Posts Tagged ‘Aboriginal culture

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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)

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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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 series Lost together 2009 (C-type prints)
Photo: Andrew Curtis

 

 

On 13 February 2008 then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an official apology to Aboriginal Australians for the Stolen Generations – the children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families between 1910 and 1970 under the respective Federal and State government policies of assimilation. At the time, Thompson was preparing to leave Australia for further studies aboard and felt this historic gesture allowed him to proudly take his culture and history with him as he ventured into the world.

Thompson photographed the series Lost together in the Netherlands while studying at the DasArts Academy of Theatre and Dance at Amsterdam University. The theme of the orange throughout the series is a reference to the national colour of the Netherlands, while the tartan patterning refers to early clan societies in the United Kingdom. The combination of these different styles is based on counter-cultural aesthetics – particularly punk collage of 1970s London.

 

Christian Thompson. 'Hannah's Diary' 2009

 

Christian Thompson
Hannah’s Diary
2009
From the series Lost Together
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

 

MUMA | Monash University Museum of Art is proud to announce the first major survey exhibition of the work of Bidjara artist, Christian Thompson, one of Australia’s leading and most intriguing contemporary artists.

Thompson works across photography, video, sculpture, performance and sound, interweaving themes of identity, race and history with his lived experience. His work is held in the collections of major state and national art museums in Australia and internationally.

Thompson made history as one of the first two Aboriginal Australians to be accepted into the University of Oxford as a Charlie Perkins Scholar, where he completed his Doctorate of Philosophy (Fine Art) in 2016. Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy opens as the artist looks forward to the graduation ceremony in July, when he will be conferred his degree.

Featuring a major new commission created for this exhibition, Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy will survey Thompson’s diverse practice, spanning fifteen years, and will also be accompanied by the publication of the first monograph on the artist’s career and work, including essays by Brian Catling RA and Professor Dame Marina Warner DBE, CBE, FBA, FRSL.

The specially commissioned installation will be an ambitious multichannel composition, developing the sonic experimentation that is a signature of Thompson’s work. Incorporating Bidjara language, it will invite viewers into an immersive space of wall-to-wall imagery and sound:

“Bidjara is officially an endangered language but my work is motivated by the simple yet profound idea that if even one word of an endangered language is spoken it continues to be a living language,” Thompson says.

Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy explores the unique perspective and breadth of Thompson’s practice from the fashioning of identity through to his ongoing interest in Indigenous language as the expression of cultural survival. The new multichannel work will develop musical ideas Thompson has previously explored.

“It will be a much more ambitious iteration of a song in Bidjara. At one stage I’m singing on one screen and then other versions of me appear singing the melodies. I really see it as an opportunity to do something that’s more complex musically, more textured sonically – I also want it to be more intricate with my use of language,” the artist says.

Ritual Intimacy is curated by MUMA director Charlotte Day and guest curator Hetti Perkins. Day explains that the exhibition is part of MUMA’s Australian artist series, which affords the opportunity to look at each artist’s practice in depth. “Christian’s exhibition traces a particularly productive period of research and development, from early well-known works such as the Australian Graffiti series to more recent experiments with language in sound and song works,” Day says.

A long-time curatorial collaborator with Thompson, Perkins is the writer and presenter of art + soul, the ABC’s acclaimed television series about contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Thompson was accepted to Oxford University on an inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholarship, set up to honour Hetti Perkins’s famous father – a leader, activist and the first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from university. Perkins says the MUMA exhibition is well-earned recognition for Thompson’s work, which she featured in the second series of art + soul.

“Christian has spent periods of his adult life, as a practicing artist, away from home, but there is a common thread in his work, and it’s this connection to home or Country,” Perkins says. “In terms of the rituals or rites of the exhibition title, he is constantly reiterating that connection to home – through words, through performance, through his art, through ideas and writing,” she says.

Alongside performance and ritual, Thompson’s concept of “spiritual repatriation” is central to his work. Working with the Australian collection at famed ethnographic storehouse the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, the artist was offered copies of colonial photographs of Aboriginal people but preferred not to work this way. Instead, he chose to spend significant periods of time with these ancestral images, absorbing their “aura” in order to then make his own artistic response that did not reproduce those original problematic images.

Dr Christian Thompson is a Bidjara contemporary artist whose work explores notions of identity, cultural hybridity, and history; often referring to the relationships between these concepts and the environment. Formally trained as a sculptor, Thompson’s multidisciplinary practice engages mediums such as photography, video, sculpture, performance, and sound. His work focuses on the exploration of identity, sexuality, gender, race, and memory. In his live performances and conceptual anti-portraits he inhabits a range of personas achieved through handcrafted sculptures and carefully orchestrated poses and backdrops.

