30 Years Ago Today: 1980–2013

Djon Mundine

In 1980, the judges of the Archibald Prize decided that the standard was so low that they couldn’t pick a winner — Australia would have no image of itself that year. Times have changed.

Although a cathartic age grading ritual most often takes place around puberty (eleven or twelve years of age) in Aboriginal society, my experience is that males do not ‘grow up’ and become real adults, until they are around thirty years old. Certainly that’s when they come of age as artists across all the various forms. Historically, Aboriginal art was made of temporary materials and existed experientially — it was made for a shared experience and collaborative effort. It was not for solitary contemplation but sharing in a number of social settings and readings. A lending bank of art rather than a cathedral or crypt for dead things would to some degree be in keeping with this approach.

In 1980 I had just started working on Milingimbi Island (Yurrwi) in central Arnhem Land. At that stage, although it beggars belief, you almost couldn’t give Aboriginal art away except as curious gifts to foreign dignitaries and visiting trade delegations. At the end of the 1970s an Aboriginal art company I worked for tried to break the resistance — we orchestrated an exhibition of Tiwi ironwood sculptures (marketed as a type of cubism) and small, geometric composition, Pintubi art board paintings (sold as a form of pointillist abstraction) in a contemporary commercial art gallery. It was a success, but this wasn’t the norm.


Richard Bell
Always Right 2003
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 136 x 103 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 2005

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula
Untitled (Tingari Ceremony) 1982
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 123 x 78 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 1983

For Aboriginal people there was never an explicit word for art. Art is a cultural expression; a history of a people; a statement through a series of life experiences of selfdefinition; a recounting of an untold story; the bringing to light a truth of history — a statement possibly unable to be made in any other way. Aboriginal art (paintings at least) is seen as part of Australian art even if somewhat incongruously in an art historical and intellectual sense. As with nearly all Aboriginal art, paintings are usually personal and event-oriented. A painter traditionally works in subject matter specifically related to his or her own history, spiritual connection or for particular rituals. The paintings, whether on bark, earth, rock or canvas, or their own bodies, are a form of canta storia — a singer in this society almost lives his or her whole life going from one ritual to another across the land.

In Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel The Martian Chronicles (1950), after a period of colonisation and the death of the original Martians, the occupying colonial population encounters its own plague in the form of a nuclear war back on Earth. When the population on Mars is evacuated to Earth, the few people who remained wander along the ‘canals of Mars’. The adult male among them gestures to their reflection in the water and says: “Look there are the martians.”

The term ‘liminal’ means a threshold, belonging to the point of conscious awareness below which something cannot be experienced or felt. Non-Aboriginal Australians periodically approach the awareness that they are not living in Europe, that they are not even living in a colony of Europe anymore, but are now living in their own homeland. As each particular generation draws within reach of this point they suddenly, inexplicably, fall back, almost recoiling in terror that they could become so independently human. We cannot blame the English anymore.

I think the history of Aboriginal art has a number of overlapping, blurred edge phases; it is market driven and of European historical conceit on one side, and the offering up of icons, ideas, and possibly a moral-memory insistence on the (Aboriginal) other. It is a discovery of the many Aboriginal societies, one by one, by the European colonisers. Many if not most public collections mirror this awakening movement to varying degrees.

Untitled (The Tree Log) before 1980
Ochres on bark, 135 x 55 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 1981

Firstly, there was the period from the beginning of time — (49,999 year BPI) about the time of the first people. The period is from when creative spirits began the world through to the arrival of the English in Australia and on to the end of the Second World War.

The second phase was the ‘discovery’ of bark paintings from what is now known as Arnhem Land in the north of Australia, with the proposition that Aboriginal art is art with a capital ‘A’, and possibly that it is contemporary art. It is the time when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came to Australia. It is the time that Aboriginal people were recognised as human beings in the Australian population census and received the right to vote as citizens of the nation following the 1967 referendum.

In 1957 Aboriginal artists were named in exhibitions for the first time. Until that time, Aboriginal artists were un-named in art exhibitions (with a few exceptions such as watercolourist Albert Namatjira). In 1958 the Art Gallery of New South Wales started to collect bark paintings and Aboriginal art left ethnographic museums and became a form of fine art. The fact that these artworks are similar in form to Western art (portable paintings on a flat surface) assists this recognition. A discussion took place, trying to fit Aboriginal art into the system and history of Western art. Ensuing questions included: is it ‘Surrealist’; is it ‘Cubist’; is it ‘Minimalist’? Nothing definitive was arrived at and today the art still remains in the art gallery, if a little uncomfortably. One of course should realise that when we talk of art, when we learn about art, when we see art, it is ‘White Western’ art history framed by ‘White Western’ art institutions.

A non-Aboriginal, non-Australian curator once privately raised a number of issues with me. Firstly, that Aboriginal art isn’t developmental; secondly, Aboriginal art is too selfreferential; thirdly, Aboriginal art references aren’t current; and fourthly, Aboriginal art is not influential to other art. All of these comments are debatable and refutable if one sees art as something also practiced outside of the Western art world and market. Aboriginal artists in Arnhem Land were incorporating and absorbing influences from Macassan visitors in their language, music, songs and visual art for over one hundred years by the time Captain Cook arrived in this part of the world in 1770. Our Aboriginal art didn’t need to go through the ‘camera’ representational shock that beset Europe in the late 1800s. In Australia, our reading and meaning of our compositions were certainly current as evidence in land claims and native title cases. The legal repercussions from these cases eventually influenced international law

Save your pity for those who have no dreaming (morality-sense of spirituality).

