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.