Posts Tagged ‘Aboriginal art

31
Jan
21

Review: ‘DESTINY’ at NGV Australia, Federation Square, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 23rd November 2020 – 14th February 2021

 

Installation view of 'DESTINY' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

 

“There is no excuse for ignorance, and you should make an effort to understand what happens in our world. How else can you be contemporary?”

.
Destiny Deacon

 

 

Embodied Ab/origin

This is a strong, powerful if rather repetitive exhibition by Destiny Deacon at NGV Australia, Melbourne. It’s like being hit over the head with a blakly ironic blunt object many times over, just like Aboriginal people have had both physical and cultural violence enacted upon them many times over since the arrival of the white man in terra nullius, a misnomer if ever there was one.

“Drawing from her vast collection of Aboriginalia, Deacon interrogates the way in which Aboriginal people have been, and continue to be, misrepresented within popular culture.” Aboriginalia is repurposed “historicised, interpreted and recast through Aboriginal eyes”, especially through the use of white-appropriated and conceptualised Blak dolly models that allegedly “possess a liveliness and personality, making the violence enacted on to them all the more confronting.” Deacon photographs her reclaimed dollies using Polaroids from which colour prints are enlarged. Technically and aesthetically this means the photographs loose the uniqueness, size and aura of a Polaroid, perhaps not the best outcome for the use of the instant photography process in the making of memorable images.

The exhibition never strays far from its theme: that whities will never understand the symbols of racism perpetrated against Blaks embedded in white culture, unless they are pointed out to them. This concept is expressed through the silent voice of the archetypal Blak doll – dis/embodied, headless, amputated, tied up, trapped in a blizzard, over the fence, adopted – inserted placelessly into whatever scenario bigotry and racism rears its head, a snatched headline of dispossession and grief. While the Blak dolls are a paradigm that Deacon uses to represent the “collective lives” of Aborigines under the heal of a repressive regime, no idea is ever investigated fully for the viewer is only given a snippet of information. Holistically, these snippets add up to a terrible indictment of a dominant race lording it over a vanquished one.

“Marcia Langton once described Destiny Deacon’s work as a ‘barometer of postcolonial anxiety’.” Personally, I don’t feel any sense of postcolonial anxiety when I look at Deacon’s work. I just feel sad, very sad and guilty. Sad for the invasion, sad and guilty for the lives lost, dispossession, poor health, shorter life spans, racism and inequality, the ongoing discrimination and neglect. It’s like sticking the knife in over and over again. I so wish it was different. We KNOW, if we are informed sentient beings, the injustices that Aboriginal people suffered and continue to suffer. As Deacon says, there is no excuse for ignorance. But this is preaching to the converted. How many Joe Public will come and see this exhibition to be informed and to change their mind? As a friend of mine succinctly said, “Don’t come to this exhibition if you don’t want your racism challenged.” Many will not bother. For others this will be a confronting exhibition. And in all this reclaiming of Aboriginalia, all this confrontation, all this looking back, the dredging up of every little inequality – it leaves me thinking: what is the future, where is the positiveness, where is the forward looking cultural creativity of a great people?

I believe that this contemporary reconceptualisation of history from a singular standpoint – that of a unified Ab/original people represented by Blak dolly – is pure hokum. Aboriginal culture is made up of many mobs, many voices, reflecting the difference in backgrounds and experiences of different communities which come together in diversity to present “a statement about the unity of Aboriginal people, the defiant continuity of their cultural traditions and the personal search of many individual artists for their own Aboriginal identity.”1 In this exhibition, where are the homosexual Aboriginals, the lesbian Aboriginals, the transgender Sista Girls, or an investigation into interracial marriages that are loving and kind, instead of just more and more works that reinforce injustices (of history) in the here and now, through the dis/embodied plastic body of a silent doll. Where is the positivity for the future, for example an acknowledgement of the thousands of people that attended Invasion Day rallies this year?

Collectively, the exhibition powerfully questions the processes of a problematic cultural assimilation using repurposed Aboriginalia but today Aboriginal identities, like all identities, are in a state of transformation and flux. I look at the work of contemporary African artists and I see joy, hope, colour, movement, new identities, new sites of conceptualisation in the evolving struggle to engage new definitions of nationhood in relation to the autonomous, self-governing body. They acknowledge history, discrimination, the struggle for freedom, but are more forward looking, more engaged with the possibilities of the future rather than the deficits of the past expressed in the inequalities of the present. When is a positive voice of embodied (not disembodied, decapitated) Ab/origin going to emerge in contemporary art?

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

  1. Jennifer Isaacs. “Introduction,” in Jennifer Isaacs (ed.,). Aboriginality: Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings and Prints. University of Queensland Press, 1996, p. 8.

.
Many thankx to the NGV for allowing me to publish some of the photographs in the posting. All the other images, as noted, are iPhone images of the exhibition by Marcus Bunyan. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Destiny Deacon is one of Australia’s boldest and most acclaimed contemporary artists. In the largest retrospective of her work to date, DESTINY marks the artist’s first solo show in over 15 years. Featuring more than 100 multi-disciplinary works made over a 30-year period, the exhibition includes the premiere of newly-commissioned works. Numerous early video works created with the late Wiradjuri / Kamilaroi photographer Michael Riley and West Australian performance artist Erin Hefferon are also on display.

A descendant of the Kuku and Erub / Mer people from Far North Queensland and Torres Strait, Deacon is internationally known for a body of work depicting her darkly comic, idiosyncratic worldview. Offering a nuanced, thoughtful and, at times, intensely funny snapshot of contemporary Australian life, Deacon reminds us that ‘serious’ art can also have a sense of humour.

Melbourne-based, Deacon works across photography, video, sculpture and installation to explore dichotomies such as childhood and adulthood, comedy and tragedy, and theft and reclamation. Her chaotic worlds, where disgraced dolls play out sinister scenes for audience amusement, subvert cultural phenomena to reflect and parody the environments around us.

 

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's 'Abi see da classroom' 2006

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s Abi see da classroom 2006 on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Virginia Fraser (Australian) 'Abi see da classroom' 2006 (still)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Virginia Fraser (Australian) 'Abi see da classroom' 2006 (still)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Virginia Fraser (Australian) 'Abi see da classroom' 2006 (still)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Virginia Fraser (Australian, d. 2021)
Abi see da classroom (stills)
2006
10 min. sound
National Gallery of Victoria
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Abi see da classroom

For the fiftieth anniversary of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), Destiny Deacon and her long-time collaborator Virginia Fraser were given unrestricted access to the ABC’s archive, possibly the most significant collection of film and television held in Australia. By searching for any keywords that started with ‘Aborigin’ they were able to uncover a large assortment of videos.

In this installation, two CRT television screens play alongside each other, creating a mashup of noise and black-and-white moving images. The television on the right shows archival footage of Aboriginal children attending school, reading and playing musical instruments, while the television on the left presents a series of short clips of people in varying degrees of blackface. Switching from uncomfortable to distasteful, to overtly racist, the two channels juxtapose extreme versions of how Aboriginal people have historically been depicted on television. The footage is problematic and offensive; though, some might say ‘it was a different time’. The flashback to the 1950s prompts audiences to consider Australia’s legacy of televised racism and poses the question: how far have we actually come?

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon's 'Blak lik mi' 1991

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon’s Blak lik mi 1991 on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Blak lik mi' 1991

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Blak lik mi
1991, printed 1995
Exhibition version printed 202
Colour laser print from Polaroid original
80.0 x 100.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

Blak lik mi

Historically photography has been used as a tool to categorise and document Aboriginal people and their lives. In this work Destiny Deacon reclaims three images taken from a 1960s reproduction of a 1957 Axel Poignant photograph, from his photo essay, originally titled Picaninny Walkabout, later renamed Bush Walkabout. Deacon turns the colonial gaze back on the coloniser, photographing the photograph, and subverting her position as both subject and photographer.

The title Blak lik mi is a reference to John Howard Griffin’s autobiographical novel, Black Like Me, in which Griffin took large doses of an anti-vitiligo drug and spent hour daily under an ultraviolet lamp in order to change the appearance of his skin so that he ‘passed’ as Black. Deacon’s work offers a window into her own interrogation about what constitutes her Aboriginal identity. On this, Deacon often jokes that she ‘took the c, out of black little c**t’. Rude words beginning with ‘c’, of which there are many, are often used as offensive slights, and Deacon recalls being taunted with these words as a child.

‘Blak’, unlike ‘Black’, was Deacon’s way of self-determining her identity, and originating a version of the self that comes entirely from within. The legacy of this work has been massive. Countless Aboriginal people now self-determine their identity as Blak, so much so that a Google search of ‘Blak’ returns a nearly all Australian Indigenous search result.

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Installation view of 'DESTINY' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon’s Me and Virginia’s doll (Me and Carol) 1997 at left, Last laughs 1995 at centre, and Where’s Mickey 2002 at right, on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Me and Virginia's doll (Me and Carol)' 1997

 

Destiny Deacon (Australian, Kuku/Erub/Mer b. 1957)
Me and Virginia’s doll (Me and Carol)
1997, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original

 

 

Destiny Deacon began her professional career in photography in her late thirties as a way to express herself and her political beliefs. A self-taught artist, Deacon is primarily known for her photographs and videos where she subverts familiar icons with humour and wit. Often when Deacon photographs people she poses them like paintings. In this image, Deacon presents herself as Frida, staging the image as an homage to Kahlo’s 1937 painting Me and my doll.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Last laughs' 1995

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Last laughs
1995
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

In this image Deacon both reclaims and ridicules a genre of colonial photography, which historically depicted Aboriginal women as a highly sexualised or exotic ‘other’. In the nineteenth century it was commonplace for Aboriginal women to appear naked in ethnographic photographs that were mass reproduced and distributed as souvenirs around the world. In Last laughs three Blak women pose for the camera, limbs intertwined, performing their sexuality. Unlike in the colonial photography it references, the subjects in this work are the ones in control.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Where's Mickey?' 2002

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Where’s Mickey?
2002, printed 2016
Exhibition version printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Where’s Mickey? plays on the Australian slang phrase ‘Mickey Mouse’, used to refer to something that is substandard, poorly executed or amateurish. Mickey Mouse is also the archetypal figure of an (often white) American consumerist culture. In this portrait of Luke Captain, Deacon pokes fun at the cartoon icon, suggesting his animated spirit has possessed the body of an Aboriginal Australian man, who is dressed as a woman.

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at left, Where’s Mickey? 2002, and at right Meloncholy 2000
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Meloncholy' 2000

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Meloncholy
2000
From the Sad & Bad series
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

In 1970 African-American film director, Melvin Van Peebles released Watermelon Man, a movie in which a fictional, white insurance salesman wakes up one morning only  to discover he has turned Black overnight. The film is inspired by John Howard Griffin’s autobiographical novel, Black Like Me. In this image Deacon gives the watermelon a double meaning. The emptied peel of the melon cradles the doll’s body, kind of like the coolamon [Coolamon is an anglicised NSW Aboriginal word used to describe an Australian Aboriginal carrying vessel], but it is also a fruit that has been severed from its skin. She challenges the relationship between identity, skin colour, and how the world perceives and responds to both Blackness and Blakness.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Adoption' 2000 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Adoption (installation view)
2000; printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2016; copy printed 2020
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

In this image Destiny Deacon has placed a collection of plastic, black toy babies into paper cupcake shells. Titled Adoption, this work directly references Australia’s shameful history of government-sanctioned Aboriginal child removal. In addition, Adoption also pokes fun at the deeply offensive misnomer of the nineteenth century that Aboriginal mothers were both infanticidal, as well as cannibals of their newborns. Deacon describes how she came to collect dolls, saying ‘in the beginning I wanted to rescue them, because otherwise they’d end up in a white home or something, somewhere no one would appreciate them’.

 

 

Destiny Deacon, one of Australia’s boldest and most acclaimed contemporary artists, will be celebrated in her largest retrospective to date opening at the National Gallery of Victoria on 23 November 2020.

DESTINY will mark Deacon’s first solo show in over 15 years, featuring more than 100 multi-disciplinary works made over a 30-year period, and including the premiere of newly-commissioned works created with the artist and her long-term collaborator Virginia Fraser. The exhibition will also feature a number of early video works created with the late Wiradjuri / Kamilaroi photographer Michael Riley and West Australian performance artist Erin Hefferon.

A descendant of the Kuku and Erub / Mer people from Far North Queensland and Torres Strait, Deacon is internationally known for a body of work depicting her darkly comic, idiosyncratic world view. Offering a nuanced, thoughtful and, at times, intensely funny snapshot of contemporary Australian life, Deacon reminds us that art can have both pathos and humour.

Melbourne-based, Deacon works across photography, video, sculpture, and installation to explore dichotomies such as childhood and adulthood, comedy and tragedy, and theft and reclamation. Her chaotic worlds, where disgraced dolls play out sinister scenes for audience amusement, subvert cultural phenomena to reflect and parody the environments around us.

Featuring early videos which mock negative stereotypes of Aboriginal Australians – Home video 1987, Welcome to my Koori world 1992, I don’t wanna be a bludger 1999 – the exhibition will also feature an installation of a lounge room housing Deacon’s own collection of ‘Koori kitsch’. Deacon and Fraser’s highly acclaimed installation Colourblinded 2005 will also be on display. A powerful combination of photographs, sculptures, and video projections, this interactive work leaves the viewer both literally and metaphorically ‘colourblinded’.

“Featuring new NGV commissions and some of the highlights of Deacon’s 30-year career, the retrospective DESTINY pays tribute to an artist who has been challenging audiences for more than 30 years,” said Tony Ellwood AM, Director, National Gallery of Victoria. “Destiny Deacon has never shied away from confronting our country’s difficult history and her work continues to make a vital contribution to Australian cultural discourse,” said Ellwood.

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria

 

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at second right, Meloncholy 2000 and at right, Over the fence 2000
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Over the fence' 2000 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Over the fence (installation view)
2000, printed 2000
Exhibition version printed 2020
From the Sad & Bad series
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2016
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

The nostalgic qualities in Deacon’s poignant photograph Over the fence reinforce a narrative familiar to many Aboriginal people. Two segregated dollies peer at each other across a suburban, wooden fence, leaving the audience wondering who is fenced in, and who is fenced out? The image illustrates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality towards race, which many Aboriginal people would recognise beneath this seemingly ‘friendly’ neighbourhood encounter.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Portrait of Peter Blazey, writer' 2004 (installation view)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Portrait of Peter Blazey, writer (installation view)
2004, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Peter Blazey, journalist, author and gay activist.

Blazey was born in Melbourne in 1939 and worked for The Australian, the National Times and as a regular columnist for OutRage, a gay magazine. He published a number of books, including a political biography of Henry Bolte, and was co-editor of the short fiction anthology, Love Cries. His personal memoir, Screw Loose, appeared after his death from AIDS in 1997.

“Peter was someone with a lion’s head of loose ends that could never fit into some ideologically sound and tidy space. Storyteller, mythomane, and one of the last great conversationalists in a country wary of the free flow of uncensored language, he was a comet who flashed his tail at everyone.” – Tim Herbert, OutRage, 1997.

Text from the University of Melbourne Scholarship website [Online] Cited 29/01/2021

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Portrait of Gary Foley, activist' 1995 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Portrait of Gary Foley, activist (installation view)
1995, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Often in Deacon’s portrait photography, sitters are posed like those in paintings. In these three images, Deacon presents Gary Foley, an Aboriginal Gumbainggir activist, academic, writer and actor; Peter Blazey, the late journalist, author and gay activist; and Richard Bell, and activist and artist of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities. All three men are posed in a near identical way to the 1932 painting The boy at the basin by Australian landscape and portrait artist William Dobell.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'My boomerang did come back' 2003 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
My boomerang did come back (installation view)
2003, printed 2020
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'My boomerang did come back' 2003

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
My boomerang did come back
2003, printed 2020
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0 cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

This image is a reference to Charlie Drake’s 1961 song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’. Drake sings in a halting and staccato manner, wildly grunting ‘ho’ and ‘ugh’ as he narrates the story of an effeminate young Aboriginal boy named Mac, who has been banished from his tribe because he is ‘a big disgrace to the Aborigine [sic] race’ because his ‘boomerang won’t come back’. A single hand (Lisa Bellear’s) reachers upward, grasping a bloody boomerang in front of a black background. Deacon suggests that Drake, whose song is at best a kind of vaudevillian blackface, has assassinated himself.

 

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Hear come the judge (installation view)
2006
Exhibition version printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Deacon references the 1968 comedic funk song ‘Here Comes the Judge’ by American entertained Dewey ‘Pigmeat’ Markham, which is regarded by many to be the first recorded hip-hop song. Markham’s lyrics ridicule the formalities of courtroom etiquette by painting a picture of a make-believe world where justice is in the hands of Black people. Deacon’s photograph uses humour to disarm and interrogate something that is inherently unfunny. The Blak / Black judge is only comical because it is supposedly unbelievable, a notion Deacon challenges audiences to reconsider.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Border patrol' 2006 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Border patrol (installation view)
2006, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

“And they figured a dispossessed people as racial types, suggesting that authentic Aboriginal identity was purely tribal and something to be trivialised as curios and knick-knacks…

But the figurines of a racialised people, of warriors, beautiful girls and adorable children, took this interest into a different realm of curiosity, namely objectification.

Elder women, who were often savagely vilified in popular newspapers as “unsightly frights”, never appear among these figurines. Lithe young women, deep-chested warrior tribesmen, dignified elder “noble savages” and sweetly smiling “piccaninnies” were particularly prized. In the early prints of artists Peg Maltby and Brownie Downing, endearing Aboriginal children are orphaned by the bush rather than being at home in the country of their birthright. They find playmates with baby native animals but are divested of family and community. They seem to be crying out for the care that only the state, it was thought, could properly provide. …

The figures found in Aboriginalia evoke a troubling presence, in which visual appeal, sometimes libidinal, stands in for the profound ambivalence at the heart of settler-colonialism, which has benefited from the violent dispossession of a people.

While townships were campaigning to exclude Aboriginal kids from schools, families from housing and adults from pubs, these nostalgic, perplexing images were being taken into white homes in the form of bric-a-brac.

Sociologist Adrian Franklin has described the “semiotic drenching” of souvenirs with Aboriginal motifs and argues “these objects became ‘repositories of recognition’ of what was often entirely absent, denied or undermined in the everyday political and policy spheres”.

These objects, he suggests, gave some expression to the sadness surrounding dispossession and removal. In more recent years, Indigenous artists such as Destiny Deacon and Tony Albert have repurposed Aboriginalia.

Thus it is finally being historicised, interpreted and recast through Aboriginal eyes.

Deacon uses dolls and kitsch ephemera from her own extensive collection to turn the tables on the uncritical consumption of racist imagery. In one of her best backhanders, she puts plastic, black babies in cupcake shells and titles the photograph Adoption.”

Extract from Dr Liz Conor. “Friday essay: the politics of Aboriginal kitsch,” on The Conversation website March 3, 2017 [Online] Cited 29/01/2021 CC

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at right Border patrol 2006
Photos: Tom Ross

 

Installation view of 'DESTINY' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at second left, Heart broken 2006, and at fourth from left,
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Heart broken' 2006

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Heart broken
2006
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Ask your mother for sixpence' 1995

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Ask your mother for sixpence
1995
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0cm
Courtesy of the artist © Destiny Deacon

 

 

This image takes its name from a cheeky nursery rhyme Deacon recalls learning when living in Port Melbourne as a child. The playful limerick teases audiences with the threat of a rude word: ‘Ask your mum for sixpence, to see the big giraffe, pimples on his whiskers, and pimples on his – ask your mum for sixpence’. The work was originally displayed in juxtaposition with a photograph of a half-built Crown Casino in Melbourne, challenging audiences to consider the dynamic between the main character, a Blak woman working in service sweeping up coins, and the multinational gambling corporation.