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, The Australian, 1997

Robert Campbell Jnr.
Roped-Off at the Pictures II 1986
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 93.5 x 122.5 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 1987

The third phase was the beginning of the western desert ‘dot and circle’ painting on canvas movement at Papunya, northwest of Alice Springs, from the early 1970s onwards. It is the time of the Whitlam government, the time of a type of jingoism, nationalism, and liberalism in the arts and broader society. It was also the time of Australian comic figure Bazza McKenzie, and still essentially assimilationist in attitude. The rhetorical question was asked: ‘Why wouldn’t Aborigines want to become part of Australian society; God’s own country?’ Although anthropologists and others had collected drawings on paper, cardboard and other flat surfaces for some time, these were seen as curiosities and not art. In the early 1970s, the artists of Papunya moved from ochre paints and discarded carpenter’s off-cuts to acrylic commercial paints, art board and fine canvases — they were sold as ‘art’, if somewhat unsuccessfully at the time. By the end of the 1970s the artists were working on fine large-scale canvas compositions.

Discussions arose around the question of what to ‘name’ this art movement. Attempts were made to define the movement as pointillist, religious, spiritual, narrative, abstract and have now fallen back to ‘modernist’, but without really fitting the description suitably. Nothing is ever concluded — it just is art! As such, it is included in various major exhibitions. The form of acrylic paint on canvas and apparent similarities to popular ‘pointillism’ makes the art a very marketable product in a commercial sense. Its development is still unfolding and being played out. The ‘dot and circle’ painting movement became more widespread, exciting and popular in the market. More significantly, it was the most important Australian art movement of the twentieth century. All other movements have come to Australia from elsewhere.

The fourth phase comes in the early 1980s, the time of the birth of Artbank. This was a time of the re-emergence of art from the southeast of Australia and the beginning of what is now called ‘urban Aboriginal art’ (a description hotly disputed by the artists themselves). Around this time two Australian films, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) and My Brilliant Career (1979), pointed to where Aboriginal art would move from here: to an art practice of increasing numbers of women and people of the south east and south west. Although Aboriginal people in the south east have expressed themselves in a number of practices, their work was never seen widely as ‘art’ but as a kind of craft practice or folk art. Under the influence of postcolonial writing, artists of the 1980s who attended Western art schools now use Western materials, concepts and references to some extent to tell their Aboriginal story. The arrival in Australia of postcolonial writings helped position the art produced during this phase.

During this time the first Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award began in 1984. Jody Broun was the first ‘southern’ artist to win first prize ten years later in 1998. Southern artists would win again with Richard Bell in 2003 and Danie Mellor in 2009.

Shunned by commercial galleries and art institutions, a group of artists formed the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative in 1987 (Bronwyn Bancroft, Euphemia Bostock, Brenda L Croft, Fiona Foley, Fernanda Martins, Arone Raymond Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, Avril Quaill, Michael Riley and Jeffery Samuels). Following his Telstra award, Richard Bell formed the artist collective proppaNOW with a number of other Brisbane based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

The fifth phase, from the 1990s, is where Aboriginal people began to curate, write about and gain a small amount of control over the marketing and ‘reading’ of our own culture. This has had mixed results. This phase really had begun in the late 1980s with the previously aforementioned Boomalli group who curated their own exhibitions. Later in 1994 I collaborated with Fiona Foley (Boomalli co-founding member) at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to curate ‘Tyerabarbowarryaou II: I Shall Never Become a Whiteman II’ for the fifth Havana Biennial, installed at the International Press Centre in Havana, Cuba, and later at the MCA, Sydney on its return. In this same period, from 1994 to 1995, activists Gary Foley and Chicka Dixon collaborated with Swiss born artist Bernhardt Lutthi at The Power Institute (University of Sydney) and Boomalli members, to curate the survey exhibition, ‘Aratjara: the Art of the First Australians’. Funded almost entirely from overseas money and with little Australian government involvement, it avoided ethnographic institutions and toured to contemporary art museums in Germany, England and Denmark to wide acclaim.

Tony Albert
Optimism 3, 5 and 6 2008
Type C photographs, 105 x 105 cm (each)
Artbank collection, purchased 2009

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twentyfirst, Aboriginal art has been, whether intentionally or not, whether overtly or implicitly, a decisive political tool. Possibly all art is a dead thing — not the real thing but a dead representation of it. By the 1990s some saw a field of power and authority in academic circles relating to the study of Aboriginal art. I felt a form of new colonialism developed over the Aboriginal ‘corpse’. Three academic houses are involved in this struggle: the ‘House of Anthropology’ (bark paintings and traditional art forms); the ‘House of Western Art History’ (central Australian ‘dot and circle’ paintings); and the ‘House of Gender Studies’ (moving image and digital media).

A sixth phase of Aboriginal art is currently taking place in which ‘the Empire strikes back’, as conservative vested interest groups in the art market and white Australian society see Aboriginal social and political gains as a threat. There is a wish to retain control of the discussion and definition of Aboriginal art. Although we are visible through our art what is the place we have come to?

The debate continues.


Interview with Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula in “Master painter will settle for a Toyota”. The Weekend Australian, 5-6 July 1997: 5.

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