Press release from MUMA

 

'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 Polari (2014)

 

 

‘Polari’ is a form of cant or cryptic slang that evolved over several centuries from the various languages that converged in London’s theatres, circuses and fairgrounds, the merchant navy and criminal circles. It came to be associated with gay subculture, as many gay men worked in theatrical entertainment or joined ocean liners as waiters, stewards and entertainers at a time when homosexual activity was illegal. This slang rendered the speaker unintelligible to hostile outsiders, such as policeman, but fell out of use after the Sexual Offences Act (1967) effectively decriminalised homosexuality in the United Kingdom. Attracted to the theatricality and defiant nature of Polari (which he likens to the situation of Australian Indigenous languages under assimilationist policies), Thompson borrowed its name for the series which examines how subcultures express themselves.

 

Christian Thompson. 'Siren' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Siren
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Trinity II' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Trinity II
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Trinity III' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Trinity III
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ariel' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Ariel
2014
From the series Polari
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 featuring

 

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

 

Christian Thompson. 'Ellipse' 2014

 

Christian Thompson
Ellipse
2014
From the series Polari
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

 

Polari was a form of slang used by gay men in Britain prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, used primarily as a coded way for them to discuss their experiences. It quickly fell out of use in the 70s, although several words entered mainstream English and are still used today. For more about Polari see Wikipedia.

 

 

Author and academic Paul Baker of Lancaster University discusses a form of gay slang known as Polari that was spoken in Britain. It was a secret type of language used mainly by gay men and some lesbians and members of the trans, drag and other communities in the United Kingdom in the 20th century until it largely died out by the early 1970s.

 

 

Christian Thompson
Refuge
2014
Video and sound
4 mins 18 secs

 

Refuge is a video work by contemporary Australian artist Christian Thompson. Thompson sings in the endangered Bidjara language of his heritage. A collaboration with James Young formerly of ‘Nico’ and recorded the original track in Oxford, United Kingdom.

 

'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

 

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017 featuring stills from the video Heat (2010)

 

 

Christian Thompson
Heat (extract)
2010
Three-channel digital colour video, sound
5.52 minutes

 

 

Like the Australian graffiti photographs [see photographs below], Heat come out of Thompson’s memories of growing up in the desert surrounding Barcaldine in central west Queensland. Barcaldine is famous for its role in the foundation organised labor in Queensland and ultimately the formation of the Australian Labor Party. It also holds historical significance for Thompson’s family as it is where his great-great-grandfather, Charlie Thompson, surreptitiously bought a block of land before Aboriginal people could legally buy land, creating a safe haven for his family and other Aboriginal families at the time when Aboriginal people had few legal rights. For Thompson, heat captures the sensation that he associates with being on his country: the dry wind blowing through his hair. It features the three granddaughters of Aboriginal rights pioneer Charlie Perkins, who are the daughters of Thompson’s Long time collaborator Hetti Perkins.

 

'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 Australian graffiti (2007)

 

Christian Thompson. 'Untitled (Blue Gum)' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Untitled (blue gum)
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type print
Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

 

Christian Thompson. 'Untitled (banksia)' 2007

 

Christian Thompson
Untitled (banksia)
2007
From the series Australian graffiti
C-type print
Monash University Collection

 

 

Australian graffiti was the last work that Thompson made before leaving Australia for Europe. It connects with his memories of growing up in the outback and its desert flowers, which he perceives to be both fragile and immensely powerful. I adorning himself with garlands of these flowers and flamboyant garments of the 1980s and 1990s – the period in which he grew up – Thompson juxtaposes these elements against his own Bidjara masculinity. By wearing native flora he also stands in for the landscape, invoking an Indigenous understanding of the landscape as a corporeal, living ancestral being.

 

 

Christian Thompson
Desert slippers
2006
Single-channel digital colour video, sound
34 seconds

 

 

Desert slippers was made at the time the Northern Territory government commissioned research into allegations of the abuse of children in Aboriginal communities. When the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report was tabled the following year, the federal government under John Howard staged the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), which quickly became known as ‘the intervention’. This action was enacted without consultation with Indigenous people and ignored the substantive recommendations of the report to which it was allegedly responding.

Thompson made this video, involving his father, and the ceremonial aspects of their daily lives, during this period. 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.

 

 

Christian Thompson
Dhagunyilangu (Brother) 
(extract installation view)
2011
Single-channel digital colour video, sound, subtitled
2.19 minutes

 

 

Christian Thompson
Dhagunyilangu (Brother)

2011
Single-channel digital colour video, sound, subtitled
2.19 minutes

 

 

Gamu Mambu (Blood Song) and Dhagunyilangu (Brother) were made in England and in the Netherlands respectively. While studying at the DasArts Academy of Theatre and Dance in Amsterdam, a centre for the study of early musical styles such as the baroque, Thompson realised that his own Bidjara language could be interpreted through the matrix of another cultural context and sphere. He undertook operatic training with this in mind, choosing in the end to work with specialist singers Sonja Gruys and Jeremy Vinogradov to realise the two works.