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon and Michael Riley's 'I don't wanna be a bludger' 1999

Installation view of Destiny Deacon and Michael Riley's 'I don't wanna be a bludger' 1999

 

Installation views of Destiny Deacon and Michael Riley’s I don’t wanna be a bludger 1999 on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020. Photos: Tom Ross

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon and Michael Riley's 'I don't wanna be a bludger' 1999

 

Wall text

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 with at left, Whitey’s watching 1994; and at right, Moomba princess and Moomba princeling (both 2004)
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Installation view of 'DESTINY' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at centre, Moomba princess and Moomba princeling (both 2004), and at right Thought cone (A-F) 1997
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Moomba princess' 2004 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Moomba princess (installation view)
2004, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Moomba princess and Moomba princeling show Deacon’s young niece and nephew dressed in the robes and regalia of Moomba sovereigns. Moomba is an annual parade and community festival held in Melbourne, which each year crowns a ‘Moomba monarch’. The portraits reference Elizabethan Armada portraiture, a style of painting which first depicted the Tudor queen seated in royal garb and surrounded by symbols against a backdrop depicting the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. At first glance, the Moomba portraits can be read as innocent children playing dress ups, but by presenting two Aboriginal models in this type of colonial ceremonial dress, Deacon challenges audiences to consider the legacy and impact of British invasion.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Moomba princeling' 2004 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Moomba princeling (installation view)
2004, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Thought cone (A-F) 1997 (installation view detail)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Thought cone (A-F) 1997 (installation view detail)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Thought cone (A-F) (installation view details)
1997, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon's 'Whitey's watching' 1994

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon’s Whitey’s watching 1994 on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon’s Whitey’s watching 1994 on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

For more than thirty years Destiny Deacon has forged a path as an international artist with a distinct brand of artistic humour unlike any other. Descended from the Kuku and Erub / Mer peoples of Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait, Deacon has been living and working in Melbourne since she arrived here as a small child.

Deacon’s work sits in the uncomfortable but compelling space between comedy and tragedy, and contrasts seemingly innocuous childhood imagery with scenes from the dark side of adulthood. She actively resists interpretation and so called ‘art speak’, instead choosing to let her work speak for itself. The more we look, the greater we understand that the world Deacon conjures is a complex one. Drawing from her vast collection of Aboriginalia, Deacon interrogates the way in which Aboriginal people have been, and continue to be, misrepresented within popular culture. Decapitated, amputated, pants down, tied up, trapped in a blizzard or flying through the air, the characters in Deacon’s world both reflect and parody the one in which we live.

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at right, Regal eagles (A-B) 1994
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Regal eagles (A-B)' 1994 (installation view)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Regal eagles (A-B)' 1994 (installation view)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Regal eagles (A-B)' 1994 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Regal eagles (A-B) (installation views)
1994, printed 2020
Lightjet print from Polaroid original
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Academic, historian and Indigenous rights activist Marcia Langton once described Destiny Deacon’s work as a ‘barometer of postcolonial anxiety’. This diptych combines two congruent images: the photo on the left shows a pair of young, white boys holding plastic Union Jacks and eating in front of a disregarded, spread-eagled Black doll. The image on the right shows another Black dolly in a Koori flag T-shirt pinned onto a board surrounded by appropriated Aboriginalia. As always in Deacon’s work, the dolls possess a liveliness and personality, making the violence enacted on to them all the more confronting.

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photos: Tom Ross

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s Melbourne Noir 2013
Photos: Tom Ross

 

 

Adapting the quotidian formats of snapshot photography, home videos, community TV and performance modes drawn from vaudeville and minstrel shows, Deacon’s artistic practice is marked by a wicked yet melancholy comedic and satirical disposition. In decidedly lo-fi vignettes, friends, family and members of Melbourne’s Indigenous community appear in mischievous narratives that amplify and deconstruct stereotypes of Indigenous identity and national history. For Melbourne Now, Deacon and Fraser present a trailer for a film noir that does not exist, a suite of photographs and a carnivalesque diorama. The pair’s playful political critiques underscore a prevailing sense of postcolonial unease, while connecting their work to wider global discourses concerned with racial struggle and cultural identity.

Text from Exhibition: ‘Melbourne Now’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Part 1

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's Melbourne Noir 2013

Installation view of 'DESTINY' at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser's 'Melbourne Noir' 2013

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s Melbourne Noir 2013
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

Digital prints, Digital prints on plywood, wood, gelatin silver photographs, high-definition video, sound
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

Wall text

 

Wall text

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing in the foreground Snow storm 2005
Photos: Tom Ross

Colour Blinded

Man & doll (a)
Man & doll (b)
Man & doll (c)
Baby boomer
Back up
Pacified
2005, printed 2020
Lightfoot print from orthochromatic film negative

 

Wall text

 

Wall text

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Virginia Fraser (Australian) 'Snow storm' 2005 (installation vie

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Virginia Fraser (Australian) 'Snow storm' 2005 (installation vie

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Virginia Fraser (Australian) 'Snow storm' 2005 (installation vie

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Virginia Fraser (Australian)
Snow storm (installation views)
2005
Golliwogs, polystyrene and perspex cube
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Man & doll' 2005 (installation view detail)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Man & doll' 2005 (installation view detail)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Man & doll (installation view details)
2005, printed 2020
Lightfoot print from orthochromatic film negative
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s Koori lounge room 2021
Photos: Tom Ross

 

Wall text

 

Wall text

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s Koori lounge room 2021
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Ebony and Ivy face race' 2016 (installation view)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Ebony and Ivy face race (installation view)
2016, printed 2020
Lightjet print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Sand minding / Sand grabs 2017 (installation view)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) Sand minding / Sand grabs 2017 (installation view detail)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Sand minding / Sand grabs (installation views)
2017, printed 2020
Inkjet print from digital image on archival paper
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

More than half of all mining projects in Australia are in close proximity to Indigenous communities. This relationship has long been, and continues to be, the source of much debate. In this work Deacon condemns the violence committed by the sand mining industry on the ecosystem, the land and its people. A latex-gloved hand makes an incision in a bag of soil, destructively releasing the sand inside. The white hand grasps the contents and takes a handful. Two disturbing characters look on with a seemingly perplexed expression, perhaps inviting us to consider the consequences of mining.

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at left, Arrears windows 2009; at centre, Sand minding / Sand grabs 2017; and in the background Koori lounge room 2021

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Arrears windows' 2009

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Arrears windows
2009
From the series Gazette
Inkjet print from digital image on archival paper
60.0 x 80.0cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

Gazette

Gossip walks
Look out!
Action men
Arrears windows
Come on in my kitchen

In 2009 Deacon produced the series Gazette. These now eerily familiar scenes appear like vignettes, offering windows into the lives of those living inside Melbourne’s public housing towers. Recent scenes from the news are echoed in Arrears windows, which shows Deacon’s collection of black and brown dolls crammed into yellow plastic tubs. The series draws attention to the individual lives and struggles of residents within these buildings, while also reminding viewers of the often-overcrowded conditions these residents live in. Each image brings to light Deacon’s idiosyncratic take on current global and national events with her semi-autobiographical edge.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Action men' 2009

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Action men
2009
From the series Gazette
Inkjet print from digital image on archival paper
80.0 x 60cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Dolly eyes' (A-H) 2020 (installation view)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Dolly eyes' (A-H) 2020 (installation view detail)

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Dolly eyes' (A-H) 2020 (installation view detail)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Dolly eyes (A-H)
2020
Lightjet print
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

A doll with piercing blue eyes and dark brown skin is among the unblinking, manic faces that make up Destiny Deacon’s most recent series, Dolly Eyes, 2020. While people of colour can and do have an array of different-coloured eyes, blue eyes are often seen as a signifier of whiteness. Deacon’s tightly cropped images reduce these dollies to just eyes and skin tone, highlighting the problematic nature of using physical features to signify of racial identity.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Dolly lips (A-E)' 2017

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Dolly lips (A-E)
2017, printed 2020
Lightjet print
Photo: Tom Ross

 

 

Dolly lips extracts surprising expressions from some of Deacon’s regular models. Some of these dolls have been posing for Deacon for decades, but these sensitive and suggestive images show them in a new light.

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon's 'Smile' 2017

 

Installation view of Destiny Deacon’s Smile 2017 on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Smile' 2017

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Smile
2017
Exhibition version printed 2020
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2016
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

Deacon undercuts our trust in the innocuous smiley face emoji and prompts the viewer to look more closely at the everyday symbols that proliferate in our lives. The dolls appear decapitated, but perhaps even more ominously the disembodied heads are actually poking through a yellow sheet. Deacon uses an op-shop boomerang to complete the smile. When broken down, the individual features that make up the happy face are all racially charged. However, when viewed at a glance, all people see is the familiar smiley face emoji.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Oz Games – Under the spell of the tall poppies' 1998

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Oz Games – Under the spell of the tall poppies
1998
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

In the lead-up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Deacon produced Oz, a series of works parodying the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. In the original film, Dorothy Gale is swept away from a farmhouse in Kansas to the magical land of Oz. In this series, Deacon transforms the journey undertaken by the original characters into a contemporary recognition of Aboriginality. Dorothy, now known as the ‘traveller’, appears alongside a ‘sad’ tin man, a ‘slow’ scarecrow in blackface and a ‘scared’ cowardly lion. The character’s quest for self-realisation resembles the personal journeys many Aboriginal people go through every day.

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation views of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at right, On reflection 2019

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'On reflection' 2019

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
On reflection
2019
Lightjet print
100.0 x 80.0cm
Collection of the artist
© Destiny Deacon, courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Escape – From the whacking spoon' 2007

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Escape – From the whacking spoon
2007
Lightjet photograph from Polaroid photograph
80.0 x 100.0cm
Courtesy of the artist
© Destiny Deacon

 

 

Whacked

Escape – from the whacking spoon
Whacked to sleep (B)
Fence sitters (A)
The goodie hoodie family
Waiting for the bust
Whacked & coming home

2007, printed 2020
Lightjet print

This series of photographs references familiar imagery from news media and contemporary culture, making a link between themes of terrorism, surveillance, suppression and Australian nationalism. Playing with stereotypes, Deacon and her friends have masked themselves in long johns with disturbing painted faces. The images use sinister humour to highlight shared similarities between fanatics around the world.

 

Installation view of 'Postcards from Mummy' 1998

Installation view of 'Postcards from Mummy' 1998

 

Installation view of Postcards from Mummy 1998 on display in DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020

 

Installation view of DESTINY at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2020 showing at left Dolly eyes (A-H) 2020; and at right, Blak 2020
Photo: Tom Ross

 

 

Throughout her career, this cast of characters has become central to Deacon’s practice, as has her subversive use of language. For Deacon, language, and in particular spelling, has provided an opportunity to reframe and assert her identity on her own terms. In its deceptive simplicity the recasting of ‘Black’ to ‘Blak’ resonated with Aboriginal communities everywhere. What started as Deacon asserting her personal identity as a Kuku / Erub / Mer woman, has since morphed into a Community-owned declaration of Aboriginal pride. It is fitting to conclude this exhibition with a singular photographic work: the letters b-l-a-k emblazoned across the surface with seventeen of Deacon’s regular dolly models.

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957) 'Blak' 2020 (installation view)

 

Destiny Deacon (Kuku/Erub/Mer b. Australia 1957)
Blak (installation view)
2020
Light jet print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
Daily 10am – 5pm

National Gallery of Victoria website

LIKE ART BLART ON FACEBOOK

Back to top

14
Aug
20

Pamphlet: ‘Australian Aboriginal Art’ with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon, National Museum of Victoria, 1952

August 2020

 

Cover of the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon 1952

 

Unknown artist. Cover of the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art, National Museum of Victoria, 1952

 

 

I found this rare pamphlet in an op shop (charity shop). I have decided to publish it on Art Blart as part of a historical record, so that it is available to researchers into Indigenous Australian culture and art. While I believe that the text and images contain no information of secret sacred importance, if anyone has any concerns please contact me at bunyanth@netspace.net.au.

What is fascinating about the text is that it was originally published by the National Museum of Victoria in 1929, and then reprinted verbatim for this pamphlet in 1952. In other words, no new scholarship had taken place in the intervening 23 years that was noteworthy enough for the Museum to feel it needed to update the text. Other interesting facts are that Aboriginal Art was housed within the Australian Ethnology section, art as an outcome of the study of the characteristics of different people, and that it was known as “primitive art” made by “primitive peoples”. Even the National Gallery of Australia had a “primitive art” gallery up until the 1980s!

Of course, the texts are of their time. In the first text “The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett, he questions the quality, authenticity and age of the rock paintings at Mootwingee – whether they are a few centuries old or of old antiquity it – and apparently, it makes no difference. Barrett then praises the magic making art of Indigenous Australians, while at the same time encouraging us to look upon their art as merely pictures (Barrett, p. 11). He seems to be equally attracted and repulsed by “primitive art”, as an expression of man’s artistic tendency, in cave paintings and rock-carvings whose forms are grotesque and even repulsive.

Barrett admits that their finest decorations, on weapons and sacred objects, are magic: “Here is a magic truly; no “Art for Art’s sake.” (Barrett, p. 12). And then in the next paragraph, while extolling that we should have more interest in the Australian race, and learn its culture, he announces that Indigenous Australians are “living fossils” and are failing. Using the terminology of Edward S. Curtis (who photographed the First Nations Peoples of America in the early 20th century), they are The Vanishing Race (1904), the title of his photograph of Navajo riding off into an indeterminate distance. Destined for extinction. Further, Barrett states that every “relic” of the Aboriginals is worth preserving, as though all Indigenous people were already a historical artefact, no longer living. The use of the word relic is informative: its derivation comes from Old French relique (originally plural), from Latin reliquiae, the latter mid 17th century Latin, feminine plural (used as a noun) of reliquus ‘remaining’, based on linquere ‘to leave’. In other words, they remain and leave at one and the same time, the remainder only a husk of the original.

In the second text “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon, the researcher and psychologist into Indigenous art is urged, indeed must, divest themselves of all civilised conceptions and mentality and assume those of a prehistoric man – or that of a child. “Prior or the British settlement of Eastern Australia – to be precise, prior to Governor Phillip establishing his colony at Port Jackson, there appears to be no record of aboriginal paintings or carvings.” (A.S. Kenyon, p. 22) What Kenyon seems to be suggesting is that it is only through the influence of the “civilised” Europeans that Indigenous Australians begin painting and carving. A description of the various representational techniques of Indigenous Australian art making follows, the art divided into two classes: fixed and portable. “In the first class, those of fixed objects, we have (a) rock-paintings; (b) rock-carvings; (c) tree-carvings; (d) tree-paintings; (e) ground-paintings; (f) ground-models. In the second, or portable class, there are (a) figures or models; (b) weapons, implements and utensils, decorated either by painting or carving; (c) ceremonial objects; (d) ornaments or personal adornment; (e) bark-paintings. (A.S. Kenyon, p. 27)

I believe it is important to have these texts (which are less than 100 years old), and the paradoxical historical attitudes towards Australian Indigenous culture and art they contain, published online. The pamphlet recognises Aboriginal culture yet also rules a ledger under it. (Professor Tom Griffiths’ observations on Geoffrey Blainey’s book Triumph of the Nomads). The attitude was that while this “primitive art” was worthy of study, ultimately it belonged to an archaic, fragile culture which was destined to be consigned to history.

I am so glad that this spiritual culture (and the changing Western understanding of Australian Indigenous art and culture) has proved the authors wrong.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Title page of the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon 1952

 

Title page of the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952

 

Preface of the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon 1952

 

Preface of the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952

 

"The Primitive Artist" by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 5

 

"The Primitive Artist" by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 6-7

 

Mootwingee Rock Carvings

 

Unknown photographer. “Mootwingee Rock Carvings. Pecked Type,” in “The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 6

 

Great Rock Shelter at Mootwingee, New South Wales

 

Unknown photographer. “Great Rock Shelter at Mootwingee, New South Wales,” in “The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 7

 

Rock Engraving, Mootwingee

 

Unknown photographer. “Rock Engraving, Mootwingee,” in “The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 7

 

"The Primitive Artist" by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 8-9

 

from North Queensland

 

“Painted Shields from North Queensland,” in “The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 9

 

"The Primitive Artist" by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 10-11

 

Bark Drawing. Northern Territory. Native in canoe spearing crocodile

 

“Bark Drawing. Northern Territory. Native in canoe spearing crocodile,” in “The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 11

 

"The Primitive Artist" by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 12-13

 

Rock Painting, South Africa

 

“Rock Painting, South Africa,” in “The Primitive Artist” by Charles Barrett from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 12

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 14-15

 

 

“Native Corroboree. Drawn by Tommy Barnes, a Mission Aboriginal, showing European influence,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 14.

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 16-17

 

Prehistoric Rock Painting, Spain. Showing superimposed figures

 

“Prehistoric Rock Painting, Spain. Showing superimposed figures,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 16

 

Stone Churingas from Central Australia. Showing symbolic and totemic figures

 

“Stone Churingas from Central Australia. Showing symbolic and totemic figures,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 17

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 18-19

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 20-21

 

Rock Paintings. Prince Regent River, North-west Australia. Superimposed figures

 

“Rock Paintings. Prince Regent River, North-west Australia. Superimposed figures,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 21

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 22-23

 

Bark drawing representing Settler's Homestead, Lake Tyrrell, Victoria

 

“Bark drawing representing Settler’s Homestead, Lake Tyrrell, Victoria,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 23

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 24-25

 

Rock Carvings, Port Jackson, New South Wales. Grooved type

 

“Rock Carvings, Port Jackson, New South Wales. Grooved type,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 25

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 26-27

 

Rock Painting, Prince Regent River, North-west Australia. From Bradshaw's original sketch

 

“Rock Painting, Prince Regent River, North-west Australia. From Bradshaw’s original sketch,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 26

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 28-29

 

Stencilled Hands in the Cave of Hands, Victoria Range, Victoria

 

Unknown photographer. “Stencilled Hands in the Cave of Hands, Victoria Range, Victoria,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 29

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 30-31

 

Rock Painting, Cave of the Serpent, Langi Ghiran, Victoria

 

“Rock Painting, Cave of the Serpent, Langi Ghiran, Victoria,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 30

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 32-33

 

Carved Tree. From a photograph by Edmund Milne

 

Edmund Milne. “Carved Tree. From a photograph by Edmund Milne,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 32

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 34-35

 

Decorated Shields, Carved and Painted

 

“Decorated Shields, Carved and Painted,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 34

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 36-37

 

Painted Bark Bags, Northern Territory

 

“Painted Bark Bags, Northern Territory,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 36

 

"The Art of the Australian Aboriginal" by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet 'Australian Aboriginal Art' by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon

 

“The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon in the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 38-39

 

Bark Paintings, Alligator River, Northern Territory

 

“Bark Paintings, Alligator River, Northern Territory,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 38

 

Making Tracings of Rock Paintings, Glen Isla Rock Shelter, Victoria Range, Victoria

 

Unknown photographer. “Making Tracings of Rock Paintings, Glen Isla Rock Shelter, Victoria Range, Victoria,” in “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal” by A.S. Kenyon from the pamphlet Australian Aboriginal Art with texts by Charles Barrett and A.S. Kenyon (text reprinted from the 1929 exhibition), National Museum of Victoria, 1952, p. 39

 

 

LIKE ART BLART ON FACEBOOK

Back to top

16
Jan
18

Book review: ‘The Lumen Seed’ by Judith Crispin (2016)

January 2018

Publisher: Daylight Books

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that the posting on this book contains images and names of people who may have since passed away.

