Open Hearted, Open Handed, Open Minded
Campfire Group
Campfire Monograph (forthcoming) 2003

Since that critical moment, when our leaders decided that we would survive and that we would endure, we have learnt new ways of holding knowledge and communicating our stories to others. We have also learnt much about the world beyond our own tribal lands and we have learnt that there is much power out there - a power that is greater than the blood-lust of the white men who still want to hunt us. That is why we write, that is why we dance, that is why we make films and act on stages - and that is why we paint.
- Sam Watson, Voices of the Land Denied1

Each will know his own. We have been helped, inspired, multiplied.
- Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, On The Line2

When Richard Bell and Michael Eather talk about the development of the Campfire Group, they recount it as a journey, a strange and powerful journey into rugged lands. Those forays, involving collaborative and cross-cultural practice, impinge on an artworld know known for its inclusiveness. It's a particularly hostile territory whose borders can sometimes seem closed. Since the initial spark of Balance 1990 3, followed by more than a decade of crossings, comings and goings, Campfire has established its cross-cultural and collaborative imperative as a collective identity. At the core of this imperative is the creation and maintenance of a meeting place which is comprised of both an ethos (or a mental space) and a physical space, the studio where practice and process take shape. Campfire's name poses the intention of a meeting place where connections and dialogue are assumed and formed. It is around the metaphorical (and sometimes, real) campfire that artists meet, sit and talk, where stories unfold. Within this meeting place - a kind of thirdspace4 - everything and everyone comes together.

The landmark Balance 1990 set the scene for the emergence of Campfire, and then Fire-Works Gallery, in the 90s. It emerged from a 20 year epoch of political dispute and turbulence in Australian race relations. From the 1968 referendum which conferred Australian citizenship on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples until the 10,000 strong march on the 1988 Bicentenary of Invasion (otherwise known as Australia Day), there was a persistent and resounding call for sovereignty, justice and land rights. Balance was connected to this movement, adding its voice to those many others who sought to provide points of connection and exchange across cultures. This event was both timely and of its time.

Inasmuch as Campfire's development is contingent on and informed by the political situation, so to on shifts in artistic and cultural practice. Those practices couched in theoretical languages of conceptualism and postmodernism proliferated. While an age-old practice in Indigenous culture, collaboration has only recently entered the fray of contemporary artistic practice in the last 40 years or so: collective rather than individual artistic identity and authorship. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists were gaining recognition and marketability. Campfire artists are all wise to and savvy about the economic and political context in which they work. Such awareness was one of the driving forces of the group. In his statement in the 1992 Sydney Biennale catalogue, Anthony Bond vividly presents the difficulties faced by Aboriginal artists a decade ago: "It is hard for those who take for granted access to available resources to understand what it is like to feel so alienated that you cannot event formulate the question ... the feeling of powerlessness is a serious factor hindering the artistic development of Aboriginal people".5 Several years on, Eather proposed that "artists operate in borderless worlds, guided by their artistic integrity. To perceive divisions within contemporary art based simply on race and geographical positioning is immature. Likewise, to think that all Indigenous artists are somehow operating in some form of mythical isolation is naïve and patronising."6 In a recent interview, when asked about the situation of Aboriginal art in a 'world aesthetic', Richard Bell (nominated in 2002 as one of the Australia's most collectable artists) commented that "there's two ways to look at it - one is that it's certainly the most exciting movement in the late 20th century. Another view that I take is that Aboriginal Art is a white thing. White people buy it, white people say what's good, what's bad. They sit in judgement."7

The curators of Balance - Michael Eather and Marlene Hall - searched for and identified shared influences among Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous artists in the 1980s.8 While 'sharing' provided the basis of Balance, it did not mean that common ground or equilibrium was necessarily sought or found. Sharing did not mean sameness and sharing did not erase difference. Sharing did mean creating a meeting place. The members of Campfire continue to live and work by this ethos, as a connected yet diverse group. For many artists, Balance impacted on the perception and reception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Artist and core member of Campfire, Laurie Nilsen described the exhibition as a turning point for urban artists.

