Sitting Down with Indigenous Artists

Erica Izett explores the cultural convergence between Australias indigenous and non-indigenous people over the past few decades and the rewarding implications it is having on Australias artistic and cultural practice and awareness.

In his 1980 Boyer lectures Bernard Smith's call for cultural convergence proposed a meeting or sitting down together of Indigenous and non-Indigenous minds. This way, he thought, identities would not only be 'maintained and even developed', but also relationships would 'become more complex and fruitful, and beneficial to the Australian culture as a whole.' At the time Smith's suggestion was widely dismissed by the art world. But little did he or they realise that a new generation of artists was graduating from Australia's art schools that would take him at his word. Few had learnt anything about Aboriginal art in their courses - instead their education directed them overseas towards events in New York and Europe. Yet, in the following two decades, a surprising number found themselves in Aboriginal Australia, sitting down with their Indigenous hosts. For some this confirmed deeply felt beliefs about their own art practice, for others it catalysed a new outlook on their art and the world.

The most crucial event in this development was the decision, in 1973, by the Whitlam government to create the Aboriginal Art Board as part of its new policy of self-determination. Consisting entirely of Indigenous members, it promptly employed art advisers on Indigenous communities. The intention was to facilitate a burgeoning Indigenous art movement not necessarily to enrich young Kardiya (white) artists like Wayne Eager, Marina Strocchi, Una Rey and Jonathan Kimberley. Each in his or her own way was a beneficiary. With this experience they learnt not so much a style of painting but a way of making art that, no matter how individual, is notably informed by an Indigenous ethic of place.

In the company of Indigenous artists on bush time, country takes on new meaning. The first revelation: remote regions of Australia are literally alive with Tjukurrpa (Dreaming/Law). Like an underground network of activity and memory, it is upheld today right under our noses, beneath our settler infrastructures and consciousness. Further, as a foreign guest worker one quickly feels inept, for the artists possess an astounding acuity for the semiotics of country, and a passion to articulate it effortlessly. As a result, our familiar subjective relations are challenged by a whole new set of values like reciprocity, interrelationship, Tjukurrpa and country. Non-Indigenous artists who take the time to learn and earn this insight rarely fail to find an experience that revises their previous practice and awareness.

The influence of Indigenous culture on mainstream Australian art now has a substantial history; it is a theme, even tradition, of some importance. Despite the growing interest in postcolonial hybridity, there has been little appreciation of this acculturation as a two-way process. Usually it has been criticised for being merely formal and superficial, and at worst, exploitative – especially on the settler side. In his exhibition Expanse (1998) Ian North suggests a more profound settler engagement that 'acknowledged Aboriginal values, qualities or imagery at a significant level of understanding, at a level of deep grammar.' This is evident in the work of Eager, Strocchi, Rey and Kimberley. Today Indigenous values cast a lengthening shadow over mainstream Australian art, not just as a solution to whatever crisis Western modernism might now be enduring, but because of the increasing communication of Indigenous viewpoints to artists working in Western traditions.

The best known of these four, Wayne Eager, was born into a family of artists and grew up on a bush block on the outskirts of Melbourne. Eager was a founding member of Melbourne's Roar Studios in the early 1980s. Well known for its expressive celebration of everyday life and opposition to the intellectualism of postmodernism, Roar Studios also hosted Gabrielle Pizzi's first ground-breaking exhibitions of desert acrylic paintings. Many original Roar members would at some point make their way to Indigenous communities.

Eager joined Strocchi when she was invited to work for the Haasts Bluff community in 1992. Much more at ease with the pragmatism and power of Indigenous art practice than the high theory of the 1980s artworld, Eager felt he was at the hub of the greatest art movement of our times. While helping Strocchi at Ikuntji, Eager made his own landscapes alongside the creative surge of painting that was occurring there and went on to work in the field for Papunya Tula Artists. Combining his earlier attraction to existential narratives of place his work became increasingly abstract over this time. The intense architecture of each composition underwrites his lyrical line work. Ranging from dense constructions to fleeting trace, the paintings read as cryptograms that map a cultural archaeology. Whether richly layered or more softly transparent, light and colour cohere the works, and although they reverberate as language, they are very much grounded in the world he lives in.

'The starting point for me and my peers was Western modernism: from C├ęzanne to Fairweather etc& I hesitate to claim that my paintings have direct or even indirect influence from Indigenous culture, rather it is their work as artists that I have been inspired by. I was and still am privileged to be present amongst an abundance of great paintings and getting to know the artists and spending time with them. People like Yala Yala Gibbs (I had a newspaper reproduction of one of his paintings stuck to my wall in the various share houses I lived in during the 80s).'