 

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sonya Napaljarri Cook Painting' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Sonya Napaljarri Cook Painting
Warnayaka Arts Centre, Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

Judith Crispin. 'Tabra Nakamarra's Puppy' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Tabra Nakamarra’s Puppy
Lajamanu Community NT, June 2015

 

 

Truth and consequence in red dirt country

Australia has a long tradition of social documentary photography, dating back to the late nineteenth century. From Fred Kruger’s photographs of the Aboriginal community at Coranderrk in the 1870-80s through, variously but not exclusively:

Frank Hurley‘s photographs of the First World War, Antarctic exploration, Aboriginal communities and Australian industry

F. Oswald Barnett and his photographs of the slums of Melbourne in the 1930s

Charles P. Mountford (1890-1976) was an ethnographer and photographer, working from the 1930s-1960s who “showed a keen interest in and respect for Aboriginal culture, a fact that is evident in his archive. Although peppered with the vernacular and attitudes of the times, Mountford’s writing, and more tellingly his photographs, are indicative of his belief that Aboriginal life was richer and more complex than most white Australians conceded.” (State Library of South Australia)

Mervyn Bishop (born 1945), followed in 1974, an Australian news and documentary photographer whose work combines journalistic and art photography. Joining The Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet in 1962 or 1963, he was the first Aboriginal Australian to work on a metropolitan daily newspaper and one of the first Aboriginal Australians to become a professional photographer. Focusing on Indigenous self-determination, Bishop’s work “covered the major developments in Aboriginal communities throughout Australia, including the historical moment in 1975 when the (then) Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, poured a handful of earth back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional land owner. This image – representing the Australian government’s recognition of Aboriginal land rights – became an icon of the land rights movement and Australian photography.” (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

Harold Cazneaux and Max Dupain‘s photographs of Australian life from the 1920-1980s

Jim Fitzpatrick and his Drouin series from WW2

Rennie Ellis‘ photographs of celebrity and Melbourne life

William Yang‘s photographs exploring issues of cultural and sexual identity

Female photographers of the 1960s-90s, such as Micky Allan, Sue Ford and Carol Jerrems who all crossed over into art photography

Robert McFarlane (1960s onwards) who specialises in social issues

John F. Williams who photographed Sydney in the 1970s

Jeff Carter who photographed all around Australia from the 1950s onwards

Ian North and Gerrit Fokkema who photographed Canberra in the 1980s

Joyce Evans (1980s onwards) who took important portraits of a diverse cross-section of Australian intelligentsia and personalities and documented Australian country towns and events for the National Library of Australia

Glenn Sloggett who photographed Australian suburbia with a startling mix of warmth and melancholy from the 1990s onwards

More recently, the war photographs of °SOUTH members such as Tim Page, Stephen Dupont, David Dare Parker, Jack Picone and Michael Coyne

Trent Parke who is the only Australian member of the Magnum Photo Agency, whose work moves beyond the strictly documentary to sit between fiction and reality, offering an emotional and psychological portrait of family life and Australia that is poetic and often darkly humorous

And Juno Gemes Indigenous social documentary photography, who documents the changing social landscape of Australia

.
Unlike America, where social documentary photographers are well known, hardly a name from the above list (save perhaps Max Dupain and possibly Frank Hurley) would be recognised by a wider Australian public and there is little evidence or acknowledgement of their work in Australia. I believe that this is because social documentary photography has never been heavily promoted in this country and that this type of photography is a slice of many people’s work without becoming the driving force behind their oeuvre.

As my friend and curator Nick Henderson observes, “Perhaps the lack of visibility is in part due to many of the social documentary photographers undertaking work for the various state libraries, who regularly commission work documenting place – sometimes external, but also staff photographers – whose work is then not exhibited: many of the institutional galleries haven’t devoted much time to displaying and promoting that work.” While there may have been social documentary photographers in each country town and embedded within federal and state institutions, their work never seems to reach the audience it deserves.

 

And that is the true

Into this amorphous arena comes a brilliant book Sydney based poet, photographer and composer Judith Crispin titled The Lumen Seed (Daylight Books 2016), a book of that addresses the stories of the Warlpiri people of Lajamanu through conversation, poetry, drawings and photographs, a book that should be compulsory reading for all Australians.

This smallish book (in size, 23.5cm wide by 15cm high) of 120 pages has good strong boards, excellent typography, nicely weighted paper and feels solid in the hand. The book is well printed, although some of the highlights of the photographs have gone missing in action. The layout of the images and text is engaging, challenging the reader to comprehend, contemplate and consider what is being shown and spoken to them. Use of negative space, as can be seen in the example pages below, is excellent. The reader does not feel overwhelmed by comatose verbiage, but empowered when listening to the stories, proposed: “This book is about magic. Not the magic of Kabbalists, Theosophists, or conjurers, not Crowley’s magick with a k, not the magic of the New Age or Western religion – but magic that describes the world hidden inside this world, a world seen only by Aboriginal elders and the dying.” (Judith Crispin, Introduction, p. 12)

As Crispin states, this book is not a book of photojournalism and is the most subjective it can be, the photographs growing out of her love for this community. The multi-dimensional photo essay, for that is what it is in more traditional terms, represents some of the views and customs of the Warlpiri people and for Crispin, her journey started in the centre of Australia’s Anglophile government, Canberra, and ended at Wolfe Creek Crater, birthplace of the rainbow snakes, the Warnayarra, which underpin all Australian Aboriginal cultures. The peoples of this ancient culture speak to the earth, they tend it and understand it; they believe in the deep magic of the landscape, and strengthen the land through gardening and the trees through song. They speak to the spirits of the waterholes and have a deep respect for the spirit of the animals that inhabit the land. “The deep love that Warlpiri people have for the landscape, its mountains and waterholes, is almost incomprehensible for white people.” (Juno Gemes, Foreword, p. 9)

I’m British and I have been here in Australia since 1986 and I have never understood the non-relationship Australia has with its Indigenous people. Growing up on a farm for the first twelve years of my life in England gives me some understanding of a life lived well on the land. We were working class poor, my mother having to boil water on a stove so us kids could have a bath in a copper on the kitchen room floor; and we lived on what we could shoot from the land – pigeons, pheasants, rabbits and hares – and we were acutely aware of the providence and blessings of nature for our sustenance. A totally different connection to land than an Aboriginal one, but a connection none the less, as I found out when I visited the old farm on a recent visit to the UK in August. Walking up the cart path where I had played as a kid brought all the magic rushing back… the flowers, the forest, the trees, the animals and the earth.

Therefore, when I read of the white man’s abuse of the traditional lands of the Aboriginal people I am appalled. If you read the extract from Five Threnodies for Maralinga printed below, you begin to understand the pain and anguish of these people, killed by the atomic cloud of over 7 major tests and 700 minor trials involving plutonium, uranium, and beryllium at the Maralinga site which occurred between 1956 and 1963, part of the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia and about 800 kilometres north-west of Adelaide. “In 1948, Warlpiri people were forcibly relocated almost 600 kilometers from their spiritual homeland to Hooker Creek, now Lajamanu, in Gurindji country. Old people, afraid to live among Gurindji ancestors and spirits, tried to walk back to Yuendumu but were rounded up and returned.” (p. 45)

This beautiful, powerful and deeply personal book tells some of their stories. It saddens me beyond belief that these wonderful people have been estranged and displaced from their traditional lands; decimated, killed, and abused; have been exposed to nuclear radiation, poverty, and untold harm and deprivation, both physical and mental. That they endure is a testament to their courage and culture. Juno Gemes observes that, “Crispin’s images are filled with compassion and tenderness. This is not an easy work… The Lumen Seed is a tough and powerful work in photographs, narrative texts, drawings, and poems it sings stories off the Warlpiri at Lajamuna at five minutes to midnight.” (p. 9)

The book needs to be tough to tell the true. But through poetry, love and light a new cosmology emerges that brings hope for a better future. Truth and consequence in red dirt country.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to Myrtille Beauvert, Daylight Books and the artist for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

The Lumen Seed by Judith Crispin (Daylight Books), a cultural dialogue that is taking place before a backdrop of offences against the Australian continent, as well as a history of systematic discrimination against Indigenous peoples on the part of the country’s white population.

 

 

“Yeah, it make me real sad and cry for my country. Because God bin put me there, God put my people there. Why someone could move us, because of his power, because of his idea? Cutting off God’s power, God’s idea here. God’s word, God’s light… and that is the true. Cut off like this electric wire, if you cut him off, like that.”

.
Jerry Jangala, senior Warlpiri elder and Law man from Lajamanu in the Tanami Desert

 

“The Lumen Seed is a tough and powerful work. In photographs, narrative texts, drawings, and poems it sings stories of the Warlpiri at Lajamanu at five minutes to midnight. Who will hear, who will see, who will act?

Judith Crispin’s experience echoes mine 40 years earlier, although I could not always get back to the same teachers. We belong to a long photographic tradition. It is the tradition of Tina Modotti and Josef Koudelka – a generation of documentary photographers who believe fervently that if you show people what is actually happening in the world, they will understand and be moved to demand change. Activist social documentary photography has always been defined by this passionate subjective belief in democracy and action.”

.
Juno Gemes, Introduction to The Lumen Seed, 2016

 

 

 

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' cover

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed book cover

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 29

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 29

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 32

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 32

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 46

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 46

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 55

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 55

Judith Crispin. 'The Lumen Seed' p. 74

Judith Crispin. The Lumen Seed p. 74

 

 

 

 

Foreword: Five Minutes to Midnight

There is nothing like twilight in red dirt country – the soft crackling of fire warming your billycan as the Seven Sisters begin their dance across the night sky. Or the camaraderie around a campfire as people speak in their indigenous languages – the women making jokes about the day’s goings-on or about mistakes made in the intricate protocols of a Law you are learning, day by day. Everything that lives has meaning here. Upholding knowledge is a lifelong obligation for First Nation Custodians – not only in the present but into the future. How can we Australians know this land or our place in it, if not through relationship with our hosts, the Aboriginal people?

When inviting me to write this foreword, Judith Crispin explained her choice, saying, “You are uniquely positioned, as Australia’s premier and longest-serving photographer who has worked collaboratively with Aboriginal people in communities around the country making their culture and struggle for justice visible.” Truly, in both a professional and a practical way, I know the difficulties and the deep satisfactions of working in community. I understand the privileges of learning about the Law, the reciprocity of gratitude, and the obligation to stay true to the received teaching over a lifetime.

As a photographer of long experience, with friendships in Aboriginal communities, I know how everything depends on one’s openness to experience, on the give and take inside relationships that informs how one sees and feels. Photographers in this tradition work in slow time. You learn to move with the people, move within the rhythm of their days, within their country, their wind and sky. What is learned through these relationships can change how one sees forever. By invitation, we become messengers from the frontier of interpersonal experience, conveying urgent messages from our teachers and hosts.

Into this collaborative tradition of relational interpersonal documentary photography – which began with the work of committed photographers in Australia during the 1970s – now steps Judith Crispin with her important book about magic, knowledge, and history. She relates teachings of the Law men who adopted her, who gave her the skin name Nangala, a name that defines her relationship to everyone in the community. In this way, she is being “growed up,” learning how to see the universe according to Warlpiri Law.

“There is a particularly miraculous vision of the world that comes only with the diagnosis of serious illness. . . . Something is different now – because I know there is a secret world nested inside this one. I’ve seen it.”

.
The Lumen Seed
opens onto an apocalyptic scene. A hardwood mulga tree, reaching for the sky, holds a placard: “The Lord’s Return is Near.” In Coober Pedy, a curved handmade house rendered in warm mid-tones is edged with the sign “Welcome to Nowhere.” Dusty desert roadscapes unfold into the giant sacred stones of Karlu Karlu. An emu wanders nonchalantly into a gas station. We’re in Emu Dreaming Country now, meeting Crispin’s traveling friends.

A UFO mural at the gas station resonates later in the book with stories of Wolfe Creek Crater, where the meteorite landed. In the Jukurrpa we are told two rainbow snakes created that country, way back at the beginning. UFOs “zipping around the trees” form part of our desert lore. Funky and surreal, these images are imbued with humour. The images that follow lead us onward into a country of visual narratives – foretelling beginnings and endings. Intuitions manifest unpredictably. We enter a thousand kilometres of “bull dust and bone-jarring track, into the Tanami Desert,” which is as nothing compared with the howling grief of Crispin’s first poem…

Foreword extract by Juno Gemes, Hawkesbury River, April 11, 2016, pp. 6-7.

 

Introduction

In late 2015 I was diagnosed with cancer. Before then, I’d not understood how five words could change everything. “I’m sorry, Judith,” my doctor told me, “it’s cancer.” It’s a cliché that you only learn to value life when death is walking beside you, but it was absolutely true for me. I remember driving over Clyde Mountain to bring the word cancer to my parents’ home. Every tree on the range seemed invested with vital force. Every leaf was vibrant, iridescent. Gray mountain gums, in headlights, seemed to manifest ancient intelligence – bearing witness to the fleeting existence of human beings. The threat of death reminds you how precious people are – your oldest friends, children, lovers, parents – you wonder how you’ll bear to leave them. There is a particularly miraculous vision of the world that comes only with the diagnosis of serious illness.

The interval between diagnosis and surgery is an eternity. The surgeon showed me a chart – “If the cancer falls into this range,” he said, “you’ll live; this range and you’ll die.” I felt like Schrödinger’s cat, neither living nor dying. People who see their own death live in two worlds, one mundane and one miraculous. Later, when the cancer had been removed and my death sentence lifted, I watched that other world diminish day by day. No matter how I clung to that miraculous vision, it faded – just as the certain knowledge of my death faded. But something remained. Something is different now – because I know there is a secret world nested inside this one. I’ve seen it. …

The earliest photographs in this book were taken in 2013, when I still believed the Warlpiri needed my help – to promote literacy and health, to outline positive pathways toward reconciliation, and so on. The later photographs were taken in December 2015, when I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that I was the drowning woman and the Warlpiri were the lifeboat. Lajamanu’s elders, especially Wanta Jampijinpa, Henry Jackamarra, and Jerry Jangala, were kind to me. They gave me a skin name1 and showed me how to be a “policewoman” for Jdbrille Waterhole. They seemed genuinely delighted by my interest in Warlpiri cosmology, which they illustrated with stories and drawings – some of which are reproduced in this book. The older women took me “hunting” for wattle seed and bush potato. They told me stories of covenants entered into with ancient star-beings and showed me places along the Tanami Track where min-min lights had chased travellers. Fairy tales and mysteries take on new importance when your life feels precarious.

Lajamanu in 2016 is a meeting of two universes. Elders check their Facebook status on iPhones while explaining, in matter-of-fact tones, about a landscape that will hold you or kill you, depending on your scent – where spirit snakes live in the waterways and the dead walk side by side with the living. In Lajamanu I lost my fear of dying, and more importantly, I lost my fear of living. This is a book about magic. Not the magic of Kabbalists, Theosophists, or conjurers, not Crowley’s magick with a k, nor the magic of the New Age or Western religion – but magic that describes the world hidden inside this world, a world seen only by Aboriginal elders and the dying.

This is not a book of photojournalism and makes no attempt to be objective. Quite the contrary, in fact, I wanted this book to be as subjective as possible. These photographs, especially the portraits, have grown out of my love for this community – the poetry of these often physically fragile people, whose unshakable belief in the deep magic of the landscape gives them a strength rarely evident in the city. Warlpiri culture is gentle; it leaves no tracks on the earth. The history of Aboriginal Australia is largely a record of gardening – “cleaning up country” with firestick farming and ceremonies to strengthen trees through song. When Warlpiri people move through the landscape, they introduce themselves. They apologise to that country for breaking twigs. They ask permission to take water from the creeks. If humanity ever transcends its selfish and murderous nature, it will be because of people like the Warlpiri.

Introduction extract by Judith Crispin pp. 11-13.

 

 

You shall not trap me in this fish-trap of yours in which you trap the dead,

because I know it, and I know its name,

I know the name in which it came into being.

.
(Coffin Texts)

 

 

Judith Crispin. 'The Lord's Return is Near' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
The Lord’s Return is Near
Coober Pedy SA, November 2014

 

 

The Stuart Highway is a bisecting line in a thousand kilometres of nothing. The sheer scale of the landscape is overwhelming. I’d driven for two days with only Leonard Cohen and David Bowie for company, and had never felt more isolated. I don’t know why I stopped, leaving the Land Rover idling in the middle of the highway, and walked over to the tree. Perhaps its tallness startled me – its length so exposed above the desert floor. I wanted to lay my palm against its bark. At first I didn’t notice the sign nailed high on its trunk: “The Lord’s Return is Near.”

This stretch of highway lies south of the rocket range at Woomera. There are oceans of blood on this land. The Woomera immigration detention centre continued a legacy of suffering that began years earlier, in the 1950s, when Maralinga’s radioactive clouds blew over Woomera, a military township, and killed all the children.

Between 1952 and 1963, British forces dropped nine nuclear weapons and nine thermonuclear weapons between Woomera and the Western Australian border, within contamination distance of urban centres. The Menzies-led Australian government of that time was wholly complicit and lied about the known dangers of nuclear tests. Between these bombings, Britain conducted continuous “minor trials,” which, according to the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, additionally detonated 99.35 kg of beryllium, 23.979 kg of plutonium, and 7968.88 kg of depleted uranium. By contrast, Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 by the United States, contained only 64 kg of uranium-235, and Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 by the United States, contained only 6.4 kg of plutonium. Anyone who wishes to immediately lose faith in the human race should read the short transcript of the Royal Commission, which is freely available online. (pp. 16-18)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Welcome to Nowhere' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Welcome to Nowhere
Coober Pedy SA, November 2014

 

 

I arrived in Coober Pedy the same week that dust storms tore the roof off the pub. This dugout, borrowed from friends in Alice Springs, was built from a disused shaft. I slept near the door separating their home from the remaining length of shaft, extending far into the rock. Strange sounds echoed behind that door – sounds of wind, or dogs howling. The door was nailed closed. When I first visited Coober Pedy, it was the farthest into the desert that I had ever ventured. Beyond it stretched the expanse of the Great Victoria Desert, Simpson Desert, Strzelecki Desert, Pedirka Desert, Tirari Desert, and Sturt Stony Desert. I was at the start of a journey that would follow Stuart Highway into nothingness and emerge in the huge Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Leaving the dugout, I stopped to photograph the words painted on its roof: “Welcome to Nowhere.” (pp. 22-23)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Karlu Karlu I' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Karlu Karlu I
Near Ayleparrarntenhe NT, November 2014

 

 

Karlu Karlu, nicknamed “The Devil’s Marbles” by white people, was long considered too spiritually dangerous for anyone but Warumungu elders conducting ceremony. Between these giant stones, on a 48-degree day, the radiant heat is almost unimaginable. Near the skeleton of a burned office chair, I found patches of black glass. A Warumungu friend explained that the heat has, in recent years, become so intense at Karlu Karlu that the air itself ignites, fusing desert sand to glass. In Australia’s deserts the evidence of climate change is irrefutable. (p. 24)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Eemie at the UFO Roadhouse' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Eemie at the UFO Roadhouse
Wycliffe Well Roadhouse and Van-park NT, December 2015

 

 

UFO enthusiast Arc Vanderzalm moved to the desert in 2004 to establish a UFO-themed van park. In the van park’s early years, Arc rescued an abandoned emu chick and raised him by hand. He named him Eemie. Travellers stopping for fuel at Wycliffe Well roadhouse are sometimes surprised by an adult emu staring in at them through the window. While a guest of the van park, I once startled Eemie by walking into the ladies’ shower block. He peered out at me through the shower curtain with an air of embarrassment, as though I’d intruded at a delicate moment. Later, as I drove toward Tennant Creek, I spotted Eemie chasing a farm dog down the highway, legs akimbo. (p. 29)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sexy John' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Sexy John
Alice Springs NT, November 2014

 

 

Sexy John was rescued as a small calf after his mother was culled as part of a government program to reduce feral camels. He was raised by artists in a collective on the outskirts of Alice Springs and befriended a wild blond-haired boy. More than 160 thousand camels were culled between 2009 and 2013, approximately one-fifth of the camel population of the central deserts. (p. 35)

 

Extract from Five Threnodies for Maralinga

V

At Woomera,
seventy-five identical graves
remember babies lost to the predation
of atomic clouds.

.
Their epitaphs are brief-

Michael Clarke Jones
died 24 August 1952,
aged eight and a half hours.

.
No one has been here for a long time.

.
Weeds struggle.
A military vehicle passes,
heading east toward the rocket range.

.
In the west, Woomera township
is a grid of air force housing.
Land Cruisers fill neat driveways,
lawns are trimmed,
blinds closed.

.
And no one ever steps out for milk,
no one walks a dog.

.
I photograph each headstone,
stooping sometimes to straighten a plastic posy,
a tilted ceramic bear.

.
Wind presses a faded greeting card
to the metal fence.
A matchbox car beside a small boy’s grave
is blue.

.
There are nineteen stones without toys or flowers,
for stillborns named only “baby”-

Baby Spencer,
Baby Dowling,
Baby Stone.

.
Don’t look at me

Baby Gower
Baby Roads

from a soldier’s gunny bag
with your eyes too white, too open
like the eyes of poisoned fish
tumbling
in the Pilbara’s poisoned surf.