 

 

Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA)
Ground Floor, Building F,
Monash University Caulfield campus,
900 Dandenong Road,
Caulfield East, VIC 3145
T: 61 3 9905 4217

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5pm
Saturday 12 – 5pm

Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) website

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20
Jul
11

Review: ‘Paradise’ by Brook Andrew at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 18th June – 30th July 2011

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Many thankx to Olivia Radonich for her help and to Tolarno Galleries for allowing me to publish the text and photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. Images courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne. Photos by Christian Capurro.

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Brook Andrew ‘Paradise’ installation at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

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Brook Andrew
Paradise 1 (red)
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
24.5 x 28.5 x 8 cm

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Brook Andrew
Paradise 2 (orange)
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
24.5 x 34 x 8 cm

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Brook Andrew
Paradise 3 (yellow)
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
24.5 x 28.5 x 8 cm

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Brook Andrew
Paradise 4 (green)
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
25 x 33.5 x 8 cm

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Brook Andrew
Paradise 5 (magenta)
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
24.5 x 28 x 8

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This is a strong, refined photo-ethnographic exhibition by Brook Andrew at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne, one that holds the viewers attention, an exhibition that is witty and inventive if sometimes veering too closely to the simplistic and didactic in some works.

Rare postcards of Indigenous peoples and their colonising masters and surrounded by thick polished wood frames (the naturalness of the wood made smooth and perfect) and coloured neon lights that map out the captured identities, almost like a highlighting texta and forms of urban graffiti. This device is espcially effective in works such as ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ (both 2011, below) with their male and female neon forms, and ‘Flow Chart’ (2011, below) that references an anthropological map.

Other works such as ‘Monument 1’ (2011, below) lay the postcards into the rungs of a small step ladder covered in white paint that has echoes of the colonisers renovation of suburban homes and becomes a metaphor for the Indigenous peoples being stepped on, oppressed and downtrodden. In a particularly effective piece, ‘Monument 2’ (2011, below) the viewer stares down into a black box with multiple layers of neon that spell out the words ‘I see you’ in the Wiradjuri language: we can relate this work to Lacan’s story of the sardine can, where the point of view of the text makes us, the viewer, seem rather out of place in the picture, an alien in the landscape. The text has us in its sights making us uncomfortable in our position.

The work ‘Paradise’ (2011, six parts, above) can certainly be seen as paradise lost but the pairing of black/white/colour postcards is the most reductive of the whole exhibition vis a vis Indigenous peoples and the complex discourse involved in terms of oppression, exploitation, empowerment, identity, mining rights and land ownership. The two quotations below can be seen to be at opposite ends of the same axis in this discourse. My apologies for the long second quotation but it is important to understand the context of what Akiko Ono is talking about with regard to the production of Indigenous postcards.

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White… has the strange property of directing our attention to color while in the very same movement it exnominates itself as a color. For evidence of this we need look no further than to the expression “people of color,” for we know very well that this means “not White.” We know equally well that the color white is the higher power to which all colors of the spectrum are subsumed when equally combined: white is the sum totality of light, while black is the total absence of light. In this way elementary optical physics is recruited to the psychotic metaphysics of racism, in which White is “all” to Black’s “nothing”…”

Victor Burgin 1

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“In his study of Aboriginal photography, Peterson also looks at the dynamics of colonial power relations in which both European and Aboriginal subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. Peterson in the main writes about two different contexts of the usage of photography of Aboriginal people

1. popular usage of photographs, especially in the form of postcards in the early twentieth century (Peterson 1985, 2005)

2. anthropologists’ ethnographic involvement with photography (Peterson 2003, 2006).

Regarding the first, Peterson depicts how the discourses of atypical (that is, disorganised) family structures and destitution among Aboriginal people were produced and interacted with the prevalent moral discourses of the time. He makes an important remark about the interactive dimensions that existed between the photographer and the Aboriginal subject. Hand-printed postcards in the same period showed much more positive images of Aboriginal people (Peterson 2005: 18–22). These were ‘real’ photographs taken by the photographers who had daily interactions with Aboriginal people…

Peterson gives greater attention to photographs taken by anthropologists for scientific purposes, and in this second context provides a more detailed treatment of his insight regarding the discrepancies between the colonisers’ discourse and the actual visual knowledge that photography offers…

These two contexts are not, of course, mutually exclusive. By dealing with image ethics and the changing photographic contract, Peterson (2003) shows the interlocking formations of popular image, anthropological knowledge and Aboriginal self-representation. In particular, it is important to remember that Aboriginal people have not always rejected collaboration with and appropriation of the idioms of the coloniser. Aboriginal people were not bothered by posing for photographers to produce images such as ‘naked’ Aboriginal men and women in formal pose, accompanied by an ‘unlikely combination’ of weapons (Peterson 2005); and at times complex negotiations occurred between the photographer and the photographed – resulting in both consent and refusal (Peterson 2003: 123–31).

