shopping for authenticity: the global reach of dot-painting

Move over NY subway grafitti style! Here comes dot-painting…  And if you want to bulk-order your boomerangs, you can go here. These treasures (and the background research) is thanks to Bill Kruse, in Djakarta airport.

Inuit Modern

here, for comparison, is a review of a show currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Interesting parallels to the Australian situation…

Aboriginal Art Centres on Nicolas Rothwell’s Frontier

For this post Iconophilia is pleased to draw on the recent essay by Darren Jorgensen, “Bagging Aboriginal Art: The Intervention and the community art movement” first published in Arena #111 (March – April 2011) pp 38-42.

Jorgensen writes: “In the wake of a 2007 Senate Inquiry into the shoddy ‘carpetbagging’ practices that work to rip off remote Aboriginal artists, one would think that the ethical alternative of remote art centres would be looking good. Yet in the mainstream media at least the centres find themselves more embattled, and the journalist whose work sparked the enquiry, The Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell, has changed his mind about the centres’ place in the greater Aboriginal art industry. After supporting the work of art centre co-ordinators across the deserts and Top End of the country for many years, Rothwell’s writing now holds art centres responsible for a deterioration in the quality of Aboriginal art.

“The reason for this shift, however, appears to have less to do with Aboriginal art than its changing political context. In “The Intellectual Class should support the Intervention,” Rothwell complains about welfarism and the chattering leftist class (Australian, December 3 2007). It was also in 2007 that Rothwell shifted his longstanding support for art centres. His writing was always a touchstone of positive news in a newspaper otherwise dedicated to constructing the most troubling representations of Aboriginal people. And this style of reviewing has continued, contributing valuable accounts of artists’ work in remote Australia. However Rothwell has also begun to pen another kind of position, coincident with the government’s own. My argument here is that this position has spilled into his writings on the work of Aboriginal artists themselves, in a worrying conflation of the politics of the moment with opinion about the quality of art from remote communities.”

Iconophilia has also commented on Rothwell’s perverse usage of the figure of death in his writing from this period, (cited here, referencing back to April 1, 2006) and his later more pessimistic view of the contemporary developments in Aboriginal modern art – a concept first articulated by Ian McLean, from which Nicolas Rothwell would surely resile.

Jorgensen marks June 2007 as “the turning point in Rothwell’s writing, …the month that the Senate inquiry made its recommendations, and the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report was released and served to justify the Intervention. When Rothwell released his first pessimistic essay about the future of art centres, “Colour fades into Shadow”, on June 22, the Howard government had just announced its intention to stage the Intervention on 20 June. He argues that few art centres “are profitable, and making large new funds available to them will not automatically change this picture,” and that “the policy map in place today is really a subsidised culture industry program.” The real crunch comes later in the essay, where Rothwell somehow aligns the death of a young artist with his argument about the Aboriginal art industry:

The attempt to fund, and fence, and define this creative current carries its subtle, inevitable costs. Deep in the Western Desert, at Kintore, the heart of the Pintupi painting movement, and the source of the Centre’s most collected art, a young man died of a heart attack in the smart new clinic building a week ago.

Continue reading →

“the stones are part of the earth”

…and they blend with the slate floor. So says the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Ron Radford, in his justification of the redesign of The Aboriginal Memorial. Well, true, but surely there’s much more to it than that? Loyal readers of Iconophilia will recall that on December 10th last year I published a letter I had written to him two months previously, asking a number of questions about the decision-making and consultative process which had led to the installation of The Aboriginal Memorial in its current guise. This was my original letter:

12th October, 2010

Ron Radford, AM


National Gallery of Australia

GPO Box 1150, Canberra, ACT, 2601

Dear Ron,

May I ask of you a couple of questions? I’m writing a piece on the new installation of The Aboriginal Memorial, and I would like to be sure I have my facts straight.

1. Whose idea was it, and who approved the introduction of the new material as a groundbase for the Memorial?

2. What was the consultation process with the artists and their heirs, at what stage of the design development, and with whom?

3. Has there been a “singing-in” ceremony, as with all the other relocations and rearrangements, (with the exception, I understand, of St Petersburg)? If so, by whom, and when?

Your reply will be much appreciated

With best wishes

Nigel Lendon

In the four months since this letter, there have been many posts and commentary on Iconophilia, and elsewhere. Now a reply has arrived. I reproduce it in full below. There are so many aspects to his account one scarcely knows where to begin. So, for the time being, I leave it to my readers to decide whether it is a satisfactory account of the processes and decisions that have led to the current manifestation of The Aboriginal Memorial.