 

Judith Crispin. 'Warlpiri Family' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Warlpiri Family
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

In 1948, Warlpiri people were forcibly relocated almost 600 kilometers from their spiritual homeland to Hooker Creek, now Lajamanu, in Gurindji country. Old people, afraid to live among Gurindji ancestors and spirits, tried to walk back to Yuendumu but were rounded up and returned. In the 1970s, Gurindji people held a series of unique ceremonies to hand over the area and its Wampana and Spectacled Hare Wallaby Dreaming stories to the residents of Lajamanu. While this gesture brought some relief to Warlpiri people, who viewed their involuntary occupation of Gurindji land as a breach of traditional Law, they continue to struggle with their relationship to the country. (p. 45)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Four Kurdu-kurdu [Kids] with Trampoline' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Four Kurdu-kurdu [Kids] with Trampoline
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

Country [Gurindji country], hills… well, I put country first… hills, tree, don’t like you – even that water – and that is true. If you drink water from that, or if you not talking to that country because you don’t know, you got no songs with that area… and in the night, or during the day too, you got no language for to try to talk to that country.

When God bin put you there, in your country, that’s it. You got a right to live on there. You can get sick alright, but not too much. Yuwayi [yes], you know God? He say, “Yeah you get sick but you’ll be alright,” you know? “I’m with you there,” that God talking. And same thing for our ceremony too. You’re right to use your ceremony. You’re right to sing your own Dreaming song and talking to your country . . . and tell it true – real true.

Jerry Jangala (pp. 50-51)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Emu Roadkill and Portrait by Shemaiah Matthews' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Emu Roadkill and Portrait by Shemaiah Matthews
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

Judith Crispin. 'Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah-Hargraves Painting' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah-Hargraves Painting
Warnayaka Arts Centre, Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

Without the connection between the land and the person, the individual is lost, empty inside, not connected to anyone or anything or the land. If the connection is lost, they won’t survive and their identity no longer exists. Jukurrpa is our life first. Jukurrpa connects us to our country. It is Law that makes it our right to our country. We can’t be sent away.

This art center [Warnayaka Arts Center] is for the young people to learn their culture and Law. It is important for our youth to learn the knowledge held by the Ngaliya and Warnayaka peoples. The art center is for the survival of culture from the grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ country. The children are getting lost, and there are not many old men left, some women but few men. Some of our important Dreaming sites are hundreds of kilometers from Lajamanu. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren who live in Lajamanu need to know their Jukurrpa; otherwise they will lose their inheritance to this really important country. They need to know the Warlpiri Ngalia Laws so they can go onto their great-grandfathers’ and ancestors’ land, especially where these important Dreaming sites are, like at Mina Mina, belonging to the Kana-kurlangu clan. This is why the art center is so important to the people of Lajamanu. At any time, children can see the works of the elders telling them the Kurdiji, the Law, and all that is tied into the Jukurrpa paintings.

Warnayaka Art elders, recorded by Arts Center manager Louisa Erglis (p. 55)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sacred Object #1' Nd

 

Judith Crispin
Sacred Object #1
Nd
Muffler painted by Warlpiri artists

 

Judith Crispin. 'Sacred Object #2' Nd

 

Judith Crispin
Sacred Object #2
Nd
Abandoned doll found in Lajamanu Park

 

Judith Crispin. 'Beth Nungarrayi at Jdbrille Waterhole' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Beth Nungarrayi at Jdbrille Waterhole
Jdbrille Waterhole, Tanami Desert NT, June 2015

 

 

This area here, no river. It’s the same deal in this country, and so – what do you call it? Soak? [A soakage, or soak, also called a native well, is a source of water in the Australian desert.] You know . . . I’m trying to get that word there. Soak, yeah, you take all right down to find that water, that water make. Sometimes no water, like this time when it’s dry. Look for the water tree. That’s what my father, my grandpa, my great-grandpa, grandmother, they all look for that water tree. Rock holes down. That’s in our country. We can say it today in a Kardiya way, you know? We can say “Lajamanu is my country.” But that not true. It’s not true . . . yuwayi, Nangala. My country is back there . . . my area is back there.

Jerry Jangala (pp. 68-69)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Wirntali-Jarra [Friends]' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Wirntali-Jarra [Friends]
near Emu waterhole, Tanami Desert NT, December 2015

 

Henry Jackamarra and Jerry Jangala have known each other since they were small children. More than a decade his senior, Henry treats Jerry like a little brother – still lecturing him on what he eats and wears, although both men are now respected elders. (p. 72)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Jerry Jangala Oversees Kangaroo Ceremony' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Jerry Jangala Oversees Kangaroo Ceremony
Tanami Desert Outpost NT, November 2014

 

 

The animal is honoured by sprinkling handfuls of dirt over its fur before it is prepared for cooking in the traditional way. Jerry explains that in the old days the punishment for getting this ceremony wrong was death. In modern times, the penalty for making mistakes in this ceremony is exile. Wanta Jampijinpa, Jerry’s son, reassured me that exile did not necessarily mean death in the Tanami desert. A person could earn his or her place back in the community by accomplishing a special task. The exile must find the way to catch a wedge-tailed eagle and bring its soft underbelly feathers back to Lajamanu as proof. Wanta explained to me how such a seemingly impossible task could be accomplished, but I do not have permission to reproduce that here. (p. 78)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Henry Jackamarra Cook, Last Kangaroo Dancer' 2015

 

Judith Crispin
Henry Jackamarra Cook, Last Kangaroo Dancer
Lajamanu Community NT, December 2015

 

 

Light Trails of Henry Jackamarra Cook

Law is a gray kangaroo dancing
the thin landscape of Henry Cook into being,
somewhere in the Tanami,
where knucklebone winds scrape bare rock
and Henry stands marsupial
in firelight’s weird.

In Lajamanu, tin houses edge the street.
No one is outside,
no one.

In the arts center, old ladies paint seed-dreaming.
Breeze lifts the hem of a curtain,
then stillness.
It is still.

Henry doesn’t paint anymore. He sits alone,
watching ceremony from the 1970s.
Everyone in the videos is dead now, except him.
And the dead are in the desert,
faceless as the desert is,
and as remote.

Ten years ago it seemed nothing to walk
three days to his sacred country,
granite country,
where great salt lakes exhale their thirst
over spinifex and sand,
the rattling sun.

But arthritis and cataracts have caged him.
Inside the arts center,
the lights are switched off.

We drag chairs across a concrete porch
to watch the Tanami darken, shelf clouds
seal the crater at Wolfe Creek.

Rain wakens on his tongue
the angular syllables of displacement.

And home is the desert breathing over itself by night,
erasing tracks of all who walk there –
night’s emu rising savage in the Milky Way,
and eyes, eyes in the granite mines.

One day, he tells me, I’ll walk out
to my country and never come back.

At town’s edge, a kangaroo left by poachers.
Red dust thickens its pelt, as the red dust lies thick
on Henry’s Ray-Bans, stiffening his white hair to wires.

I photograph him disemboweling the buck,
its intestines knotted to ritual marks –
Henry and his flayed brother, backlit
against chained ridges,
and the last sun rearing.

Law is an old man dancing
the gray kangaroo into being,
sewing him back into the desert’s body,
into his own body, ochre and growl,
a hunting boomerang beaten on the ground.

Night erases this landscape –
slow trees, sand,
the saltbush has gone.

Just Henry’s heels rising and falling
along a wind-scored track,
utterances of a language which belongs to him
and to which he belongs.

Tomorrow, the Catfish Waterhole
will stretch his white hair out elastic,
as telephone wires vanishing into the Tanami.

Mud returns to him,
the cool slow memories of country
before the missions, before diabetes and grog
shrank his ancestors down so small
he holds them in a single cupped hand
like fireflies, tiny comets
crossing in the black.

Tomorrow he’ll thread gumleaves
through the hole in his nose,
and say, photo me like this Nangala
I am a beautiful man.

.
Judith Crispin (pp. 81-83)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali
Tanami Desert NT, November 2014

 

 

I was told Lily, when she was young, was in love with a Karadji man but couldn’t be with him because she didn’t want to leave her community. Her arms reveal the parallel ritual marks of someone on a “sacred path.” Now, despite caring relationships with her family, friends, and fourteen adopted dogs, somehow Lily is always alone. When, together with Molly and Rosie, Lily took me to see Catfish Waterhole, she explained that we were going to see her “mother.” I carried Lily, too frail to descend the bank, to the edge of the water. There she turned water over her palms, the traditional way of greeting the waterhole and avoiding surprising any Warnayarra who might be there. The deep love that Warlpiri people have for the landscape, its mountains and waterholes, is almost incomprehensible for white people. Here Lily sings quietly to Catfish Waterhole – not for any ceremonial or traditional reason, I’m told, but just because it makes the waterhole feel loved. (p. 95)

 

Judith Crispin. 'Molly's Flame-Tree Seed-pods' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Molly’s Flame-Tree Seed-pods
Tanami Desert NT, November 2014

 

Judith Crispin. 'Molly Napurrula Sifts Wattleseed' 2014

 

Judith Crispin
Molly Napurrula Sifts Wattleseed
Tanami Desert NT, November 2014

 

 

Warlpiri people still supplement their diet with bush food. Ground wattleseed is mixed with oil and baked into a kind of flat bread. The older ladies took me out “hunting” for wattleseed and kurrajong seedpods. In a township with only one shop, where a head of broccoli costs more than a takeaway meal for a family, it is vitally important to supplement the community’s diet with “bush food.” White Australians have almost no idea of the variety of native fruits and vegetables that grow in the apparent desert – bush potatoes, bush tomatoes, bush bananas, honey ants, land crabs, wattleseeds, etc., can be gathered throughout the Tanami. (p. 104)

 

 

Buy Judith Crispin’s The Lumen Seed on the Daylight Books website

LIKE ART BLART ON FACEBOOK

Back to top

08
Oct
17

Review: ‘Brave New World: Australia 1930s’ at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 14th July – 15th October 2017

 

Harold Cazneaux (New Zealand 1878 - Australia 1953, Australia from 1886) 'No title (Powerlines and chute)' c. 1935

 

Harold Cazneaux (New Zealand 1878 – Australia 1953, Australia from 1886)
No title (Powerlines and chute)
c. 1935
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the H. J. Heinz II Charitable and Family Trust, Governor, 1993

 

 

In 1934 BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited) commissioned leading pictorialist photographer Harold Cazneaux to record their mining and steel operations for a special publication to mark their fiftieth anniversary in 1935. Cazneaux’s dramatic industrial images blended a soft, atmospheric focus with a modernist sense of space, form and geometry. In 1935-36 Australia exported close to 300,000 tonnes of iron ore to Japan; however, after Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 fear of its expansionist aims in the Pacific increased and soon afterwards the federal government announced a ban on the export of all iron ore to Japan.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

 

Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGV Australia, Melbourne is a small but stylishly designed exhibition that presents well in the gallery spaces. The look and feel of the exhibition is superb, and it was a joy to see so many works in so many disparate medium brought together to represent a decade in the history of Australia: photography, sculpture, painting, drawing, ceramic art, magazine art, travel posters, Art Deco radios, film, couture, culture, Aboriginal art, and furniture making, to name but a few.

The strong exhibition addresses most of the concerns of the 1930s – The Great Depression, beach and body culture, style, fashion, identity, culture, prelude to WW2, dystopian and utopian cities etc., – but it all felt a little cramped and truncated. Such a challenging time period needed a more expansive investigation. What there is was excellent but one display case on slums or magazine art was not substantive enough. The same can be said for most of the exhibition.

There needed to a lot more about the impact of the Great Depression and people living in poverty, for you get the feeling from this exhibition that everyone was living the Modernist high-life, wearing fashionable frocks and smoking cigarettes sitting around beautifully designed furniture surrounded by geometric textiles. The reality is that this paradigm was the exception rather than the rule. Many people struggled to even feed themselves due to The Great Depression, and it was a time of extreme hardship for people in Australia. Life for many, many people in Australia during the 1930s was a life of disenfranchisement, assimilation, oppression, social struggle, poverty, hunger and a hand to mouth existence.

“After the crash unemployment in Australia more than doubled to twenty-one per cent in mid-1930, and reached its peak in mid-1932 when almost thirty-two per cent of Australians were out of work… The Great Depression’s impact on Australian society was devastating. Without work and a steady income many people lost their homes and were forced to live in makeshift dwellings with poor heating and sanitation.” (“The Great Depression,” on the Australian Government website)

New artists and designers may have been emerging, new skyscrapers being built and the new ‘Modern Woman’ may have made her appearance but the changes only affected white, middle and upper social classes. Migrants, particularly those from Italy and southern Europe, were resented because they worked for less wages than others; and only brief mention is made of the White Australia policy in the exhibition but not by name (see text under Indigenous art and culture below). This section was more interested in how white artists appropriated Aboriginal design during this period for their own ends.

With this in mind, it is instructive to read sections of the illustrated handbook (not in the exhibition) produced by the National Museum of Victoria (in part, the forerunner of the NGV) to accompany a special exhibition of objects illustrating Australian Aboriginal Art in 1929:
.

“The subject of aboriginal Art – in this case the Art of the Australian Aboriginal – has to be approached with the utmost caution, for, though it comes directly within the domain of anthropology, it is in an indirect way a very important question in psychology and pedagogies. We possess some knowledge of our own mentality through the kind of offices of psychology; but though we have some – many in certain classes – material relics of our primitive and prehistoric ancestor, the only evidence of evolution of thought and the development of his powers of abstract conception must be derived from his art…

Still it appears possible that the study of primitive man, as represented by our Australian black, will throw some new light on the subject, and even if not more important than the old world pictographs themselves, his art work will enable the efforts of the Aurignacian and Magdalenian artists [cultures of the Upper Paleolithic in western Europe] to be better comprehended, and their import understood. But, for that study to achieve even a modicum of success, it is essential that the inquiring psychologist divest his mind of all civilized conceptions and mentality and assume those of the prehistoric man – or of the infant of the present day.”1

.
This is the attitude towards Aboriginal art that pervaded major art institutions right across Australia well into the 1950s. That the white has to “divest his mind of all civilized conceptions and mentality and assume those of the prehistoric man” – in other words, he has to become a savage – in order to understand Aboriginal art. It says a lot that the Trustees of the National Museum of Victoria then decided to reprint the illustrated handbook in 1952 without amendment, reprinting the publication originally used for the Exhibition in 1929. Nothing had changed in 22 years!

 

Australian Aboriginal Art 1962

 

National Museum of Victoria
Australian Aboriginal Art (cover)
1952 (reprint of 1929 illustrated handbook)
Brown, Prior, Anderson Pty. Ltd., Melbourne (publishers)
Trustees of the National Museum of Victoria
39 pages

 

 

Other small things in the exhibition rankle. The preponderance of the work of photographer Max Dupain is so overwhelming that from this exhibition, it would seem that he was the only photographer of note working in Australia throughout the decade. While Dupain was the first Modernist photographer in Australia, and a superb artist, Modernist photography was very much on the outer during most of the 1930s… the main art form of photography being that of Pictorialism. None of this under appreciated style of photography makes an appearance in this exhibition because it does not fit the theme of “Brave New World”. This dismisses the work of such people as Cecil Bostock, Harold Cazneaux, Henri Mallard, John Eaton et al as not producing “brave”, or valuable, portraits of a country during this time frame. This is a perspective that needs to be corrected.

Highlights for me in this exhibition included an earthenware vase by Ethel Blundell; a painting by that most incredible of atmospheric painters, Clarice Beckett (how I long to own one of her paintings!); a wonderful portrait by the underrated Cybil Craig; two stunning Keast Burke photographs; two beautiful stained glass windows of a male and female lifesaver; the slum photographs of F. Oswald Barnett (more please!); and the graphic covers of mostly short-lived radical magazines.

These highlights are worth the price of admission alone. A must see before the exhibition closes.

Marcus

  1. A. S. Kenyon. “The Art of the Australian Aboriginal.” in Australian Aboriginal Art. Melbourne: Trustees of the National Museum of Victoria, (1929) reprinted 1952, p. 15.

.
Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

The 1930s was a turbulent time in Australia’s history. During this decade major world events, including the Depression and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, shaped our nation’s evolving sense of identity. In the arts, progressive ideas jostled with reactionary positions, and artists brought substantial creative efforts to bear in articulating the pressing concerns of the period. Brave New World: Australia 1930s encompasses the multitude of artistic styles, both advanced and conservative, which were practised during the 1930s. Included are commercial art, architecture, fashion, industrial design, film and dance to present a complete picture of this dynamic time.

The exhibition charts the themes of celebrating technological progress and its antithesis in the nostalgia for pastoralism; the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ and consumerism; nationalism and the body culture movement; the increasing interest in Indigenous art against a backdrop of the government policy of assimilation and mounting calls for Indigenous rights; the devastating effects of the Depression and the rise of radical politics; and the arrival of European refugees and the increasing anxiety at the impending threat of the Second World War. Brave New World: Australia 1930s presents a fresh perspective on the extraordinary 1930s, revealing some of the social and political concerns that were pertinent then and remain so today.

Text from the NGV website

 

Fred Ward (designer) (Australia 1900-90)

 

Fred Ward (designer) (Australia 1900-90)
E. M. Vary, Fitzroy, Melbourne (attributed to) (manufacturer) active 1920s-40s

Sideboard
c. 1932
Mountain ash (Eucalyptus sp.), painted wood, painted plywood, steel
(a-e) 84.0 x 119.7 x 48.7 cm (overall)
Proposed acquisition

Side table
c. 1932
Mountain ash (Eucalyptus sp.), jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata), steel
55.7 x 66.0 x 49.2 cm
Proposed acquisition

Tray table
c. 1932
Mountain ash (Eucalyptus sp.), blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), steel
(a-b) 52.0 x 60.9 x 42.5 cm (overall)
Proposed acquisition

 

 

A new generation of artists and designers

While modern art was a source of debate and controversy throughout the 1930s, modernism in architecture, interior design, industrial design and advertising became highly fashionable. In Melbourne a small group of designers pioneered modern design in Australia. Furniture designer Fred Ward first designed and made furniture for his home in Eaglemont, where he had established a studio workshop. It was admired by friends and he was encouraged to produce furniture for sale. In 1932 Ward opened a shop in Collins Street, Melbourne. There he offered his furniture, as well as linens and Scandinavian glass. The fabrics for curtains and upholstery were printed by Australian designer Michael O’Connell with bold designs that shocked some but were favoured by a new generation looking to create modern interiors.

More than in most periods, in the 1930s art, design and architecture were closely integrated with the changing realities of contemporary life. It was a time when the last vestiges of the conservative art establishment were swept away by a new generation of artists and designers who were to drive Australian art in the second half of the twentieth century.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement at left and Ethel Blundell’s Vase centre on sidboard
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

 

Fred Ward was one of the first and most important designers of modern furniture in Australia. He began making furniture around 1930, and in 1932 opened a shop in Collins Street selling his furniture, as well as textiles by Michael O’Connell and other modern design pieces. In 1934 Ward went into partnership with Myer Emporium and established the Myer Design Unit, for which he designed a line of modular ‘unit’ furniture for commercial production. Ward’s simple, functional aesthetic and use of local timbers with a natural waxed finish was in contrast to the luxurious materials and decorative motifs of the contemporary Art Deco style.

The armchair, sideboard and occasional tables were designed by Fred Ward and purchased by Maie Casey in the early 1930s. The wife of R. G. Casey, federal treasurer in the Lyons Government, Maie was a prominent supporter of modern art and design. Moving to Canberra in 1932, she furnished her house at Duntroon in a modern style with furniture by Ward and textiles by Michael O’Connell. The design of Ward’s armchair closely resembles a 1920s armchair by German Bauhaus furniture designer Erich Dieckmann, who was known for his standardised wooden furniture based on geometric designs.

 

Michael O'Connell designer (England 1898-1976, Australia 1920-37) 'Textile' c. 1933

 

Michael O’Connell designer (England 1898-1976, Australia 1920-37)
Textile
c. 1933
Block printed linen
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1988

 

 

Michael O’Connell pioneered modernist textiles in Melbourne and was an influential advocate of modern design. Working with his wife Ella from his studio in Beaumaris, O’Connell used woodblocks and linocuts to hand print onto raw linens and silks, which were used for fashion garments and home furnishing. O’Connell’s boldly patterned and highly stylised designs were considered startlingly modern. Some of his early fabrics featured ‘jazz age’ scenes of nightclubs and dancing, while later motifs were based on Australian flora and fauna, or derived from Oceanic and Aboriginal art.