These anecdotes suggest the necessity of unravelling the ‘lived’ dimensions of colonial and/or racial subjugation and resistance to that subjugation from the site of their occurrence …

Rather than scrutinising the authenticity of Aboriginality or taking it for granted that ethnographic photography is doomed to reproduce a colonial or anthropological power structure, it is more important to attend to the ‘instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s own terms’, as Pratt (1992: 7, emphasis in the original) suggests. She proposes the term ‘autoethnography’ to refer to these instances: ‘If ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations’ (Pratt 1992).

Akiko Ono 2

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The work ‘Paradise’ buys into the first quotation in a big way, playing as it does with the idioms of black/white/colour. It can also be seen as a form of autoethnographic text that uses rare postcards to critique historical relations between peoples and cultures. What it does not do, I feel, is delve deeper to try to understand the “interlocking formations of popular image, anthropological knowledge and Aboriginal self-representation” and resistance to that subjugation from the site of their occurrence. As the quotation observes “Aboriginal people have not always rejected collaboration with and appropriation of the idioms of the coloniser” and it is important to understand how the disciplinary systems of the coloniser (the ethnographic documenting through photography) where turned on their head to empower Indigenous people who undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s own terms. Nothing is ever just black and white. It is the interstitial spaces between that are always the most interesting.

In conclusion this an elegant exhibition of old and new, an autoethnographic text that seeks to address critical issues that look back at us and say – ‘I see you’.

Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Brook Andrew
Flow Chart
2011
Rare postcards, sapele and neon
283 x 449.5 x 8.5 cm

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Brook Andrew ‘Paradise’ installation at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

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Brook Andrew
Men
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
82 x 264 x 12.5 cm

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Brook Andrew
Women
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
179 x 179 x 6 cm

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Brook Andrew
Women (detail)
2011
Rare postcards, sapele, and neon
179 x 179 x 6 cm

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“Tolarno Galleries is pleased to present Paradise, a major solo exhibition by Brook Andrew. Widely regarded as a multi-disciplinary artist, Brook Andrew’s Jumping Castle War Memorial was a highlight of the 17th Biennale of Sydney. Recently his major installation, Ancestral Worship 2010, was included in 21st Century: Art in the First Decade at Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. His powerful new installation – Marks and Witness: A Lined crossing in Tribute to William Barak 2011 – was commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria and is currently on display at Federation Square, Melbourne.

Paradise expands Brook Andrew’s interest in forgotten histories. His new works ask us to think about what has disappeared from our worlds, literally, and also from our consciousness. The exhibition features a number of assemblages made in neon and wood and incorporating rare postcards and photographs collected over many years. Men 2011 includes the original postcard that became the source for Sexy and Dangerous, Andrew’s iconic work of 1995.

Brook Andrew’s continuing search for curious portrait images from the 19th and early 20th century represents his fascination with the way the camera has documented a particular ‘colonial’ gaze and an interest in the exotic. Outlining or highlighting these images in glorious colored neon emphasizes this point.

However bright the neon, Brook Andrew’s works are characterized by a formal beauty and simplicity that explores conceptually complex ideas and themes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Monument 4, a ‘boomerang bar’ or Monument 2, a black lacquer box of neon containing the words ‘I see you’ in Wiradjuri. Gazing into this ‘well of words’ is like looking into infinity.

Brook Andrew’s work is held in every major collection in Australia. An important survey of his work: Brook Andrew Eye to Eye was presented by Monash University Museum of Art in 2007. In 2008 his work was showcased in Theme Park at AAMU Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in The Netherlands. Major publications accompanied both of these solo exhibitions.”

Press release from Tolarno Galleries

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Brook Andrew
Monument 2
2011
Black lacquer, wood, perspex, neon, mirror and wire
38 x 99 x 87 cm

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Brook Andrew
Monument 2 (detail)
2011
Black lacquer, wood, perspex, neon, mirror and wire
38 x 99 x 87 cm

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Brook Andrew
18 lives in Paradise
Single box detail
2011

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The basic unit used in 18 Lives in Paradise is a cardboard printed box 50 x 50 x 50 cm. The boxes are the building blocks for a sculpture, wall or any other structure. The box is also a parody of the courier box – those containers daily transported around the globe in the vast movement of lives and identities today. What was thought of as fixed may not be so.

The images are sourced from postcards. The postcards range from the early to mid-twentieth century and form part of a worldwide curiosity in indigenous people, circus acts and personalities, environment and resources … The images come together as an assemblage of ‘freaks’ and represent the collision paths of indigenous and non-indigenous cultures; those being documented out of curiosity and those belonging to dominant cultures who have used the land and its people for entertainment and wealth.