Balance opened the doors for everyone. Not only for Murri urban artists but I think for whitefellas too, it gave them an opportunity to meet and talk with black artists. Some collaborative stuff came out of that ... All of a sudden you could meet other artists and talk about what you are doing and where you are heading. We just mixed in different circles until then. After Balance we never looked back and a lot of that is thanks for Marshall Bell and Michael Eather; they opened a lot of doors and the momentum just kept going.9

In Balance, and consequently Campfire, several selected threads of recent political and cultural history are intertwined.

For some, collaboration has been a problem, sometimes even a scandal, having resulted in questions about authorship and authenticity as well as accusations of fraud and betrayal. In her essay for the 2000 Adelaide Biennale, curator of Beyond the Pale, Brenda L. Croft states that collaboration between family, partners and community in cultural activities is "long understood, accepted and expected":10

Collaborative [works] are part of an ongoing continuum, an enacting of practices that have taken place forever: caring for culture, encouraging individual style, yet remembering communal ownership ... It is not the artists that have a problem with the concept of sharing and collaboration of the hand, eye and mind, but rather aspects of a mainly Eurocentric art market, often media-driven, which demands new stars each season. These same limited perspectives continue to categorise and define contemporary Indigenous artists, and promote uniformed notions of Indigenous expression and connection with country, irrespective of where or how they live. Collaboration is not the crime.11

Addressing his own experience of collaboration, Eather said, "for many Indigenous artists, collaboration is embedded in the holistic function of art. It is part and parcel of their obligations, a shared currency relevant to their daily life ... To honestly and openly collaborative with another individual means that you essentially let go with one hand in order to take on a new grip".12 Both Eather and Croft point to a type of collaboration that is open handed, open minded and open hearted. Similarly, reflecting on the collaborative process for developing the Fish'n'Chips installations included in the Black Humour exhibition, Nilsen said:

We just sat down and workshopped. Some people didn't contributed a lot at first because they thought their ideas might be silly. I said, No, if anything comes into your head just thrown it to the table. We just kept workshopping until we cam up with the labels. Bob [Mercer] and Simon [Turner] went to Pauline's fish and chip show posing as tourists, and took a heap of photos and brought them back and got them turned into postcards ... Some of us did our own pieces as well.13

Charles Green, in The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, addresses several types of collaboration including those resulting in the construction of bureaucratic identities; those developed through marital and family bonds; and those through which a 'transitional authorial figure' or 'third hand' was developed.14 Obviously, there are areas of overlap between the three categories. While the cultural basis of Campfire's collaborations differs to those in Green's study, the second and third categories seem to apply. Within Campfire there are familial bonds and friendships. The group has also evolved as a 'transitional authorial figure' whereby Campfire is an entity, sometimes corporation and sometimes trademark, which authors artwork. Green states that "shared authorship was a strategy to convince the audience of new understandings of art and identity".15 While the textuality of their work is complicated by a cross-cultural process, for the Campfire Group, this strategy retains it efficacy. Campfire's work urges the audience to look for the seams and evidence of collaboration.

Campfire artists have consistently been using collaboration and art to make pointed statements which may not otherwise be made. As a process, collaboration provides a critique about the ways in which art is generally produced and commodified. According to Bell, art also bears an unavoidable communicative capacity: "[Art] is the only forum left where you can get an alternate point of view. Art gives an independent voice."16 Campfire's work is politically charged, riddled with symbolic and critical language, appropriations and gestures. In All Stock Must Go!, the ethics of the art market and industry is found wanting. Off the back of a decaying cattle truck, Indigenous artworks and souvenirs were sold. With the prospect of money to made, the drama equals the stock exchange floor. Expanding the collaboration, "an open invitation was extended to Indigenous artists, from small community producers to art centres and high profile artists around the country to set up shop".17 While bringing the selectivity and elitism of museum practices into disrepute, All Stock Must Go! foregrounded Indigenous perspectives. Its openness and inclusivity across generations, language, cultures and geographies is integral to Campfire's ethics and ethos.

