Aboriginal art at the Royal Academy in 2013

The first mistake was the hype. The previews brimmed with confidence: the British “would find the show a revelation”; “there has never been an exhibition like this before”; “Britain’s ‘shameful’ ignorance of Australian art is to be addressed”;[1] “an eye-opener for British viewers”. The Aboriginal art would be a real winner: “they’ll be really amazed. When they come in first, they’ll see Aboriginal art, and that will shock them.”[2] They had mustered a roomful of large spectacular masterpieces to make the point. As the exhibition took shape the organisers must surely have sensed the disaster looming. A month before it opened and after interviewing a number of Australian art world aficionados, Janet Ure-Smith warned in London’s Financial Times that the conception of the exhibition was so riddled with clichés that it would either confirm worn-out prejudices or insult the informed viewer.[3]

The Australian was determined it would be a success. As if reporting for Pravda, Paola Totaro reassured everyone at home of the “overwhelmingly good reviews”. Who was she trying to kid? “The venerable FT [Financial Times]”, she said, judged it a “coherent narrative”.[4] Maybe, but the FT reviewer’s final words were: “this show remains finally, insistently, unnecessarily provincial”.[5] The most enthusiastic British review I read, in the conservative ‘Torygraph’ – the Daily Telegraph – admitted that “the art itself is far from amazing”, and it “feels more like a history lesson than an exhibition”.[6] At least this reviewer, Alastair Sooke, liked the Aboriginal art.

Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO Australia, 1926–2009, Kunwinjku people, Northern Territory Dead man c. 1968, Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, natural pigments on eucalyptus bark. South Australian Government Grant 1969. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. © estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artistd Agency Ltd. 

The greatest revelation of the reviews is the obvious failure of Aboriginal art to penetrate the contemporary art world beyond Australia. “While extremely beautiful,” said Adrian Searle, in the Guardian, “they are also extremely difficult to read.” He described the Aboriginal room as “a collision between tradition and modernity”, in which traditional “iconography [was] often bowdlerised for consumption”. Understandably, he reached for what he knew, comparing Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Big Yam Dreaming to the work of Brice Marden and Yayoi Kusama. However, as if caught out, he confessed that it was “wrong to categorise Kngwarreye’s work in relation to other, antithetical traditions”.[7]

Brian Sewell, in the London Evening Standard, had no such compunction. He felt that “Jackson Pollock must surely lie behind” Kngwarreye’s painting, leading him to conclude that in such works “the Aborigine offers only a reinvented past, his adoption of ‘whitefella’ materials and, occasionally, ‘whitefella’ ideas ... undoing his ‘blackfella’ integrity”.[8] He judged this room of Aboriginal paintings “the stale rejiggings of a half-remembered heritage … corrupted by a commercial art market”. The Sunday Times award-winning critic, Waldemar Januszczak, dismissed them as “tourist tat”. “These spotty meanderings,” he said, are “dull canvas approximations, knocked out in reduced dimensions, by a host of repetitive Aborigine artists making a buck”. In his opinion, “the Australian art world”, for all its trying, only “managed to create what amounts to a market in decorative rugs”.[9]

Why did we in Australia get it so wrong? The British had a ready answer: “There is no doubt”, wrote Adrian Hamilton in the Independent, “an element of penance in the way that Australia has elevated Aboriginal art in the last twenty years”.[10]

It has been suggested to me that the moral strain of this British criticism, as if the critic is bearing witness to some transgression, is a familiar refrain to the Australian ear, which has had to endure England as its judge for over 200 years. Like all scolded children, the high moral ground of the disapproving mother is immediately rejected as the ravings of someone who never loved her children or, more tellingly, who refuses to see herself in them. The Australian reported that “Facebook and Twitter were awash with Australian art lovers outraged by the outpourings of London’s critics”.[11] John Olsen, whose painting came under scathing criticism, shot back: “We don’t give a damn about what they say we are.”[12]

Should we then dismiss the critical consensus in Britain?