18 Lives in Paradise can form a column or wall. It can be a barrier, a beacon or epitaph. En masse, the boxes are a symbol of many lives whose identities are sometimes twisted for the gaze of the curious world.

Brook Andrew 2011

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Brook Andrew
Monument 1
2011
Black lacquer, are postcards, wood, mirror and metal
104.5 x 69.5 x 58 cm

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1. Burgin, Victor. In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, p.131.

2. Ono, Akiko. “Who Owns the ‘De-Aboriginalised’ Past? Ethnography meets photography: a case study of Bundjalung Pentecostalism,” in Musharbash, Yasmine and Barber, Marcus (eds.,). Ethnography & the Production of Anthropological Knowledge: Essays in honour of Nicolas Peterson. The Australian National University E Press [Online] Cited 16/07/2011.

  • Peterson, N. 1998. “Welfare colonialism and citizenship: politics, economics and agency,” in N. Peterson and W. Sanders (eds), Citizenship and Indigenous Australians: Changing Conceptions and Possibilities, pp. 101-17. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Peterson, N. 1999. “Hunter-gatherers in first world nation states: bringing anthropology home.” Bulletin of the National Museum of Ethnology 23 (4): 847–61.
  • Peterson, N. 2003. “The changing photographic contract: Aborigines and image ethics,” in C. Pinney and N. Peterson (eds), Photography’s Other Histories, pp. 119–45. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Peterson, N. 2005. “Early 20th century photography of Australian Aboriginal families: illustration or evidence?” Visual Anthropology Review 21 (1–2): 11–26.
  • Peterson, N. 2006. “Visual knowledge: Spencer and Gillen’s use of photography in The Native Tribes of Central Australia.” Australian Aboriginal Studies (1): 12–22.
  • Pratt, M. L. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writings and Transculturation. London: Routledge.

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Footnote 1. Peterson has built up a collection of process-printed (that is, mass-produced) postcard images and hand-printed images dating from 1900 to 1920 (that is, real photographic postcards), over 20 years, during which time he obtained a copy every time he saw a new image. He feels confident that he has seen two-thirds of the process-printed picture postcards from the period although it is harder to estimate how many hand-printed images were circulating (Peterson 2005: 25n.3). He had a collection of 528 process-printed postcards (Peterson 2005: 25) and 272 hand-printed photographs (p. 18) by 2005.

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Tolarno Galleries
Level 4
104 Exhibition Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Australia
T: 61 3 9654 6000
Website: www.tolarnogalleries.com

Opening hours:
Tue – Fri 10 am – 5 pm, Sat 1 pm – 5 pm

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05
Jul
11

Exhibition: ‘NGV 150th Felton Bequest Gift – Living Water: Contemporary Art of the Far Western Desert at NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 24th May 2011 – 28th May 2012

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“This is me: this is mine. The whole lot is me. I been walking all around, I know him proper way, he is always with me…”

Weaver Jack

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Someone keyed my car the other day and it sent me into a bit of a downward spiral. Who knows why people do these things – stupidity, boredom, sheer bloody mindedness. This exhibition brought me back from that space to a rejoicing in human creativity and connection. It helped me leave my troubles behind. The stories in these paintings ground you, bring you back to earth through the experience and feeling of colour, movement and stillness.

I, we, cannot understand this ancient culture for it is foreign to us. We are not of it. But we can feel the stories in our own way. While we can’t understand every nuance of symbology and traditional narrative that the paintings contain they can speak to us all as human; we all come from this earth and must return to it. I felt the place from which they emanate, an intimacy with earth, self and soul.

I might not know much about anything, about understanding the vagaries of human beings, but I do know what is honest and truthful, has feeling for the piquancy of life. These paintings let my troubles and vicissitudes drop away and uplifted my spirit. Surrounded by love, by colour, by belonging to earth, sky, water, spirit. A wonderful gift to any human being and a wonderful gift from the Felton Bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria and to all the people of Australia. Go and experience their embrace.

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.

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Yikartu Bumba Manyjilyjarra born (1940s)
Jakayu Biljabu Manyjilyjarra born (c. 1937)
Nyanjilpayi Nancy Chapman Manyjilyjarra born (c. 1941)
May Chapman Manyjilyjarra born (1940s)
Doreen Chapman Manyjilyjarra born (1970s)
Linda James Manyjilyjarra born 1984
Mulyatingki Marney Manyjilyjarra born 1941
Reena Roger Manyjilyjarra born (1950s)
Beatrice Simpson Manyjilyjarra born (c. 1966)
Ronelle Simpson Manyjilyjarra born 1988
Muntararr Rosie Williams Manyjilyjarra born (c. 1943)
Ngayarta Kujarra
2009
synthetic polymer paint on canvas 300.0 x 500.1 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011

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Ngayartu Kujarra

The artists who collaborated on this work (above) live at Punmu community, on the shore of a vast salt lake, (Lake Dora), which is surrounded by a scattered array of water sources.