In an decade pock-marked by 'culture wars' - manifesting vapidly as an attack on the National Museum of Australia's treatment of Indigenous history18 - Bell does indeed have a point. If those few institutional overtures towards more genuinely inclusive historiographies are to be ideologically overwritten through government appointed and politically motivated inquiries, then an independent voice and forum is more pressingly necessary. For Campfire, integral to that voice is an inflection of humour which addresses deadly serious concerns. In major collaborative installations such as All Stock Must Go! and Fish'n'Chips, the utility of humour (irony or satire) to communicate uncomfortable political realities is born out. It also reflects the dynamic of how Campfire's members meet and talk with each other. With such works, humour becomes a strategy - part of the ethos - through which to multiply meaning, split intention and strengthen bonds within the group. Sharing a laugh can be as enriching and affirming as it is empowering. There's nothing like a joke to help people relax and feel welcome in the face of issues and inquiries that cut to the core of Australian national identity. For Bell, humour is integral to the communicative aspects of art especially work that is confrontational: "I like to use satire and other tools of humour to soften the blow, so to speak, because ultimately, it's about communication."19 Likewise, Bianca Beetson, one of the artists involved in Fish'n'Chips and All Stock Must Go!, said humour provides "the ability to laugh at ourselves and to laugh at the time we find ourselves in, an overall sense of the ridiculous and the absurd ... I see it as a necessary tool for survival and self determination ... a spoonful of sugar helps the metaphor go down."20

For Campfire, collaborative practice is a connecting practice: assemblage and arrangement. Connections are formed through community, tradition, country and encounter. In John Rajchman's analysis of Deleuzian philosophy, "to make connections one needs ... a trust that something may come out, though one is not yet completely sure what".21 This is an ethos applicable to Campfire: openness and trust is at the core of Campfire's process. One example is Eather and Lin Onus' collaboration on the X and Ray works which have evolved from paintings to cast sculptures, a cd-interactive, prints and computer generated and manipulated images. In the Saltwater Freshwater Borewater catalogue, Eather describes Campfire's process:

Campfire Group posits its working philosophy on issues surrounding cultural collaboration and exchange. The opportunity this provides for artists to open cultural boundaries and share knowledge and information with new audiences is a central motivational factor in the Group's process and practice. Along with the production of artworks, Campfire artists have provided the curatorial framework, administration, framing and catalogue in a collaborative effort.22

Campfire organises and operates in accordance with Indigenous principles. As an entity - a meeting place, node, collective, machine, etc - Campfire engages an ethics which is activated by a practice a cross-cultural collaboration. While there's no communication and no exchange without it, the collaborative undertakings take many forms based on the needs of the participating artists and particular projects. In his shift from dot paintings, Warlpiri elder, Michael Nelson Jagamarra, collaborated with Campfire for his striking 'expressionist' works comprised of iconic symbols such as the yam and lightning strike. Jagamarra works in the Campfire studio, making several visits each year to paint and develop new bodies of work. The studio environment engenders new dynamics for all the artists involved. For Jagamarra, it has meant "being around other artists painting and drawing and assembling has certainly provided us all with energy and spirit to share and compare."23 Jagamarra is a storyteller and his stories remain the focus of his work whether he is painting, or producing drawings to be translated into sculptures or collaborating directly with other artists including Imants Tillers. In another collaborative undertaking, Central Desert artist, Walala Tjapaltjarri worked with Campfire in the translation of two-dimensional works depicting the sacred Tingari Cycle to steel sculptures. In June 2000, Eather visited Alice Springs to work with Tjapaltjarri in his Gallery Gondwana studio. Ink-on-paper works were produced and in Brisbane, Campfire artists - Eather, Nilsen and Elton Cole - used computer technologies to map the drawings so that the images could be cut from steel and assembled into the sculptures.

