Thursday, August 5, 2010

Boomalli – it’s a NSW thing

Boomalli Art Gallery has a history similar to that of a political party – its members and supporters have changed many times and while the message is still the same the means of communicating has changed numerous times and needs to change again.  Boomalli was a foundational moment in the history of Aboriginal self determination that saw a group of artists became a gallery, then become a company, and then become nothing – a victim of its successes and a champion of its failures. 

Several people deserve some credit but Fiona Foley should be duly credited with being the driving force of the creation of the Boomalli art gallery as a permanent exhibition space for Sydney based Aboriginal artists.  Foley, along with Fernanda Martin, Michael Riley, Avril Quaill, Jeffrey Samuels and Aarone (Raymond) Meeks had all studied tertiary level visual arts and had a very important message to deliver to the Sydney commercial art galleries.

“Fuck off”

The Boomalli founding members were artists who had sensed a passive aggression from sectors of the commercial art industry that did not believe that Aboriginal people who did not live in remote communities could tell them anything about Aboriginal culture that they did not already know.  In 1987 the experiences of Aboriginal people who had lived in capital cities (in many cases for several generations) were thought to be trivial compared to the exotic, noble savage, dreamtime expectations of academics and international visitors to Australia. 

In its first year the artist membership increased to 10 with Bronwyn Bancroft, Brenda Croft, Tracey Moffatt and Euphemia Bostock adding a new dimension to the original concept of the organisation which moved from an exhibition space for painting, printmaking and sculpture towards curatorial, community engaged artistic practices that represented issues that were at the Heart of the Aboriginal social and political struggles of the times.  Black deaths in custody, the stolen generations, equality in access to housing, healthcare and education are in many instances issues still being raised today. In the exhibition program from 1988 – 1998 these themes loom large in the artworks and exhibitions that took place in the galleries base in Redfern/Chippendale.

That an art gallery could also act as a political instrument by community members was quite radical in that not many commercial galleries would last more than four years if they were closely aligned with the political parties of the day.  The clash between Aboriginal political representation and the need for government funding to operate a community organisation is at the heart of the current malaise that the organisation exists in where the choice between two evils is no choice at all.

The representation of Aboriginal culture is the primary issue that has defined the success and failures of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative.  Aboriginality is as diverse as any Aboriginal person says it is.  The problems occur when non Aboriginal people speak on behalf of Aboriginal people that they do not know and especially when they profit financially from the intellectual property of an Aboriginal person or community. 

Boomalli can’t be everything to everybody, the divide between community arts and fine arts is necessarily large and transforms into something different as soon as it is defined.  For an Aboriginal community centre to exist in Sydney it needs to be able to represent the experiences of Aboriginal people in their own words or images.  It is against the spirit of the foundational concept of Boomalli for non-Aboriginal non- participants to define its history. 

The community activism curatorial agenda marked a new direction for the gallery that was to have devastating consequences for the organisation when its success showed a need for increased government support and funding.

The financial operations of the gallery in its first inception were small – it was a $5000 grant by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts board in 1987 that allowed for the rental of the first premises in Marr st and it was expected that all members would help out with the installing of exhibitions and volunteer time to work at the reception and assist with sales etc.

Increased professionalism required the incorporation of the gallery as a company and the employment of a full time curator Hetti Perkins allowed the organisation to be as accountable  as any other commercial gallery in Sydney.  Many commercial galleries were jealous of the legitimacy of an aboriginal owned and operated art gallery as the most direct way to make a sale is for buyers to trust that the artist  they want to support is receiving.

By 2002 when Boomalli moved into the Leichhardt premiss that it now occupies it sometimes had up to 4 full time staff members and the delivery of service to members and audiences was at its peak.  Unfortunately the main problem that is the cause of its current economic downturn is that has never owned a premises from which it could operate from.  Why a certain other Sydney based Aboriginal organisation would deny Boomalli the right to own the Leichhardt premises is hard to comprehend.  In  a strange parallel to the Aboriginal land rights cause that so many of its exhibitions have championed, the native title of incorporation does nothing but allow for a welfare model of patronage to be the main way for the organisation to secure operational funding from state and federal arts funding bodies.

