Indigenous Triennial

Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial 07 Curator: Brenda L. Croft. National Gallery of Australia, 13 October 2007  10 February 2008; touring to Art Gallery of South Australia, 20 June  31 August 2008; Art Gallery of Western Australia, 20 September  23 November 2008; Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, MarchMay 2009. (Note: The touring exhibition will be about 90 works rather than the 130 seen in Canberra.)

The National Gallery of Australia has initiated a 'National Indigenous Art Triennial'. NGA director Ron Radford rightly regards art-prize exhibitions as unseemly for a National Gallery, and annual roundups, such as Darwin's 23-year-old 'National Aboriginal Art Award', as too frequent. A Triennial can bring new developments into focus more clearly than an Annual. And a culture-specific focus on Indigenous art is at present more likely than a broader survey to discover new works that possess cultural and aesthetic force.

The 'National Indigenous Art Triennial' is known as the NIAT. The acronym also belongs to a Melbourne-based 'National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce'. For Brenda L. Croft, the NGA's senior curator of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art, and exhibition curator of the inaugural NIAT, the coincidence was pleasing.

Whitefella drugs sold in Indigenous communities have long been a hot socio-political topic in Australia. Tommy McCrae over a century ago, in north-eastern Victoria, made spirited drawings that cautioned his fellow natives about plonk. Today, in Brisbane, Gordon Hookey expresses the same community concern in an angry but hilarious painting 'Grog Gott'im' where his people have metamorphosed into mindless bottles of beer, methylated spirits, port or into a blockhead cardboard wine-cask. Aboriginal ancestral beings told moral stories of transformation. So, equally, do this artist's funny, skilful works that draw upon surrealism and movie animation. Hookey is one of the 'Culture Warriors' after whom Croft has named the first Triennial.

Richard Bell's more familiar paintings, and a pop-song-length DVD 'Uz vs Them' (a black boxer and a white), are installed as a climax to close the exhibition. In the catalogue he protests too much: 'Because I am from the closely settled east coat of Australia I am not allowed to paint what is popularly called 'Aboriginal art'. & Our art has been, incorrectly I believe, called 'urban Aboriginal art'. It is work that often speaks of contemporary injustices against our people. 'Liberation art' is a far more accurate term that may also help to discourage the perpetual attempts to ghettoise us.'

Four years ago Bell won the Telstra Award in Darwin with a large canvas that appropriated the style of white modern masters and was lettered with the highly provocative statement 'Aboriginal Art it's a White Thing'. It was not ghettoised within the practices of desert dot-painting or traditional ochres on eucalyptus bark. His dots and stripes, taken from both New York Pop art and from Aboriginal Western Desert painting, make visual play on the actual violence of shooting blackfellows, and of imprisonment behind bars. In the NIAT his 'Big brush stroke' turns a Roy Lichtenstein image into Aboriginal art by giving it the red, black and yellow colours of the Aboriginal flag, and an emphasis on the dotted ground. It's wonderfully witty, and stronger than anything by Lichtenstein himself.

Hetti Perkins's essay on Bell contends that the notorious T-shirt 'White girls can't hump', worn to accept his Telstra award, was a kind of feminism: an attack on the ghettoisation of black men as great athletes ('white men can't jump') and of black women as great at wild sex. It's so convoluted and cheeky a contention that it's probably what Bell intended. Richie Bell is terrific at Blak humour. So are Destiny Deacon, and others.

The first works seen in Croft's installation make comments on Aboriginal presence in the 'ghetto' of the natural sciences. Past ways of thinking about 'primitive peoples' were based on now discredited 'science', and those ways of thinking were presented in natural history museums. Vernon Ah Kee's black wordwork of cut-out vinyl applied directly to a white wall shouts out 'not an animal or a plant'. Below it, Danie Mellor's sprawling version of a natural science museum diorama titled, excessively, 'The contrivance of a vintage wonderland (A magnificent flight of curious fancy for science buffs&a china ark of seductive whimsy&a divinely ordered special attraction&upheld in multifariousness') comprises a tree for stuffed birds and a bit of bush for a mob of fibreglass kangaroos. The kangaroos are coated with a shimmer of broken blue-and-white china. They therefore signify how colonisers always get things wrong; how Europeans looking for China, and its fine porcelain manufactures, stumbled instead upon the land of the kangaroo, and traded and planted ideas of racial and cultural superiority.

Such ideas still hurt. Daniel Boyd paints a map of Australia's Aboriginal language groups as a 'Treasure Island' to be exploited. He depicts an Enlightenment (late eighteenth century) British monarch and a colonial governor as pirates who also collected skulls and bones. Ricky Maynard takes heart-rendingly straightforward black-and-white photographs of dispossession and exile to an offshore Tasmanian island. Julie Dowling's paintings are not only about early colonial Black warfare in Tasmania but also about this year's takeover, by mining operations, of a vast rock art field on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia.

A majority of the thirty artists selected by Croft are less aggressively assertive than these streetwise makers of Liberation art. Greatest respect is given to quieter assertion of cultural values in the work of five elders gathered into the first room, immediately after the declamatory foyer works by Ah Kee and Mellor. The elders show super-refined bark paintings,carvings and bone poles from Aurukun and Arnhem Land. Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek is the one who has painted permanent works on rock shelters as well as portable art market barks, and who is the most determined to pass on old traditions. His malevolent 'Wakkewakken' female spirit performing sorcery is comparable with archaic Greek stories about transgressions between the sexes.

This scholarly presentation of cultural knowledge is not fossilised. Dennis Nona takes advantage of Western technology, and the foundry at Urban Art Projects in Brisbane, to make a life-size bronze crocodile and mythology figure from his Torres Strait culture. The most delicately beautiful works in the exhibition are Gulumbu Yunupingu's painted bark and logs of 'Garak (The Universe)', infinities of tiny yellow and white stars. They are her own recent invention after being told in a vision to paint them; but she concedes, 'Maybe hiding somewhere at the back of my mind was knowledge my father had'.

Shane Pickett is another who paints the sky and stars. Maringka Baker paints a dotted desert landscape in surprising yellowand green. Turbo Brown, from Mildura, knows and loves his koalas and wombats. Treahna Hamm, at Albury, has rediscovered how to make the engraved possum-skin cloaks that once fascinated settlers in Victoria. Young photomedia artist Christian Bumbara Thompson, in Melbourne, plays at being Tracey Moffatt or Andy Warhol, but also films, seriously, his own new ceremonies and withholds their inside meanings from viewers. Christine Christopherson, in Darwin, creates her own painted symbols of traditional kinship structures, a social parallel as strong as biological DNA.

This first NIAT reveals that Queensland now supplies most of the best new Indigenous 'Liberation art'. It also reveals that the oldest Aboriginal reserve, Arnhem Land, set aside in 1931, is where the most refined and aristocratic art forms survive and mutate, for example in the work of Lofty Bardayal, John Mawurndjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu. The NGA's exhibition spaces have seldom been installed so well, and Indigenous art has never looked so fine.

Daniel Thomas