it maybe art, just as Noel Counihan’s famous protest locked in a cage may be the best thing he ever did, certainly it what he is most remembered for. It is not a functional thing; it is symbolic, a beautiful and culturally significant creation.

At the opening the artists, their friends and visitors drank wine and had a good time. Compared to what was happening outside the art inside the gallery was summed up with the metaphor of a silent readymade megaphone hung on a white gallery wall. Not that Kate Davis and Hannan Jones Study for the Speaker is that simply, it included an audio and text installation but I didn’t download those elements at the opening.

Looking around the exhibition at the Counihan Gallery at the work of the fifty local artists in a wide variety of media, commenting on a great variety of issues from identity politics to environmental. Amongst these the inaugural Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award went to Carmel Louise for her work Suicidal Tendencies; a photographic, mixed media collage reflecting on how most people have been watching climate change on TV from the comfort of their lounge. Maybe the media is not the message but a distraction. The judges praised Louise for her dealing with the issue of apathy and her use of contemporary collage. Second guessing the judges is not the role of either the critic or reporter; my role as a critic is to raise larger issues and to point out that rejecting the celebration Australia Day/Invasion Day maybe the most important piece political art in Moreland this year.


A shadow of a memory

The death of Richard Hambleton, ‘Shadowman’ reminded me that, aside from Keith Haring, Shadowman was the only other street artist that I’d heard about in the 1980s. I knew about Keith Haring because of his tour of Australia.

In the 1980s it was difficult to access information and finding it was often determined more by fortune than strategy. I heard about Shadowman by word of mouth and I don’t think that I saw an image of his work until decades later. At the time I was living in Coburg and studying at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. It was a long way from New York’s East Village where Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger et. al. were putting up ‘wall-posters’ (paste-ups) and Shadowman was splashing paint around.

In 1985 I heard of him as “Splashman”. A friend, Rod who was doing media studies at Rusden, told me that he had heard about this guy splashing paint to create silhouette figures on walls. It was from a second or third hand report that was probably based on a 1983 profile of the artist in People magazine. My friend told me that Shadowman had painted in Berlin. Given that it was in Berlin and I assumed that it must be on the Berlin Wall because, at the time, that was the best known location for artistic graffiti (the definition of ‘graffiti’ was still fluid at that time).

At the time I didn’t know that Richard Hambleton, was an NYC-based, Canadian artist with long term problems of addiction to heroin and crack. At the time he was a mysterious, unknown person painting on walls at a time when that was very unusual. His art and existence raised many questions and provided few answers. Now only the shadow of a memory remains.

For more and images of Hambleton’s work see: Daniel Maurer “Banksy Precursor Richard Hambleton Dies at 65, Days Before MoMA Show and Shadowman Film”.

 


Statues Wars 2017

The statue wars of 2017 sprang to prominence in the USA although the debate had been going for some time. Around the world people have been asking what to do with these monuments to evil men, from Cecil Rhodes in South Africa to General Robert E. Lee in America to John Batman in Melbourne. The debate about these statues has often been furious, ill-informed and poorly reasoned; so more of a war than a debate. However, if I have learnt one thing from it is that the greatest educative value that a statue can have is when it is being torn down.

Stanley Hammond, John  Batman Memorial, 1978 (3)

Stanley Hammond, John Batman Memorial, 1978

I doubt that statues on pedestals are the right thing to erect but then people have been making that observation for over a century. Back then the craze was for putting up these same statues and it was called ‘statuemania’ because it was obvious that the many statues being erected were insane, not just because of the quantity but given the direction of civil society, reason and art. The only purpose in putting something on a pedestal is to worship it. The great man theory of history is not taken seriously by historians any more but some conservative groups still think that a statue will do something worthwhile.

Many people in the debate were confusing, deliberately or idiotically, the monuments with the history that they were commemorating. If tearing down statues is some kind of ‘Stalinist revisionism’ (as a reason-retarded Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed) attempting to rewrite history then what were the US troops doing with that statue to Saddam Hussain in Bagdad? In Melbourne this year the controversial statue of John Batman was taken down by a property developer to redevelop the site; I doubt that motives were revisionist or that the statue will ever be permanently installed anywhere.

Do the sculptors who made these care about the fate of their statues? Not beyond the final payment; if I have learnt one thing about the kind of people who make these statues is that they are professionals.

Should these statues be preserved for the sake of their artistry? Ha ha… you were making a joke?

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Moving on the next question is: what to do with these empty plinths that the statues leave behind? Consider London’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square or, for a local example, Plinth Projects in Edinburgh Gardens.

Outside the St Kilda Town Hall there is this ‘monument’. Just as you thought it must be meaningful with the man, the airplane and the classical temple turns into crazy snake fun. Made of cast bronze, the sculpture and its large plinth is ironic in its content, materials and form. Local artist Richard Stringer’s Monument for a public building, 1994, turn the form of the monument into self-referential postmodernism.

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building,

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building, 1994, St Kilda Town Hall


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