Art of the heartland

Indigenous artistic expression is an ever-changing process, in search of universal themes rather than racial-based boundaries, writes Sandra McLean.

ALL things change, and Aboriginal art isn't what it used to be. This is not a lament but rather a declaration of what curator Djon Mundine describes as being as obvious as "the nose on your face".


EYE-CATCHING art . . . left, Tracey Moffatt, Untitled 2; right, Brook Andrew, Sexy and dangerous.

So obvious that he has taken over most of the Queensland Art Gallery to emphasise that indigenous art is a fascinating hybrid of genres that has gone well beyond the dot painting style characterised by Western and Central Desert artists?

Well, Mundine admits that what's obvious to a person who has spent more than 30 years working with indigenous art may not be as crystal-clear to the general public. Or even to corporate Australia, which continues to cling to painting, preferably the dotted variety by Aboriginal all-stars such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri or Rover Thomas, as their preferred entry point to indigenous art.

But as Mundine shows us in the exhibition Blak Insights, this entry point is fast turning into a revolving door.

Western Desert art and the work of Arnhem Land artists now sits easily beside photography, the moving image, installation, text-based works and more contemporary styles of painting.

And he doesn't hesitate to prove his point. A few steps into Blak Insights and the gallery-goer is confronted by Vernon Ah Kee's text work that is so unlike "traditional" indigenous art people may wonder why it's in the exhibition.

If this is where your thought train is heading, make a brief stop at Bangarra Dance Theatre, a wholly indigenous company, whose work effortlessly strings together modern, Australian, indigenous and universal themes into the one performance.

Much contemporary indigenous art strives for the same symphony of ideas that have no geographical or racial boundaries. Take note of Tracey Moffat's quote in the gallery: "Australian stories are very universal. People don't think of the art as Australian."

Moffatt, who was born and raised in Brisbane and now lives between the US and Australia, is a living example of this.

Back to Mundine's push for recognition of the diversity in black art. There's Ah Kee's text piece Many Lies a world away from the intricate, albeit familiar, story-based bark paintings of artists such as Larrtjanga Ganambarr.

The materials they use are vastly different, as is the mood of the work, but Mundine would argue they are done in the same spirit.

Ditto for painters Richard Bell, one of the brash new breed of indigenous artists, and Western Desert artist Anmanari Brown, whose large paintings naively revel in colour and shape.

Blak Insights is the logical extension of last year's groundbreaking Story Place exhibition of Cape York artists. It is also a chance for the gallery to show off its collection of indigenous art which ranges from very early Papunya works by Anatjari Tjakamarra and Shorty Lungkarda Tjungarrayi to the latest moving image work by photographer Destiny Deacon.

Mundine, a respected freelance Aboriginal art consultant, has accentuated the diversity in 21st-century indigenous art by giving each school of art their own room in Blak Insights.

"We move from blue vein cheese to ice cream," he teases. "Every room is very pungent and strong. Anyone with two brain cells can see that this work is very different to that."

Different yes, but not divisive. Blak Insights is not about pitching one kind of indigenous art against the other. It is not about dots versus the moving image.

Although it is tempting to suggest this as Mundine has given artists working in the uber contemporary medium of the moving image, such as Deacon and Tracey Moffatt, pride of place.

Mundine argues that the desert painting movement is now more than 30 years old and it is only a natural progression for new and different kinds of indigenous work to start having an impact.

"I am not discounting painting," he says. "But that is generally how people talk about Aboriginal art. It is more than painting and this exhibition is a strong demonstration of that.

"It repositions the centre of Aboriginal art as the moving image. I am not saying that painting is dead as you can see there is a lot of painting in the show."

Mundine has nicknamed the first gallery "Brisbane" just as he is turning on its head the idea that Aboriginal art is solely dot painting, he also is keen to dispel another myth that all good art comes from outside Brisbane.

He cites key indigenous artists such as Moffat, Bell, Fiona Foley and Gordon Bennett who are either from Brisbane or have chosen to live here.

While the first gallery includes works by rising stars such as Darren Siwes and Brook Andrew, Moffat's work remains the strongest.

But don't dwell in this gallery as there is much more to see, down the escalators past works by Richard Bell, Fiona Foley and Judy Watson. Keep going into the next gallery which is home to Torres Strait Islander works by artists such as Ken Thaiday, whose witty and complex constructions are inspired by folklore and function.

The next room is home to Arnhem Land artists. Painting styles are based on sacred ceremonial body designs called miny'tji.

As well as Larrtjanga Ganambarr's older bark paintings, there is new work by Galuma Maymuru. There are exchange poles bound in string and bone coffins used in rituals but made to be exhibited in a gallery.

Next are the fabled Central and Western Desert artists such as Emily Kngwarrye, Clifford Possum, Abie Jangala and Minnie Pwerle.

"In a public sense everyone has been totally connected with art from this area as being Aboriginal art," Mundine says. "So we start with the beginning of this movement painted in the first years at Papunya in 1971."

Looking at Pwerle's painting, Women's Ceremony from the Atnwengerrp, its freedom of colour and movement, leads one to think out loud how amazingly abstract it looks.

Mundine remarks that there is a "big debate" going on about abstraction in indigenous art. "The painting movement is moving into abstraction," he says.

"The point is that in abstraction you are not trying to represent anything, whereas these people may not have the iconography but they are intensely trying to represent something.

"The eternal question about abstraction is that: is it art or doodling? Is it great art because it was doodled by a very famous person?"

So what's the answer?

"It's great art," says Mundine.

 Blak Insights, Queensland Art Gallery,until October 3