Many of the people involved in Boomalli over the years have differing points of view and Divisions among some of the founding members have grown over the past 23 years and are no different to differences of opinion that exist in any artistic community in Australia.  Some of Boomalli’s harshest critics are members of the Aboriginal community who feel that the gallery is being white anted by non Aboriginal agendas. 

During 2005 – 2009 proposed changes to the structure of the board to allow non Aboriginal people to act on the board were opposed by members and directors who thought that Aboriginal owned and operated means just that - Aboriginal owned and operated

Being Aboriginal owned and operated is the legitimacy that allows Aboriginal people who are unsure about the Aboriginal art industry to look to trusted and respected Aboriginal community members for information about what exactly is Aboriginal art.

The need for community support of the organisation has caused numerous issues as to the quality of the exhibition program and the ever present lure of escaping the welfare cycle that many artists are forced to live in will inevitably ensure people who are not artists will make decisions about what is good art.

With the plethora of “arts” events that are associated with NAIDOC week across the state growing each year it is interesting to have a look at the history of the Boomalli gallery as in many ways it was ahead of its time in bringing new and modern ideas of Aboriginal cultural engagement that were not paternalistic or sanitised versions of what non Aboriginal people wanted Aboriginal people to be.

Boomalli is more than an art gallery, it is a concept – why else would shameless self promoters highlight their involvement with Boomalli in their biographies even when they haven’t set foot in the gallery in ages.

In the 1980’s Aboriginal artists were still thought to be bark painters living in remote communities, the reality for many Aboriginal people was far from this and was not so easily defined. The legacies of insensitive and cruel government intervention and control of the lives of Aboriginal people is a very real reality for many generations of Aboriginal people and although 1967 was officially the year that Aboriginal people were “allowed” to be recognised by the government of the day as Human beings change did not occur automatically or even at all for many Aboriginal people.

The Tent embassy founded in 1972 was a result of nothing changing for Aboriginal people for 5 years after the referendum and was one of the first occasions where Aboriginal people had used the media coverage of their political ideologies to their advantage.

Here's hoping that 5 years after the apology to the stolen generation a new political agendas will occupy our next generation of artists and we can once and for all be done with the history wars of the conservative Howard government era.

Aboriginal art did not evolve as a niche market within modernist art history as some would like to believe.  Artists such as Margaret Preston was very aware of the aesthetic significance of Aboriginal cultural artefacts and the most commercially successful art of this era was the bush scene landscape (In both representational and abstract art) essentially the most popular Australian modernist artworks were paintings of the lands where the stereotype of the Aborigine were supposed to exist, but not to be seen.

Several commercial art galleries had started to make a very lucrative income stream through matching “authentic” aboriginal art to well educated collectors. In the 1950’s when Albert Namatjira’s watercolours first came to prominence in the consciousness of Australia, the political landscape of Aboriginal Australia was well under-way and ready for the increase of Aboriginal involvement in Australian cultural industries.   

It is no surprise that that when the world’s attention is focused on Australia as it was in 1988 (bicentenary) and 2000 (Olympics) that the genuineness of Aboriginal culture is supported by all sides of government yet domestically no political leader goes near an Aboriginal issue without a clearly defined exit strategy.

These two events created a gold rush of Aboriginal art and crafts that saw some Aboriginal artists rewarded but mostly fuelled resentment among aboriginal community members as to why people were so into this art stuff when for the most part of their lives they or their family had been deliberately excluded from the art and cultural industries in Australia.

