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.



#1 Jon Altman on 02.04.11 at 9:12 am

I may perhaps be able to assist in solving this mystery. In the 1990s the only artist who produced fish traps for sale via Maningrida Arts and Culture was the Kuninjku artist and renowned trap maker Anchor Kulunba, Wamud subsection, Kurulk patri-clan (and coincidentally the father of acclaimed artist John Mawurndjul) who resided for much of his life at Mumeka. I have written a little on his exclusive rights in the fish trap and the fish trapping event according to Kuninjku custom. There is a photographic essay ‘Anchor Kulunba: The artist at work fish trapping at Bulkay’ in Hetti Perkins’s edited volume Crossing Country: The Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art, AGNSW, 2004. Anchor died in January 1996 and the trap by the unknown artist is likely made by him, I would be happy to assist the NGA with identification. It is possible that MAC sold this trap unattributed because they did not wish to name the artist in accord with local cultural convention so close to his passing away, but now some 15 years later his name is ‘cleared’ [as it was in 2004 when the Crossing Country exhibition was held]. If we can verify that Anchor was the author a quick change of labelling could address this problem of attribution. It is interesting that the local collaborator George Ganyjbala [also Ganyjibala or Ganyjapala] a Burarra Martay speaker, Kodjok, Gamarl clan who often resides at Yilan and who I know well did not assist with authorship identification. George knew Kalunba well and like others from Burarra country his production of fish traps for sale was inspired by Kalunba but only began after he passed away. I may be wrong, but I suspect that either George was not asked the question about the identity of the author of the 1995 trap or else if he was, his reponse was not recorded.

#2 Roslyn Poignant on 04.20.11 at 9:26 pm

The fishtrap in the river near Maningrida (in fact on the opposite bank of the river a little upstream) was well established in the 1950s. Axel Poignant photographed it there in 1952 – prior to the establishment of Maningrida . Over a period of six weeks he photographed both the repair of the “drum” as well as the “fence” that guided the fish into the trap. All the many photographs are in the Axel Poignant set of file prints that have been lodged in the National Library since 1975. I used some key photographs of the fishtrap in our book “Encounter at Nagalarramba” pub. NLA 1996. See page 64 (mending the trap) P.123 before returning trap to river. And p. 124 in situ. other images shot it at high tide when only the top of the line of the guiding fence is visible just above the water level. Axel ate many fish caught in it. He recorded there was one owner (not present) but others were permitted to use it.

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