The awarding of this year’s Prize to Roy Kennedy is a long deserved recognition of the historical substance that exists in so much of the art that is produced by Aboriginal people from New South Wales. Over the last four years there has been an diverse selection of shortlisted works for each year’s prize with many surprising introductions to work by artists that have not had the same exhibition opportunities as Sydney based artists. The exhibition is an interesting snapshot of the surface of Aboriginal art production in New South Wales but fails on some levels to give an indication of the scale of the project of developing an aesthetic and history that is independent of the institutions that are often charged with representing Aboriginal Art in New South Wales.
Compared to the Telstra art awards held in Darwin Annually ovwere the past 26 years the NSW premiers prize exhibition is a much smaller affair. Each year’s show is a testament to the work of regional development officers whose encouragement and assistance produces works referencing the local histories of some of the most geographically diverse regions to be put under the category “New South Wales.
New South Wales has many geographical contrasts from the snowfields to the desert to the semi tropical coastal areas and the social and cultural contrasts of the art produced by artists working in these diverse regions makes it difficult to bring a one size fits all approach to an evaluation of the Aboriginal art of New South Wales.
There are many regional towns and places that Sydney based Aboriginal artists have personal or family connections to and this connection to country is a reoccurring theme in many of the artworks entered in each tears art prize.
The Influx of Aboriginal people to Sydney throughout the 20th century has been documented buy several other sources but it is visual artists in particular who are finding ways of describing the emotional and geographical connection that many people feel towards the areas that they have lived or grown up in. The period after 1967 when the inalienable human rights of Aboriginal people in New South Wales were recognised in law that a growing self determined movement by Aboriginal people towards actively participating in the economic development of townships and urban centres in New South Wales began.
Prior to 1967 the “kitch” movement of representing Aboriginal people as an exotic other on velvet wall hangings, ceramic ashtrays and reproductions of artefacts were all non Indigenous craft industries that found a niche distributing an Aboriginal “influenced” product. Aboriginal art from New South Wales does not have the same ethnographic validation that exists for art from the remote areas of Australia and is therefore labelled as inauthentic by many non indigenous owned commercial galleries who maintain that real Aboriginal art is produced in a community art centre model and nowhere else. As Richard Bell aptly put it – “Aboriginal art - it’s a white thing” the validation and legitimacy of much of the art that is produced in New South Wales is not through peer assessment by New South Wales Aboriginal communities but purely through the commercial success of the artists work.
As noted by Coo-ee gallery director Adrian Newstead– (a commercial gallery that has operated in Sydney for over 20 years) in Australian Art collector Sept 09
By insinuating that the provenience of independently produced works is unsafe, they undermine more than 50 percent of the art currently being produced and a vast number of works created in the past that are sold through outlets other than elite exhibiting galleries and auction houses.
Aboriginal art in New South Wales is not produced in the same community art centre model that the more recognisable forms of Aboriginal art from remote regions is produced. Aboriginal art from New South Wales is far more individual than community based. It would be interesting (though pointless) for aboriginal artists in each suburb of Sydney to nominate an artist that is able to represent the community experience on behalf of the others that live in that community. How does one artist represent the Redfern experience in a way that encapsulates everyone else’s point of view?
Aboriginal art in New South Wales has been shaped by many political and social forces that have shaped the industry in ways both positive and disastrous. Political art in this exhibition was overshadowed by a more ecologically conscious art that shows a growing awareness among regional communities of the local impacts of global industrialised forces that impact everyone in the community.
The diversity of experiences between the generations is also sharply felt in the urban areas as it is in the remote art centres.
With all the galleries clamouring for the prestige of hosting the touring exhibition its surprising that there is no associated promotional material apart from the exhibition catalogue that accompanies this exhibition. While many art lovers will appreciate the historical associations that Roy Kennedy brings to his winning work the battle to change the perceptions of NSW audiences in relation to that Aboriginal art that is produced in their own regions is far from over. In some ways this exhibition validates the regional cringe of exhibiting in the big smoke. Many artists say it is difficult to be taken seriously by their local communities and would rather wait for the legitimacy of an expert in the City telling them that it is art than take a chance on working with their own community to produce local vernacular of artistic expression.
Once again this year Adam Hill has thrown another “truth bomb” into the exhibition space by creating artworks that not only challenge what Aboriginal art is supposed to look like but also interrogates a common reality shared by many in relation to home ownership. While two thirds of the non indigenous community are owner occupiers the figures for Indigenous home ownership in New South Wales put the rate at around 1 in 3 for Aboriginal people. Playing with the concept of the welcome mat this work rather effectively brings complex social issues into stark reality These homely mass produced messages of “welcome” “come on in”. Housing has always been a sore point for regionally based Aboriginal Australians, the sad reality of Albert Namatjiri being a nationally recognised artist yet not being allowed to own a home in Alice Springs even though he could afford it is an example of the distrust that many Aboriginal people feel in participating in the housing market.
The great Aussie dream of owning a home has not become a reality for many Aboriginal Australians. there is a lingering memory associated with Aboriginal housing that passed through urban folklore in recent years in that ATSIC would build houses for Aboriginal family’s who would destroy them for firewood. Whether this ever actually happened is not as relevant as the fact that it has been used as a reason for excluding Aboriginal family’s from the rental housing market in many areas around Australia.
The welcome mat is an interesting aspect of urban life that implies a social interaction. Aboriginal housing is a social issue that has never been dealt with properly and many people think that Aboriginal people choose to live in squalid conditions as part of their rejection of mainstream culture.
In recent years Adam Hill has moved away from his bold painterly visual style that expressed his earlier work and broadened the artistic palette that he usages to create artworks that challenge received wisdom that is fed through the mainstream media and politics.
