Australian colonial art – viewed from both sides
In a large inkjet print, the Brisbane-based photomedia artist of Bidjara heritage, Michael Cook, reimagines Australia, where Indigenous people make up ninety-six percent of the population and the non-Indigenous proportion stands at four percent.
This print belongs to his Majority Rule series and is simply titled Court. The scene is set outside the High Court in Canberra, where a crowd of suited Aboriginal figures walks towards us. To add to our feeling of strangeness and discomfort, it is an identical figure that is repeated more than twenty times in the crowd, but in different poses.
The simple inversion of the status quo effectively poses the question of how would you feel if you had to walk in the shoes of an Indigenous person in contemporary Australian society.
The question of racial perspective becomes particularly acute when presenting Australian colonial art, whereas for the discoverers, colonists and explorers, they were finding and occupying a new country bringing to it English law and civilisation, for the Indigenous people they faced invasion, occupation and genocide, their laws were violated, their lands trampled and their independence stripped from them by force.
The dominant narrative lay with the colonial victors, while the local inhabitants were not regarded as humans, they were not included in the census and the whole continent was regarded as ‘terra nullius’.
Traditionally colonial art was considered as the art of the colonists, while traditional Aboriginal art belonged in ethnographic museums. Daniel Thomas, as a curator of Australian art at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra (in 1992 renamed National Gallery of Australia), in the late 1970s advanced a more integrated hang for colonial art where paintings, sculptures and prints were joined by furniture and the decorative arts and occasionally an Aboriginal work was added to the display. Andrew Sayers carried out pioneering research on 19th century Aboriginal art giving a greater visibility and voice to the Aboriginal response to the European settlers.
The National Gallery of Victoria in a landmark exhibition, Colony 1770-1861/Frontier wars, has presented the most comprehensive re-assessment of colonial art ever attempted. It is vast, with over 800 exhibits, and sets out to tell the story of colonial Australian art both from the Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives.
Controversially, it has opted for two separate, but closely interrelated exhibitions. The one on the ground floor of its Federation Square building, Colony 1770-1861, examines the story from a colonial perspective from Captain Cook through to the 1860s.
In over 600 objects it is an over-whelming triumph where the best-known images of early colonial art from art galleries, museums, libraries and private collections throughout Australia have been brought together with rarely exhibited or never exhibited artefacts.
Tommy McRae, (Kwat Kwat/Wiradjuri) c. 1836–1901, Page from Sketchbook c. 1891, sketchbook: pen and blue ink, 26 pages, paper and cardboard cover, stitched binding 24.4 x 31.2 cm (image and sheet) 24.4 x 31.2 cm (page) 24.4 x 31.2 x 1.0 cm (closed) 24.4 x 62.4 x 0.5 cm (open) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Indigenous response, Colony: Frontier Wars, up on the third floor of Federation Square, takes a broader chronological perspective from 1788 through to the present and adopts a narrower focus on Indigenous and some non-Indigenous responses to the European occupation.
The breathtaking collections of 19th century Aboriginal shields opens into a broader display of the work by ‘urban Aboriginal artists’ who offer a post-colonial critique of European occupation of Australia. Virtually all of the artists here are well-known and include the usual line-up of Julie Gough, Brook Andrew, Maree Clarke, Ricky Maynard, Marlene Gilson, Michael Cook, Gordon Bennett and Christian Thompson.
The treasured 19th century drawings by William Barak and Tommy McRae show Indigenous artists commenting on their heritage and observing the newcomers, while a number of non-Indigenous artists, including ST Gill, Arthur Boyd, Noel Counihan and the photographer JW Lindt with his photographs of Indigenous subjects are also included in this section.
The impressive 400-page book/catalogue that accompanies the exhibition in a clear and scholarly manner highlights the links between the two exhibitions, which are more difficult to follow in situ.
I have argued elsewhere that it is impossible to view Australian colonial art, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, outside a certain dialectic where European artists responded to Aboriginal art and Indigenous artists embraced European materials, imagery and modes of visualisation. In some ways, this interaction would be more apparent if works could be shown side-by-side, rather than in separate exhibitions. Perhaps it is too early in the reconciliation process to adopt such a strategy.
William Temple (cabinetmaker), Patrick Riley (cabinetmaker), John Webster (cabinetmaker), Joseph Lycett (attributed to) (decorator), James Wallis (after), William Westall (after), Dixson collector’s chest, c. 1818–20, Australian Rose Mahogany (Dysoxylum fraserianum), Red Cedar (Toona ciliata), brass fittings, oil on cedar panels, natural history specimens, 56.0 x 71.3 x 46.5 cm (closed), Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales
One of the strengths of the exhibition lies in the sheer mass and high calibre of the materials exhibited. For example, there is a superb Collector’s chest by the cabinetmakers William Temple, Patrick Riley and John Webster, decorated possibly by Joseph Lycett and complete with its natural history specimens.
Panoramic views of the fledgling settlements are supplemented by a mass of drawings, prints, actual colonial costumes, examples of 19th century taxidermy and convict leg irons from Port Arthur.
