Story Place: Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest brings into public view the ageless art of Cape York communities, together with a significant statement about the resilience of their culture. Story Place is evidence that the regenerative spirit of Aboriginal culture cannot be extinguished, even in communities like Aurukun where abuse and dysfunction seem to be prevalent.
More than 80 artists are included in the wide scope of Story Place, representing the language groups of the East Cape, West Cape and Rainforest regions. The exhibition is a significant aesthetic and cultural mapping of a little known and previously underrated area.
This event is much more than a survey exhibition of historical and recent art objects. Story Place recognises the non-material creations which revolve around art objects – dance, oral history, philosophy, religion, ceremony – and which form part of the art object's life in its originating culture. Arthur Pambegan Jr. of the Winchanam people, custodian of Walkaln-aw (Bonefish Story Place) and Kalben (Flying Fox Story Place) 'sang in' the artworks relating to these totemic stories in a ceremony during the Opening Celebrations. The Yidinji Dancers appeared with visually arresting body markings, bearing dramatic rainforest shields and other ceremonial objects and adornments. Such 'performances' emphatically demonstrate the multi-dimensional nature of Indigenous art. It is increasingly important for art museums to recognise that process and performance are integral to Indigenous art, and the object is often the residual element. In acknowledging this, the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) has expanded its role from Art Place to Story Place.
The presence of so many elders, artists and community members actively involved with the exhibition demonstrated their degree of ownership over it. It was also indicative of QAG's responsiveness to the Cape York Aboriginal communities and their approach to doing business with art. Visitors undoubtedly benefit from the program of artist's talks and demonstrations during the Story Place exhibition. These shared moments revealed individual artists grounded in their sense of place, sensitive to their culture and talented in their expression of it.
The range of works is impressive and inclusive. In Story Place historical totemic objects from Aurukun and Rainforest shields are echoed by recently executed works, which have lost none of their antecedents' dynamism and meaning. The ageless art of weaving is still practiced by skilled makers – there are superb examples of bicornual baskets by Desley Henry and in Wilma Walker's kakan (black palm baskets).
Large-scale abstractions by members of the Lockhart River Art Gang, Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo and Samantha Hobson are confident, vigorous works by younger artists. The way they drag marks through thick textures lead us to admire Thancoopie's tactile drawing on the surfaces of her round pots. Belated recognition is given to artists who innovated with new media in their time, like Joe Rootsey with his iconic watercolour landscapes.
Since 1990, QAG has continuously redefined the range and conceptualisation of 'blockbusters' with its major exhibitions of Indigenous art, starting with Balance 1990, its first foray into wide-ranging collaborations with Queensland's Aboriginal communities. Honouring two outstanding artists, Emily Kame Kngwarre and Lin Onus, with major retrospective exhibitions that toured to other states was another significant initiative. QAG's regional mega-show, the Asia Pacific Triennial, has become ever more adventurous with the works it includes from Australia's Indigenous artists.
Each successive exploration has led QAG and its audiences into relatively undefined artistic territory, with some positive outcomes. There is a reciprocal benefit in accommodating large groups of participating artists at these events: on the one hand, their presence gives the gallery and its audiences a fuller and more personal introduction to other cultural regimes. On the other hand, artists not particularly familiar with Western art museum conventions and practices gain confidence along with the acceptance of themselves and their creative endeavours.
This exhibition also reveals the shifting ground between QAG and its neighbour, the Queensland Museum. The magnificent pieces from past generations, such as the sculpted totem figures from Aurukun on loan from the Queensland Museum, are representative of the longevity of Aboriginal collections in Australia's museums of natural history. In contrast, Australia's art galleries are relative latecomers. In the 1950s and 60s several strong advocates for the acceptance of Aboriginal objects as 'art' emerged, but the full acceptance of the of the astonishing diversity and aesthetic values of Aboriginal art in Australian art galleries did not occur until the 1980s.
When Doug Hall was appointed Director of QAG in 1987, there were only 47 works in the Indigenous Australian Art Collection. Since then, there has been a rapid escalation in the gallery's commitment to Aboriginal art, in particular its unique method of interaction and collaboration with Queensland communities.