 

Sam Atyeo. 'Album of designs: tables' c. 1933 - c. 1936

 

Sam Atyeo
Album of designs: tables
c. 1933 – c. 1936
Album: watercolour, brush and coloured inks, coloured pencils, 14 designs tipped into an album of 16 grey pages, card covers, tape and stapled binding
30.0 x 19.2 cm (page) 30.0 x 20.8 x 0.8 cm (closed)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of the artist, 1988

 

 

Sam Atyeo was a leading figure in Melbourne’s emerging modernist circles in the early 1930s, the partner of artist Moya Dyring and lover of Sunday Reed. He had studied at the National Gallery School, where he was a brilliant and rebellious student. Around 1932 Atyeo became friendly with Cynthia Reed, who managed Fred Ward’s furniture shop and interior design consultancy on Collins Street. After she opened Cynthia Reed Modern Furnishings in Little Collins Street, Atyeo designed furniture for Reed, that was strongly influenced by Ward’s designs.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement' 1936

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Illustration for Kelvinator advertisement
1936
Gelatin silver photograph
32.8 x 25.3 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors’ Program 2000

 

Ethel Blundell. 'Vase' 1936

 

Ethel Blundell
Vase
1936
Earthenware
17.6 x 16.8 cm diameter
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Mrs Margaret Howie, Governor, 1999
© Ethel Blundell

 

 

Utopian cities

Modernity reflected what was new and progressive in Australian urban life. The image of the city became an allegory for this in art, and efficiency and speed became watchwords for modernity. Many artists celebrated the city and technological advancements in works utilising a modern style of hard-edged forms, flat colours and dynamic compositions. The engineering marvel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932, was an ongoing source of fascination for artists, as were images of building the city, industry and modern modes of transport.

The skyscraper was also a powerful symbol of modern prosperity, especially when the Great Depression cast doubt on the inevitability of progress; hence the advent of tall buildings in Australian cities was hailed with relief and optimism. In 1932, at the peak of the Depression, the tallest building in Melbourne was opened: the Manchester Unity Building at the corner of Swanston and Collins streets. With its ornamental tower and spire taking its overall height to 64 metres, the building was welcomed by The Age newspaper as ‘a new symbol of enterprise and confidence, undaunted by the “temporary eclipse” of the country’s economic fortune’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Seventh city of the Empire – Melbourne, Victoria at left; and Evening dress at right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64) 'Seventh city of the Empire - Melbourne, Victoria' 1930s

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64)
Seventh city of the Empire – Melbourne, Victoria
1930s
Colour lithograph printed by J. E. Hackett, Melbourne
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Grant Lee, 2007

 

 

Percy Trompf’s poster celebrates Melbourne’s first skyscraper, the iconic Manchester Unity Building on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets. Designed by architect Marcus Barlow in the Art Deco ‘Gothic’ style, it was built at high speed between 1930 and 1932, and provided much needed employment during the Depression. At twelve storeys high and topped with a decorative tower it was Melbourne’s tallest building and contained the city’s first escalators. A powerful symbol of the city’s modernity, it was often featured in images of Melbourne.

 

Unknown, Australia 'Evening dress' c. 1935

 

Unknown, Australia
Evening dress
c. 1935
Silk
144.0 cm (centre back), 36.0 cm (waist, flat)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Miss Irene Mitchell, 1975

 

Ethel Spowers (Australia 1890-1947, England and France 1921-24) 'The works, Yallourn' 1933

 

Ethel Spowers (Australia 1890-1947, England and France 1921-24)
The works, Yallourn
1933
Colour linocut, ed. 3/50
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Joseph Brown Collection
Presented through the NGV Foundation by Dr Joseph Brown AO OBE, Honorary Life Benefactor, 2004

 

 

Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme were leading figures in modern art in Melbourne. In the 1920s they studied with modernist Claude Flight at the Grosvenor School in London, where they learnt to make colour linocuts that followed Flight’s principles of rhythmic design combined with flat colour. In April 1933 Spowers and Syme visited the Yallourn Power Station in Gippsland, which had been opened in 1928 and was the largest supplier of electricity to the state.

 

Vida Lahey (Australia 1882-1968) 'Sultry noon (Central Station Brisbane)' 1931

 

Vida Lahey (Australia 1882-1968)
Sultry noon (Central Station Brisbane)
1931
Oil on canvas on plywood
44.7 x 49.2 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Purchased 1983
© QAGOMA

 

Clarice Beckett (Australia 1887-1935) 'Taxi rank' c. 1931

 

Clarice Beckett (Australia 1887-1935)
Taxi rank
c. 1931
Oil on canvas on board
Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth

 

Installation view of Herbert Badham's 'George Street, Sydney' (1934) from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Herbert Badham’s George Street, Sydney (1934) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

After serving in the Royal Australian Navy during the First World War, Herbert Badham studied at the Sydney Art School and began exhibiting in 1927. In his paintings he was a keen observer of everyday urban life: streets with shoppers, city workers on their lunch break and drinkers in the pub were painted in a contemporary, hard-edged realist style.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Rush hour in King's Cross' 1938, printed c. 1986

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Rush hour in King’s Cross
1938, printed c. 1986
Gelatin silver photograph
41.2 x 40.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Mr A.C. Goode, Fellow, 1987

 

 

During the 1930s the city provided a rich source of imagery for artists working in modern styles, who celebrated the speed and efficiency of modern transport technology and expanding road and rail networks. Yet as car ownership increased during the 1930s, larger cities began to suffer congestion and the rush hour became part of urban life. Throughout the decade the pace and stress of modern life became a topic of public debate, with conservative commentators decrying this transformation of the Australian lifestyle.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Rush hour in King’s Cross at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Grace Cossington Smith’s The Bridge in-curve at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Grace Cossington Smith. 'The Bridge in-curve' 1930

 

Grace Cossington Smith (Australia 1892-1984, England and Germany 1912-14, England and Italy 1949-51)
The Bridge in-curve
1930
Tempera on cardboard
83.6 x 111.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by the National Gallery Society of Victoria, 1967
© Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

 

 

The slow rise of the Sydney Harbour Bridge above the city was recorded by numerous painters, printmakers and photographers, including Sydney modernist Grace Cossington Smith. Her iconic The Bridge-in-curve depicts the bridge just before its two arches were joined in August 1930, and conveys the sense of wonder, achievement and hope that was inspired by this engineering marvel. By painting the emerging, rather than the complete bridge, Cossington Smith also focuses our attention on the energy and ambition required to create it.

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Trains passing' 1940

 

Installation view of Frank Hinder’s Trains passing (1940) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Trains passing' 1940

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34)
Trains passing
1940
Oil on composition board
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1974

 

 

Frank Hinder was one of the first abstract artists in Australia. After living and studying in the United States, Hinder and his wife, the American sculptor Margel, returned to Sydney in 1934. There they became part of a small avant-garde group that included Grace Crowley, Rah Fizelle, Ralph Balson and the German sculptor and art historian Eleanore Lange, all of whom were interested in Cubist, Constructivist and Futurist art. Hinder later said that this work was inspired by seeing Lange, sitting next to him on a train, reflected in the windows of a passing train.

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Commuters' 1938

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34)
Commuters
1938
Tempera on paper on board
Private collection

 

Victorian Railways, Melbourne (publisher) Australia 1856-1976 'The Victorian Railways present The Spirit of Progress' 1937

 

Victorian Railways, Melbourne (publisher) Australia 1856-1976
The Victorian Railways present The Spirit of Progress
1937
Booklet: colour photolithographs and letterpress,
12 pages, cardboard cover
printed by Queen City Printers, Melbourne
20.8 x 26.8 cm (closed)
State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Launched in November 1937, The Spirit of Progress express passenger train was a source of immense pride to Victorians. Built in Newport, Victoria, the train featured many innovations, including all-steel carriages and full air-conditioning. Designed in the Art Deco, streamlined style by architectural firm Stephenson & Turner, the passenger carriages were fitted out to a level of comfort not previously seen in Australia, and included a full dining carriage. The train ran between Melbourne and the New South Wales state border at Albury, the longest non-stop train journey in Australia at that time, at an average speed of 84 kilometres per hour.

 

Installation view of Ivor Francis' 'Speed!' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Ivor Francis’ Speed! from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Ivor Francis (England 1906-Australia 1993, Australia from 1924) 'Speed!' 1931

 

Ivor Francis (England 1906-Australia 1993, Australia from 1924)
Speed!
1931
Colour process block print
Art Gallery of South Australia
Adelaide South Australian Government Grant 1986

 

Randille, Melbourne (maker) active 1930s 'Night gown' c. 1938

 

Randille, Melbourne (maker) active 1930s
Night gown
c. 1938
Silk (a) 166.0 cm (centre back) 38.9 cm (waist, flat) (dress) (b) 121.0 cm (centre back) 38.0 cm (waist, flat) (slip)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by Mrs A. G. Pringle, 1982

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Rush hour in King’s Cross left and Frank Hinder’s Jackhammer third from right and Margel Hinder’s Man with jackhammer second right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Margel Hinder (United States 1906-Australia 1995, Australia from 1934) 'Man with jackhammer' 1939

 

Margel Hinder (United States 1906-Australia 1995, Australia from 1934)
Man with jackhammer
1939
Cedar
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through the NGV Foundation with the assistance of J. B. Were & Son, Governor, 2001

 

 

American-born Margel Hinder was one of Australia’s leading modernist sculptors. She had studied art in Boston, where she met and married Sydney artist Frank Hinder. In 1934 they moved to Australia and became an important part of Sydney’s small modern art scene. In Man with jackhammer Hinder has simplified and contained the figure within a square frame, the strong diagonal form of the jackhammer creating a sense of compressed energy and force. Man and machine have fused in this celebration of industry and progress.

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34) 'Jackhammer' 1936

 

Frank Hinder (Australia 1906-92, United States 1927-34)
Jackhammer
1936
Airbrush on black paper
52.0 x 38.0 cm
Private collection, Sydney
© Enid Hawkins

 

 

Modern Woman

In the 1930s the new ‘Modern Woman’ made her appearance as a more serious and emancipated version of the giddy 1920s ‘flapper’. A woman who worked, she often lived alone in one of the new city apartment buildings, visited nightclubs and showed less interest in traditional marriage and child rearing. A lean body type became fashionable and was enhanced by the lengthened hemlines and defined waists introduced by French couturier Jean Patou in 1929. This slender silhouette was supported by form-fitting foundation garments by manufacturers such as Berlei.

The Modern Woman became one of the most potent images of contemporary life, being celebrated in women’s magazines such as the ultra-stylish Home and the Australian Women’s Weekly, launched in 1933. While such magazines were congratulating her and promoting new consumer goods to the Modern Woman, at the same time she was criticised by conservative commentators. In 1937 photographer Max Dupain wrote: ‘There must be a great shattering of modern values if woman is to continue to perpetuate the race… In her shred of a dress and little helmet of a hat, her cropped hair, and stark bearing, the modern woman is a sort of a soldier… It is not her fault it is her doom’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Peter Purves Smith’s Maisie left, Cybil Craig’s Peggy second left and Peter Purves Smith’s Lucile at  top right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Cybil Craig’s Peggy second left and Lina Bryans The babe is wise at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40) 'Maisie' 1938-39

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40)
Maisie
1938-39
Gouache
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Bequest of Lady Maisie Drysdale 2001

 

 

In 1937 the striking, auburn-haired Maisie Newbold was a student at the George Bell School in Melbourne, where she met fellow student Peter Purves Smith and his best friend Russell Drysdale. Maisie and Purves Smith were married in 1946, only three years before latter’s premature death from tuberculosis. Purves Smith painted this portrait at the start of their relationship. It depicts Maisie as a stylish woman wearing the latest fashion, the angularity of her features contrasted by the soft fur of her collar and feathers of her hat. Many years later Maisie married Drysdale.

 

Installation view of Sybil Craig's work 'Peggy' c. 1932

 

Installation view of Sybil Craig’s work Peggy c. 1932
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Sybil Craig (England 1901 - Australia 1909, Australia from 1902) 'Peggy' c. 1932

 

Sybil Craig (England 1901 – Australia 1909, Australia from 1902)
Peggy
c. 1932
Oil on canvas
40.4 x 30.4 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1978
© The Estate of Sybil Craig

 

Lina Bryans (Germany (of Australian parents) 1909-Australia 2000, Australia from 1910) 'The babe is wise' 1940

 

Lina Bryans (Germany (of Australian parents) 1909-Australia 2000, Australia from 1910)
The babe is wise
1940
Oil on cardboard
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Miss Jean Campbell, 1962

 

 

Lina Bryans’s portrait of author Jean Campbell is titled after Campbell’s 1939 novel The Babe is Wise, a contemporary story set in Melbourne and in which the main protagonists are European migrants. A well-known figure in Melbourne’s literary circles, Campbell was noted for her ‘quick and slightly audacious wit’. Bryans had begun painting in 1937 with the support of William Frater. In the late 1930s she lived at Darebin Bridge House, which became an informal artists’ colony and meeting place for writers associated with the journal Meanjin.

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40) 'Lucile' 1937

 

Peter Purves Smith (Australia 1912-49, England 1935-36, England and France 1938-40)
Lucile
1937
Oil on board
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2011 with funds raised through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Appeal

 

Nora Heysen (Australia 1911-2003, England and Italy 1934-37) 'Self-portrait' 1932

 

Nora Heysen (Australia 1911-2003, England and Italy 1934-37)
Self-portrait
1932
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Acquired with the assistance of the Masterpieces for the Nation Fund 2011

 

 

During the first decade of her life as a professional artist, Nora Heysen completed numerous self-portraits. In many of these she depicts herself in the act of drawing or painting, holding a palette and brush or with other accoutrements of the artist, and thereby asserting her professional identity. Yet these are also highly charged works in which Heysen scrutinises herself (and the viewer) with an unflinching and unsmiling gaze.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Arthur Challen’s Miss Moira Madden above chair
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Arthur Challen 'Miss Moira Madden' 1937

 

Arthur Challen
Miss Moira Madden
1937
oil on canvas
89.8 x 77.4 cm (framed)
State Library of Victoria
Gift of Mrs S. M. Challen, 1966
© The Estate of Arthur Challen

 

 

Body culture

The terrible physical losses and psychological traumas of the First World War changed Australian society and prompted anxious concerns about the direction of the nation. For some this meant an inward-looking isolationism, a desire that Australian culture should develop independently and untouched by the ‘degenerate’ influences of Europe.

The search for rejuvenation frequently involved explorations of the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the human body. In the hands of artists, corporeal forms came to symbolise nationhood, most often expressed through references to the art of Classical Greece and mythological subjects. The evolution of a new Australian ‘type’ was also proposed in the 1930s – a white Australian drawn from British stock, but with an athletic and streamlined shape honed by time spent swimming and surfing on local beaches.

This art often has a distinctive quality to it, which in the light of history can sometimes make for disquieting viewing. With the terrible knowledge of how the Nazi Party in Germany subsequently used eugenics in its systematic slaughter of those with so-called ‘bad blood’, the Australian enthusiasm for ‘body culture’ can now seem problematic. Images of muscular nationalism soon lost their cache in Australia following the Second World War, tainted by undesirable fascistic overtones.

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 - Australia 1974, Australia from 1904) 'Harvest' c. 1940

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 – Australia 1974, Australia from 1904)
Harvest
c. 1940
Gelatin silver photograph (25.6 x 30.5 cm)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gerstl Bequest, 2000

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 - Australia 1974, Australia from 1904) 'Husbandry 1' c. 1940

 

Keast Burke (New Zealand 1896 – Australia 1974, Australia from 1904)
Husbandry 1
c. 1940
Gelatin silver photograph
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Gift of Iris Burke 1989

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Discus thrower' 1937, printed (c. 1939)

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Discus thrower
1937, printed (c. 1939)
Gelatin silver photograph
38.5 x 37.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 2003

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Souvenir of Cronulla' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Souvenir of Cronulla
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of National Australia Bank Limited, Honorary Life Benefactor, 1992

 

 

In the 1930s Max Dupain responded to Henri Bergson’s book Creative Evolution (1907) in which he considered creativity and intuition as central to the renewed development of society, and the artist as prime possessor of these powers. Vitalism, as this philosophy was termed, was believed to be expressed through polarised sexual energies. In this work Dupain focuses on the sexually differentiated ‘energies’ of men and women, associating women with the forces of nature.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Daphne Mayo’s A young Australian in foreground
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Daphne Mayo (Australia 1895-1982, England 1919-23, France 1923-25) 'A young Australian' 1930, cast 1931

 

Daphne Mayo (Australia 1895-1982, England 1919-23, France 1923-25)
A young Australian
1930, cast 1931
Bronze, marble
(a-b) 51.0 x 35.2 x 18.1 cm (overall)
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Purchased 1930
© 1982 by The Surf Life Saving Foundation and the Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust (Q.)

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Dorothy Thornhill’s Neo-classical nudes and Resting Diana at left; Tom Purvis’ Australia’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations (wall print) at centre rear; and Jean Broome-Norton’s Abundance on plinth at right
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Tom Purvis (England 1888-1959) 'Australia's 150th Anniversary Celebrations' c. 1938

 

Tom Purvis (England 1888-1959)
Australia’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations
c. 1938
Colour lithograph
Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney

 

Installation view of Dorothy Thornhill's 'Neo-classical nudes' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Dorothy Thornhill’s Neo-classical nudes from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Dorothy Thornhill (England 1910 - Australia 1987, New Zealand 1920-29, Australia from 1929) 'Resting Diana' 1931

 

Dorothy Thornhill (England 1910 – Australia 1987, New Zealand 1920-29, Australia from 1929)
Resting Diana
1931
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1977

 

 

The invocation of the Classical body as a modern prototype was a powerful idea in the 1930s. The Graeco- Roman goddess Diana, the virgin patron goddess of the hunt, was popularly invoked as an ideal of female perfection, and represented with a slender and athletic physique. Dorothy Thornhill’s Diana is a remarkable visualisation of such a ‘modern Diana’, her angular body and defined musculature reflecting the masculinisation of female bodies at this time. She is a formidable presence, the quiver of arrows slung nonchalantly across her shoulders a trophy of her victory over the male gender.

 

Jean Broome-Norton (Australia 1911-2002) 'Abundance' 1934

 

Jean Broome-Norton (Australia 1911-2002)
Abundance
1934
Plaster, bronze patination
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of ICI Australia Limited, Fellow, 1994

 

 

“High-rise buildings, fast trains and engineering feats such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge jostled against the Great Depression, conservatism and a looming Second World War during the 1930s, one of the most turbulent decades in Australian history. The major exhibition at the NGV, Brave New World: Australia 1930s, will explore the way artists and designers engaged with these major issues providing a fresh look at a period characterised by both optimism and despair. The exhibition will present a broad-ranging collection of more than 200 works spanning photography, painting, printmaking, sculpture and decorative arts as well as design, architecture, fashion, graphics, film and dance.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, commented, “Brave New World explores an important period of Australian art history during which Abstraction, Surrealism and Expressionism first emerged, and women artists arose as trailblazers of the modern art movement. It will offer an immersive look at the full spectrum of visual and creative culture of the period, from Max Dupain’s iconic depictions of the Australian body and beach culture to a vast display of nearly 40 Art Deco radios, which were an indispensable item for the Australian home during the 1930s.”

Presented thematically, Brave New World will show how artists and designers responded to major social and political concerns of the 1930s. The Great Depression, which saw Australia’s unemployment rate rise to 32% by 1932, is seen through the eyes of photographer F. Oswald Barnett in his powerful images of poverty-stricken inner Melbourne suburbs such as Fitzroy, Collingwood and Carlton, and in the works of Danila Vassilieff, Yosl Bergner, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker who were among the first artists to depict Australia’s working class and destitute.

In contrast, many other artists at the time chose to focus upon the vibrant city streets, cafes and buildings of contemporary Australian cities, such as renowned modernist Grace Cossington Smith with her energetic canvasses of flat colours and abstracted forms. Other artists featured in Brave New World including Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elioth Gruner concentrated on more traditional scenes of the Australian bush, which was seen as a place of respite from the frenetic pace of modern city life.

