Exhibition: The ancient art and agony of Australia's indigenous community

Warlugulong by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
In Alec Mingelanganu’s Wandjina (1980), two spirits dominate the canvas. You can tell they are spirits because they have dark holes for eyes, no mouths, unusually large shoulders and halos around their heads. They are the ancestors of the aboriginal folk from Kimberley, Western Australia’s sparsely settled northern region. The spirits are said to come from the rock, walking the earth bringing rain and wind before merging back into the rock to become art.

Meeting the White Man by Tommy Mcrae
The painting is one of the 102 aboriginal and Torres Strait Island art works brought to the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi by the National Gallery of Australia. These artworks owe to perhaps the oldest unbroken artistic tradition in the world — the oldest dated rock art painting in Australia is a charcoal image on a rock, drawn 28,000 years ago. The ongoing exhibition features works from the late 1800s through to today and includes paintings on canvas and bark, weaving and sculpture, new media, prints and photography.

Bush Plum Country by Poly Ngal
First presented at the ME Collectors Room in Berlin in 2017, the show is a stunningly blunt depiction of the discrimination faced by the indigenous community in the far continent, as well as a showcasing of the community’s attempts to keep its culture alive. It’s also a brave attempt to look at how museums often present a highly sanitised interpretation of the past, one that excludes and marginalises large swathes of populations. This exhibition shows how museums can become leaders in this conversation if they have the courage to introspect and provide safe spaces in which to confront complex issues.

Ricky Maynard’s Broken Heart (2005), for example, traces the history of genocide, marginalisation and traumatic race relations in Australia. These issues are explored in a deceptively simple self-portrait of the artist standing on the shore of the island to which his people were exiled in the 19th century, his country on mainland Tasmania out of sight beyond the horizon. Yhonnie Scarce’s Cultivation of Whiteness (2013) uses the repetition of 60 blown-glass objects in beakers to bear witness to a time when aboriginal people were treated as scientific specimens in the late 1800s and early 1900s. ASH on Me (2008) by Tony Albert is a series of vintage ceramic and metal ashtrays decorated with kitsch images of aboriginal people and culture. These seemingly innocuous ashtrays transform into crude symbols of overt racism as we realise we are stubbing out cigarettes on the face or torso of an aboriginal person. The fact that this piece formed the backdrop for the Australian High Commissioner’s announcement of a year-long festival of Australian culture and creativity in India makes a statement about Australia’s willingness to acknowledge its past.

Shield [Rainforest] created by an unknown artist

Parrying Shield by William Barak 

Kundali — Red Plains Kangaroo by Yirawala

Wandjinac by Alec Mingelmanganu
“Fifty years ago, indigenous art wasn’t popular,” says curator Franchesca Cubillo. “You could buy an artwork for $10. Then people started showing an interest in the works and exhibitions started happening overseas. The government established community-owned art centres. Artists were given studios with staff, materials were purchased and someone was appointed to promote their works. Artists were allowed to control their image at the international level and national galleries were funded to buy artworks. Today, aboriginal art can sell for up to a million.”

Works by successful artists like William Barak, Rover Thomas and Emily Kam Kngwarray are on display. Barak’s Corroboree (1895), one of the most expensive aboriginal artworks ever sold, is here. Thomas is the most successful of the lot, with six of his works in the list of the top 13 most expensive aboriginal artworks. 
But it’s Kngwarray who is regarded as a phenomenon. She started painting when in her 70s, and in a brief eight-year career, produced an extraordinary number of canvases — reportedly 3,000 works, an average of one canvas a day. To the art world, both her output and her “abstract” gestural style were unlike anything seen by an aboriginal painter and she often had to flee carloads of determined collectors. But Kngwarray’s works were really the culmination of a lifetime of making art for ceremonial purposes through body painting and batik. In her paintings, symbols are used sparingly to transcend the narrative aspect of the “Dreamings” (of ancestors, spirits and land) they evoke.

Indigenous community leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu wrote, “English is incapable of describing our relationship to the land of our ancestors. We decided to … [describe] it in a way we hoped non-Aboriginal people would understand; through pictures. If they wouldn’t listen to our words, they might try and understand our paintings.” We should all take a look. 

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‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from National Gallery of Australia’ can be viewed at NGMA, Delhi, till August 26

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