ART & EXHIBITIONS
Virginia Rigney on Aboriginal art; also the Open at the Fruitmarket and Philip Chudy atStills. LISTINGS: GLASGOW 56 EDINBURGH 58 MUSEUMS 60
The largest season of contemporary Aboriginal culture to be seen outside Australia — and the first to be managed directly by Aboriginal people — will open at the Third Eye Centre. Virginia Rigney looks at the concerns of the artists.
Bringing the culture of indigenous peoples from far ﬂung continents before a home audience has a long and popular tradition in this country. During the age ofcolonial expansion, exposure to ‘exotic‘ races and their customs in the form of artefacts and even live human ‘specimens‘ reaffirmed more the status of the conquering country than promoting an awareness and respect for the other cultures' values and beliefs.
Sensitive to this background the Third Eye Centre has mounted one of the largest programmes of contemporary Aboriginal culture ever to be seen outside Australia.
The season comes at the height of an extraordinary rise in the strength and depth of cultural practice of all kinds by Aboriginal people culminating, at least in the visual arts, in the selection of two black artists, Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls to represent Australia at this year’s Venice Biennale.
This rise is intimately associated with the growth of an independent Aboriginal political identity. as distinct from that of white Australia, and centres around the crucial issue of Land Rights. Ownership. and, by essential implication, care of the land lies at the core of aboriginal culture. After waiting almost 200 years to be granted citizenship in their own country, Aboriginal people are now seeking a treaty that gives them custodial rights to tracts of land.
For many people. traditional paintings on board remain the strongest image of Aboriginal art, yet the exhibition at the centre of the season shows the current diversity of practice, some of which defies even the recent categories of ‘urban‘ and ‘desert‘ artists. As Lin Onus, an aboriginal artist who will be visiting the Third Eye for the season explains, motor vehicles and air travel have collapsed geographical barriers, making it possible for city artists to work in the bush and vice versa.
There is a relatively recent recognition ofa shared cultural heritage as an ‘Aboriginal nation’, not relevant or possible before white settlement as there were hundreds of languages and dialects and decision-making was kept within the tribe and family. With this has come a felt need to ‘salvage‘ what remained of the culture
after 200 years ofwhite oppression, making connection between artists from different parts of the country more urgent, and often resulting in startling cross-overs in imagery.
For Onus. who lives in Melbourne and developed his art of landscape painting in a western panoramic sense, contact and friendship with artists in Arnhem Land has led to a complete change ofvision. ‘I was to become much more aware that I was looking at the ground and noticing the foot marks— looking up in the trees and really seeing for the first time what was there‘.
The Papunya painters of the Western Desert region are perhaps the strongest representation of this different way ofseeing the landscape. Acrylic paints and boards were introduced to men on the settlement by a white art teacher, Geoff Bardon. in the mid 70s, and a painting style developed that had its roots in traditional sand painting. The dazzling dot paintings that have since emerged rework this tradition in these new materials, and they have now been seen (and sold) in the art capitals of the world.
A major early piece by ten older men of Papunya under the direction of Uta Uta Tjan ala, has been included in the exhibition as a benc mark against the other work which has all been produced in the last two years. A mythical morality tale ofthe dangers of male sexual potency and transgression. it also maps the land. like a constellation ofstars. delineating in abstracted form bills. watcrholes and journeys
It has been easy in the past for white Australians, like myself, to speak for Aboriginal people and to make aesthetic judgements about their work. Increasingly. and with the aid of the Aboriginal Arts Committee of the Australia Council, Aboriginal people are taking firm steps towards cultural self-determination. This exhibition was curated by Anthony Bourke. Exhibition Co-ordinator of the Government. established ‘Aboriginal Art Australia’ programme and the season also brings many other Aboriginal voices directly to Glasgow. Ricki Shilds will be artist in residence. Yothu Yindi, a rock band from Arnhem land. will perform and there will be a walking reading of the play ‘Munjong‘ by Richard Walley which centres around the damming issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody and involves both Aboriginal and Scottish actors.
One of the most ambitious projects is that organised by Mary Walter of the Edinburgh Slide Workshop. It has involved school children on both sides of the globe andhas its starting point in tales drawn from Scottish/Celtic folklore and the Aboriginal Dream Time. A future generation may then be better equipped to understand this. one of the world‘s oldest and now most vital cultures.
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