The artists from this region are profoundly affectionate and respectful towards the salt lake and the fresh waters hat have sustained htem and their families for as long as memory can stretch.

The women have reproduced the feeling of the salt lake viscerally: their work conveys its immense scale, fine texture, extreme whiteness and shimmering light.

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Tommy Mitchell
Ngaanyatjarra born c.1943
Kurlilypurru
2009
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
152.0 x 212.0 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Tommy Mitchell, courtesy Warakurna Artists Aboriginal Corporation

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Nyumitja Laidlaw
Ngaanyatjarra born c.1938
Kuriella
2009
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
142.3 x 175.0 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Nyumitja Laidlaw/Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

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Kalaju Alma Webou
Yulparija c.1920-2009
Pinkalarta
2006
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
152.0 x 152.0 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Kalaju Alma Webou, courtesy Short Street Gallery/Yulparija Artists from Bidyadanga

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Today, 24 May 2011, the National Gallery of Victoria celebrates its 150th birthday.

To honour this tremendous milestone, the NGV today unveiled an exceptional gift of 173 important Indigenous works of art including three by contemporary artists Vernon Ah Kee, Brook Andrew and Jonathan Jones who were commissioned to create works that pay homage to the highly celebrated Wurundjeri artist, William Barak. These pieces have been gifted by the Felton Bequest, established in 1904 by the NGV’s greatest benefactor, Alfred Felton.

The Honourable Alex Chernov, AO, QC, Governor of Victoria and Mrs Elizabeth Chernov were present at the NGV’s unveiling ceremony.

Dr Gerard Vaughan, Director, NGV said: “This is the most significant gift of Indigenous art to the NGV since the Gallery opened its doors for the first time on this date 150 years ago in country of the Kulin nation. It is appropriate on this date both to honour the memory of Alfred Felton and also celebrate the Indigenous art of our country, the world’s oldest continuous visual tradition.”

The gift of 173 works encompasses two exceptional collections: the first comprises 63 nineteenth and early twentieth century shields on display as part of the Australian Art collection, and the second 107 twenty-first century paintings from the Far Western Desert, forming the new exhibition Living Water.

Dr Vaughan said: “This outstanding gift adds tremendous strength to the NGV’s collection of Indigenous Art. Since the NGV first collected Indigenous art, the collection has grown to hold over 3,000 works representing cultures across Australia.

These exciting and dynamic acquisitions will enable the NGV to continue to educate visitors of all ages about the visual art of Indigenous Australians. This gift is a highlight of the NGV’s 150th anniversary year, reminding us of the crucial and continuing role the NGV has played in collecting and displaying the finest art works that can be acquired.

The Barak Commissions pay tribute to one of the most important figures of nineteenth century Australian Indigenous art, acknowledging Barak’s central place in the history of Victoria and the NGV,” said Dr Vaughan.

William Barak was born in country of the Wurundjeri people and became a leading Indigenous artist and figure in Melbourne during the 19th century. He is said to have witnessed John Batman ‘purchase’ Melbourne in 1835.

The multi-media installation by Vernon Ah Kee presents conversations between prominent Indigenous people as they reflect on how Barak has inspired them. Brook Andrew, renowned for his multi-disciplinary works, has created a powerful installation which adorns the entrance atrium at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. Jonathan Jones, who works with fluid and dancing light as a metaphor of living culture, has created five light boxes that map important cultural designs belonging to Barak as a way of honouring Barak’s life.

The collection of 63 rare and stunningly beautiful 19th and early 20th century shields is largely contemporary with Barak’s life. The shields serve to remind us of the time when the plains of Southeast Australia contained carved trees bearing elegant inscriptions, with people dressed in possum-skin cloaks and carrying elaborate shields living extraordinary living in harmony with country and ancient beliefs.

The Living Water exhibition unveils the Felton Bequest gift paintings: 107 adventurous works by male and female artists from newly established art centres in the Far Western Desert, an area stretching across far flung parts of Western Australia and South Australia.

This exhibition of 21st century art highlights today’s momentous art movement which originated at Papunya in 1971 when senior men decoded their archival narratives and laws, forging a new form shared by many Indigenous peoples across the Western Desert.”

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria website

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Roy Underwood
Pitjantjatjara born c.1937
Mulaya
2008
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
197.0 x 135.0 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Roy Underwood, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

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Simon Hogan
Pitjantjatjara born c.1930
Ilkurlka
2004
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
134.5 x 176.6 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Simon Hogan, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

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Spinifex People

The country of the Spinifex people, who speak a southern dialect of Pitjantjatjara language, consists of vast plains of deep red sand, salt lakes and Spinifex.