As a self-taught artist, Joanne Nalingu Currie has been a core member of Campfire Group since the mid 1990s. As with other artists, her engagement with Campfire means she develops skills and her professional profile. Campfire provides opportunities that individual artists wouldn't ordinarily have access to: processes, experience, experimentation and projects. Currie's involvements have included All Stock Must Go! and the public art commission, Dogwood Crossing @ Miles in collaboration with Nilsen and JM John Armstrong. Since taking on the role of Project Manager with Campfire Group, Armstrong has steered the group into new types of collaborations. While the organising principles based on Indigenous culture are retained, Armstrong's involvement diversifies Campfire's project base and expands the collaborative dynamic to involve community groups, government and public sector agencies. The artists comprising Campfire retain their individual artistic practices and occasionally work under the collective umbrella to make and exhibit their own works. Yet, the works and projects remain collaborative. While there are 'core members', the membership of Campfire is not static - artists come and go. Exhibitions such as Six Coats of Black (2002) provide the opportunity for recent additions to Campfire - Archie Moore and Janice Peacock - to present their work alongside longer term members. According to Armstrong, while there are a couple of factors that make Campfire's collaborative process unique and viable, its understanding requires an awareness of Indigenous perspectives and approaches as culturally located. First, the studio space which has always been integral to Campfire transforms each process into a "physical conversation that's spatially contingent".24 The second factor stems from how that conversation dovetails with Indigenous principles. For Armstrong:

Each artist brings their own thing to these conversations. We're doing more than simply workshopping ideas. The artists are contributing what is uniquely their story or motif - for Joanne [Currie] that's the Maranoa motifs, for Laurie [Nilsen] that's Bungle Creek, for Michael [Eather] it's the stingray. These motifs do not belong to Campfire and no motif will be used in any work without the permission of the artist who brings that with them into the studio. Part of organising on Indigenous principles means that there's respect for each artist's integrity and sovereignty. When we're in the studio working, there's approval for a coming together of stories. It's not necessarily based on consensus but on acknowledgement. The individuals are not subordinate to the collective.25

This approach is made all the more evident through Currie's positioning of her own work. Born and raised at the Mitchell Yumba in southwest Queensland, Currie recounts her memories of swimming and fishing in the Maranoa River. Her motifs reflect on her cultural ties to the Mitchell region and through her work (and ultimately her involvement with Campfire), she seeks to reinvent traditional designs. She has researched and sourced Maranoa shield designs through discussions with her extended family as well as historical research at the Queensland Museum. For Currie, "it's important to show these designs. People can look at the art and say, 'oh, that's from Mitchell'."26 While there are 'in jokes', the processes are more complex and nuanced than the type of collaboration described by Michael Archer where "the dialogue between the members of the collaborative unit gets taken up with itself and results in work of exquisite self-referentiality".27

Campfire's body of work is not possible without either the 'meeting place' or the collaboration. Yet, the artists do not dissolve into the collaborative group, nor do they relinquish their identities and histories to it. It's important and necessary for elements of the collaboration to be identifiably associated with or imprinted by particular artists. Without ethics, there's no connection or affirmation. These ethics aren't abstractions nor are they a kind of postcolonial radical chic. Rather, they are negotiated, lived and practiced. As Simon Wright has said of Jagamarra, "the key is that this artist is in no way willing to perpetuate anachronistic notions that cross-cultural artistic strategies in Australia are one-way borrowings meant to enhance historical European understandings of self and other".28 As a meeting place, Campfire is a nodal point in the trajectories of its members' careers, practices and lives. In its various permutations, Campfire provides new understandings of collaboration as an open, affirming and cultural arrangement.


