Victorian Indigenous Art Awards 2011

Article on VIAA, Indigenous arts in Victoria – from the VIAA Curator.

The Victorian Indigenous Art Awards (VIAA) is an annual program showcasing the individual styles, use of media, expression of ideas and storytelling of Indigenous artists in Victoria. The artists range from emerging to established artists and the resulting exhibition is a true indication of the range of work produced across Victoria.

In 2005, the Victorian Government, through Arts Victoria, developed the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards program to acknowledge and showcase quality works, facilitate economic opportunities for the artists, raise the profile of Indigenous cultural activities and develop new audiences for Victoria's Indigenous artists.

The Awards were first presented through the Melbourne International Arts Festival in Arts Victoria’s foyer with just two categories, including the Deadly Art Award. Since then, partnerships have been developed with a range of commercial galleries and not-for-profit organisations to deliver the program and present the exhibition of finalists. They include the former Mahoney’s Galleries, the Koorie Heritage Trust and Boscia Galleries.

The 2011 awards were presented in partnership with the not-for-profit venue fortyfivedownstairs at 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. For the first time a Resident Indigenous Curator position was created to curate the program through Arts Victoria’s Indigenous Visual Arts Residencies.

The awards are judged each year by industry peers, and this year pre-selection judges, Bill Nuttall, Karen Quinlan and myself, whittled down over one hundred and eighty art entries to twenty-seven finalist works. A final judging panel consisting of Maree Clarke, Bindi Cole and Geoffrey Edwards selected the award-winners, considering use of the medium, composition, design, originality, creativity, presentation and narrative of the works. The judges also considered at what stage the artist is at in his or her career and how the artist may benefit from the development component of the award.

The major award, the Deadly Art Award, now carries a $25,000 cash prize, and the highly-commended artist for this award receives $5,000 of which $2,000 is for professional development activities. Ben McKeown is the winner of the Deadly Art Award in 2011. In this issue of Artlink Daniel Browning has written a profile about McKeown’s work.

The 2011 awards categories also included the CAL (Copyright Agency Limited) Victorian Indigenous Art Award for works on Paper and for Three Dimensional works and the Koorie Heritage Trust Acquisition award of $5000, a regular award that aims to enrich the trust’s collection and promote Victorian artists.

The infrastructure of privately owned galleries, regional and urban state run or funded galleries, Bunjilaka at Museum Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria and arts funding bodies have contributed to a strong, open and innovative arts Indigenous sector in Victoria. Christian Thompson, Destiny Deacon and Brook Andrew are significant among those international Indigenous artists who began exhibiting in galleries throughout Victoria.

Each year of the VIAA brings forth a number of artists who employ traditional south east Australian Indigenous designs that have evolved over forty thousand years. Concentric circles, and half-circles, can have a number of different meanings and representations, as is the case in the Central and Western deserts of Central Australia. The circles may represent sacred sites, waterholes or soakage bores, significant dreaming sites and camps. Concentric half-circles in the south-east of Australia can represent "country", that being the landscape and all within it. They can also be symbolic of mountain ranges and bodies of water, particularly seawater.

Eileen Ballangarry paints interlocking patterns of concentric half-circles in black and white to tell the story of female traditions such as initiation and other elements of her culture that are typically linked to the landscape. This, in turn, is reflected in the stars and constellations of the night sky which reminds us of laws, hunting practices and ceremonial requirements in narrative stories.
Another iconic ancient design from south-eastern Australia is concentric diamonds and half-diamonds. These images have been discovered carved into trees(dendroglyphs), personal hunting implements and illustrated on the skin side of possum skin cloaks. The designs are also linked to ceremony, where they are painted on the body. Their juxtapositions indicate “country” and thus identity of the inhabitants. Such a design can be seen in the work of Stephan Paton, a seemingly simple portrait of his country in Gippsland, but held within it is a vast amount of cultural knowledge. Rituals were strictly scheduled and formed a crucial part of spiritual and daily life. They included ceremonial dancing and accompanying singing and music, played to acknowledge sacred sites and the life-giving energies or forces they contain.

The 2011 Koorie Heritage Trust Acquisition award winner Shifter (2010) a digital video by Naretha Williams makes reference to such rituals. The consistent movements that are unique to the particular ceremony have specific results which could be the retention of healing power derived from a significant landscape feature, typically the site where creation ancestors left part of themselves or their energy in the Dreamings. Other issues present in the VIAA exhibition works include the Stolen Generations expressed in four differing forms and styles. Robyne Latham’s copper wire sculpted coolamon Empty Coolamon 201 speaks of the absence of a child who would traditionally be carried in a coolamon, representing the children of the Stolen Generations. Robyne is this year’s recipient of the Highly Commended CAL Victorian Indigenous Art Award for Three Dimensional works. Reko Rennie, an interdisciplinary artist, expresses his connection with the Stolen Generations and interlaces his artistic ambitions and lifestyle in an innovative installation. A bicycle stands in the foreground of a stencilled horse and wagon, the mode of transport employed to take his grandmother away in the middle of the night. In contrast, the yellow Gamilaroi symbols on the black frame of the bike together with the kangaroo fur upholstered seat and handlebars speak of his connection to his people and culture and the inspiration he takes from this. The fixed gear bike reflects his fast paced lifestyle and generational freedom. The work is aptly titled Watch Me Now.

Adam McLennan uses X-ray design features, revealing the innards of the mighty grey kangaroo in a highly graphic work that speaks of the four species of kangaroo and wallaby which his forebears relied upon for survival. They are represented by four connected concentric circles, reminiscent of the Tingari Cycle designs of the Central Desert. In his culture the kangaroo is revered as not only a great and reliable food source, but as a protector of great strength.

Political punch is often a feature of contemporary Victorian Indigenous art works. It is delivered subtlety in some works such as Robyne Latham’s Empty Coolamon and in others it bursts from the canvas, as exemplified in Brian McKinnon’s four canvas panel work In Australia being Aboriginal is a Prison. Brian’s work reveals an oppressive childhood, a delinquent adolescence and early incarceration. His only escape was to embrace his Aboriginal culture and identity. Three panels speak of despair whilst one black panel features ritual scarification, a metaphor for Aboriginal culture and redemption.

Spirituality takes on many forms in real life, just as it does through varied modes of Indigenous expression. Paola Balla, winner of the CAL Victorian Indigenous Art Award for Three Dimensional works for A Little Birdy Told Me (2010) tells a tale of a bird bringing sad news that a relative is soon to pass away. Paola’s work manages to capture the heart of viewers as she successfully constructs a scene from varied media that achieves great emotional and spiritual strength. Stories of survival, modern day threats of children being taken away, the clash of Aboriginal identity with predominantly white suburban culture, a gigantic transvestite staking claim to a city in a forties-style Hollywood poster, are among the images seen in the creations of this diverse group of Victorian Aboriginal artists. The demand for works by Victorian Indigenous artists is growing and is reflected in the increasing number of collectable Victorian Indigenous artists. With works of such aesthetic, political, personal and creative strength, the exhibition of the VIAA finalists is a standout in the myriad Aboriginal exhibitions that dot the city, most of which are more conservative.

Nicolas Boseley is an Eastern Arrernde and a VCA Film School graduate who has written several feature length and short films, directing several funded shorts which took him to festivals around the world. He did a 9 month residency with the fortyfivedownstairs curator to curate and organise the 2011 Victorian Indigenous Art Awards.