The exhibition will explore artists’ responses to the growing calls for Indigenous rights during the 1930s, which was accompanied by a rising interest in Aboriginal art and particularly the work of Albert Namatjira, the first Indigenous artist of renown in Australia; and the rise of the ‘modern woman’, a female who favoured urban living, freedom and equality over marriage and child rearing.

The 1930s also saw the idea of the ‘Australian body’, a tanned, muscular archetype shaped by sand and surf, come to the fore of the Australian identity. Artists who engaged with this idea, including Max Dupain, Charles Meere and Olive Cotton, will be presented in Brave New World. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated, 212-page hardback publication, featuring essays by leading writers on each of the exhibition themes. A series of public programs will also be offered including a major symposium, an Art Deco walking tour of Melbourne and a dance performance, recreating Demon machine (1924) by the Bodenweiser company that toured Australia in the late 1930s as well as an original solo by the choreographer, Carol Brown (NZ).

Press release from the NGV

 

Nanette Kuehn (Germany 1911-Australia 1980, Australia from 1937) 'Borislav Runanine and Tamara Grigorieva in Jeux D'Enfants, original Ballets Russes, Australian tour' 1939-40

 

Nanette Kuehn (Germany 1911-Australia 1980, Australia from 1937)
Borislav Runanine and Tamara Grigorieva in Jeux D’Enfants, original Ballets Russes, Australian tour
1939-40
Gelatin silver photograph
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet Collection. Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998

 

 

The expressive body: dance in Australia

If modern art encapsulated the ideals and conflicting forces of the early twentieth century, then modern dance embodied its restless vitality and the quest for a different kind of subjectivity and expression. To many, modern dance is the pivotal art form for a mid twentieth century concerned with plasticity, the expressive body and tensions between the individual and its collective formation.

The decade of the 1930s is framed by the 1928-29 tour of Anna Pavlova’s dance company and the three tours of the remnant Ballets Russes companies (1936-37, 1938-39,1939-40) that excited many aspiring modernist artists. These tours sowed the seeds for subsequent ballet narratives in Australia, because the eruption of war in 1939 meant that Ballets Russes dancers, including Helene Kirsova and Edouard Borovansky, stayed in the country and established ballet companies. While trained in Russian dance technique, these artists were also influenced by the aesthetics of change in European art and dance that included new bodily techniques, dynamic movement patterns and modern technologies. It was the individual dancers of modern dance, however, including Louise Lightfoot and Sonia Revid, who produced the expressive intensity of a more autonomous art of movement.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA featuring a wall print of Sonia Revid dancing on Brighton beach c. 1935 by an unknown Australian photographer
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Australia, Unknown photographer. 'Sonia Revid dancing on Brighton beach' c. 1935

 

Australia, Unknown photographer
Sonia Revid dancing on Brighton beach
c. 1935
Courtesy of State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Sonia Revid was one of the leading proponents of modern interpretative dance in Melbourne. Born in Latvia, she studied with the great dancer Mary Wigman in Germany before coming to Australia in 1932. Revid is credited with introducing the ‘German Dance’ to Australian audiences, and in the mid 1930s established the Sonia Revid School of Art and Body Culture in Collins Street. She composed her own dances, one of the best known being Bushfire drama (1940), based on the 1939 Victoria Bushfires.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Ballet (Emmy Towsey and Evelyn Ippen, Bodenwieser Dancers performing Waterlilies)' 1937, printed (c. 1939)

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Ballet (Emmy Towsey and Evelyn Ippen, Bodenwieser Dancers performing Waterlilies)
1937, printed (c. 1939)
Gelatin silver photograph
44.5 x 33.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 2003

 

Jack Cato (Australia 1889-1971, England 1909-14, South Africa 1914-20) 'Helene Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Les Presages, Monte Carlo Russian Ballet' 1936-37

 

Jack Cato (Australia 1889-1971, England 1909-14, South Africa 1914-20)
Helene Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Les Presages, Monte Carlo Russian Ballet
1936-37
Gelatin silver photograph
24.8 x 19.4 cm
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet Collection
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998

 

 

Choreographed by Léonide Massine in 1933, Les Presages (Destiny) was a popular and avant-garde work during the Ballets Russes tours to Australia in 1936-37. It was one of the first contemporary ballets to be choreographed to an existing musical score, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Portrayed in this picture are two principal dancers from the Monte Carlo Ballets Russes: Hélène Kirsova, who remained in Australia and formed her own ballet company in Sydney in the early 1940s, and Igor Youskevitch, who became a leading American ballet dancer, appearing here in the role of the Hero.

 

Evelyn Ippen designer and maker active in Australia 1930s 'Dress for Slavonic Dances' 1939

 

Evelyn Ippen designer and maker active in Australia 1930s
Dress for Slavonic Dances
1939
Cotton, silk (velvet) (appliqué), elastic, metal (zip) for a production of the Bodenwieser Ballet, choreographed by Gertrud Bodenwieser
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne
Bodenwieser Collection. Gift of Barbara Cuckson, 2000

 

 

The Slavonic Dances were choreographed by Gertrud Bodenwieser to represent what she described as the ‘vigour and passionate feelings of the Slavonic people’, and toured with her first company in Australia in 1939. Loosely using folk-dance motifs, this ensemble work would have been a stylish crowd-pleaser in contrast to more serious dances. The appliqué and colourful flower motifs on this dress are similar to designs by Natalia Goncharova for the Ballets Russes, although the simplified appeal of its ‘red bodice, long, swirling skirt, and gathered white sleeves’ were probably designed by one of the company dancers, Evelyn Ippen.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Tamara Tchinarova in Presages' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Tamara Tchinarova in Presages
Published in Art in Australia, February 15, 1937
National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne Shaw Research Library

 

 

Australia Tunes Into The World

These radios comprise a selection of Australian designed and manufactured tabletop models from the 1930s at a time when this new method of communication became an integral part of every home. They reflect the rapid spread of the streamlined style to Australia from the United States, England and Europe, where industrial designers applied machine-age styling to everyday household appliances. The use of new synthetic plastics (Bakelite) and mass production helped to make radios affordable for ordinary people, even in the depths of the Depression, and radio transmission brought the world into every Australian home. As cheap alternatives to the expensive wooden console in the lounge room, these small, portable radios allowed individual family members to listen to serials, quizzes and popular music in other rooms such as the kitchen, bedroom and verandah, as well as in the workplace.

Radios of the 1930s are now appreciated as quintessential examples of Art Deco styling, and one of the first expressions of art meeting industry. These colourful and elegant radio sets were one of the first pieces of modern styling in the Australian home. They were also a symbol of modern technology and a new future.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Australian Art Deco radios from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer) 'Mullard' 1938

 

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer)
Mullard (white)
1938
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer)
Mullard (speckled green)
1938
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch

Airzone (1931) Ltd, Sydney (manufacturer)
Mullard (black)
1938
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch
Photo © Peter Sheridan

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913 'AWA 'Egg crate' (various colours)' 1938

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913
AWA ‘Egg crate’ (various colours)
1938
Bakelite
21.0 x 33.0 x 19.0 cm (each)
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch
Photo © Peter Sheridan

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913 'AWA Radiolette 'Empire State' and cigarette box (green)' 1934

 

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., Sydney (manufacturer) est. 1913
AWA Radiolette ‘Empire State’ and cigarette box (green)
1934
Bakelite
(a) 28.0 x 27.0 x 15.0 cm (radio) (b) 8.0 x 8.0 x 4.5 cm (cigarette box)
Collection of Peter Sheridan and Jan Hatch
Photo © Peter Sheridan

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of Australian Art Deco radios from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

 

Sun and surf

The beach was a complex location in the Australian creative imagination. It was a democratic site in which the trappings of wealth and position were abandoned as people stripped down to their bathers. It was a place of hedonistic pleasures that offered sensuous engagement with sun and surf, and a primitive landscape where natural forces restored the bodies of those depleted by modern life. It was a playground for the tourist that was considered distinctively Australian. As war loomed again in the late 1930s, it was also a pseudo-militaristic zone in which the lifesaver was honed for ‘battle’ in the surf.

The lifesavers that helped protect the beach-going public were regularly praised as physical exemplars who could build the eugenic stock of the nation. As the Second World War approached, the connection of these trained lifesavers to military servicemen also became painfully apparent.

Male lifesavers were used by artists in promoting Australia to tourists: a poster commemorating the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 positioned the lifesaver as the quintessential representative of Australian manhood. Douglas Annand and Arthur Whitmore’s virile lifesaver proudly gestures towards the new bridge, his muscles as strong and protective as the steel girders that span the harbour.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'On the beach. Man, woman, boy' 1938

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
On the beach. Man, woman, boy
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
39.2 x 47.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

Showing a naked family on the beach, Max Dupain’s work is a perfect illustration of social concerns of the times. As Australia moved closer to engagement in another world war, fears about the poor physical fitness of the population were debated, with a ‘national fitness’ campaign instituted by the government in 1938. Dupain’s father, George, was one of the country’s first physical educationalists, opening the Dupain Institute of Physical Education and Medical Gymnastics in 1900 and writing extensively on the subject of health and fitness. Max Dupain attended the gym and was well versed in contemporary concerns about fitness.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of 'Male lifesaver, window' and 'Female lifesaver, window' (both c. 1935)

 

Installation view of Male lifesaver, window and Female lifesaver, window (both c. 1935) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Unknown, Melbourne. 'Male lifesaver, window' c. 1935

 

Unknown, Melbourne
Male lifesaver, window
c. 1935
Stained glass, lead
47.5 x 40.8 cm
Williamstown Swimming and Life Saving Club, Williamstown
Donated by C. J Dennis

 

 

‘On golden and milky sands, bodily excellence is displayed the year round, clearly defined by the sun in an atmosphere as viewless and benign as the air of Hellas as described by Euripides.’

J. S. Macdonald, 1931

 

Unknown, Melbourne. 'Female lifesaver, window' c. 1935

 

Unknown, Melbourne
Female lifesaver, window
c. 1935
Stained glass, lead
47.0 x 40.9 cm
Williamstown Swimming and Life Saving Club, Williamstown
Donated by Councillor R. T. Bell

 

 

Although much was made of the ‘gods of the golden sand’, as one poet glowingly described lifesavers, lifesaving clubs were not entirely male in membership. Women lifesavers also made their mark, albeit in more limited numbers and with much less recognition. At the Williamstown Lifesaving Club in Melbourne a woman lifesaver was included in this fine and very rare stained glass window that, along with its counterpart featuring a male lifesaver, graced the newly established clubhouse around 1935.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with the male and female lifesavers (centre); Max Dupain’s The carnival at Bondi (fourth from right); Sydney Bridge celebrations (second right); and Douglas Annand and Max Dupain’s Australia (right)
Photo: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Max Dupain. 'Sunbaker' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Sunbaker
(1938), dated 1937, printed c. 1975
Gelatin silver photograph
38.0 x 43.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board, 1976

 

 

Taken on a camping trip near Culburra, on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, in January 1938, Max Dupain’s original version of the Sunbaker was a much darker image that existed at the time only in an album gifted to his friend Chris Van Dyke. Dupain lost the original negative and printed this variant version in 1975 for an exhibition. It is an image that is now considered an icon in Australian photography, and has come to represent key values of the interest in ‘body culture’, celebrating health and fitness in the context of the beach.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'The carnival at Bondi' 1938

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
The carnival at Bondi
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

‘The lifesaving teams … are splendid examples of the physique, resourcefulness and vitality of our youth and manhood. They are typical of the outdoor life which Australians lead and they are living testimonies to the value of surfing and the vigor and stamina of our race.’

DAILY EXAMINER, July 1935

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Manly' 1938, printed c. 1986

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Manly
1938, printed c. 1986
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from funds donated by Hallmark Cards Australia Pty Ltd, 1987

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926) 'The seaside calls - go by train - take a Kodak' 1930s

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926)
The seaside calls – go by train – take a Kodak
1930s
Colour lithograph
Printed by F. W. Niven, Melbourne
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Grant Lee

 

 

Gert Sellheim was born to German parents in Estonia, at that time part of the Russian Empire. After studying architecture in Europe he travelled to Western Australia in 1926, before settling in Melbourne in 1931, where he began working as an industrial and commercial designer. Working for the Australian National Travel Association, Sellheim created a series of posters promoting beach holidays, which incorporated Art Deco motifs and typography. His most famous design is the flying kangaroo logo for Qantas, which he created in 1947.

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76) Arthur Whitmore (Australia 1910-65) 'Sydney Bridge celebrations' 1932

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76)
Arthur Whitmore (Australia 1910-65)
Sydney Bridge celebrations
1932
Colour lithograph
47.6 x 63.6 cm (image and sheet)
Australian National Maritime Museum Purchased, 1991
© Courtesy of the artist’s estate

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76) Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Australia' c. 1937

 

Douglas Annand (Australia 1903-76)
Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Australia
c. 1937
Colour and process lithograph
105.3 x 68.4 cm (image and sheet)
Australian National Maritime Museum Purchased, 1991
© Courtesy of the artist’s estate

 

Douglas Annand (attributed to) (Australia 1903-76) 'Follow the sun - Australia's 150th Anniversary celebrations' 1938

 

Douglas Annand (attributed to) (Australia 1903-76)
Follow the sun – Australia’s 150th Anniversary celebrations
1938
Colour lithograph and photolithograph
Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney

 

 

The 1930s were the heyday of the travel poster. Posters were commissioned by railway and tourism groups or shipping companies and airlines to promote Australian holiday destinations, both at home and overseas. The Australian National Travel Association was formed in 1929 to promote Australia to overseas markets. As part of its strategy it commissioned posters from leading graphic artists, such as Percy Trompf, James Northfield and Douglas Annand. From the late 1920s Australia began to actively promote itself to the world by using the beach, sun and surf as motifs.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with the work of John Rowell, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Gert Sellheim and Percy Trompf on the far wall, and Robert E. Coates Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World’s Fair (1939) on the projector screen at left
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

 

The Australian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair projected an image of Australia as a young and healthy nation, a place of industry, sport and tourism. Designed by John Oldham of Sydney architectural firm Stephenson & Turner, the modern design of the building was complemented by Douglas Annand’s interior displays featuring the latest graphic design, and audio-visual and photomontage techniques. These photographs of the Australian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair were taken by commercial photographer Robert E. Coates.

 

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

Installation view of Robert E. Coates' 'Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World's Fair' (1939)

 

Installation views of Robert E. Coates’ Photographs of Australian Pavilion at New York World’s Fair (1939) (digital images, looped)

 

 

Pastoral landscapes

Along with the beach, another national myth evolved around the Australian bush. Although most Australians lived in cities, in the years following the First World War the nation became increasingly informed by a mythology centred on the bush and the landscape. For those who considered the modern city a profoundly depleting force, the bush was a touchstone of traditional ‘values’. It was nostalgically conceived of as an idyllic natural realm whose soil, literally and metaphorically, sustained its people. Both the classical Pastoral ideal of a land in which only sheep and cattle roam, and the Georgic tradition, which celebrated the achievements of agriculture, became dominant themes in landscape art.

Pastoral landscapes were admired above all as representing the antithesis of ‘decadent’ modern life. As art critic and gallery director J. S. Macdonald wrote, such art would ‘point the way in which life should be lived in Australia, with the maximum of flocks and the minimum of factories’. With their emphasis on farming and pastoral industries, such works affirmed white landownership, with Indigenous people largely absent.

 

John Rowell (Australia 1894-1973) 'Blue hills' c. 1936

 

John Rowell (Australia 1894-1973)
Blue hills
c. 1936
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1936

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926) 'Spring in the Grampians' 1930s

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926)
Spring in the Grampians
1930s
Colour photolithograph
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased 2000

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18) 'The fair musterer' c. 1935

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18)
The fair musterer
c. 1935
Oil on canvas
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 1971

 

 

As a young artist Hilda Rix Nicholas had a successful career in France before returning to Australia after the First World War. In 1934, several years after the birth of her son, Rix Nicholas returned to painting and depicted her new life living on the family property Knockalong, on the Monaro Plains in New South Wales. Depicting the governess of her young son holding the reins of her horse, dog at her feet, and sheep in the distance, in The fair musterer Rix Nicholas claims for women an active role in the masculine world of pastoral Australia.

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18) 'The shepherd of Knockalong' 1933

 

Hilda Rix Nicholas (Australia 1884-1961, Europe 1911-18)
The shepherd of Knockalong
1933
Oil on canvas
Collection of Peter Rix, Sydney
Courtesy of Deutscher & Hackett

 

 

Depicting the artist’s husband and young son, The shepherd of Knockalong is a reminder of the traditional importance of the wool industry to the nation’s economy. With his legs firmly connected to the ground and pictured as a large figure dominating the landscape setting, the farmer is the benign owner and ‘shepherd’ of the land spreading out behind him, the presence of his young son ensuring dynastic succession. At a time when Aboriginal people were confined to reservations and denied citizenship, Hilda Rix Nicholas’s painting can also be considered as an assertion of the British colonisers’ right to ownership of Australia.

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64) 'Western Australia' c. 1936

 

Percy Trompf (Australia 1902-64)
Western Australia
c. 1936
Colour lithograph
Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney

 

 

Indigenous art and culture

During the 1930s Aboriginal people were often pejoratively referred to as a ‘dying race’. The Australian Government continued to enforce a ‘divide and rule’ assimilationist policy. Determined by eugenics, this entailed removing Aboriginal people of mixed descent from their families and reserves, and absorbing them into the dominant society, with consequent loss of their own language and customary ritual practices. Increasingly during this period, Aboriginal people formed their own organisations and agitated for full citizenship rights.

This was also a decade that saw increasing awareness of, and interest in, Indigenous art. Albert Namatjira astonished Melbourne audiences at his first solo exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1938. Comprising forty-one watercolour paintings, all of his works sold within three days of the opening. The following year the Art Gallery of South Australia purchased one of Namatjira’s works. Indigenous art also inspired non-Indigenous artists, including Margaret Preston and Frances Derham who appropriated design elements in their works. The idea of ‘Aboriginalism’, in which settlers sought an Australian identity in the context of Britishness and the Empire, saw artists travelling to the outback to paint and sketch subjects they believed connected them to Indigenous history.

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894–1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08) Kangaroo and 'Aboriginal motifs' 1925-1940

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894–1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08)
Kangaroo and Aboriginal motifs
1925-1940
Linocut printed in brown ink on buff paper
4.6 x 7.3 cm (image) 12.6 x 10.3 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Richard Hodgson Derham, 1988
© Estate of Frances Derham

 

 

Best known as a progressive educator and advocate of children’s art, Frances Derham was also an active member of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria, and with potter Allan Lowe shared Margaret Preston’s interest in the appropriation of Indigenous art. From the mid 1920s Derham began to incorporate Aboriginal motifs into her linocuts and in 1929, synchronous with the exhibition Australian Aboriginal Art at the Museum of Victoria, Derham presented a lecture to the Arts and Crafts Society, entitled ‘The Interest of Aboriginal Art to the Modern Designer’.

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08) 'Kangaroo (at the zoo)' c. 1931

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08)
Kangaroo (at the zoo)
c. 1931
Linocut printed in brown ink on Chinese paper
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Richard Hodgson Derham, 1988

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08) 'The Aboriginal artist' 1931

 

Frances Derham (Australia 1894-1987, New Zealand and Ireland 1902-08)
The Aboriginal artist
1931
Colour linocut on Japanese paper
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mr Richard Hodgson Derham, 1988

 

 

Margaret Preston (Australia 1875-1963, Germany and France 1904-07, France, England and Ireland 1912-19) 'Shoalhaven Gorge, New South Wales' 1940-1941

 

Margaret Preston (Australia 1875-1963, Germany and France 1904-07, France, England and Ireland 1912-19)
Shoalhaven Gorge, New South Wales
1940-1941
Oil and gouache on canvas
53.7 x 45.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated from the Estate of Dr Donald Wright, 2008
© Margaret Preston/Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

 

 

During the 1920s Margaret Preston considered Aboriginal art a source of good design in the decoration of household items. In the 1930s her study of Aboriginal culture intensified, as she developed a greater interest in its anthropological and cosmological elements. In 1940 Preston travelled to the Northern Territory to study Aboriginal art. On her return she developed a more explicit Aboriginal style in paintings featuring earthy tones, strong black outlines and patterns of dots and lines.

