Debates about what is mainstream, whether in global or national terms, seem to perennial. Some have claimed Aboriginal art is now mainstream. Stephanie Radok takes this notion apart.
How do we know what is important? How do we know when or whether we are important?
These questions concern artists, writers and curators, and without irony most of us can say that of course we want to be told what to think about Australian contemporary art by a small group of people, preferably men, preferably in Melbourne, given the 'predominantly Melbourne/Sydney orientation of Australian art history.'
But is it possible that when we think about art that we are not thinking about art history? We may even recall Ian Burn's comment that art history is far too important to be left to art historians.
The current Director of the Experimental Art Foundation in South Australia is from Macedonia. Of course and why not? The obscure and serendipitous joining of Skopje and Adelaide in this appointment is a good example of the fluidity and the homogeneity of contemporary art, a genre which spans the globe and in some senses avoids the confines of nationality.
There has recently been some public debate over the term contemporary Australian art. Charles Green tells us that 'Australian art is Sydney and Melbourne art'. It is possible, he suggests, that people living in Australia outside those cities may not think of themselves as Australian, presumably because they identify so strongly with their region, and, in the case of Aboriginal artists, the presumption is made that their attachment to their own country means that they do not think of themselves as Australian as well. This is a backhanded comment. Surely if you can live in Melbourne and talk about Australian culture then you can do it anywhere. Isn't it often the case that those living in Melbourne just talk about Melbourne and confuse it with Australia? Perhaps that is what Green means but a more serious issue is involved here than parochialism.
Just as Aboriginal people have had to accept the idea of Aboriginality and being Aboriginal in order to organise (see Michael Dodson's essay 'The end in the beginning: re (de) fining Aboriginality' ) so the idea of being Australian is a way of organising thought. While Sydney and Melbourne may overlook what is happening elsewhere in Australia it doesn't follow that those who are elsewhere do not know what is happening or that they are not part of the story. The mindset that repeats the USA/Australia - centre/periphery model in terms of Sydney/Melbourne and the rest of Australia fails to see the value of self-determination and self-validation.
How do we judge what is important? If a painting is worth a lot of money is it a better painting? If the Americans like me does it mean that I am important? Do the Americans know what they are doing? Does art policy follow foreign policy? Much Aboriginal art demonstrates that cultural wealth is not necessarily material wealth. It also demonstrates cultural maturity in that one of the intellectual lessons of Aboriginal art is the importance of what you do to and in your country. Aboriginal art is about history and connection to place, beliefs and ideas, experience and reflection. It has a local application which may be read outside that locale. It doesn't seem to be looking over its shoulder to see if it is doing the right thing.
The claim that 'Aboriginal art is the mainstream of contemporary Australian art' has been made twice, first in 2000 during the Olympic Arts Festival by Vivien Johnson in her essay for The Festival of the Dreaming brochure. And more recently in the essay by Vivien Johnson for Talking about Abstraction, a recent exhibition curated by Felicity Fenner at Ivan Dougherty Gallery, and which included work by Aboriginal and un-Aboriginal artists.
Johnson's statement is simply not true and is not particularly constructive either. To say that Aboriginal art is a very significant part of Australian contemporary art would be more accurate. Aboriginal art is an immense presence in all major art galleries. Why then does respected curator Hetti Perkins claim that mainstream art remains xenophobic? Clearly there is still a need if not to 'integrate' stories of Aboriginal art into stories of Australian art then to open the stories of Australian art in general to many different angles and points of view.
Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal experience in Australia have provided rich material for art. Whether we think of Ian Abdulla or Destiny Deacon, Johnny Bulunbulun or Emily Kame Kngwarreye, being Aboriginal has provided subject and substance to their artwork. Un-Aboriginal artists also make artwork connected to their family and cultural backgrounds, about their histories of oppression and their religions but they are not as easily subsumed under one concept. Refugee art, migrant art, the art of poor people, activists, workers, multicultural art – some of these categories don't even exist, those that do are less than homogenous and are rarely exhibited or shown or talked about in prestigious exhibitions. Aboriginal art is not homogenous either but in talking about it a kind of positive racism enters the conversation – old people are never old people they are always elders, the antiquity of Aboriginal culture casts an aura of sanctity over all artwork, sacredness is also regularly mentioned and it is not possible to question it for while in the past un-Aboriginal culture may have been unaware of or derogatory of Aboriginal religion and culture it is now regarded with a delicate awe and immense respect and so it should be, but does that mean that it has taken over Australian culture?
I don't think so as the majority of Australians, while they recognize Aboriginal art, do not connect with it as belonging to them and indeed they are discouraged from doing so. Appropriation of Aboriginal art has been under discussion for many years. Appropriation used to be discussed regularly at Artists' Week and Aboriginal artists said repeatedly don't do it. Yet there is change in the air and Aboriginal art is now considered more secure and unAboriginal artists seem to be free to draw on some elements of it without the danger of being accused of stealing. Thus the presence of exhibitions, such as Talking about Abstraction and Indecorous Abstraction, a very similar show curated by Margot Osborne at the Light Square Gallery in Adelaide in 2002, both of which treat Aboriginal art as retinal painting, i.e. about formal concerns as much as anything else. The notions of influence and response rather than appropriation are foregrounded in the accompanying catalogues. Any glance through even the advertisements in a full colour Australian art magazine shows the huge number of Australian artists quietly drawing on the look of Aboriginal art. The sheer quantity of Aboriginal art that has now been presented has to have an effect on artists in Australia over the last twenty years and it has, both intellectually and materially. Yet it is the intellectual lessons that need to be reiterated rather than the mere copying of surfaces.
It often looks a bit opportunistic when un-Aboriginal artists connect what they do to Aboriginal art. In Talking about Abstraction the works by Jemima Wyman, A.D.S. Donaldson, Debra Dawes and Angela Brennan resemble Aboriginal art like a pea resembles a pumpkin. They are both vegetables. However each of these un-Aboriginal artists claims both interest and influence. Yet by seeing Aboriginal art as chiefly abstract, they deal with a sanitised superficial notion of it that removes its social and political dimensions. The best Aboriginal art is impressive because of a number of factors - its authority, its casualness, its directness, its concern with important matters, its purposefulness and confidence. Djon Mundine has suggested that it is about social cohesion. Clearly its political and social dimensions underline the way we look at it. Is this an ethnographic look? Can it be transferred to looking at contemporary Australian art? And what would it tell us about the purposes of Australian contemporary art and its relation to people's lives?