Marina Strocchi met Eager and the other Roar artists at the opening of Roar Studios in 1982. During the 1990s she nurtured the beginnings of a new desert movement - the wild figuration of the Ikuntji mob. Eclectic and vibrant, it began as a women's centre but soon had the support of male artists. Strocchi played a crucial role in facilitating women's painting from the Centre (Papunya and Walungurru) and initiated the first large-scale desert women's collaborations (Minyma Tjukurrpa: Kintore Haasts Bluff joint canvas project). She also compiled the first bilingual book on Indigenous art, Ikuntji : Paintings from Haasts Bluff 1992-1994.

Now a successful full-time artist, Strocchi remains sought after by Indigenous communities to run painting workshops. Her paintings comprise reflective ideograms of the everyday informed by her life experiences and many and varied influences. While her hieroglyphic forms may appear whimsical, they are both respectful of country and reflect an insight into habitat that she has gained from time spent and conversation (in Pintubi language) with Indigenous people. Strocchi makes an aesthetic from the ways in which the country is inhabited. Thus her paintings reduce the perceptual complexity of landscape to hieroglyphs that point to key local resources (machines, roads, transport, bush tucker, fauna, flora). Elegant mangroves, anthills, grasses and fishes swim and sway in counterpoint. As a gifted storyteller, she transforms the everyday activities of place into visual rhythms and songs; they are, like much Indigenous art, an aesthetic of information laid out in clear mnemonic forms.
'Living in the desert is like living in the middle of something as important as the Florentine Renaissance. Watching artists dive into a huge canvas without any hesitation would have to be the most important inspiration. Initially many points of reference from my own culture seemed irrelevant, except for stories, jokes and keeping one's word.'

Like Eager, Una Rey was born into an artists' family. She grew up in an isolated valley west of Port Macquarie. Before long she was seeking remote regions further north. While studying painting in Darwin she also gained an insight into the diversity of Aboriginal art through her work at Framed Gallery. Rey then followed Strocchi's lead and worked with the Ikuntji artists before managing Jilamara Arts on Melville Island. 'After being surrounded by such paintings even daring to paint again was a challenge. Essentially, the kind of nudge I got from them was to go back to your own place, your own kind/people/culture, as in that's where the first integrity comes from – they don't hanker after other places/cultures the way we do.' A return to her childhood land has ensued. As a painter, Rey experiences the isolation of remote regions as a catalyst to 'force one back onto one's own resources' while remaining emotionally involved with the ecology of country. 'I am very aware that my experience of country is very different to say, a Pintupi artist, but I feel a relationship to my current place which holds me in an emotional and intellectual sense.'

Poetic rather than narrative, her recent series From the Valley Floor is engaged with the drama and mystery of light-play in the valley. In the wet and dry brushwork brooding tones duel and merge in pregnant silence. Bold penetrations of dark and light suggest ambiguous relationships between negative and positive space, from tender blurred edges to sharp phallic contrasts. The tension creates emotive metaphors with an erotic charge. It suggests the secret workings of country and transports you to a spiritual dimension, an encounter with the poetry of place.

Jonathan Kimberley's childhood was spent in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. Before commencing his second year at RMIT University in 1989, he travelled to Central Australia pursuing his interest in Indigenous art and Australian landscape. He made further trips across the north and west, visiting many Indigenous art centres and working briefly at Balgo. Then in 1998 he established the Warmun Art Centre with Warmun artists and partner Anna Moulton.

After leaving Warmun, Kimberley returned to full-time painting in Kununurra. His experience in remote regions precipitated a loss of confidence in the Western landscape tradition but also gave rise to a new point of potential. While painting wet season storms, 'cloudglyphs' emerged as a metaphor for his sense of transient connection to country. The cloudglyphs appear like cellular rhizomes throwing out connections to place. Some of his paintings evoke the apocalyptic ending of a previous order, others the primeval atmosphere in which life began. As if searching for an elusive structure, geological and biological forms freefall into an interior liminal space where memories of landscape float in a weightless and infinite universe.

'Many Indigenous artists have influenced my work in the process of finding my own voice as an Australian artist. My work seeks to raise further questions about the cultural currency of 'landscape' in Australia. By engaging directly with Indigenous people, through discussion, shared journey and collaboration, in the places in which I am living and painting, I am re-evaluating my non-Indigenous presence and working towards a post-landscape conception of place.'

Common to these four artists is a residual homage to their desert mentors; more than an aesthetic tribute they are embedding a complex new awareness of country within their very different practices. They each share deep respect for the talent and generosity of the Indigenous artists they have worked with, and awe for their ability to sustain their art practice within the tough daily grind of remote community life. As Rey says, 'how does it rise from the red dirt, litter, dead cars, spilt petrol and sick dogs?'

Indigenous artists are close to their core, with a level of commitment to place and belonging most of us simply cannot fathom; it is impossible not to be profoundly affected. At the same time it is simpler than that. They are colleagues, with a great work ethic, just doing their thing, putting paint to canvas, developing their practice, communicating an Indigenous worldview and a political position. The effect on artists who have experienced this interface on a daily basis is yet to really register on the Australian artworld. It is, perhaps, the future that Smith envisaged, his call (once dismissed) now reads like a prophecy.