Indigenous Australia in Berlin

Claire Dalgleish reviews the exhibition ‘Indigenous Australia, Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’ staged at the me Collectors Room in Berlin from 17 November 2017 to 2 April 2018.

In 2017 the Australian Government instigated a year-long program, entitled ‘Australia Now’, in Germany. The program aimed to foster collaborations and networks between Australia and Germany within the arts, sciences, and technology fields. The National Gallery of Australia was a recipient of this grant funding and partnered with the me Collectors Room, Berlin, to showcase a stellar range of their collection by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in the exhibition ‘Indigenous Australia, Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’. The me Collectors Room is located in the trendy Mitte district of Berlin and is a cultural hub of the city. It is the ideal platform to further the international recognition of the NGA’s collection and multi-faceted Indigenous Australian traditions from bark painting through to contemporary practice. Presenting a well-rounded view of the Indigenous trajectory, ‘Indigenous Australia’ comprised over 100 works, including paintings, installation, video, and sculptures by highly acclaimed artists such as Tony Albert, Peter Marralwanga, Fiona Foley, Rover Thomas, and Brenda Croft – to name a few.

Despite the diversity of works presented as part of the show, it is undoubtedly difficult to explain the fraught history of Indigenous Australian art within an international context. Most major Australian institutions did not recognise Indigenous paintings and sculptures as art until the late twentieth century; prior to that, they were considered ‘artefacts’.1 In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) became the first public institution in Australia to purchase and exhibit Indigenous art.2 ‘Indigenous Australia’ curator Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana took care to address Australian art history’s political and social background in their exhibition catalogue essay. References to the struggle for acceptance and injustice for Indigenous artists are peppered throughout the text to provide context for international audiences who may struggle to believe the timeline of events. By the time AGNSW began collecting Indigenous art, the European art market was already re-building after the Second World War and had begun its sprint into the post-Modernist movement.

Cubillo and Caruana explained the exhibition chronologically and in regional blocks, including Arnhem Land and the Kimberley region, both a far cry from the grey streets of Berlin in January. The relationship between nature and Dreaming was articulated through Yirawala’s iconic bark paintings such as Kundaagi – Red Plains Kangaroo and Abstract design; Yirritja, Maraian both of which epitomise a relationship between spirituality, nature, and ceremony. These themes are central to a foundational understanding of Indigenous Australian art and the rest of the works in this exhibition followed this starting point. Berlin audiences saw the evolution of bark painting through to the emergence of Papunya artists, where disarray in the community was the catalyst for aesthetic change. By the close of the 1970s, Papunya artists were using canvas and studio paints to create works as opposed to natural pigments and boards as depicted through the large-scale works of Clifford Possum and Walangkura (Jackson) Napanangka. The sheer size and saturated colour of their works is a clear shift from the bark paintings that came before them and symbolizes the integration of ceremonial painting and western culture.

These developments formed a central part of the exhibition narrative and the impact of new aesthetic influences, felt in central and western desert communities, is clearly demonstrated in Emily Kam Kngwarray’s iconic painting Yam awley, 1995. Kngwarray’s highly regarded work around this time signifies a shift from her previous ceremony paintings and their popularity is attributed to their gestural nature. Yam awley is full of so much movement the paint seems to hum on the canvas. Cubillo and Caruana describe her work as tethered to the history of Desert painting with a vital focus on the connection between ‘the painter, her canvas, and her country’.3

Renowned artists such as Destiny Deacon, Tony Albert, and Michael Cook contributed a contemporary viewpoint to the exhibition. Their works collectively excavate Indigenous history and artistic representation within the overarching narrative, demonstrating how far the conversation has moved on and the focus has shifted. In Tony Albert’s ASH on me, the word ‘ASH’ is spelt out with ceramic and metal ashtrays in varying shapes are decorated with kitsch images of Indigenous Australian culture and people, including boomerangs, and conches. From afar the varying shapes make it seem almost playful, but the work quickly turns violent when you associate the act of stubbing out a lit cigarette on the figure inside each tray.

Although it is difficult to measure the success of national treasures in an international setting, it is easy to see that the NGA’s representation of visual Indigenous culture in Australia hit all the high notes. In varying and evocative ways, ‘Indigenous Australia’ offered international audiences the opportunity to cement their understanding of Australian art history and its shifting and evolving forms that are rooted in Dreaming, ceremony, nature, and identity. The show will actively contribute to the growing perception of Indigenous culture overseas and create room for continued progressive conversations through visual culture.

Claire Dalgleish is a London-based visual arts writer and curator 

NOTES
1. W. Caruana and F. Cubillo, ‘Indigenous Australia, Masterworks from The National Gallery of Australia’, National Gallery of Australia Publishing, 2017, p. 16
2. W. Caruana and F. Cubillo, ‘Indigenous Australia, Masterworks from The National Gallery of Australia’, National Gallery of Australia Publishing, 2017, p. 18
3. W. Caruana and F. Cubillo, ‘Indigenous Australia, Masterworks from The National Gallery of Australia’, National Gallery of Australia Publishing, 2017, p. 25
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