Beauty and vibrancy from the Black Australian experience

Nancy Nyanyarna Jackson, Untitled (detail), acrylic on linen, 76 cm x 150 cm. Image courtesy of Warakurna Artists.

Really One Story, art from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands
Art works from Maruku Arts (Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands), Minyma Kutjara Arts Project (Irrunytju/Wingellina, Western Australia), Papulankutja Artists (Papulankutja/Blackstone and Mantamaru/Jameson, Western Australia), Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands), Tjarlirli Art (Tjukurla, Western Australia), Warakurna Artists (Warakurna, Wanarn and Patjarr, Western Australia)
at the FORM Gallery, Claremont WA until May 7.

Other Horizons
Art and cinematic works by Atong Atem, Hayley Millar Baker and Jasmine Togo-Brisby
at the Fremantle Arts Centre, until April 23.

Reviews by Barry Healy

White Australians mostly inhabit the coastal fringes of the continent. From colonial times the dominant mentality has always related to the interior as a “dead heart” with nothing to offer. Added to this was the White Australia racist immigration policy combined with the “black birding” slave trade from the South Pacific.

The ascendant cultural outlook derives from an internal hollowness and a fear of the exterior. In total, Australia has had a difficult time coming to terms with its past and its place in the world.

These two, striking exhibitions examine the Black experience of Australia and reveal a remarkable synergy between traditional Aboriginal visual arts practice and its modernist counterparts.

Early maps show how much settlement was by the ocean. Somewhat like a giant, degenerated form of a Buddhist mandala, the littoral, securely capitalist margin culturally experiences itself as having a mysterious emptiness at its centre.

The annually produced WA government Mines Operating and Under Development map shows the massive activity that has developed along the state’s mineral-bearing geological formations. About half of Australia’s exports originate in WA’s mining, petroleum and agricultural industries.

WA’s population is about two and half million, of which approximately two million live in Perth. That means that most of the workforce at the front-line of that economic activity flies-in/flies-out, observing the country from above.

The relationship to country of the peoples of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands is vastly different.

The Yarnangu people who reside in the communities represented in the Really One Story exhibition are part of a single social system known as the Western Desert Cultural Bloc. Their lands straddle the ‘three state lines’ area, where Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory meet.

Their Lands cover around 250,000 square kilometres of desert, about the size of Victoria. The population of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands includes the first wave of people who came out of the Western Desert in the 1930s and the last wave in the 1960s.

Such remote communities are consigned by modern Australian capitalism to a sort of internal underdevelopment, denied economic advancement and rarely listened to when government policies are formulated.

The Mines Operating and Under Development map shows absolutely no activity there.

While the population has been incorporated into the Australian state system, this is an area largely devoid of capital, with no employment available. For these communities the most significant economic activity is their art.

As Above So Below by Jasmine Togo-Brisby

The money earned from exhibitions like Really One Story is about the only source of dollar income for Ngaanyatjarra Lands’ communities.

The not-for-profit FORM Gallery is to be congratulated for building relationships with these artists and other indigenous arts workshops around WA, helping to foster practitioners and ensuring that they get rightfully paid. A previous FORM achievement was the Yiwarra Kuju Canning Stock Route Project, which originated in 2006 and has had massive impact.

Really One Story presents a diverse collection of works on canvas, tjanpi (grass) sculptures, punu (woodcarvings) and video. The works are inspired by the colours of the artists’ desert Ngurra (home, Country), by tales of Tjukurrpa (the foundation of Yarnangu life and society) and by reflections on contemporary and historical life in remote communities.

The canvases on display are vibrant and bold, forming shapes that would be regarded as abstract in modernist, European arts practice. Here they represent a way of seeing that has survived from pre-class society.

They offer viewers who have never known anything but capitalist property relations and its attendant, alienated culture, an entry to a different understanding.

The punu weavings on display draw on millennia-old skills in utilising native fibre, while also providing an opportunity for contemporary expression. The exhibition includes a stop-motion animation using tjanpi woven dolls to illustrate an every-day story of community life.

Some of the art works depict ancient stories. Alison Watson’s painting Minyma Kutjara Tjukurrpa (Two Sisters’ Story) tells one of the most important women’s creation stories of the western and southern deserts. It is of two mythical women who, in journeying through the landscape created its features.

Other works tell more recent stories, such as Noreen Parker’s Maralinga. “When my mother was a young girl about 15 years, the people were living in the bush in wiltjas (temporary shelters) in the Spinifex Country,” she explains in the catalogue.

“My mother told me this story, how the people were all sitting down and they saw a big light and then lots of smoke, the smoke just went up and up and up. The people were frightened they thought it was a walpa pulka (big storm) or the wanampi (rainbow serpent). My Uncle, my mother’s brother had gone to hunt bush tucker in Maralinga Country, he never came back, he died from that bomb, that’s a true story.”

The “one story” shown in this exhibition is of combined and uneven development. Australian capitalism has certainly drawn these communities into its sphere, even to the point of radioactive fallout, while refusing them progress.

But the vibrancy displayed here shows that Aboriginal Australia has its own life and can express its vision skillfully.

The three women featured in the Fremantle Arts Centre’s Other Horizons each use modernist techniques to tell stories of sovereignty, colonialism, migration, national identity and belonging in contemporary Australia.

Atong Atem, originally from South Sudan, uses cinematic, other filmic and photographic work to examine early histories of African settler migration to Australia (including with the First Fleet). She deals with the history of the White Australia Policy and the refugee experience.

Her huge and opulent close up photographs of African women migrants are exquisite.

Jasmine Togo-Brisby is descended from Vanuatuans who were kidnapped into slavery in the Australian sugar cane fields. Her exhibit, entitled Abyss, uses an interdisciplinary approach to reveal personal and painful recent histories while also highlighting the formation of new cultures and identities in the bellies of slave ships.

She uses the FAC’s main hall for a major piece demonstrating how African slaves were transported across the Atlantic.

Nyctinasty, by Gunditjmara and Djabwurrung artist Hayler Millar Baker is a filmic work that deals with what she calls the “in-between spaces that First Nations people occupy simultaneously” between the physical, emotional and spiritual realms. It is haunting, beautiful and, drawing as it does on horror movie tropes, ultimately scary!

Collectively, the Other Horizons projects explore the varied experiences of, and reflections upon, living Black in modern Australia. Really One Story, on the other hand, quite simply demonstrates that Australia always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

A map from the catalogue in the Really One Story that shows the lands the art comes from.

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