Defying Empire

August 9, 2017
Archie Moore, Aboriginal Anarchy (2012)
Archie Moore, Aboriginal Anarchy (2012)

During the Howard years we were constantly hearing about the Culture Wars – a term borrowed from the United States, pertaining to the battle between conservative and liberal values. In Australia the conflict became fixated on whether this continent had been taken by force from its original inhabitants, and what reparations were due.

It was widely believed that Kevin Rudd’s historic Apology of February 2008 put an end to the Culture Wars, but in retrospect it was only a cease-fire. In the years that have followed, Australian society has become ever more polarised. This must be partly due to social media, which allows people to read only the news and opinions that echo their own prejudices.

There’s a tolerance for extreme public pronouncements that would not have been acceptable ten years ago – a tolerance encouraged by the craven attitudes of some politicians whose first impulse is to think how they can benefit from some pernicious trend.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the referendum in which 90.77 percent of respondents voted to give full citizenship to Aboriginal people. It would be nice to believe that figure would be exceeded today, but it’s hard to be sure. The failure to recognise the first Australians was the great disgrace of Federation, an offence against that national ideal of “the fair go”.

Is the fair go still alive? One might have thought so in 2008, but today there is so much hate speech and racism that a new referendum would probably struggle to reach the previous mark.

With new prejudice comes a new political correctness, as people look for reasons to exaggerate their own victimhood. An extreme position on one side generates an extreme reaction, and so on in a vicious cycle.

It’s no surprise there’s a militant edge to the National Gallery of Australia’s 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial: Defying Empire, which celebrates the 1967 Referendum. The vast majority of indigenous artists today may be making works that reflect their country and their Tjukurrpa (what we used to call “Dreamings”), but public art institutions have become increasingly fixated on urban-based artists with a political agenda.

In Sydney’s recent contemporary survey, The National, Gordon Bennett was spoken about as if he were an old master. Tracey Moffatt represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, handing out a carry bag with slogans in support of indigenous and refugee rights. Gordon Hookey and Dale Harding were surprise inclusions in Documenta. Artists such as Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Daniel Boyd, Brook Andrew, Tony Albert and Jonathan Jones have appeared in numerous exhibitions, both at home and abroad. The last four are also included in Defying Empire.

This represents a continuous roar of protest at the mistreatment and marginalisation of indigenous people, in the past and the present. Inside the privileged space of the art museum – which has taken over the role of sanctuary from the church – the bark is deafening, but there is little bite. What we get is a series of symbolic protests, some strident and angry, others oblique and witty.

In this show Julie Gough and Judy Watson have provided a huge amount of information about the murder of indigenous people in colonial times. Megan Cope has restored the Aboriginal names to places on the map re-titled by colonists.

Julie Gough, Hunting ground (Pastoral) Van Diemen's Land (2016)

Julie Gough, Hunting ground (Pastoral) Van Diemen’s Land (2016)

I don’t know what to make of Reko Rennie’s contribution, which consists of a Rolls Royce painted with the kind of motifs once worn as body decoration, and a film of the artist tooling around in the outback. It looks more like a personal indulgence than a political statement.

Reko in his Roller

Reko in his Roller

Curator, Tina Baum, sets the tone with a suitably strident catalogue essay that announces “Art and activism have always gone hand in hand”, and scoffs at the “archaic notion of ‘traditional’ versus ‘contemporary’ art.” She’s right to use the word “archaic”, because prehistoric cave painters probably argued about any new way of portraying a bison or a kangaroo.

Nevertheless, ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ are very useful terms for analysing indigenous art, even in this exhibition. The paintings of Rusty Peters, Ray Ken and Pedro Wonaeamirri; the bark paintings of Nonggirrnga Marawili; the weavings of Yvonne Koolmatrie and Vicki West; the necklaces of Lola Greeno; the engraved oyster shells of Sebastian Arrow; even the linocut prints of Laurie Nona and the elaborate dance machines of Ken Thaiday Sr, all owe a huge debt to tradition, drawing on themes that have been part of indigenous life for many thousands of years.

The work of these artists is fundamentally different from figures such as Archie Moore or Raymond Zada, who use digital techniques to make political points about Aboriginal identity; or Jason Wing, who exhibits a bronze bust of Captain Cook wearing a balaclava. Fiona Foley gives us a multi-media installation, Yhonnie Scarce works in glass, while Dale Harding has created a full-scale weatherboard shack. Maree Clark contributes a hologram!

There is a big difference between drawing on tradition, as is the case with almost all the artists in this show, and implicitly accepting its parameters. Koolmatrie and Greeno are innovators in their chosen media but not rebels. They practise age-old skills and see themselves as part of a long line of artisans.

Lola Green, Green Maireener shell necklace (2016)

Lola Green, Green Maireener shell necklace (2016)

The only way Baum can fit such work under the activist umbrella is by suggesting that apparently traditional artists are aggressively asserting their “identity”. Yet this is hardly more than rhetoric because every work of art contains something of an artist’s identity, even a monochrome painting. Brian Robinson’s painted relief sculptures project a profound joie-de-vivre, while Karla Dickens gives us a taste of gothic. Blak Douglas is a Pop satirist and prankster.

Karla Dickens, Taking back the Stars (2016)

Karla Dickens, Taking back the Stars (2016)

Contemporary art is saturated with so-called identity politics, with artists constantly probing the social, cultural and historical roots of the self while railing against perceived injustices. Both Brenda L. Croft and Sandra Hill undertake this kind of self-reconstruction, but it’s almost impossible to compare their work with that of artists such as Peters and Marawili.

Despite its aggressive stance, Defying Empire is not simply another platform for contemporary identity politics. In fact it’s more of a showcase for the growing sophistication and variety of indigenous artforms. Anger is a justifiable part of the mix, but being angry is a great way of losing every argument. As this show demonstrates, it’s one thing to be black and quite another to be bleak.

Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra,
26 May – 10 September, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August, 2017