 

Unknown Walamangu active (1930s) 'Dhukurra dhaawu (Sacred clan story)' c. 1935

 

Unknown
Walamangu active (1930s)
Dhukurra dhaawu (Sacred clan story)
c. 1935
Earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.), resin
128.3 x 63.9 cm
The Donald Thomson Collection
Donated by Mrs Dorita Thomson to the University of Melbourne and on loan to Museums Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, segregation was the main government policy regarding Aboriginal people. It was re-enforced by the 1909 Aborigines Protection Act, which gave the Aborigines Protection Board the power to control where Aboriginal people lived in New South Wales. In 1937 the Commonwealth Government adopted a policy of assimilation, whereby Aboriginal people of mixed descent were henceforth to be assimilated into white society, while others were confined to reserves. In 1931 Arnhem Land was declared an Aboriginal Reserve by the government and non-Indigenous entry into the region was restricted.

 

Tjam Yilkari Katani Liyagalawumirr active 1930s 'Wagilag dhaawu (Wagilag Sisters story)' 1937

 

Tjam Yilkari Katani
Liyagalawumirr active 1930s
Wagilag dhaawu (Wagilag Sisters story) (installation view)
1937
Earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.)
The Donald Thomson Collection Donated by Mrs Dorita Thomson to the University of Melbourne and on loan to Museums Victoria, Melbourne
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

For Yolgnu people, painting on bark or objects is intimately connected with painting on the body, and the Yolgnu term barrawan means both ‘skin’ and ‘bark’. These paintings are transcriptions of the sacred designs that were painted onto men’s bodies and convey the power of the Yolgnu ancestors whose actions created their world. The Wagilag Sisters Dreaming story chronicles the creative acts of the sisters as they travelled across Arnhem Land. Such stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values and belief systems to later generations.

 

Arthur Murch (Australia 1902-89, Europe 1936-40) 'Walila, Pintupi tribe' 1934

 

Arthur Murch (Australia 1902-89, Europe 1936-40)
Walila, Pintupi tribe
1934
Pencil
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1934

 

 

In 1933, on the invitation of Professor H. Whitridge Davies, Sydney artist Arthur Murch accompanied a research team from Sydney University to Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, south-west of Alice Springs. Murch remained there for six weeks painting the landscapes and making portraits of Indigenous people. These were exhibited in Sydney soon after his return.

 

Percy Leason (Australia 1888-United States 1959, United States from 1938) 'Thomas Foster' (installation view) 1934

 

Percy Leason (Australia 1888-United States 1959, United States from 1938)
Thomas Foster (installation view)
1934
Oil on canvas
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mrs Isabelle Leason, 1969
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Thomas Foster was born at Coranderrk Station in 1882, the son of Edward Foster and Betsy Benfield. Foster’s was one of the last portraits painted by Leason as part of the unfortunately titled exhibition The Last of the Victorian Aborigines. These portraits were debuted on 11 September at the Athenaeum Gallery in Collins Street, Melbourne, to great public acclaim. Foster, like most of Leason’s subjects, appears shirtless, his arms folded behind his back, pushing forward his chest and clearly showing his scarification marks.

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926) 'Corroboree Australia' 1934

 

Gert Sellheim (Russia (of German parents) 1901-Australia 1970, Australia from 1926)
Corroboree Australia
1934
Colour lithograph printed by F. W. Niven, Melbourne
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of the Australian National Travel Association, 1934

 

 

Dystopian cities

Australia was hit hard by the Great Depression. The worst year was 1932, when unemployment reached nearly thirty-two per cent, and by the following year almost a third of all unemployed men had been without work for three years. With wages cut and unemployment rising, many families were left struggling to survive and this poverty was most evident in run-down, inner-city areas. Two émigrés, Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner, were the first Australian artists to turn their attention to the plight of the urban poor and the disposed. Their powerful, expressive style was influential upon young artists, including Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker.

Economic hardship fostered bitterness and political unrest, and membership of radical groups on both the left and right increased. Boundaries between political agendas and art production became porous in this decade, and many artists believed, like Bergner, ‘that by painting we would change the world’. The complex enmeshment of the creative and political became a defining feature of the decade, and art in Australia became increasingly political, with the political realm involving itself with art.

By the end of the decade the worsening political situation overseas and a sense that another world war was inevitable contributed to a growing sense of unease. Many artists expressed this anxiety and foreboding in their works.

 

Laurence Le Guay (Australia 1917-90) 'No title (War montage with globe)' c. 1939

 

Laurence Le Guay (Australia 1917-90)
No title (War montage with globe)
c. 1939
Gelatin silver photograph
30.4 x 24.9 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through the NGV Foundation with the assistance of Mrs Mem Kirby, Fellow, 2001

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Hot rhythm!' 1936

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Hot rhythm!
1936
Silver gelatin photograph
24.7 x 17.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
William Kimpton Bequest, 2016

 

 

In this work, Max Dupain has the shadow of a slide trombone seemingly bisect the naked body of a woman in a photograph that, in the context of his known views, is less an erotic celebration of modern jazz culture and nightlife than a comment on the disruptive nature of modernity.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Doom of youth' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Doom of youth
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

In Doom of youth – a title taken from Wyndham Lewis’s 1932 polemical book of the same name – Max Dupain creates an allegorical photograph in which a naked male body represents his vision of modern Australia. Using symbols that suggest disempowerment, Dupain implies that the flywheel of mechanisation has doomed youth (the representatives of a nation’s future) to a bleak fate.

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Night with her train of stars and her gift of sleep' 1936-37

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Night with her train of stars and her gift of sleep
1936-37
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
William Kimpton Bequest, 2016

 

 

Referring to Edward Hughes’s 1912 Symbolist work of the same name, Max Dupain has replaced the painter’s dark-winged goddess of the night, who tries to calm the putti (or ‘stars’) that cling to her, with an updated modern version in which city lights replace starlight. The symbolism of the giant breast that towers over the electric lights of the urban landscape suggests an inversion of the natural for the man-made. The personification of night refers to the Greek goddess Nyx, a powerful force born of Chaos, and the mother of children including Sleep, Death and Pain. Given his often gloomy assessment of modernity, Dupain’s invocation of Nyx seems appropriate in the context.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Herbert Badham’s Paint and morning tea second left and Albert Tucker’s Self-portrait third from right
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Herbert Badham (Australia 1899-1961) 'Paint and morning tea' 1937

 

Herbert Badham (Australia 1899-1961)
Paint and morning tea
1937
Oil on cardboard
75.6 x 71.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1937
© The Estate of Herbert Badham

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Albert Tucker’s Self-portrait (1937) at left
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of Albert Tucker's 'Self-portrait' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Albert Tucker’s Self-portrait (1937) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

In the late 1930s Albert Tucker’s contact with émigré artists Yosl Bergner and Danila Vassilieff was to provide important encouragement for him to pursue his artistic vocation and to make art that was responsive to the issues of his time. In 1938 Tucker was a founding member of the Contemporary Art Society, and he became one of the most articulate voices in the often bitter debates between modernists and conservatives. In the 1940s, together with his partner Joy Hester, Tucker was a key member of the group of artists and writers that formed around John and Sunday Reed at Heide.

From 1936 until the early 1940s Albert Tucker chronicled himself with numerous painted and drawn self-portraits. In these works we witness a harrowing disintegration of his physical self, which mirrored the artist’s overwrought emotional state. He recalled: ‘It was a period when the whole world, and all the people I knew, seemed to be seething with ideas and energies and experiences; and my own mind was a seething mess … The highly emotional, overwrought expressionist paintings suited my state at the time’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with work by Danila Vassilieff on the centre black wall including Street scene with graffiti (left), Truth, Woolloomooloo (second left) and Young girl (Shirley) the large painting at right; and F. Oswald Barnett’s photographs of Melbourne slums in the display cabinet
Photos: Courtesy NGV Photographic Services

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34) 'Street scene with graffiti' 1938

 

Installation view of Danila Vassilieff ‘s Street scene with graffiti (1938) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34) 'Truth, Woolloomooloo' 1936

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34)
Truth, Woolloomooloo
1936
Oil on canvas
Private collection

 

 

It is notable that the first artists to depict the poverty of inner-city slums were two recently arrived émigrés, Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner. Russian-born Vassilieff, who had fought with the white Russian army, first arrived in Australia in 1923 before leaving again in 1929. On his return in 1935 he painted a series of dark streetscapes, depicting the inner suburban areas of Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills in Sydney. Moving to Melbourne, Vassilieff’s expressionist style influenced many young artists, including Lina Bryans, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan.

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34) 'Young girl (Shirley)' 1937

 

Danila Vassilieff (Russia 1897-Australia 1958, Australia from 1923, Central and South America, Europe, England 1929-34)
Young girl (Shirley)
1937
Oil on canvas on composition board
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery Society of Victoria Century Fund, 1984

 

F. Oswald Barnett. 'Fitzroy. View from the Brotherhood of St Lawrence'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'Fitzroy. Rear view of house'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'North Melbourne. Group of children in Erskine Place'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'West Melbourne. A Dudley Mansion'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'Carlton. Wash-house and bath-room 48 Palmerston Street'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'North Melbourne. No. 19 Byron Street'

F. Oswald Barnett. 'West Melbourne rubbish tip'

 

F. Oswald Barnett (Australia 1883–1972)

Fitzroy. View from the Brotherhood of St Lawrence
Fitzroy. Rear view of house
North Melbourne. Group of children in Erskine Place
West Melbourne. A Dudley Mansion
Carlton. Wash-house and bath-room, 48 Palmerston Street
North Melbourne. No. 19 Byron Street
West Melbourne rubbish tip

c. 1930-c. 1935
Gelatin silver photograph and typewriting on card
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
F. Oswald Barnett Collection
Gift of Department of Human Services, Victoria 2001

 

 

One of the most visible and lasting effects of the Great Depression was the housing crisis in the poor working class areas of Melbourne and Sydney. Many of the nineteenth-century houses had fallen into disrepair, overcrowding was endemic and a great number of families lived in squalid and unhealthy conditions. Throughout the decade ‘slum’ abolition movements in Melbourne and Sydney ran public campaigns to place public housing on the political agenda, leading to the creation of the first state Housing Commissions.

In Melbourne, Methodist layman F. Oswald Barnett led a campaign calling for slum demolition and the rehousing of residents in government-financed housing. He took hundreds of photographs that were used in public lectures and to illustrate the 1937 report of the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board. This led to the creation of the Housing Commission of Victoria in 1938, with its first major project being the Garden City estate at Fishermans Bend. In Sydney a similar campaign led to the Housing Improvement Act of 1936 and the construction of the first fifty-six home units at Erskineville. (NGV)

The photographs in the F. Oswald Barnett Collection were taken by Barnett and other unidentified photographers in the 1930s. Many of them were used to illustrate a government report on slum housing and/or made into lantern slides for lectures in a public campaign.  F. Oswald Barnett was born in Brunswick, Victoria. A committed Methodist and housing reformer, he led a crusade against Melbourne’s inner city slums. In 1936 he was appointed to the Slum Abolition Board and from 1938-1948 he was the vice-chair of the Housing Commission. In this position he attempted to shape compassionate public housing policy. He later protested vigorously against proposed high-rise housing (Monash Biographical Dictionary of 20th century Australia).

 

 

Scenes from Melbourne during the depression (extract)
c. 1935
Black and white film transferred to media player
1 min. 51 sec. silent (looped)
Courtesy of National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Canberra

 

 

While there is an abundance of newspaper and documentary photographs which document the 1930s shanty towns, slums, relief and charity works, there is very little moving image recordings available. Instead, the moving image medium at the time was primarily focused on providing entertainment that would allow the audience temporary relief from the Depression. This rare footage depicts slum areas of inner Melbourne, and provides great insight into the horrible living conditions that many Australian families experienced.

 

Ola Cohn (Australia 1892-1964, England 1926-30) 'The sundowner' 1932

 

Ola Cohn (Australia 1892-1964, England 1926-30)
The sundowner
1932
Painted plaster
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Jack and Zena Cohn, 2016

 

 

Ola Cohn studied sculpture with Henry Moore at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1920s. She returned to Melbourne in 1930, where the following year her solo exhibition established her as a leading proponent of modern sculpture. During the Depression the sight of ‘swagmen’ or ‘sundowners’ became commonplace as unemployed men travelled across the country in order to find work. In 1932 Cohn submitted this maquette of a sundowner to a competition for a full-scale sculpture to be erected in Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne: unsurprisingly it was not chosen as the winning entry.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Bernard Smith’s The advance of Lot and his Brethren at centre and Albert Tucker’s The futile city at right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of Bernard Smith's 'The advance of Lot and his Brethren' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Bernard Smith’s The advance of Lot and his Brethren from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Bernard Smith (Australia 1916-2011, England and Europe 1948-51) 'The advance of Lot and his Brethren' 1940

 

Bernard Smith (Australia 1916-2011, England and Europe 1948-51)
The advance of Lot and his Brethren
1940
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the artist, 2008

 

 

In the early 1930s, artists depicted the city as a modern utopia, a place of triumphant progress and aspiration later in the decades, a new radical iconography of the city as a place of moral decay and corruption appeared. Painted at the start of the Second World War, Lot and his brethren expresses Bernard Smith’s despair at the conflagration that the world had been plunged into. Based on the biblical story of Lot, who fled from God’s destruction of Sodom, Smith depicts Karl Marx as the saviour who leads his people from the burning city.

 

Albert Tucker (Australia 1914-99, Europe and United States 1947-60) 'The futile city' 1940

 

Albert Tucker (Australia 1914-99, Europe and United States 1947-60)
The futile city
1940
Oil on cardboard
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Melbourne
Purchased from John and Sunday Reed, 1980

 

 

At the start of the Second World War Surrealism was an important influence upon Albert Tucker, as were the writings of T. S. Eliot. The futile city was inspired by Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land (1922): ‘I came on T. S. Eliot, and instantly I recognised a twin soul because here was horror, outrage, despair, futility, and all the images that went with them. He confirmed my own feelings and also became a source … because of the images that would involuntarily form while I was reading the poetry’.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Yosl Bergner’s Citizen (c. 1940) at left
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of Yosl Bergner's 'Citizen' from the exhibition 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Yosl Bergner’s Citizen (c. 1940) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Yosl Bergner was one of approximately 7000-8000 Jewish people, mainly from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, who arrived in Australia between 1933 and 1939 fleeing Nazi persecution. This number included many artists, musicians, architects, writers and intellectuals who were to contribute greatly to Australia’s cultural life. However, government policy remained opposed to large-scale intake of Jewish refugees, and some were met with anti-Semitic sentiments upon their arrival.

 

Yvonne Atkinson (Australia 1918-99) 'The tram stop' 1937

 

Installation view of Yvonne Atkinson The tram stop (1937) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92) 'Brave New World' 1938

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911-92)
Brave New World
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
29.0 x 20.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
William Kimpton Bequest, 2017

 

 

In 1935 Max Dupain referred to Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World (1932) in his photograph of a woman trapped by technology. Dupain was attracted to this biting satire on the ethical dilemmas of social engineering because it appeared to endorse his own fervently held ideas of how modernity was affecting the individual and national body. At the time his choice to directly reference this book was surprisingly provocative: Brave New World had been banned by the Australian customs department, with existing copies rounded up and burned. Dupain returned again to the theme in 1938, producing this variant version.

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA with Max Dupain’s Brave New World (wall print) at centre rear with Sideboard and Chest of drawers at right
Photo: Eugene Hyland

 

Installation view of 'Brave New World: Australia 1930s' at NGVA

 

Installation view of Sideboard and Chest of drawers from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Eugene Hyland

Unknown, Australia
Sideboard
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

Unknown, Australia
Chest of drawers
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

Unknown, Australia. 'Sideboard' 1920s-40s

 

Unknown, Australia
Sideboard
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

Unknown, Australia. 'Chest of drawers' 1920s-40s

 

Unknown, Australia
Chest of drawers
1920s-40s
Painted wood, wood, tin
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

 

Working-class people were the most affected by the high levels of unemployment during the Depression. By 1932 more than 60,000 men, women and children were dependent on the susso, a state-based sustenance payment that enabled families to buy only the bare minimum of food. Many families unable to pay their rent were evicted from their homes. For those suffering economic hardship, ‘making do’ became a way of life, and furniture would be constructed from found items such as kerosene tins and packing crates.

 

J. M. Harcourt (writer) John Long (publisher) 'Upsurge' 1934

 

J. M. Harcourt (writer)
John Long (publisher)
Upsurge
1934
London, March 1934
State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

 

Censorship of books was vigorously pursued by federal and state governments during the 1930s. Australia was one of only two countries in the world to ban Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when it was first published in 1932. Australian author J. M. Harcourt’s novel Upsurge (1934) was the first book to be banned following a recommendation by the newly established Book Censorship Board in 1934. Portraying the lives of Western Australia’s working class during the Depression, it was described by one customs official as ‘thinly disguised propaganda on behalf of Communism and social revolution’.

 

Activism

During the 1930s a small number of artists became active in the militant working-class struggle through their involvement in social and cultural organisations affiliated with the Communist Party, such as the Friends of the Soviet Union, the Workers’ Art Club and the Workers’ Theatre Group, which were formed in Sydney, Melbourne and other metropolitan centres. A number of these artists were also involved with a variety of mostly short-lived radical magazines, helping with their production, as well as providing covers and illustrations. Linocuts were a preferred medium for these artists, as the materials were inexpensive and the images reproduced well.

 

Jack Maughan illustrator (Australia 1897-1980) 'Masses' 1932

 

Jack Maughan illustrator (Australia 1897-1980)
Masses
Cover illustration for Masses, vol. 1, no. 1, printed by Bright Printing Services, published by the Workers’ Art Club, Melbourne, November 1932
1932
Linocut printed in red and black ink
State Library Victoria, Melbourne

 

Installation view of Herbert McClintock's cover illustration for 'Strife', vol. 1, no. 1

 

Installation view of Herbert McClintock’s cover illustration for Strife, vol. 1, no. 1 (1930) from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Edited by eighteen-year-old communist Judah Waten, with Herbert McClintock as art editor, Strife declared itself ‘an organ of the new culture, destructive and constructive’. The first issue was due for release in October 1930; however, a blasphemous poem by Brian Fitzpatrick published in the magazine prompted a police raid on the Strife office and the editor’s hasty destruction of (most) copies of the issue.

 

Installation view of cover illustration for 'Proletariat', vol. 2, no. 1 (1933) by an unknown illustrator

 

Installation view of cover illustration for Proletariat, vol. 2, no. 1 (1933) by an unknown illustrator from the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s at NGVA
Photo: Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

 

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne

Opening hours:
10am – 5pm
Closed Mondays

National Gallery of Victoria website

LIKE ART BLART ON FACEBOOK

Back to top

01
Jul
17

Review: ‘Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy’ at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 27th April – 8th July 2017

This project has been supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria

 

PLEASE NOTE: I am still recovering from my hand operation which is going to take longer than expected. All of the text has been constructed using a dictation programme and corrected using only my right hand – a tedious process. I have to keep my mental faculties together, otherwise this hand will drive me to distraction… Marcus

 

Christian Thompson. 'Black gum 1-3' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Black gum 1-3
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type prints
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

Christian Thompson. 'Black gum 1' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Black gum 1
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type print
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Christian Thompson. 'Black gum 2' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Black gum 2
C-type print
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

 

“While I’m interested in portraiture – I don’t consider my work as portraiture because that suggests that I’m trying to portray myself, my own visage, my own image. I employ images, icons, materials, metaphors to capture and idea and moment in time. There are many different things at play; taking a picture of myself is really the last thing that’s on my mind.”

.
Christian Thompson in conversation with Hetti Perkins, catalogue extract

 

“I’m interested in simple aesthetic gestures that can say something … something quite profound about the world that we live in. I tend to build images how I create a sculpture. I borrow from the world around me.”

On being away from home: “You’re able to remove yourself from the local discourse, and romanticise home. When you’re displaced you tend to gravitate towards certain memories … But this is who I am. It would be weird not to express that somehow. I combine memories of my past with my lived experience and an idea of where I’d like to be … it’s all montaged into one.”