In 1998 the community produced a series of ten large paintings that were bequeathed to the people of Western Australia in a symbolic reciprocal exchange of paintings for land. Most Spinifex works, subsequently produced on infrequent painting trips back to country operate as complex maps as well as religious landscapes that detail sources of spiritual power in country belonging to individual artists.

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Milatjari Pumani
Yankunytjatjara born 1928
Ngura Walytja, Antara
2010
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
168.6 x 137.4 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Milatjari Pumani, courtesy Mimili Maku Arts & Crafts

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Living Water: Exhibition Background Information

“Living Water, an exhibition showcasing 107 contemporary Indigenous paintings by 94 artists from the Felton Bequest Gift, displays works by male and female artists from the Far Western Desert, an area stretching across parts of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

A modern art movement originated at Papunya in 1971, which has since transformed the way we see the land and the history of art in Australia. Almost forty years after the genesis of the Western Desert art movement, its epicentre has dramatically shifted from Papunya in the Northern Territory to the Pintupi homelands of Kintore and Kiwirrkura in the Gibson Desert, and to communities that lie hundreds of kilometres to the south and west in far-flung reaches of South Australia and Western Australia (the Far Western Desert).

During the first decade of the 21st century, Pintupi, Spinifex, Anangu, Yulparija and Martu artists have developed a dynamic and fresh expression of Western Desert Art. The male and female artists not only share close kinship, social, linguistic and ritual interconnections and lived experience of desert country built up during pujiman (nomadic, bush) days but also have parallel experiences of making art with introduced materials for the commercial market. Their paintings – bearers of sanctity – resonate with the shock of the ancient made new and tell tjukurrpa (stories) associated with special places in their ngurra (country).This dramatic new wave of acrylic painting is the focus of Living Water, comprising the NGV’s 150th anniversary gift from the Felton Bequest of 107 paintings.

Aboriginal people from across the Western Desert use the term ‘living water’ to describe water sources, including rock holes and soakage waters that are fed by underground springs. The path of these springs was created by the ancestral beings of the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) as they themselves journeyed underground, their entry into the earth often marking the site of current day water sources. ‘Living water’ is revered also because it does not seem to be affected by the harsh conditions above the ground that the people themselves have to endure.

This exhibition has been curated by Judith Ryan, Indigenous Art Curator, NGV. The following groups of people are represented in this spectacular exhibition.

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Pintupi people

Pintupi is the name of a Western Desert language spoken by Aboriginal people who belong to a large stretch of country in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia and the western edge of the Northern Territory. When the Pintupi arrived in the government settlements east of their traditional lands between the 1930s and the 1950s, they adopted the term ‘Pintupi’ to distinguish themselves amongst the surrounding Aboriginal inhabitants as the ‘people from the west’.

The Pintupi’s complex relationship to the land of their ancestors is expressed through stories, songs and ritual practice that are also depicted in the acrylic paintings of the artists from the Pintupi communities of Walungurru and Kiwirrkura.

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Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjara People

The Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjara people of the tri-state region of the Western Desert constantly interact and are related by kinship, language and genealogy.

Here they specialised in making walka (drawings), batik, punu (wood carvings) and tjanpi weavings, avoiding painting on canvas for the art market until the 21st century because of their suspicion of earlier forms of Western Desert art and their reluctance to disclose sacred elements of men’s and women’s law.

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Yulparija People

The Yulparija people originally come from the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, which runs from Telfer in the south to Walungurru in the east and close to Fitzroy Crossing in the north.

Their work contains deep threads of cultural memory and is daring in its vigour of application and iridescent palette. The Yulparija have forged a painting style that combines their cultural memory of desert birth country with the rich blues and greens of saltwater terrain.

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Martu People

Martu means ‘one of us’, or ‘person’ and is the word chosen to represent a number of different language groups from country across the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts of the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Martu are interconnected to other surrounding peoples from the Great Sandy Desert through their shared country of birth and associated Dreaming stories.”

Text from the National Gallery of Victoria website

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Dadda Samson
Kartujarra born c.1933
Puntuwarri
2009
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
124.5 x 293.4 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Dadda Samson, courtesy Martumili Artists

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Lawrence Pennington
Pitjantjatjara born c.1940
Kurparu (Magpie)
2005
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
138.6 x 92.7 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Lawrence Pennington, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

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Wingu Tingima
Pitjantjatjara c.1917–2010
Kungkarakalpa (Seven Sisters)
2007-09
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
140.0 x 210.0 cm
Felton Bequest, 2011
© Wingu Tingima, courtesy Tjungu Palya

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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

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24
Jul
10

Review: ‘Sistagirls’ by Bindi Cole at Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 8th – 31st July 2010

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Many thankx to Olivia Poloni and Nellie Castan Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. The permission is most appreciated. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All photographs © Bind Cole, courtesy of the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery.

