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Tag Archives: aboriginal 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

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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.


Yannae Wirrate Weelam and prison art

At the Melbourne Museum I saw Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The exhibition was organised by The Torch, who are very actively exhibiting. In January I saw their exhibition, Confined 8 at the St. Kilda Town Hall Gallery. They also have an exhibition, Dhumbadha Munga (Talking Knowledge) at the Alliance Francaise’s Eildon Gallery that looks at the two-way relationship between the arts workers and the artists they support.

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The exhibition, Yannae Wirrate Weelam, The Journey Home had a very short history about the far too many aboriginal artists in prison along with work by people in the current The Torch program.

All of the artists in the exhibition took such care and time with their art but a few of the artists are outstanding. Robby Knight, of the Wergaia/Wotjobaluk, has so much creative energy and talent when working in both paint and many other materials. And Knight’s work with other materials gets frighteningly awesome and powerful. The paintings by Jeffrey Jackson, of the Mutti Mutti, are so powerful and beautiful. I was also impressed with the pokerwork, burning wood with a hot bit of metal, by Roger Sims, of the Barkindji, proving that you can do a contemporary illustration of a Murray Cod with fantastic detail in that media.

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Jeffrey Jackson, Knowing Country

This was research for my next book which is about true art crimes in Melbourne. For along with art theft, art forgery and art vandalism I also want to write about prison art and other places where art the criminal justice system intersect.

Prison art has not been an easy topic to write about for a number of reasons, chiefly I don’t have much information. I have been able to interview a couple of prison art educators and I expect to interview some more.

To add to the difficultly I want to focus on Aboriginal prison art including the artist Ronald Bull who painted the mural in Pentridge Prison’s “F” Division. In the 1970s Ronald Bull was described in advertisement in The Age: “Hailed by many as the foremost and most versatile landscape painter of the present time. Showing the often unseen beauty of our countryside, an artist with turbulent talent. Capable of becoming Australia’s premier painter.” Yet few people have heard of him today; I don’t want his life and art, along with others like him, to be forgotten so I am writing about it.


Confined 8, Indigenous Prison Art Exhibition

Confined 8 is a large exhibition of art by hundreds of Indigenous artists who are currently in, or recently released from a prison in Victoria. There are about two hundred paintings and other works of art are packed into the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery.

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It is impossible to sum up all this art in a few words. There is a lot of variety from traditional to contemporary art and all kinds of mixes in between by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across the continent. The art, often painted in prison cells on small canvases, are such careful, delicate and considered works; the quality is often very high for amateur painters basically because of the time taken on them.

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Waridub’s painted football is a great mix of tradition and contemporary life: I’ve never seen a painted football before. “Legends of the Game” depicts Michael Long and Adam Goodes. (There should be a series of these balls; what about Mal Meniga?)

Ray Traplin of Kuku Yalandji people painted an impressive and colourful scene in “Cape York Hunting Grounds”. Traplin and many of the other artists depict animals, birds, fish, lizards, insects in meticulous dots or cross-hatching work however few can combine so many images as Traplin does into one spectacular painting.

The exhibition was organised by The Torch. The Torch runs the Indigenous Arts in Prisons & Community program. It uses art as a forum for cultural exploration to provide indigenous men and women in custody and on release with a new way forward. This has been enhanced by new legislation in 2015 that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners to keep any money that they make from art sales. The Torch does not take any commission on the sales and the money from art sales is held in trust by Corrections Victoria until the prisoner’s release. Having money to fund a new life on release from prison is important.

A few paintings are NFS (not for sale) meaning that they had already been given to a relative. It is sad that it might be the only time that they will get a painting is when one of their relatives is locked up.

Prison art is a much neglected part of Aboriginal art history. It is an important aspect due to the over representation of Aboriginals in Australian prisons; “The world’s worst levels of detention of Indigenous people” according to Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission. So you can look at Confined 8 as either rehabilitation or resistance, survival in the face of genocidal policies and cultural destruction.


State of the Nation @ Counihan

State of the Nation, curated by Kimberley Moulton, at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, is a group exhibition of six indigenous artists who live on Kulin and Eora countries. Amongst them the work of Jason Wing, seven years ago I reviewed one of his exhibitions and his work is completely different now,  going from street to contemporary and conceptual.

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Video still from Megan Cope, Blaktism, 2014

Megan Cope is a Quandamooka woman from North Stradbroke Island in S.E. Queensland. Her impressive video, The Blaktism (2014), takes an absurd look at establishing her aboriginal identity at the same time questioning what Australian identity means. It was inspired by her experience in obtaining her ‘Certificate of Aboriginality’.

The video shows a theatrical ceremony where she moves from under the Union Jack to wearing the Australian flag. During the ceremony her pale skin is painted brown and dark contact lens inserted. In the end, after the fluoro dance party celebration, she removes the Australian flag, the contact lens and make-up choosing to return to her original appearance.

Paola Balla’s Unsettling Or The True Story of When Mok Mok Came to the Big Smoke (2016) is a photographic series with text. The title of the work is apt as ‘unsettling’ is disturbing, it is literally the opposite of what the colonial settlers did. To unsettle is to remove that feeling of ownership and familiarity. Balla takes on the spirit of Mok Mok, a female entity from Wemba Wemba Country that steals kids and chops up men. Here she is cooking and washing clothes in an urban domestic setting and composing a massive rant about all the injustices the indigenous women and children suffer.

Paola Balla is a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman of Calabrese and Chinese heritage; with this background it is not surprising that Melbourne’s Il Globo has a biographic article about her that emphasises her Calabrese heritage.

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Paola Balla, Untitled and Uncared For (a)

Balla also had a couple of installations in the exhibition, assemblages of objects are hairy and disturbing. Untitled and Uncared For (a) consisted of three objects. A tin cup with a colourful image of “Outback Australia” printed on it, revealing its tourism origins. A kangaroo skin bag that appeared to contain a head and a vintage hand-coloured photograph defaced with fur. In this work identity is removed, to be replaced with a cheap souvenir that is itself uncared for. I wasn’t so impressed with Balla’s Untitled and Uncared For (b), even though I could see the point of the dead native flowers and introduced weeds and the feral fox fur, as it is just a flower arrangement.


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