.
Christian Thompson

 

“But Thompson makes things up. His ‘We bury our own’ does not let us see the early daguerreotype but improvises a series of fugues on its spiritual essence. This is the crucial step that Thompson has taken: if you repeat the spectacle you cannot escape the past. But if you, a spiritual descendant, transmogrify yourself in keeping with the aura of the image’s subject, during the prolonged period of encounter and immersion, you can ‘repatriate’ that forebear. Or so he desires.”

“Through these conjurings of the language his people spoke before colonisation set out to strip them of their culture as well as their land, Christian Thompson performs private ceremonies – to reach beyond visual statements of personal presence and reawaken the knowledge of his forebears, and allow us, his listeners and viewers, into their living story.”

.
Marina Warner. “Magical Aesthetics,” extracts from the catalogue essay

 

 

Still singing, still Dreaming,
still loving… not dying.

This is a strong survey exhibition of the work of contemporary Australian Indigenous artist and Bidjara man exploring the world, Christian Thompson. As with any survey exhibition, it can only give us a glimpse into the long standing development of the artist’s work, inviting the viewer to then research more fully the themes, conceptual acts and bodies (of work) that have led the artist to this point in his artistic development. Having said that the exhibition, together with its insightful catalogue essays and additional images that do not appear in the exhibition, allow the viewer to be challenged intellectually, aesthetically and most importantly … spiritually. And to be somewhat conflicted by the art as well, it has to be said.

Thompson’s “multidisciplinary practice explores notions of cultural hybridity, along with identity and history, creating works that transcend cultural boundaries.” His self-reflexive and self-referential bodies of work, often with the artist using his body as an “armature for his characters, costumes and various props,” are intuitive and imaginative in how they relate Aboriginal and Australian/European history, taking past time into present time which influences future time. Time, memory, history, space, landscape are conflated into one point, enunciated through acts of ritual intimacy. These ritual intimacies, these performative acts, are enabled through an understanding of a regularised and constrained repetition of norms (in this case, the declarative power of colonialism), where the taking of a photograph of an Aboriginal person (for example), is “a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production…” (Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 95).

What is so heartening to see in this exhibition is a contemporary Indigenous artist not relying on re-animating colonial images of past injustices, but re-imagining these images to produce a spiritual connection to Country, to place, to people in the present moment. As Charlotte Day, Director, MUMA and Hetti Perkins, guest curator observe in the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition, “Rather than appropriating or restaging problematic ethnographic images of indigenous ancestors held in the Museum’s photographic collection, Thompson has chosen to spend significant periods of time with these images, absorbing their ‘aura’ and developing a personal artistic and deferential response that is decisively empowered.” As Marina Warner states in her excellent catalogue essay “Magical Aesthetics”, these ritual intimacies are a “magical re-animation and adopt time-honoured processes of making holy – of hallowing. Adornment is central to ritual and a prime way of glorifying and consecration.” What Thompson is doing is not quoting but translating the source-text into new material. As Mary Jacobus notes of the work of the painter Cy Twombly, “Quotation involves the repurposing of an existing text: translation requires a swerve from the source-text as it finds new directions and enters unknown terrain.” (Mary Jacobus. Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint.  Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016, p. 7).

This auto-ethnographic exploration and adornment leads to a deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of time in a heterotopic space, juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites of contestation – Thompson’s travels and research from around the world, the embodiment in his own culture and that of contemporary Australia, pop culture, fashion, music and language – where, as Hetti Perkins says, “the unknowable is a lovely thing” and where Thompson can affect and influence “the Zeitgeist through more subversive means.” These spaces of ritualised production overlaid with memory, imagination, desire, and nostalgia, these fragmented images, become a process and a performance in which Thompson seeks to ameliorate the objects aura through a process of ‘spiritual repatriation’. Thompson’s performativity is where the ritual of production and meaning is never fully predetermined at any stage of production and reception.

Here, in terms of ‘aura’ and ‘spirit’, I am interested in the word “repatriation”. Repatriation means to send (someone) back to their own country – from the verb repatriare, from re- ‘back’ + Latin patria ‘native land’. It has an etymological link to the word “patriot” – from late Latin patriota ‘fellow countryman’, from Greek patriōtēs, from patrios ‘of one’s fathers’, from patris ‘fatherland’ – and all the imperial connotations that are associated with the word. So, to send someone back (against their own will? by force?) or to be patriotic, as belonging to or coming from, the fatherland. A land that is father, farther away. Therefore, it is with regard to a centralised, monolithic body and its materialities (for the body is usually centrally placed in Thompson’s work) in Thompson’s instinctive works, that relations of discourse and power will always produce hierarchies and overlappings which are going to be contested. As Judith Butler notes,

“That each of those categories [body and materiality] have a history and a historicity, that each of them is constituted through the boundary lines that distinguish them and, hence, by what they exclude, that relations of discourse and power produce hierarchies and overlappings among them and challenge those boundaries, implies that these are both persistent and contested regions.” (Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 66-67)

.
Thus performativity is the power of discourse, the politicisation of abjection, and the ritual of being.

This is where I become conflicted by much of this work. Intellectually and conceptually I fully understand the instinctive, intuitive elements behind the work (crystals, flowers, maps, butterflies, dreams) but aesthetically I feel little ‘aura’ emanating from the photographs. Thompson’s “peripatetic life and your bowerbird, magpie-like fascination” (p. 107) lead to all sorts of influences emerging in the work – orange from The Netherlands, Morris dancers from England, Jewish heritage, Aboriginal and Australian heritage, fashion, pop culture, music, language – all evidenced through “acts of concealment in his self-portraits.” (p. 75). Now there’s the rub!

In Thompson’s ritual intimacies the intimacy is performed only once, for the camera. It is not didactic, but it is interior and hidden, leaving much to the feelings of the viewer, looking. The re-presentation of that intimacy is performed by the viewer every time they look at the art. I think of the work of one of my favourite performance artists, Claude Cahun, where the artist inhabits her personas, adorning her androgynous face with costume after costume to become something that she wants to become – a buddha, a double, a harpy, a lunatic or a doll with equal ease. Cahun is always and emphatically herself, undermining a certain authority… and she produces indelible images that sear the mind.

I don’t get that from Thompson. I don’t know who he really is. Does it matter? Yes it does. In supposedly his most autobiographic work (according to Hetti Perkins), the video Heat (2010, below) the work emerges out of Thompson’s memories of growing up in the desert surrounding Barcaldine in central west Queensland where “heat captures the sensation that he associates with being on his country: the dry wind blowing through his hair.” Perhaps for him or someone from the desert country like Hetti Perkins (as she states in the catalogue), but not for me. I feel no ‘heat’ from these three beautiful woman standing in a contextless background with a wind machine blowing their hair. The only ‘heat’ I felt was perhaps the metaphoric heat of colonisation, violence and abuse thrust on a vulnerable culture.

Talking of vulnerable cultures, in the work Polari (2014, below) Thompson invokes the history of languages in an intimate ritual “as he seeks to reanimate and repossess vanishing knowledge. Polari is a private language … a kind of code used by sailors, circus and fairground folk, and in gay circles. … Thompson’s Polari series warns us that the artist has a language of his own, which we can overhear but not fully understand: something is withheld, in contrast to the imposed and implacable exposure which the subjects of scientific collections were made to suffer in the past.” (Warner, p. 74) But why is he using Polari specifically, a language that is strongly associated with the libertine gay culture of the 1950s-70s? Does he have a right to use this word and its linguistic heritage because he is gay? It is never stated, again another thing left hidden, concealed and unresolved.

Although no culture can ever fully own its language (language is a construct after all) … if Thompson is not gay, then I would take exception to his invoking the Polari language, just as an Indigenous artist would take exception to me using Bidjara language in an art work of my own. I remember coming out in London in 1975 and speaking Polari myself when it was still being used in pubs and clubs such as the A + B club in Soho. It was not being used as a language of resistance, far from it, but as a language of desire. It was a language used to inculcate that desire. As a video on YouTube observes of speaking Polari, “you didn’t think, oh God I’m so oppressed I can never speak about myself, you just did it, you just slipped into it without thinking.” It was your own language, like a comfortable pair of slippers. Does Thompson understand how using that word to title a body of work could be as offensive to some people as he finds the denaturing of his own culture? For me this is where the work really becomes problematic, when an artist does not enunciate these connections, where things, like sexuality, remain hidden. Similarly, with historical photographs of Indigenous people taken for ethnographic study, Thompson fails to acknowledge the work of academics such as Jane Lydon and her important books Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians (2005) and Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire (2016) where she unpacks the historical baggage of the images and notes that the photographs were not solely a tool of colonial exploitation. Lydon articulates an understanding in Eye Contact that the residents of Coranderrk, an Aboriginal settlement near Healsville, Melbourne, “had a sophisticated understanding of how they were portrayed, and they became adept at manipulating their representations.” Again, there is more than meets the eye, more than just ‘spiritual repatriation’ of aura.

For me, the magic of this exhibition arrives when Thompson lets go all obfuscation, let’s go all actions that make something obscure, unclear, or unintelligible. Where his ritual intimacies become grounded in language, earth and spirit. This happens in the video works, Desert slippers (2006, below), Refuge (2014, below), Gamu Mambu (Blood Song) (2011) and Dhagunyilangu (Brother) (2011, below). In these videos, the Other’s gaze disintegrates and we are left with poignant, heart felt words and actions that engage history, emotion, family and Country.

The video Desert slippers “features a Bidjara ritual in which a father and son transfer sweat. The desert slipper is a native cactus that symbolises the transferal of the spirit back to earth as the plant grows.” It is simple, eloquent, powerful, present. The other videos feature two baroque singers from Europe and Thompson singing in his native tongue Bidjara (Bidyara, Pitjara), a language that Wikipedia states “is an extinct Australian Aboriginal language. In 1980 it was spoken by twenty elders in Queensland, between Tambo and Augathella, Warrego and Langlo rivers.” Spelt out in black and white. Extinct. To hear Thompson sing a berceuse (French, from bercer ‘to rock’), or lullaby in his native language, a language taught to him by his father, is the most emotional of experiences. The work “combines evocative chanting and electronic elements to invoke the cultural experiences and narratives of his Bidjara culture,” and “is premised on the notion that if one word of Bidjara is spoken, or sung in this case, it remains a living language.” Amen to that.

This is the real hallowing, not the dress ups or the concealments. It is in these videos that the raw material of his and his cultures experience is transmuted into living, breathing stories, in an alchemical transmutation, a magical re-animation of past time into present and future time. My transfiguration into a more spiritual state was complete when listening in quiet contemplation. For I was given, if only for a very brief moment, access to the pain of our first peoples and a vision of hope for their future healing.

Still singing, still Dreaming,
still loving… and certainly not dying.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

Word count: 2,053

.
Many thankx to MUMA for allowing me to publish the photographs and videos in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“At the heart of my practice is a concern with aura: what it is, how it can be photographed and how it can be repatriated.”

.
Christian Thompson

 

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

Christian Thompson. 'Untitled #6' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Untitled #6
2010
From the series King Billy
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring stills from the video Berceuse (2017)

 

 

Christian Thompson
Berceuse (extract installation view)
2017
Three-channel digital colour video, sound
5.47 minutes
Sound design: Duane Morrison

 

 

Christian Thompson
Berceuse
2017
Three-channel digital colour video, sound
5.47 minutes
Sound design: Duane Morrison

 

 

In this newly commissioned work, Thompson sings a berceuse – a cradle song or lullaby – that combines evocative chanting and electronic elements to invoke the cultural experiences and narratives of his Bidjara culture. Intended as a gesture of re-imagining his traditional Bidjara language, which is been categorised as extinct, the work is premised on the notion that if one word of Bidjara is spoken, or sung in this case, it remains a living language.

Thompson makes subtle reference to his maternal Sephardic Jewish roots by ruminating in this work on the lullaby Nani Nani:

 

Lullaby, lullaby
The boy wants a lullaby,
The mother’s son,
Who although small will grow.

Oh, oh my lady open,
Open the door,
I come home tired,
From ploughing the fields.

Oh, I won’t open them,
You don’t come home tired,
You’ve just come back,
From seeing your new lover.

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring the series Museum of Others (2016)

 

Installation view of 'Museum of Others (Othering the Ethnologist, Augustus Pitt Rivers)' 2016

 

Installation view of Museum of Others (Othering the Ethnologist, Augustus Pitt Rivers) 2016

 

Christian Thompson. 'Museum of Others (Othering the Anthropologist, Walter Baldwin Spencer)' 2016

 

Christian Thompson
Museum of Others (Othering the Anthropologist, Walter Baldwin Spencer)
2016
From the series Museum of Others
C-type print

 

Installation view of 'Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook)' 2016

 

Installation view of Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook) 2016

 

Christian Thompson. 'Othering the Explorer, James Cook' 2016

 

Christian Thompson
Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook)
2016
From the series Museum of Others
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Equilibrium' 2016

 

Christian Thompson
Equilibrium
2016
From the series Museum of Others
C-type print

 

 

Museum of others is Thompson’s most recent photographic series and continues to reflect on his time at the University of Oxford. It features several ‘dead white males’ from the pantheon of British and Australian culture. The explorer, the ethnologist and the anthropologist all had roles in the process of colonisation in Australia but the art critic is particular to Thompson; Ruskin was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at University of Oxford, just as Thompson was one of its first Australian Aboriginal students. Thompson explains his motivation for the series:

“Historically, it was the western gaze that was projected onto the ethnic other and I thought I’ll create a ‘museum of others’ and I’ll be the one othering, so to speak. ‘Equilibrium’ is based around the idea that the vessel is the equaliser. The vessel is the cradle of all civilisations. We all have that in common.”

Wall text from the exhibition

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring photographs from the series We bury our own 2010 (C-type prints)
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

We bury our own is a body of work that was developed in response to the historic collection of photography, featuring Aboriginal people from the late nineteenth century, at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Thompson noted in 2012 that these early images “have permeated my work over the last year. They have remained at the forefront of every artistic experiment and they have pushed me into new territory, they have travelled with me… I was drawn to elements of opulence, ritual, homage, fragility, melancholy, strength and even a sense of play operating in the photographs…”

Each of Thompson’s lyrical photographic images from We bury our own and Pagan sun feature himself partially disguised with props and costumes. The works are virtually monochromatic with elements highlighted in full colour, and his eyes, or face, are partially concealed or painted. The use of votive objects is explained in his equally lyrical 2012 statement: “I lamented the passing of the flowers at the meadow, I lit candles and offered blood to the ancestral beings, looked into the black sparkling sea, donned the Oxford garb, visited the water by fire light and bowed at the knees of the old father ghost gum.”

Text from the Turner Galleries website

 

Christian Thompson. 'Energy Matter' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Energy Matter
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Lamenting the flowers' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Lamenting the flowers
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Forgiveness of Land' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Forgiveness of Land
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

Christian Thompson. 'Down Under World' 2010

 

Christian Thompson
Down Under World
2010
From the series We bury our own
C-type print

 

 

“I conceived the We Bury Our Own series in 2010 after curator Christopher Morton invited me to develop a body of work that would be inspired by and in dialogue with the Australian photographic collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum…

The archival images have permeated my work over the last year. They have remained at the forefront of every artistic experiment and pushed me into new territory; they have travelled with me to residencies at the Fonderie Darling in Montreal and Greene Street Studio, New York. I was drawn to elements of opulence, ritual, homage, fragility, melancholy, strength and even a sense of play operating in the photographs. The simplicity of a monochrome and sepia palette, the frayed delicate edges and the cracks on the surface like a dry desert floor that reminded me of the salt plains of my own traditional lands.

I wanted to generate an aura around this series, a meditative space that was focused on freeing oneself of hurt, employing crystals and other votive objects that emit frequencies that can heal, ward off negative energies, psychic attack, geopathic stress and electro magnetic fields, and, importantly, transmit ideas.

I lamented the passing of the flowers at the meadow, I lit candles and offered blood to the ancestral beings, looked into the black sparkling sea, donned the Oxford garb, visited the water by fire light and bowed at the knees of the old father ghost gum. I asked the photographs in the Pitt Rivers Museum to be catalysts and waited patiently to see what ideas and images would surface in the work, I think with surprising results. Perhaps this is what art is able to do, perform a ‘spiritual repatriation’ rather than a physical one, fragment the historical narrative and traverse time and place to establish a new realm in the cosmos, set something free, allow it to embody the past and be intrinsically connected to the present?

I heard a story many years ago from some old men, they told me about a ceremony where young warriors would make incisions through the flesh exposing the joints, they would insert gems between the bones to emulate the creator spirits, often enduring infection and agonizing pain or resulting in death. The story has stuck with me for many years, one that suggests immense pain fused with intoxicating beauty. The idea of aspiring to embody the creators, to transgress the physical body by offering to our gods our spiritual heart, freeing ourselves of suffering by inducing a kind of excruciating decadent torture. This was something that played on my mind during the production of this series of photos and video work. The deliverance of the spirit back to land – the notion that art could be the vehicle for such a passage, the aspiration to occupy a space that belongs to something higher than one’s physical self.”

Christian Thompson

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring Ship of dreams, Ancient bloom, Death’s second self, and Gods and kings from the series Imperial relic 2015 (C-type prints) and a still from the video dead tongue 2015
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

In Dead tongue Thompson continues to interrogate the implications of England’s empirical quest on the former colonies of the British Empire through the threat to or loss of Indigenous languages. In works such as this, Thompson actively challenges the perception that Aboriginal culture has become reduced to a captured trophy of Empire.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring Ship of dreams, Ancient bloom, Death’s second self, and Gods and kings from the series Imperial relic 2015 (C-type prints)
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

In … Imperial relic, he continues to use himself as the ‘armature for his characters, costumes and various props’. Drawing on his background in sculpture, he has created ‘wearable sculptures’ including a trumpet shaped shirt collar, an eruption of white flowers from a union jack hoodie, and an armature of maps. In each his face is partially or fully obscured again. “I’m interested in ideas of submission and domination,” he says. “So the trumpet headpiece is beautiful, but it also potentially muffles or silences the voice. The same thing with maps: they are purporting different kinds of historical narrative, depending who is telling the story. One is about the history of Indigenous people, one is about the history of white colonisers and then one is about the idea of charting the land and of discovery. I’m wearing it as an armature over my own body: that’s part of my own history but also of Australian history.”

Text from the Turner Galleries website

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ancient bloom' 2015

 

Christian Thompson
Ancient bloom
2015
From the series Imperial relic
C-type print on fuji pearl metallic paper
100 x 100 cm
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ship of dreams' 2015

 

Christian Thompson
Ship of dreams
2015
From the series Imperial relic
C-type print on fuji pearl metallic paper
100 x 100 cm
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

 

The series title Imperial relic, summarises the fundamental philosophy underpinning the colonial occupation of Australia. Like the nearby series We bury our own, it is closely connected to Thompson’s studies in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and shares with the Australian graffiti series Thomson’s physical presence is standing in for the Australian landscape.

The work Ancient bloom alludes to the phonograph horn out which might be heard the voice of Fanny Cochran Smith, who’s wax cylinder recordings of songs are the only historical audio recordings of any of the Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Is also represents a Victorian-era shirt collar – a motif that has appeared in Thompson’s work since his Emotional striptease series of 2003 – but here is exaggerated into a soft-sculptural form that both projects and stifles the voice.

In Death’s second self the artist’s face is uncovered but distorted by make up and digital postproduction effects.The title quotes William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In God and Kings Thompson is cloaked with a map of Aboriginal language groups like a coat of armour. In the Ship of dreams he reprises the motif of Australian flora obscuring his face but here his hoodie is stitched together from several flags: the red ensign (flown by British registered ships), the RAAF flag and the Australian flag.

 

“I’m interested in ideas of submission and domination … So the trumpet headpiece is beautiful, but it also potentially muffles or silences the voice. The same thing with maps: they are purporting different kinds of historical narrative, depending who is telling the story. One is about the history of Indigenous people, one is about the history of white colonisers and then one is about the idea of charting the land and of discovery. I’m wearing it as an armature over my own body: that’s part of my own history but also of Australian history.”

.
Christian Thompson

 

 

'Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy', installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring Isabella kept her dignity, I’m not going anywhere without you, Dead as a door nail and Hannah’s diary from the serie