Having been shortlisted in numerous art Prizes in recent years it is disappointing that further recognition of the artistic risks that Adam Hill has shown with his photography and Installation and should be taking as their career matures are not recognised or rewarded by a sometimes conservative award structure.
Each year the premiers art prize is heavily dominated by painting, sculpture and photography are present but there is an element of risk in awarding a $20 000 prize to a work that challenges the majority of the audiences expectations of what a $20 000 artwork might look like. Hills work this year consists of three doormats - boldly declaring visitors “UN welcome”. Adam challenges the judges and the community with this work as we all like to think that Aboriginal art in New South Wales is on a par with the best of international contemporary art however the rejection of re evaluation of the primacy of painting seems to be a long way away for many New South Wales Artists
Bancroft is an artist whose skill lies in an ability to create visual abstractions of the conceptual representations of much of the social relationships that underpin kinship and connection to country. Bancroft’s recent work involves muted colours that bleed together – sometimes into grid like formations and sometimes into free flowing assosoiations and meditations on country, place, space and time. Bancroft’s work works best on a large scale where the interplay and tensions created by contrasting and jarring blocks of color that sometimes loosely reference networks of kinship affiliation and alliance.
In relation to the other artists in this show Bancroft’s work almost appears as an Aboriginal modernism in comparison with the more graphic and representational approach which seems to be the preference of other participating artists. Bronwyn has initiated and participated in several group approaches to making art (Designer aboriginals, Boomalli Aboriginal artists co operative, The strength of women art collective). Bronwyn has developed a style of her own that is easily recognisable to any seasoned Aboriginal art aficionado, there is no doubt that her work would be a necessary inclusion in any representative survey of the art of New South Wales over the past two decades and recognition of the work that Bronwyn has put into community initiated arts projects is evident in the several protégés that have worked alongside Bronwyn and with her guidance throughout recent years.
The influences of Bronwyn’s artistic has permeated through many younger artists colour palate and her use of colour is used in a much softer tone than the hard edge line work that is prominent in the paintings of Adam Hill or the be seen in several other artists work in this exhibition such as Natalie Bateman, Karla Dickens or Donella Waters. Bancroft incorporates the community responsibility of sharing knowledge especially among women as a way of including the community in the
Artist Debra Beale photographic work for this years prize is a refreshingly different approach to a larger theme that was seen in several works in this year’s show - the ecological aspect of rural life in New South Wales. These photographs reference the ecological realities of water and land use agreements in the murray darling river system of western New South Wales. Beale simply yet effectively uses the bottled water as a metaphor for the traditional connections between language groups both upstream and downstream. For an authoritative traditional person in Western New South walse the river system acted like a modern broadbnand connection providing information about climactic events in other areas. As a source of food and sustenance.
The medicinal and utilitarian uses of botanical and animal life that existed along the river excist in many examples of information that was shared between women and the food gathering skills of women and the knowledge associated with this is a fascinating area to explore in opposition to a paternalistic male centric view of the land as a resource to be farmed and the water mentality of who gets to it first owns it as well as the traditional crafts of woodwork fibre making and that were used in fishing. That this water is pre sold for commercial industrial purposes is an interesting point and that the long term interests of the preservation of the river itself do not seem to be taken into account.
Roy Kennedy has produced a substantial body of work since 1995 documenting memories of life growing up on missions and reserves in Western New South Wales. Roys artwork present an “in living memory” perspective of times both good and bad and the living conditions that Aboriginal people who grew up under the Aborigines protection act. Roy was 35 years old when the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights was enacted and has spent just over half his life being classified as a citizen of Australia. Encouraged by the Eora College of TAFE in Redfern’s Visual arts program he began to document his memories the missions that his mother and father lived on. Since 1998 Roy has produced over 42 etchings that depict various aspects of the
Missions were run by the church whereas reserves were ran by the state and the difference between the two styles of administration varies from indifference to hostile assimilations
The importance of firsthand accounts of the experience of life on the missions and reserves of New South Wales cannot be underestimated. “In living memory” is a curatorial premise that has been used by documentary photographer Mervyn Bishop in recent years to produce a series of exhibitions that add a firsthand indigenous perspective of the collections of cultural materials that are owned by non Indigenous cultural institutions. Roy’s vignettes on daily life growing up on a mission produce bitter sweet reactions to the blatant discrimination faced by Aboriginal people in Western NSW prior to 1967.
A first person perspective is often dismissed as unobtainable by major institutions that are working with cultural materials and it is a disgrace that artists such as Roy Kennedy, Elaine Russell and Harry J Wedge are not supported more widely by the Commercial art gallery system in Sydney. There is no shortage of high priced art centre artists whose work shares an affinity with first hand perspectives of community yet the experiences of New South Wales Aboriginal people producing art outside of a community art centre model are too often dismissed as “fake” and “contested” . Much like the work of Alex Black lock Roy Kennedys
Traditional NSW Language groupings of participating artists
Language group representation in the premier’s art prize 2009
Bundjulung/Djanbun I (F)
Yuin/Gadigal I (F)
Boon Wurrung/ Yorta Yorta / Gamiliroi I (F)
Ngarabal I (M)
Ngarabal/birpai III (F) (M) (M)
Kamiliroi IIII (F) (M) (F) (F)
Thunggutti I (M)
Wiradjuri IIII (F) (M) (M) (F)
Goomeroi IIII (M) (M) (F) (M)
Gumbayngirr II (M) (M)
Weilwan/Gamillaroi I (F)
Dharug II (F) (F)
Jerringa I (M)
Dhungatti II (F) (M)
Yaegl I (F)
Bundjulung I (M)
Wodi Wodi I (M)
Ngiyampaa I (M)
Gamilaraay II (M) (F)
Wailwan I (M)
Birpai/Worimi I (M)
Birpai I (M)