Some Australian critics thought the Australian curators should also take some of the blame. Germaine Greer lamented the ignorance and befuddlement of the British critics but didn’t hesitate to blame the curators for their poor selection of work, abysmal hanging and the failure to present a clear narrative.[13] John McDonald agreed. He thought the Aboriginal art was presented as a “spectacle and a sideshow”.[14] But this surely misses the point. These British journalists are seasoned critics working in a major centre of contemporary art. They also identified the lack of narrative and poor presentation, and they know how to look beyond curatorial failure and see the art for what it is. Ignorant and prejudiced they may be, but the Aboriginal art failed to challenge their preconceptions, and they smelt a scam. And who can blame them: when was an example, let alone a good example, of the Western Desert art that these writers decried, last seen at Tate Modern? Their dismissal confirms that Australian Indigenous contemporary art has failed to get the attention of the British art world. The question that we in Australia should be asking is why this is the case when African contemporary art has been so successful? What are they doing that we aren’t?

The shock and awe of the first gallery, filled to the brim with large Aboriginal paintings, confirmed more than Australia’s need to expiate its guilt. Placed outside what Sooke called “the exhibition’s chronological arc”, it was made into a transcendental signifier of a primitive paradise lost. Sooke – the Daily Telegraph critic who had some positive things to say about the exhibition – thought this a “clever move on the part of the curators, since these enormous, dazzling paintings are far more exciting than the tight, narrow-minded little pictures from the early colonial period that follow”. In his opinion, placed outside the exhibition’s “informative” history of empire, in which this “unforgiving Australian landscape” meets the narrative of modernity, the Aboriginal paintings sprung into life: “rippling with constellations of abstract swirls, squiggles and stippled patterns using the red-and-ochre palette of Australia’s wild interior, … an Aboriginal equivalent of Op Art or gestural Abstract Expressionism, infused with ancestral magic. With the appearance of embroidered blankets and aerial photographs of the bush, they manage to be homely and universal at the same time.”

Déjà vu? (Think of those two noble savages shaking their spears at Cook that Parkinson depicted.) Better to be tourist tat than that.


  1. ^ Mark Brown, ‘Australia’s Most Treasured Art Comes to London for Biggest Show yet Seen in UK’, The Guardian, 2 May 2013.
  2. ^ Sally Pryor, ‘London Calling for the Width and Breadth of Australian Art Treasures’, Canberra Times, 18 June 2013.
  3. ^ Jane Ure-Smith, ‘Australian Art at London’s Royal Academy’, Financial Times, 16 August 2013.
  4. ^ Paola Totaro, ‘A Worthy Display Covering 200 Years or Another Cringe Festival?‘, Weekend Australian, 2013.
  5. ^ Jackie Wullschlager, ‘“Australia” at the Royal Academy: Dreamtime Meets the Incomers’, Financial Times, 20 September 2013.
  6. ^ Alastair Sooke, ‘Australia at the Royal Academy’, Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2013.
  7. ^ Adrian Serle, ‘Australia at the Royal Academy: Ned Kelly to the Rescue’, The Guardian, 17 September 2013.
  8. ^ Brian Sewell, ‘Australia, Royal Academy - Exhibition Review’, London Evening Standard, 19 September 2013.
  9. ^ Waldemar Januszczak, ‘A Desert of New Ideas’, Sunday Times, 22 September 2013.
  10. ^ Adrian Hamilton, ‘Australia’s Day in the Sun, at the Royal Academy of Arts’, Independent, 22 September 2013.
  11. ^ Totaro, op cit.
  12. ^ Nick Miller, ‘ “Cascade of Diarrhoea”: UK Critic Savages Australian Art Exhibition’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September 2013.
  13. ^ Germaine Greer, ‘Depths of Ignorance’, Prospect Magazine, 17 October 2013.
  14. ^ John McDonald, ‘An Incoherent Landscape’, Brisbane Times, 28 September 2013.

Card image (detail): Turkey Tolsen Tjupurrula Australia, 1942-2001, Pinup people, Northern Territory, Straightening spears at Ilyingaungau 1990, Kintore, Nothern Terriitory, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 181.5 x 244.0 cm. Gift of the Friends of the Art Gallery of South Australia 1990. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. © estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artistd Agency Ltd.

Ian McLean is the Senior Research Professor of Contemporary Art at Wollongong University. He walks through the controversies of the 'Australia' exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London from 21 September to 8 December 2013, with particular reference to the responses of British art critics towards Aboriginal art.