Colonial photography shines as never before with photographs by George Goodman, possibly Australia’s first professional photographer, and a set of Douglas Kilburn’s daguerreotypes of Indigenous people in Victoria, the first photographic images of Indigenous peoples of Australia.
It is a dense exhibition that certainly requires more than a single visit and it is one that does to some extent rewrite our understanding of colonial art. Historically, I feel that this will be regarded as a watershed exhibition in defining how Australia and Australians view their past.
Colony Australia 1770-1861/Frontier Wars
National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, Melbourne
15 March – 15 July 2018
open daily 10am–5pm
Georgia – a country of contrasts
On the walls of a concrete underpass in central Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, I encountered a stark piece of local street art. The scene is set in a cemetery, where in the background stand the large edifices of the multinationals (predominantly American) that have set up offices in Georgia, while in the foreground are the local Georgian companies that have collapsed.
While many of the multinationals have operated in Georgia for decades, the deregulation in recent years has led to the spate of local closures. This piece of street art underlines a more profound demise of local Georgian companies throughout the country.
My primary reason for travelling to Georgia was to visit a number of early medieval monasteries that are scattered throughout the country. Georgia adopted Christianity in the early 4th century and the Orthodox Church of Georgia has an unbroken proud heritage that goes back to those times.
I have been always fascinated by the fact that Georgia was converted to Christianity by a woman, St Nino, who by c.327 had worked enough miracles for the pagan leaders of Iberia to see the light and to embrace the cross, a grapevine cross, which became her attribute. Her tomb remains at the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti, eastern Georgia. Legend has her coming from Cappadocia, a relative of Saint George, which is most appropriate for a country called Georgia.
Historically, the tragedy of Georgia has been to some extent created through its geographic location. In its early history, it was at the mercy of the Roman-Persian wars, then it was conquered by the Muslims and later suffered Iranian and Ottoman occupations. By 1800 it was under the protection of the Russian Empire and with the Bolshevik revolution it embraced the Soviet Union and entered as a founding republic.
Georgia also gave birth to many of the Soviet leaders, for example Joseph Stalin (his Georgian name Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili) and Lavrentiy Beria (his Georgian name Lavrenti Pavles dze Beria), Stalin’s ruthless head of the NKVD.
Stalin remains a presence in Georgia with an extensive Stalin Museum in the city of his birth Gori, where in the courtyard is preserved the modest cottage in which Stalin was born, now encased in a huge marble-façade edifice, as well as the armoured railway carriage in which he travelled to various international gatherings. The museum is a top tourist attraction and a shrine for the ruler that is approached with reverence.
In post-Soviet times, Eduard Shevardnadze (Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1985 to 1991) returned to Georgia in 1992 and took control of the country. In turn he was overthrown by Mikheil Saakashvili, who became the President of Georgia in 2004, and who in turn fled the country in 2013 and is wanted by Georgia's new government on multiple criminal charges.
Saakashvili subsequently went to the Ukraine where, in May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appointed Saakashvili Governor of Odessa region. This also ended in tears with Saakashvili accused of corruption and of being funded by criminals – he took refuge in the U.S and most recently (February 2018) in Poland.
Georgia is a country that is bitterly divided, where extreme poverty coexists with exceptional wealth and I saw more beggars on the streets than in any other European country that I have visited. A piece of street art proclaims that being a beggar “is not my choice” and almost invariably next to it squats a beggar.
Most of the population of about 3.6 million speaks Russian; younger urban-based Georgians also sometimes speak English. While the official unemployment rate is 12.4%, the real figure appears to be much higher, while a good wage is considered about $400 a month, which few achieve.
Tourism is the great growth industry with about 3.5 million tourists visiting the country in 2017. The population is declining with more and more young Georgians seeking employment abroad, while many of the older Georgians to whom I spoke are of one mind that things were better when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.
The museums and cultural institutions are underfunded and generally appear rundown. Political interference is rife, with the top floor of the National Museum taken over by the ministry of propaganda and misinformation.
The public art galleries have generally limited collections that are poorly displayed. In contrast, art within the churches and monasteries is of a very high order and the Georgian Church exhibits prosperity with extensive programs of conservation and the widespread building of new churches accompanied by an active revival in Georgian monasticism.
The 12th century Gelati monastery near Kutaisi, in the Imereti region of western Georgia, architecturally and in its interior decorations, is an internationally recognised treasure house of medieval art.
The rock-cut monastic complex of David Gareja, at the opposite end of Georgia, in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia near the border of Azerbaijan, was founded in the 6th century. It is a very sacred site of great beauty evoking the profound feeling that you are on sacred ground.
The convent of St Nino at Bodbe, originally built in the 9th century and containing the tomb of the saint, has a huge new church being built next door.
My checklist of about twenty-two significant medieval monastic and church sites in Georgia is far from complete and, despite being in territory a relatively small country, the mountainous terrain and the poor condition of many of the roads means access is difficult and the journeys are slow.
