Review of Colour Power - Aboriginal art post 1984 at the NGV.
Published Thursday, 20 January 2005An exhibition where curatorship tramples over connoisseurship - two and a half stars.
While colour is an important dimension in indigenous art, pattern making is far more so. Indigenous artists have a visual language that is so successfully realised on any media from skin to canvas that it has drawn praise and acceptance from collectors, curators and the general public with very little resistance. Indigenous art is primarliy reliant on pattern making and colour is of secondary importance. For the Western audience and art market colour has become increasingly important, but not always well understood. I had hoped that this exhibition would have helped us better understand the use of colour and its application.
It is the failure to explain the significance of colour for each region and individual artist, from symbolic (at the personal and cultural), to a freer aesthetic that is at the root of my dissapointment with this exhibition. This is an exhibition that would have benefited from more information on the wall with some audio-visual support in order to convey the really interesting information that is buried in the exhibition catalogue.
Putting it simply, the exhibition fails to explain the differences in use of colour by the artists. I'm suggesting examples illustrating the development of Aboriginal art as it moves from the adpatation of traditional symbolic to the modern aesthetic would have been a more interesting exhibition.
By showing less works, and placing more emphasis on the regional variations in colour and a historical sense of progression from traditional application of palette the exploration of colour would have been more successful demonstrated.
For example, colour is used differently by urban artists, weavers and desert artists and perhaps an exploration of this theme through the exhibition rather than exploring it in the catalogue would have been helpful to the public. A sense of the progression from bark paintings to the modern acrylic paints and a signposting of the regional differences in palette would have also been helpful.
What does come out of this exhibition is how far Aboriginal painting has come from the restricted palette of traditional works, of brown, white, ochre and black seen in bark and cave paintings.
Furthermore, it isn’t just the successful and progressive use of saturated colour by indigenous artists that has been so important, but also the specific palettes employed across different regions and the growing intensity of palette with each year. This wasn't obvious in this exhibition.
The exhibition includes works by many significant artists including:
Brook Andrew, Reela Angie, Minnie Motorcar Apwerl, Biddy Baadjo, Djambu Barra Barra, Taparti Bates, Kantjupayi Benson, Ngarta Jinny Bent, Wanyina Biddy Bonney, Anmanari Brown, Nyuju Stumpy Brown, Daisy Bullen, Marlingana John Charles, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Peter Clancy, Jean Cox, Jijija Molly Dededar, Doris Doherty, Julie Dowling, Purlta Maryanne Downs, Barney Ellaga, Wayawaya Sundown Ellery, Lorna Napurrula Fencer (Yulyulu), Untjima Fred Forbes, Jampalwarnu Paddy Japaljarri Gibson, Kurtiji Peter Goodijee, Kuji Rosie Goodijee, Willie Gudabi, Samantha Hobson, Estelle Hogan, Gordon Hookey, Weaver Jack, Bert Jackson, Juntiyi Japaljarri, April Jones, Peggy Napangardi Jones, Daisy Napaltjarri Jugadai, Peggy Nangala Jurra, Mary Kangi, Willie Kew, Emily Kam Kngwarray, Monday Kunga, Jakapa Dora Kwilla, Myanpung Julia Lawford, Bessie Liddle, Bertha Linty, Joe Jangala Long, Trixie Long, Yangkarni Penny K-lyon, Dorothy May, Ngarralja Tommy May, Eileen Mbitjana, Tracey Moffatt, Donald Moko, Mati (Bridget) Mudgidell, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Daisy Ngawaia Nalyirri, Eubena Nampitjin, Narputta Nangala, Sally Liki Nanii, Milliga Napaltjarri, Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri, Makinti Napanangka, Nancy Naninurra Napanangka, Bai Bai Napangarti, Paddy Jupurrula Nelson, Mawukura Jimmy Nerrimah, Janyka Ivy Nixon, Amy Nuggett, Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, Ena Gimme Nungurrayi, Nora Wompi Nungurrayi, Nyunjarn Charlie Nunjun, Fiona Omeenyo, Hitler Pamba, Loren Pennington, Myrtle Pennington, Billy Morton Petyarr, Kurnti Jimmy Pike, Dick Japaljarri Raymond, Nada Rawlins, Clem Rictor, Eva Rogers, Janjin Sweeney Nipper Rogers, Darby Jampijinpa Ross, Jirtin Pompey Siddon, Pijaju Peter Skipper, Jukuja Dolly Snell, Nyirlpirr Spider Snell, Wakartu Cory Surprise, Billy Thomas (Joongoorra), Elsie Thomas, Alan Winderoo Tjakamarra, Boxer Milner Tjampitjin, Murtiyarru Sunfly Tjampitjin, Jukuja Nora Tjookootja, George Tuckerbox, Judy Napangardi Watson, Maggie Napangardi Watson, Tjuruparu Watson, Tommy Watson, Alma Webou (Kalaju), H J Wedge, Moima Willie, Helen Wunmariar, Boxer Yankarr, Paji Honeychild Yankarr.
This exhibition predominantly consists of paintings, although there are lonely examples of other genres including a photograph by Tracey Moffatt (which I couldn’t locate), a carving by Billy morton Petyarr and a weaving by Kantjupayi Benson and Mati Mudgidell as well as an electric mixed media piece by Brook Andrew.
My first, second and final impression of this exhibition is that on the whole, it is poorly executed, with far too many mediocre works by important artists for a public institution to put forward. Compare this exhibition with that currently on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Yiribana Gallery where every work demonstrates the grandness of each individual artist’s vision and where there is a sense of order and balance in the exhibition as a whole. For curatorship must demonstrate both a depth of understanding of the subject matter as well as connoisseurship in selecting and putting forward the best examples of works by the artist.
While the catalogue accompanying the exhibition is a wonderful source of information and beautifully illustrated it fails to translate as such on the walls, where there is little or no information available and the works generally look jumbled like you might see at any of the art centres. The centre piece of the exhibition is a majestic work by Maggie Napangardi Watson and it is supported by important works by Harry J.Wedge’s Blind Faith, and Gordon Hookey’s Sacred nation, scared nation, indoctrination. The woven figures by Kantjupayi Benson, which have significance in their own right, seemed lost and irrelevant in the exhibition space as did the lone sculptural wood carving by Billy Mortan Petyarr. The two Ginger Riley paintings, which with a little more space might have otherwise glowed seemed simply washed out here.
The works on show by two of the most exciting colourists Makinti Napanangka and Emily Kam Kngwarray are both irrelevant in this exhibition because of the poor quality examples selected for this exhibition.
Walking away from this exhibition I can unequivocally recommend the catalogue, where each of the three articles by Judith Ryan (the curator of this exhibition) are critical to understanding the development of colour in indigenous art from ochre body paint to acrylic on canvas. I also found Christine Watson’s Whole Lot, Now: Colour Dynamics in Balgo Art very important to understanding colour in one of the most colourful schools – Balgo.
Perhaps it is time that curators of Aboriginal art showed restraint and didn't just let it all hang out - all these dazzling works that look so wonderful individually fail to hold their own when crammed together. Think antipasto rather smorgasbord, keeping regional varieties together and in small portions.
Reviewed by Martin Shub, January 2005.