in black and white: more on the orientation of Aboriginal art

Thanks to Helen Vivian’s detective work, I was fascinated to read how the London-based Frieze had reviewed Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition at the (then) new National Art Centre Tokyo, while on tour in Japan from the new National Art Museum in Osaka, in June 2008.

Contrary to the self-adulatory press this exhibition received in Australia, in this review Edan Corkhill makes no mention of its institutional origins (The National Museum of Australia) or its local curator, Margo Neale. According to this reviewer, it’s all down to its Japanese curator, Akira Tatehata, as is his “impossible modernist” rubric. As is to be expected, cross-cultural projection is the primary means by which the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye is to be understood in such circumstances. Once in the mainstream of contemporary art, the problem is just how is Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s (or her contemporaries, for that matter) achievement to be judged?

In this instance while the reviewer’s point is to congratulate the curator for stepping outside “the Euro-American mainstream… [which is] a watershed in Japanese museum history”, the standards of evaluation remain firmly within its mainstream rhetoric. So, one finds the curators quoted exclaiming that it displays “all the techniques honed by the Abstract Expressionists”. Once Terry Smith had compared Emily to Monet, everyone else was on the same track. Janet Holmes a Court is quoted as proclaiming “she’s up there with Monet, Modigliani (??) and all the rest…” This is an example of what Darren Jorgenson refers to as “codes of similitude”. By the way, that’s the same M. Monet who, as this reviewer coincidentally commented, had by comparison, seemed “fiddly” when seen in the same venue…

Following our previous thread, I was also interested to read that while describing the extraordinary scale of Emily’s work, (in relation to the dimensions of the National Art Centre’s walls) the writer informs us: “the artist painted on the ground, so the work’s orientations are determined by the curator”. So there you go. It’s mainstream. In black and white. And still my problem remains unresolved…

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