Georgia is a country of great scenic beauty with a long cultural heritage and ancient folk traditions, however, it also strikes one as a country in decline where some of the more recent political decisions appear as costly mistakes.
The Canberra Art Scene – national or provincial?
I don’t remember my first trip to Canberra, as it almost never happened. I just got my licence and drove from Melbourne to Canberra. My companion was an American, who with a Yankee drawl conveyed her first impression of Canberra as: “half the size of the New York State cemetery and twice as dead”. We picked up some fuel and kept on driving to Sydney.
By 1977 I had settled in Canberra and commenced teaching at the ANU, where I established the art history discipline, and started writing as the senior art critic for The Canberra Times. If in 1977 there were relatively few art spaces in Canberra: the Arts Council, the National Library, the Australian War Memorial plus a few itinerant organisations of artists, today all of the national heritage art collecting and displaying institutions are up and running.
These include the National Gallery of Australia, National Museum of Australia, National Portrait Gallery, National Film and Sound Archive, National Archives, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Craft ACT, Megalo Print Studio and Gallery, PhotoAccess, Canberra Glassworks, professional art galleries at the ANU and various publicly funded art spaces, both artist-run spaces, such as ANCA, M-16 and Canberra Contemporary Art Space, as well as municipal galleries in various Canberra regions, including Belconnen and Tuggeranong.
There are more publicly funded art spaces in the ACT, whose population is a tad over 400,000, than in any other city in Australia.
If in the 1980s I could have named ten thriving professional commercial art galleries in Canberra, today I can think of only two. Commercial art galleries, in general, may be a threatened species in Australia; in Canberra they are almost extinct.
In Canberra, a living artist is better off and, better provided for in the gallery system, if she is making museum/biennale-style art, rather than making art that people would buy to live with in their homes or offices.
Although the National Gallery of Victoria, without question, is Australia’s premier ‘old masters’ collection across the board, the Canberra galleries and museums contain virtually all of the nation’s major heritage collections. This includes most of Australian art – contemporary, 20th century, colonial and Indigenous – across most mediums – painting, sculpture, printmaking, works on paper, photography, film and the applied arts.
The depth of holdings in modern and contemporary international printmaking is breathtaking as well as internationally significant collections of modern international art, for example, the National Gallery’s stunning collection of modern American painting, Russian avant-garde art and South-East Asian textiles.
I have two general criticisms of the Canberra art gallery system. The first is the lack of a truly national perspective – most of our national institutions are part of the one national collection, regardless of whether a particular collection is housed at the National Gallery, the National Library or the National Museum. Of course, institutions borrow individual pieces for each other’s exhibitions, but there seems to be a lack of a holistic approach. For example, a single unified database or unified exhibiting policies.
In 2016, the National Portrait Gallery combined with the National Film and Sound Archive to stage their Starstruck exhibition dealing with different types of images of Australian actors from over the past century. Such collaborative exhibitions between Canberra institutions are comparatively rare – but this should not be the case.
Why not have a major exhibition dealing with contemporary Australian art practice across half-a-dozen Canberra museums and galleries? Or one dealing with Indigenous and First Peoples’ culture? Or a series of exhibitions exploring Australian photography spread across the National Gallery, the National Library, the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives and several other institutions? These, and many other such exhibitions, could only take place in Canberra and they would make for historically significant and exceptionally popular shows.
David Hockney, Caribbean tea time, 1987, from the 'Moving focus' series 1984-87, colour lithograph, screenprint, collage of Rives BFK surface-pigmented paper, stencil on eight sheets of TGl handmade paper, in a four-panel folding lacquered wood screen, hand-painted (verso), with four screenprinted plastic panels (recto), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002 © David Hockney
My second criticism, or perhaps call it an observation, is that museums and galleries devote huge resources to staging and promoting ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, while art in their own holdings is less frequently shown and usually poorly promoted.
I remember many years ago when the National Gallery exhibited its Vollard suite, Picasso’s greatest work in etching, and the show passed with little fanfare. Edmund Capon saw the opportunity, borrowed the Vollard suite for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where he was the director, and made it into a great moneymaking blockbuster exhibition.
As I write, the National Gallery is staging its Hyper Real blockbuster exhibition, with some highlights plus plenty of sensationalist dross, but in the galleries upstairs are the far more significant, non-blockbuster exhibitions: Russian avant-garde art, David Hockney: Prints, Namatjira: Painting country and Arthur Streeton: The Art of War.
There are questions concerning marketing, the tourist dollar and novelty exhibitions, but perhaps core business of national cultural institutions should be exhibiting in a scholarly manner major strengths from the collection complemented with strategic loans. For this to happen, our national heritage institutions need to be funded appropriately, instead of the ill-considered so-called efficiency dividends cuts, which have crippled most of the national cultural institutions.
The art landscape in Canberra is changing with the directors of both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery leaving their posts and with other changes foreshadowed, but as yet unannounced. The Canberra art scene has phenomenal potential that is yet to be fully realised. When it is, Canberra will not only be the political capital of Australia, but also the nation’s art capital.
The NGV Triennial:
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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