P.S.If you’re new to this thread on Iconophilia, type Memorial in the search box at the top of the side bar and press Return to go to the other posts and comments on this topic.

P.P.S. Two months ago I first published my original letter, and in frustration, a hypothetical response, here.

is The Aboriginal Memorial a work of art?

On 6th November last year Djon Mundine gave a talk at the National Gallery of Australia about the place of The Aboriginal Memorial in the context of contemporary Indigenous art, following its relocation and redesign in the new wing. One of his key claims was that the historical moment of transition between art museums’ treatment of Aboriginal artefacts as works of art coincided with the recognition of authorship. According to this criterion, Indigenous artefacts in museum collections were recognised as works of art by the act of naming their authors.

In the discussion that followed his talk, one of the members of the audience noted that the 43 artists who created The Aboriginal Memorial were not named, which, by Djon’s criterion, called into question the status of the Memorial as a work of art. Both Djon and the Senior Curator, Francesca Cubillo seemed to agree that this was a problem which should be fixed. Two months later, all that has been changed is the addition of a short wall-text edited from an excellent brochure, written by Susan Jenkins in 1997 (which did name all the artists). The new additional wall-text reads:

The Aboriginal Memorial

The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log ceremonial coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal Memorial was created for the National Gallery of Australia in 1988 in response to the Bicentenary of Australia, a celebration of 200 years of European settlement. The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow log coffins are situated broadly according to where the artists’ clans live along the river and its tributaries.

The Aboriginal Memorial was conceived by Djon Mundine, a member of the Bundjalang people of northern New South Wales and at the time art adviser in Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land. Originally Mundine approached a small group of Senior artists including Paddy Dhatangu, George Malibirr, Jimmy Wululu and Dr David Daymirringu. However the project grew to include forty three male and female artists from Ramingining and its surrounds in Central Arnhem Land.

The Aboriginal Memorial with its 200 hollow log coffins – one for each year of European settlement, in the words of Mundine, represents a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the final rites for all indigenous Australians who have been denied a proper burial.

In 1987 the National Gallery of Australia agreed to commission this installation to enable the artists, most of whom were professional painters, sculptors and weavers, to complete the project. The Aboriginal Memorial was initially shown at the Biennale of Sydney in 1988. It was then brought to Canberra where it is now permanently displayed in the National Gallery of Australia.

The Aboriginal Memorial marks a watershed in the history of Australian society. Whilst it is intended as a war memorial, its is also a historical statement, a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people and culture in the face of great odds, and a legacy for future generations of Australians.

The label remains the same, which itself perpetuates a historical mis-attribution. If you go to the website – here – to find the artists’ locations, clans, names, and stories, you will see that a significant proportion of the work was made by artists who live/lived somewhere other than Ramininging.

Elsewhere, the Gallery claims The Aboriginal Memorial as “one of the most important works of art in the national collection”.

Yet the question remains: does the absence of attribution – the artists’ names on the label which accompanies the work – render ambiguous the status of The Aboriginal Memorial as a work of art?

P.S. As noted in an earlier post, the right of attribution is recognised within Moral Rights legislation in Australia. And see other related confusions at the NGA here.

P.P.S. Links to the thread on this topic may be found here. Or type Memorial in the search box.

P.P.P.S. And for a wider perspective, read Melinda Hinkson (who describes herself – in this instance – as a “disgruntled anthropologist”) on the NGA’s lack of a relational approach to its presentation of Indigenous art. You can download her on-the-button essay from Arena 109 here: For Love and Money.

P.P.P.P.S. You can find the NGA’s own YouTube video here, which in a new description gives a account of funerary practices in the present tense, as if that is the way burial ceremonies still take place. A more nuanced account might say: “In the past…” or “Traditionally…” Otherwise, aren’t we getting a little more ethnographic than the Director might like?

STOP PRESS: 27 June 2011. At last the National Gallery of Australia has taken a step toward remedying the problems outlined above. It has only taken seven months.

But wait! Naming the artists is one thing. But it perpetuates the myth that these are all artists from Ramingining. Ramingining artists and others is the more accurate attribution.

At last the Australian equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica has been recognised by the National Gallery of Australia as the preeminent work of art of the Australian colonial era.