The idea of Aboriginality being a unique selling point has long been in development, in the 19th century several museums in Europe and America had extensive collections of artefacts and even human body parts that were used as instructional tools on the evolution of mankind.  Looking at the permanent collections of several prominent museums it is fascinating to wonder what it was they were actually looking for in collecting these artefacts – with 20/20 hindsight it is easy to see the racism that permeated scientific and academic thinking of the times yet the people who documented and recorded Aboriginal culture have left legacies that have been reworked by Aboriginal people today into political tools to argue for the increased support for legal and social agendas.  In some cases to reclaim culture that was believed to be lost and to reproduce artistic styles or dance movements and ceremonial protocols in ways that were unimagined before 1980

Sydney and Melbourne have long been separated from the myth of the Australian outback, and the idea of Aboriginal people living in cities was hard for many to understand.  To be “Aboriginal” was to be outside of the progressive real world that Australia wanted to embody.  Aboriginal people were depicted as fringe dwellers prior to 1967 they were forced to live in missions and reserves and were subject to constant harassment from police and the welfare authorities.

Anthropological and ethnographic disciplines had very different ideas to commercial art galleries as to what was being represented in the art of Aboriginal people and were surprised that audiences were paying significant sums of money for the visual beauty of an artwork – not for the scientific information that it provided. 

The ethnographic context of Aboriginal art puts rock art in the same category as prehistoric art that can be seen in Europe, Africa and America, however the cultures that created the international versions of prehistoric art had long been displaced and very few cultures lived in such close proximity to the evidence of their millennial occupation of many places that Australian Aboriginal people did.

A gold rush mentality was still attached to many get rich quick schemes of the 1980’s and the art market was no different.  It’s frightening to imagine how much money has been made by non Indigenous people selling Aboriginal inspired souvenirs and trinkets without any regard for the poverty of the people that they are misrepresenting. 

The Australian Aboriginal souvenir trade is no different to a photographer taking photos of homeless people and selling them for large sums of money.  It is not ethical to represent other people or other cultures in ways that humiliate or objectify the subjects as anything other than who they really are. 

Ironically it is this souvenir market that was first used by missionaries and later by Aboriginal such as Bill Onus to create a financial income for Aboriginal people to produce products

Artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Gordon Bennett and Brook Andrew confound these stereotypes of what is an Aboriginal artist through making art that does not look Aboriginal.  Their artworks are equal to any other artist practicing and pose strong arguments for judging an artwork on its artistic merits rather than on the ethnicity of the artist. 

This example does not occur at the community art level though – when a local council wants to celebrate Aboriginal culture the event needs to look Aboriginal – with traditional dancer’s, elders providing thoughtful insights and the fair skinned Aboriginal people either standing in the background or  covering their fairness with white clay and red headbands 

As artist Joe Hurst has aptly put it

“The Hello dance and the Goodbye dance are essentially the same – just wave your hands at the audience and walk in a slow unusual manner – there is nothing spiritual in these ‘ceremonial’ performances”

The days of sympathy for the poverty that Aboriginal communities exist in need to come to an end and serious questions need to be asked about the divide between Aboriginal Australia and mainstream Australia that still exist today.  To purchase a piece of Aboriginal art as an act of atonement for the cruelty of previous generations supports a welfare mentality that locks Aboriginal people into cycles of poverty that prevent them from taking for granted the freedoms that all Australians are supposed to share.  

Australians like to think that they have a better understanding of what really happened to Aboriginal people in NSW but this is rarely discussed in ways that are publicly accountable.  Boomalli is one of the few community organisations to have the power and legitimacy to make these changes – it is crucial that the organisation adapt to an openly accountable administration system.  This does not mean that anyone can walk in off the street and demand change but  there needs to be processes in place to allow greater engagement between the Aboriginal community and the audiences who genuinely want to contribute something to the fabric of true cultural engagement in contemporary Australia. 

If Aboriginal art is now entering a ‘post political’ era as some have commented then the political must change from the personal to the community oriented.  Once again it is remote art centres that are educating the Cities, not the other way around as many would like to believe.