Saltwater Country

August 16, 2014
Vernon Ah Kee, wegrewhere #2 2009, type C photograph. Collection: Gold Coast City Gallery Purchased with funds from the Art Gallery Gift Fund, 2012.
Vernon Ah Kee, wegrewhere #2 2009, type C photograph. Collection: Gold Coast City Gallery Purchased with funds from the Art Gallery Gift Fund, 2012.

‘Country’ is the most fundamental concept in the Aboriginal lexicon, but also the most misunderstood.

The indigenous feeling for country is far more spiritual than sentimental. It’s a distinction that’s scarcely comprehensible to those of us who believe identity consists of what we make of ourselves, regardless of our place of origin.

The Hollywood version of the self-made man always leaves the small town behind to find success in the city. ‘Country’ in this scenario is something to be transcended – to be shed like a cicada shell – so one can reach that desirable state the psychologists call ‘self-actualisation’.

Aboriginal people feel you can never outgrow your roots because that would be tantamount to losing everything that makes you what you are. It would be like cashing in one’s soul. For people in remote communities this is axiomatic: so obvious it never needs to be discussed or argued.

It’s a different story with that diverse group of indigenous artists who have grown up in cities and gone to art school. In these circles the assertion of one’s Aboriginality and the centrality of country are crucial issues that have to be rehearsed in every exhibition. This was evident in Hetti Perkins’s second series of Art + Soul, recently screened on the ABC; and in the travelling exhibition, Saltwater Country, put together by the Gold Coast City Gallery.

The three new episodes of Art + Soul were a big improvement on the first series, which had a meandering tendency. Part of the improvement came from focusing more intently on Perkins’s own history, which provided a context for her artist interviews. There was also a political edge, taking a more purposeful approach to Aboriginal issues.

There were still moments when the continuity sagged and the dialogue fell into cliché, but the material remained interesting. One could ask if the preponderance of articulate, conceptually-aware contemporary artists reflects a developing trend in indigenous art, or merely a curatorial preference? For many years our public collections have displayed a fascination for those indigenous artists who make political statements in their work, theorising about ‘neo-colonialism’ and other modish topics.

If Perkins chose to focus only on bark painters or western desert artists she may have found some memorable works, but no-one willing to talk for hours in front of the camera. The logic of the media gives priority to those who have mastered the discourse of art, rather than the master artist.

Consequently the notion of “country” was not taken for granted: it was treated as radical concept that had to be emphasised at every opportunity. Even urban multi-media artists continually professed a reverence for their ancestral lands. I don’t doubt the truth of this, but it often felt as if they were reminding themselves of a connection that didn’t come quite as naturally as it should.

The new indigenous art is self-conscious and calculated – unlike the cryptic stories and instinctive truths that characterise more traditionally based work. Inevitably, the articulate few claim the right to speak on behalf of the silent majority. It’s a role that requires a degree of tact if one is not to appear arrogant and presumptuous – a feat some manage better than others.

A number of artists from the Art + Soul series also feature in Saltwater Country, namely Daniel Boyd, Vernon Ah Kee and Brian Robinson; while Judy Watson appeared in the first series. The show includes work by 15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists (and one artist collective), drawn from centres along the Queensland coastline. As this year’s showcase project for Museum and Gallery Services, Queensland, this is not simply a regional gallery event. After the Gold Coast, the exhibition travels to Washington D.C., then to the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Upon returning to Australia in 2015 it will begin an extensive national tour.

For co-curators, Virginia Rigney and Michael Aird, the idea behind this selection is to focus attention on the indigenous relationship to the sea and coastline as another form of ‘country’. Everybody instinctively associates the term with the Outback, but in Queensland, most of the action seems to be found along that long strip of coast.

As well as the artists mentioned above, the show includes work by Michael Cook, Megan Cope, Fiona Foley, Rosella Namok, Mavis Ngallametta, Laurie Nilsen, Napoleon Oui, Ryan Presley, Ken Thaiday, Alick Tipoti, Ian Waldron, and Erub Erwer Meta – a group that makes sculptures from the ‘ghost nets’ and other discarded materials that wash ashore on Erub Island.

The strength of the exhibition lies with those artists from the Torres Strait Islands, who are making in an increasingly powerful and distinctive contribution to Australian art. Ken Thaiday Snr. (b. 1950) is the central figure – a maker of intricate models and devices that defy simple classification. Thaiday’s work began with the headdresses worn during traditional dance ceremonies but has evolved into a wide range of sculptural forms, the highlight in this selection being a Whaleboat (2014). The distinctive feature of Thaiday’s creations is that they all have moving parts – strings, pulleys and panels. These pieces relate to traditional stories and activities, helping to perpetuate island culture, but also have an appealing touch of the backyard inventor.

In the generations that follow there is Alick Tipoti (b. 1975), a formidably talented artist, best-known as a printmaker but represented here by a suite of short performance videos. Wearing a mask of his own devising, Tipoti goes through a series of theatrical routines, related to the cosmology of his people.

There is also Brian Robinson (b.1973), who has made remarkable progress over the past few years. He began making prints in the hyper-decorative manner of the Torres Strait Islands, but is now producing large-scale sculptural wall installations and public art commissions. Robinson won the last year’s Western Australian Indigenous Art Award, for an elaborate wall piece, and his work in this show, Woven Waters (2014) is in a similar vein.

What comes through so strongly with these artists is the celebratory aspect of their work. They seem completely grounded in their own culture and able to innovate within a set of invisible boundaries. Other artists such as Daniel Boyd, Michael Cook or Fiona Foley take a more cerebral approach. Foley’s photo-sequence, The Oyster Fisherman (2011) is a dark little tale of white, male brutality, based on historical events, but it would have been good to see some new work. The same might be said about Civilised (2012) – Cook’s extremely slick series of photographs that comment ironically on the beliefs and practices imposed by a colonial power.

Boyd’s paintings don’t suffer from over-familiarity, but from a dependence on the digital projector, which produces images that are precise but rather lifeless. Boyd reproduces the patterns incised on Aboriginal artefacts hoarded in museums, adding a cloud of dots between the motif and the viewer. By drawing out a visual association between Aboriginal dot painting and the fine dots used in mechanical printing, he suggests that any sense of ritual or sacredness once invested in these objects has faded like an old photo. It’s more difficult to say how that magic might be rekindled.

As a painter, Boyd is full of ideas, but his execution has none of the vigour or spontaneity found in paintings by Rosella Namok or Mavis Ngallametta. While Namok is a talented but inconsistent artist, Ngallametta is one of the fastest-rising talents in the Aboriginal art scene, with a complex, unique style that has gathered many admirers. The painting, Ikalath # 6, is her only contribution to this exhibition, but it’s one of the highlights.

Some shows stay neatly arranged in one’s mind, but this one feels like a jumble. It’s partly the nature of the Gold Coast’s exhibition space, which is too cramped and awkward for such a diverse body of work. In fact, the GCCG is on the verge of a major make-over, and it can’t come fast enough. It’s disconcerting that a survey charting the artists’ relationship to the coastline is squeezed into such a claustrophobic environment. In contrast to the sea itself, which looks the same but is always different, one suspects this collection of work will be completely transformed as it appears in each new venue.

Saltwater Country
Gold Coast City Gallery, until 31 August
Embassy of Australia, Washington D.C., Oct. 2014 – Jan. 2015
AAMU Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht, Netherlands, Jan. – Apr. 2015
Manly Art Gallery & Museum, 8 May – 28 June 2015
Regional Tour: QLD, NSW, VIC, SA, WA

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 16th August, 2014