Another P.S.: Let’s see how long it takes to make some corrections? Jimmy Moduk is listed twice, Neville Nanytjawuy is missing.

A final P.S.: In June 2016 I published the following essay: Relational Agency: Rethinking The Aboriginal Memorial.

The Big Fishtrap

In keeping with the nation’s passion for the tourist art category of Big Things (Banana, Pineapple, Merino, Crayfish, Trout etc.), one of the features of the new wing of the National Gallery of Australia is a very large mandjabu (fishtrap). Because the photography of works of art is prohibited inside the NGA, I can’t show you an image of it. Neither can I show you what’s on the website:

All works and information that appear on [the] NGA website do so with the consent of the artist/s or copyright holder. No image or information displayed may be reproduced, transmitted or copied (other than for the purposes of private research and study) without the NGA’s permission. Contravention is an infringement of Australia’s Copyright Act 1968.

In any case, the only image of the big mandjabu I could find on the site is this partial snap on the NGA’s Flickr photostream here, where works of art from the collection are represented in a much less formal manner.

However this artefact is arguably an exception to this prohibition. That is, if it doesn’t have an author in the manner of other works of art, it’s not really a work of art. This gigantic aluminium artefact is suspended in the vault above the shop entrance and the cloak room. From the little the NGA tells you, its origins and authorship are proving to be somewhat mysterious. When the new extension first opened the label attributed authorship to the folks that made it (Urban Art Project Foundry) with the sub-text that it was “based on” an original dated c.1955 in the collection by an “Unknown Artist”.

Clearly a Foundry is not an Artist. Recently, however, new labels have been affixed to the walls which give the attribution in a different way. The “author” is now an “Unknown MAKER” and it is based on an original fishtrap in the collection, now dated c. 1995. The revised date makes more sense, given that the settlement of Maningrida hardly existed in 1955. Presumably the “original” is this one, acquired in 2006. Or there’s another example in the collection, this time with much better provenance. The replica is not listed in the collection database.  So, if it’s not a work of art, it’s something else, which surely poses other problems for the nation’s premier art museum.

Given this evolving ambiguity, I went to the Urban Art Projects site, where you will find plenty of images, plus some words of explanation from the Director, Ron Radford, who tells us:

The fish trap is based on a 1950s Maningrida fish trap and UAP have been able to interpret and enlarge the original woven piece into a stunning 12 metre long intricate metal work. The fish trap is a feature work in the atrium and the shadow pattern it produces is almost as beautiful as the work itself.

By UAP’s own account, the work was “curated by the NGA”. You can even watch its time-lapse construction on YouTube here. Fascinating.

The question remains, who is the author of this feature work? It seems almost inconceivable that if the original fishtrap from Maningrida was made in circa 1995 it could lose the attribution of the artist who made it. Whatever the circumstances of the acquisition of the original, with a little research the problem of authorship could have been easily solved, surely, and permissions for a named (or attributed) replica negotiated. However when you go to the UAP site (but not the NGA site) you find that it was produced in collaboration with the Maningrida artist George Ganyjbala:

The Maningrida fish trap is an important sculptural commission and presents a contemporary interpretation of a traditional woven fish trap from the Maningrida Aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Works of art from Maningrida carry a strong reputation and are represented in collections nationally and internationally. UAP’s design team travelled to the Northern Territory to work with George Ganyjbala, Maningrida elder and skilled fish trap maker and his family.

So while there was a UAP “design team” who “interpreted” the “original” in collaboration with George Ganyjbala, the author of the original remains unknown. Who would know?  Maningrida Arts and Culture is one of the most professional art centres in the country, which has paved the way in the attribution of artefacts other than paintings and sculptures as the work of individual artists. In the nineties there were several well-known artists who made mandjabu, among other things, for sale at MAC. As do a number of contemporary artists today. However, surprisingly, MAC is not mentioned anywhere in this thread.

If research, discussion, permission, or commission with the the original artist (or their heirs) was a part of the process of curation, why are they not named or attributed by the NGA? In the absence of such a curatorial process, is it the NGA that is the “author” of this “feature work”, by default? Whose idea was it? Who had carriage of its production? So long as the replica’s authorship remains unresolved, or unrecognised, so does its ambiguous status as a work of art. Not. Which means, among other things, I should have been allowed to photograph it.

And finally.


Inbox. Outbox. Ignorebox.

