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The Indigenous artists shaking up the global art scene

The Indigenous artists shaking up the global art scene

Indigenous Australian artists have forged one of the most globally significant art movements. So where does a collector start? Susan Skelly highlights the artists that are leading the way.

At Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the work of Kuninjku artist John Mawurndjul has viewers criss-crossing its galleries as each new wall spied diverts attention from the last. The artist from Arnhem Land is a master of the art of rarrk, or cross-hatching, its lines created using finely split sedge as a brush, dipped in charcoal and ochres and pulled across bark canvases to radiate a unique graphic energy.

At Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the work of Kuninjku artist John Mawurndjul has viewers criss-crossing its galleries as each new wall spied diverts attention from the last. The artist from Arnhem Land is a master of the art of rarrk, or cross-hatching, its lines created using finely split sedge as a brush, dipped in charcoal and ochres and pulled across bark canvases to radiate a unique graphic energy.

The exhibition, John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new, is a compelling, 40-year retrospective depicting rainbow serpents, lightning spirits, shooting star spirits and interpretations of the Mardayin ceremony. Painted ceremonial lorrkkon (hollow log ossuaries) appear to be lit from within. Sydney Morning Herald art reviewer John McDonald says Mawurndjul is not simply Australia’s premier bark painter, he is “one of our greatest artists of all time…”

Art broker D’Lan Davidson, a former head of Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s Australia, includes Mawurndjul on a list of the 10 artists he sees as currently affording collectors the opportunity for growth along with Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Daniel Walbidi, Paddy Bedford, Gordon Bennett, Wimmitji Tjapangati, Rover Thomas, Lin Onus, Kitty Kantilla and those pioneers of the 1971–72 Papunya boards.

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Sandhill Dreaming, 1972, 46 x 34 cm, sold by D’Lan Davidson in 2018 for AU$140,000, image supplied by D’Lan Davidson indigenous art
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Sandhill Dreaming, 1972, 46 x 34 cm, sold by D’Lan Davidson in 2018 for AU$140,000.

Redefining Australian art

While the Indigenous art market tends to wax and wane, artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Lin Onus and Rover Thomas continue to push records when their work comes onto the market. Other evergreen “collectables” include Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Albert Namatjira, William Barak, Gordon Bennett, Brook Andrew, photographer Tracey Moffatt, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Sally Gabori, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Kathleen Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre, Minnie Pwerle and Rosella Namok.

But experts like Nici Cumpston, curator of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the artistic director of TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, see a shifting away from the way Indigenous art is identified. Cumpston points to the 21st-century push to position it as, simply, Australian art, “rather than put it in a box”.

Indigenous artists, Cumpston says, should be on an international playing field, “where each artist is unique, whether delivering an ancestral creation story or a multimedia artwork … Instead of stereotypes, just a celebration of personal style.”

Cumpston is enthusiastic about the many enterprising artists conveying social, environmental and cultural messages through their work. One such is Reko Rennie, whose video art features a 1973 Rolls-Royce painted in camouflage, “driving” patterns in the soil of his Kamilaroi Country to a soundtrack by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, a reference to the relationship between privilege and the dislocation of culture and identity.

Artists from the Erub Arts Collaborative, on remote Erub (Darnley) Island, in the Torres Strait, took out the Premier’s Award for Excellence this year at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair with Paddles, made from ghost nets (abandoned fishing nets), rope and twine woven over a wire frame.

Artist's Country (Yirrawilli), 1989, 120 x 85 cm, sold by Mossgreen Auctions in 2015 for $48,800 AUD. Image supplied by D'Lan Davidson.
Artist's Country (Yirrawilli), 1989, 120 x 85 cm, sold by Mossgreen Auctions in 2015 for $48,800 AUD.

Tony Albert is regarded as a particularly exciting young Indigenous Australian artist, working in object-based assemblages, painting, photography, video and installation.

New collectors can do their homework at state galleries, which have impressive collections. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra includes works by the most significant Indigenous artists, from rare, historical drawings to the dynamic Desert Painting movement and contemporary urban Aboriginal art.

The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia houses a peerless archive. Travellers to the US can, until July next year, catch Beyond Dreamings: The Rise of Indigenous Australian Art in the United States.

John Mawurndjul, in the meantime, offers his own self-assessment: “The old ways of doing things have changed into new ways. The new generation does things differently. But me, I have two ways, I am the old and the new.”

This article originally appeared in volume 31 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

LEAD IMAGE: INSTALLATION VIEW OF DESERT COLOUR, ART GALLERY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA, ADELAIDE, 2018. PHOTO BY SAUL STEED.
BODY IMAGES SUPPLIED BY D’LAN DAVIDSON. 

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