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Bindi Cole
‘Bimbo’
2009

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Bindi Cole
‘Buffy’
2009

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The exhibition ‘Sistagirls’ by Bind Cole at Nellie Castan Gallery contains some beautiful photographs and others that are less successful. The successful portraits the ones that depict the Sistagirls in a more natural, less stylised way  – they are the more interesting photographs. The subjects seem to speak for themselves without restriction, to be not so beholden to the pose that photographer wishes them to assume and/or the pose they wish to impose on themselves.

For example, the photograph of ‘Jemima’ (see below) is just stunning in it’s naturalness and beauty. The two photographs of ‘Crystal’ and ‘Patricia’, where the transgendered person asked to be photographed in traditional body paint with traditional objects, are highly successful in their form, composition and in the ability of the photographs to challenge stereotypical notions of Aboriginal culture.

Other portraits are anachronistic and a little try hard, with the misplacing of persons and objects in regard to each other. The portrait of ‘Bimbo’ (very top photograph) did not need the two objects placed on the beach next to the person to make it a successful photograph; the portrait of ‘Frederina’ (below) had enough going on in the photograph without the seemingly gratuitous placement of traditional objects in the background. We get the point and there was really no need to labour it.

One of the problems, of course, of a ‘stylised’ portrait (Bind Cole’s word in her artist statement) is that the portrait can become a double forgery, that of the pose of the person and that of the photographer imposing the style …

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” … in a sense, the posed photograph is a kind of forgery, an imposition of an artificial composition before the recording instrument. On the other hand, the photo of a posing subject captures the authenticity of the practice of posing. A version of a person’s image is still an image of that person …

We are confronted with the pose, the conscious composition of the image to be photographed, the inherent constructedness of the posed photograph. Our heretofore implicit faith in the photograph as an evidentiary document is shaken. This is not to imply an outright rejection of photography … the effect is more properly an inducement to engage the document directly, personally, and on its own terms.”1

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As noted at the end of the quotation, we, the viewer, must cut through this com-pose-ition to address the document directly. We must cut away the appendages of style and view the person and the photograph on its own terms. This is why the simpler portraits in the exhibition have so much more power than the overly constructed ones – they reach for an intangible essence that Cole is seeking by dropping away style and surrendering to the ineffable, a recognition of the lightness and joy in just being.

Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Bindi Cole
‘Crystal’
2009

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Bindi Cole
‘Frederina’
2009

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“The term ‘Sistagirl’ is used to describe a transgender person in Tiwi Island culture. Traditionally, the term was ‘Yimpininni’. The very existence of the word provides some indication of the inclusive attitudes historically extended towards Aboriginal sexual minorities. Colonisation not only wiped out many indigenous people, it also had an impact on Aboriginal culture and understanding of sexual and gender expression. As Catholicism took hold and many traditions were lost, this term became a thing of the past. Yimpininni were once held in high regard as the nurturers within the family unit and tribe much like the Faafafine from Samoa. As the usage of the term vanished, tribes’ attitudes toward queer indigenous people began to resemble that of the western world and religious right. Even today many Sistergirls are excluded from their own tribes and suffer at the hands of others.

Within a population of around 2500, there are approximately 50 ‘Sistagirls’ living on the Tiwi Islands. This community contains a complex range of dynamics including a hierarchy (a queen Sistergirl), politics, and a significant history of pride and shame. The Sistagirls are isolated yet thriving, unexplored territory with a beauty, strength and diversity to inspire and challenge.

During August and September of 2009, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend a month living with the ‘Sistagirls’ on the Tiwi Islands creating a series of highly stylised portraits of them. I loaded a barge with a four wheel drive, lights, a generator, cameras and enough film to filll a suitcase. Each day brought an emotional roller coaster from moments of elation around what was being achieved with the images to complete anxiety from the many dramas that occurred. This time has affected me in a profound way. The ‘Sistagirls’ have touched my heart. I only hope that in some way I have captured the essence of who they are and the spirit of their community. I know that they will always be a part of me and that I will be a regular visitor to Tiwi to visit the ‘Sistagirl’ community for the rest of my life.”

Artist statement from the Nellie Castan website

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Bindi Cole
‘Jemima’
2009

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Bindi Cole
‘Patricia’
2009

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1. Feiereisen, Florence and Pope, Daniel. “True Fiction and Fictional Truths: The Enigmatic in Sebald’s Use of Images in ‘The Emigrants'” in Patt, Lise (ed.,). Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebald. Los Angeles: The Institute of Cultural Inquiry, 2007, p.175.

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Nellie Castan Gallery
Level 1, 12 River Street
South Yarra 3161
Tel: +61 9804 7366

Opening hours:
12pm – 5pm Tuesday – Sunday

Nellie Castan Gallery website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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