One of the architectural features of the new National Gallery of Australia extension that has not attracted much attention (and was missed by Robert Bevan in his review) is the moat and drawbridge, the symbolic function of which, I suggest, is to repel critics (and anthropologists, apparently). Now read on…

Two months ago, I wrote the following letter to the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Ron Radford. Apparently, Citizen Lendon does not merit a reply. While you might assume that the Director of a major public institution has some kind of obligation to respond to a perfectly legitimate enquiry from any member of the public, apparently this is not the case with respect to the National Gallery of Australia.

I therefore provide the following points of reference – not to blow my own trumpet, but to provide a sense of how difficult it must be to get across the moat. As well as being the author of Iconophilia, readers may know that I also write about art and its histories in a number of contexts. Among other things, I have a longstanding interest in (and a trail of curatorial projects and publications concerned with) Australian Indigenous art. I have been a guest curator at the NGA. I am also a Fellow of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation.

Now, as regular readers of Iconophilia will know, recently I have been thinking out loud about the re-design and relocation of The Aboriginal Memorial at the NGA.  And so I have been considering writing a more substantial account of its recent history. However there are some facts I would need to have clarified for the sake of accuracy. Two months seemed a reasonable time to wait for a reply to this letter before sharing it with you-all:

12th October, 2010

Ron Radford, AM


National Gallery of Australia

GPO Box 1150, Canberra, ACT, 2601

Dear Ron,

May I ask of you a couple of questions? I’m writing a piece on the new installation of The Aboriginal Memorial, and I would like to be sure I have my facts straight.

1. Whose idea was it, and who approved the introduction of the new material as a groundbase for the Memorial?

2. What was the consultation process with the artists and their heirs, at what stage of the design development, and with whom?

3. Has there been a “singing-in” ceremony, as with all the other relocations and rearrangements, (with the exception, I understand, of St Petersburg)? If so, by whom, and when?

Your reply will be much appreciated

With best wishes

Nigel Lendon

As of this date, I have received no reply.

Optimistically, this is the kind of draft response that I imagine is languishing in some hypothetical NGA Ignorebox:


12th November, 2010

<insert address>

Dear Nigel

I do apologise for the lateness of this reply to your letter of 12th October. No doubt you will understand that the first months of the reopening of the Gallery has been a very busy time for us all.

Your questions concerning the redesign of The Aboriginal Memorial are indeed pertinent. I am pleased to tell you that I have reviewed the design of the Memorial, and agree with you that the inclusion of the black basalt rocks as a plinth is indeed an inappropriate and alien material.

I have decided that we will review the decisions of the installation designers, and intitiate a comprehensive process of input concerning alternative options in consultation with the surviving artists and their heirs and representatives.

I agree that the installation is spatially compromised by the design of the wheelchair access ramp, and we will look into alternative design options going forward. At the same time we will investigate alternative modes of installing the airconditioning vents to redress the unfortunate formal association between the hollow log poles and the ring of circular vents which surround them.

In reply to your specific questions:

1. Ultimately the decisions concerning the design were mine.  However I was advised by the installation design group appointed by the architects, in consultation with my staff.

2. Indeed, I do now realize that the consultation process left something to be desired. I intend to initiate an appropriate process in the future, and to seek advice and assistance from the eminent anthropologists of art who are knowledgeable in this area.

3. A “singing-in ceremony” was conducted subsequent to the opening of the new galleries, involving both Richard Birrinbirrin, the son of the late Dr David Malangi, and Djon Mundine, the original conceptual producer of the Memorial.

I should add that we are in the process of producing a pamphlet which explains the original intent of the Aboriginal Memorial, and that we will redesign the wall plaques so that the artists who produced the work are formally named, in accordance with moral rights protocols.

Such critical commentary and feedback as yours is much appreciated and encouraged by the Gallery.

Yours faithfully

<insert name and signature>

P.S. On 6th November the “conceptual producer” of the Aboriginal Memorial Djon Mundine gave a talk at the NGA. The only new and relevant piece of information was that he showed a brief video clip of Richard Birrinbirrin and himself “singing in” the Memorial in its new location on (presumably) the day after the gala opening of the new wing of the NGA. For all its personalised austerity, it was quite a moving record of what actually occurred.  The audience for this apparently impromptu event appeared to be the thirty or so people who happened to be passing by, visitors to the Gallery at that moment. From what we were shown, there appeared to be no other members of the Gallery hierarchy present, or taking part. We were shown no reciprocal ceremony. Unlike every previous occasion, when the “singing in” ceremony has been quite an event.