1 Sam Watson, "Voices of the Land Denied", Dreamtime: Zeitgenössische Aboriginal Art/The Dark and The Light. Catalogue. Vienna: Sammlung Essl. 2001. 33
2 Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, On The Line, New York: Semiotext(e). 1983. 1. The authors are describing their own collaborative process.
3 Balance 1990: Views, Visions, Influences. Curated by Michael Eather & Marlene Hall. Queensland Art Gallery. 1990
4 According to Edward Soja, thirdspace is "the space where all places are, capable of being seen from every angle, each standing clear; but also a secret and conjectured object, filled with illusions and allusions, a space that is common to all of us yet never able to be completely seens and understood ... Everything comes together in Thirdspace." Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Imagined Spaces. Malden: Blackwell Books. 1996. 56
5 Anthony Bond, The Boundary Rider. Catalogue for the 9th Biennale of Sydney. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales. 1992. 78
6 Michael Eather, "On Collaboration: So what is collaboration?". Australian Indigenous Art News. 11
7 Richard Bell interviewed by Michael Eather. Catalogue for Richard Bell. Brisbane: Fire-Works Gallery. 2002
8 Michael Eather & Marlene Hall, "Introduction". Balance 1990: Views, Visions, Influences. Catalogue. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery. 1990. 8ff
9 Laurie Nilsen cited in Michael Aird, Brisbane Blacks, Southport: Keeira Press. 2001. 98
10 Brenda L. Croft, "Beyond the Pale: Empires built on the bones of the dispossessed". Beyond the Pale: Contemporary Indigenous Art. Catalogue for the 2000 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia. 2000. 14
11 ibid
12 Michael Eather, "On Collaboration". op.cit. 10
13 Laurie Nilsen cited in Michael Aird, op.cit. 100
14 Charles Green, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press. 2001. xff
15 ibid. xiii
16 Richard Bell interviewed by Michael Eather, op.cit.
17 Margo Neale, "Campfire Group: All Stock Must Go!". The Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Catalogue. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery. 1996. 110
18 At the time of writing in January 2003, there were several reports published in the press about the appointment of a four-member review panel to consider the historical accuracy of displays in the National Museum of Australia. The Museum's Gallery of First Australians was singled out for attention on the grounds that its depiction of Aboriginal history is "biased and 'politically correct'". Such claims are adamantly denied by the NMA's Director Dawn Casey. In a report published in The Australian ('Battle of the Black Armband' by Richard Yallop, 4 January 2003), historians and academics have focused on the reliance on Indigenous oral tradition in the recounting of events such as the Bell's Falls massacre in the 1820s. For these historians, oral records of frontier conflict passed down from one generation to the next lack authority and are unreliable despite the cultural significance and maintenance of oral tradition in Indigenous culture.
19 Richard Bell cited in Marion Demozay, Gatherings: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from Queensland, Australia, Southport: Keeira Press. 2001. 36
20 Bianca Beetson cited in ibid. 34
21 John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connections. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2000. 7
22 Michael Eather, "Saltwater Freshwater Borewater". Saltwater Freshwater Borewater, Catalogue. Brisbane: Campfire Group. 1997. 6
23 Michael Eather, "Working with MNJ". Catalogue for Michael Nelson Jagamarra and Campfire Group. Brisbane: Fire-Works Gallery/Campfire Group. 2000.
24 JM John Armstrong, Notes from Interview. 12 January 2003
25 ibid
26 Joanne Nalingu Currie in conversation with Michael Eather, "Joanne Currie: Maranoa". Catalogue. Brisbane: Fire-Works Gallery.
27 Michael Archer, "Collaborators". Art Monthly. London. July-August: 1994. 3
28 Simon Wright, "MNJ: Some Other Way". Catalogue for Michael Nelson Jagamarra and Campfire Group. Brisbane: Fire-Works Gallery/Campfire Group. 2000.