Indigenous art in a Chinese frame

As introduced in a previous post, Quentin Sprague was recently involved in the No Name Station project, a residency for a number of Chinese and Australian artists and curators (and a writer) in the remote Gija community of Warmun in the North East of WA. The resulting exhibition opened in October at Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which will travel to Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne in 2011. Here Quentin pursues some pertinent issues raised by the experience of the project:

“A project like this raises a number of questions about how remote Indigenous Australian works of art operate when seen from outside the established framework that exists in Australia. In a broad context of contemporary practitioners, without the presence of didactic wall texts, and across the barrier of language that exists in a place like China, an audience can only approach these objects as art – or so the logic goes. That is, in its Chinese frame, an awareness of relevant traditional, historical or contemporary contexts cannot be assumed to underlie any reading. So, what’s left when these various groundings are removed? What are other cultures seeing when we present remote Indigenous practice as a dynamic contemporary form?

Zuo Jing photographs Alex Hall, Great Northern Highway near Warmun, WA (author’s photograph)

For the Chinese artists and curators during the residency in July this year, it was perhaps hard not to approach Gija practice as a kind of ‘folk art’, and draw comparison to the practices of minority groups in China. So while dialogue with the urban based Australian artists was fairly easy to establish within the common grounding of International contemporary art, the practice of the Gija was much harder to place, at least in similar terms to how key practitioners are seen in Australia. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism – rather it is a response that I feel highlights differences in production and representation which, let’s face it, still presents challenges in the Australian art world, let alone in International contexts.

Representing cultural difference now forms a significant part of a global contemporary art discourse. This fairly recently emerged willingness on the part of artists and curators to actively explore points of cultural exchange can sometimes be a difficult process. As the No Name Station residency group discovered, actual cultural differences can be fundamental and although art practice can present a common grounding in these contexts it doesn’t necessarily offer up easy resolutions.

Installation view of No Name Station at Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing, (L-R), Rusty Peters, Berrngalanginy, 2008, Newell Harry, Lloyd Treistino, 1967-2009 (installation in progress) (author’s photograph)

The image above shows Gija artist Rusty Peter’s work alongside the installation in progress of Newell Harry’s work Lloyd Treistino, an exploration of his family’s story of migration shown through selected family photographs and related archived materials presented in vitrines, including letters, watercolours and objects.

The desire to explore this area in regards to the representation of remote practice within wider frameworks raises a series of valid questions, often resulting directly from such difficulties. Like how to negotiate the contemporary in ways that resonate across truly different cultural contexts. And, what does ‘contemporary’ really mean when applied to remote practice anyway? Simply that the art is being made now? Maybe the term is best seen as a particularly Western one – one that emphasises innovation and change – rather than a concept projected onto a totally different tradition of cultural production that has largely emphasised the relative immutability of cultural forms. Does its use set up expectations that aren’t necessarily helpful when considering the real position of the work in question?

The argument can be made that the complex series of exchanges that the indigenous art object represents is perhaps its most interesting aspect in a contemporary art context. When presenting remote indigenous practice in an International arena, or anywhere really, the question of how to articulate its various realities in relation to broader notions of contemporary art is ever present. Maybe without this area being explored in the exhibition context, or at least without it being apparent to some extent to the audience, the work is presented with an unescapable element of artifice…”

rethinking Indigenous modernism

Iconophilia recommends this thoughtful review of the current exhibition Remembering Forward, currently on show at The Museum Ludwig in Cologne, at Aboriginal Art and Culture: an American eye, at the well-connected commentator Will Owen’s blog. Here he reviews the extensive catalogue, in which Ian McLean’s thesis appears to anchor the discussion:

While we tend to think of globalization as being driven by Western ideas and technologies that homogenize the cultural diversity of the world, it is also the product of other traditions adapting to and producing their own modernities. This is the source of globalization’s cultural richness. Indigenous communities are not closed to modernity. They readily incorporate its ideas and practices into their world view and their art; and this openness to the new is largely why their traditions have, despite all the predictions of experts, survived and contributed to the new cultural space of globalization. If at every turn Indigenous people find themselves fighting intense political battles against the institutions of modernity and globalization, these institutions are the lingua franca of our times. They structure our thought, including Aboriginal thought. Who then owns modernity and its language? (p. 170)

further thoughts on Aboriginal Abstraction

…so called. I’m trying to trace the author of this text from the Ludwig Museum, Cologne.