Reviews/Visual Art

Tina Baum curates a statement of cultural survival

14 March 2022

Often tackling confronting issues, the Art Gallery of WA’s “Ever Present” is a stunning and thought-provoking exhibition, says Michelle White.

“All Aboriginal art is political, because it is a statement of cultural survival.”

Gary Foley, activist – Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Art is a powerful way to provoke discussion about confronting issues and there is definitely no shortage of difficult conversations tackled in the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia”.

It’s not surprising, given that the exhibition is curated by Tina Baum, curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). Tina Baum herself a First Nations arts leader who is passionate about representation, indigenising/decolonising voices and truth-telling.

“Ever Present” is a stunning and thought-provoking collection of some of the most important historical and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Selected from the collections of the NGA and Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art, the exhibition features 100 works from 80 artists, including the likes of Albert Namatjira, Clifford Possum Tjapltjarri and Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

A map of Australia showing the First Nations language groups in different colours. Across the map are the words Treasure Island.
Daniel Boyd, Kudjla/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Jagara/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung peoples, ‘Treasure Island’, 2005, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2006

Treasure Island (2005) by Kudjla/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Jagara/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung artist Daniel Boyd sits at the entry to the exhibition and sets the tone with its exploration of colonisation and terra nullius as piracy.

Internationally-renowned photographer Tracey Moffatt’s collaboration with Gary Hillberg, Lip (1999), is an entertaining collage of Hollywood film clips, featuring sassy black women “giving lip” and stealing every scene.

On the opposite wall is award-winning Kaytetye filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s haunting, moving colour image Way of the Ngangkari #6 (2015).

As the child of an Aboriginal mother who collected Brownie Downing from op-shops because she saw representation, not racism, I was drawn to Ash on Me, (2008), by Girramay/Kuku Yalanji/Yidinji artist Tony Albert.

Aboriginalia is Albert’s term for kitsch Australiana featuring Aboriginal iconography on souvenirs and bric-a-brac. The pieces he started collecting in childhood, now form the basis of his work, exposing their cringingly racist overtones.

The work features vintage Aboriginalia ashtrays fixed to vinyl lettering.

I’d seen and read about Albert’s work online, but seeing it in real life got me.

A simple statement, decorated with those ashtrays stirred up so many emotions and thoughts, like, when was it ever acceptable to stub out a cigarette on a child or woman’s face?

A painting of the artist in a desert setting. Within the outline of her body  is another painting, of her ancestors.
Julie Dowling, Badimaya people, ‘Self-portrait: in our country’, 2002, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2002, courtesy of Artplace

Other highlights of “Ever Present” include seeing Murri photographer Mervyn Bishop’s iconic 1975 snapshot of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hand of Vincent Lingiari; and Double Standards (2015), a lightbox of a fragmented Australian flag, by Minang/Wardandi/ Ballardong/Noongar artist Sandra Hill. On closer inspection, the flag is made up of images showing the disparity and double standards Hill experienced growing up (pictured top).

I was also moved by Badimaya artist Julie Dowling’s Self Portrait: in our Country (2002) which captures her emotional return to Yalgoo, her home country, and Kamilaroi/Kooma/Jiman/Gurang artist Richard Bell’s Omega (Bell’s Theorem) (2013) which tells us “in the end there will be painting…”.

This exhibition curated by Baum is a must-see, but if you want to experience an Aboriginal art blackout*, and an AGWA first, the gallery has six exhibitions of First Nations art, across three floors, as part of “BlakLight”, the gallery’s month-long celebration of First Nations art and culture.

So while you might come for “Ever Present”, you can stay for the gallery’s celebration of First Nations art, including the recently opened “Tracks We Share: contemporary art of the Pilbara”. (Stay tuned for Seesaw Mag’s review – Ed.)

*Blackout is an Aboriginal slang term for lots of blackfellas taking over something.

“Ever Present” continues at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until 16 April 2022, before travelling to the Singapore National Gallery, to open in June.

“BlakLight” takes place from 18 March – 18 April 2022.

Pictured top: Sandra Hill, Minang/Wardandi/Ballardong/Nyoongar peoples, ‘Double Standards’, 2015, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2016 with the support of Warwick Hemsley and The Hon. Melissa Parke to mark Mr Hemsley’s tenure on Council and in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.

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Author —
Michelle White

Michelle White is a Yamatji storyteller with more than 30 years writing and producing for televison, radio, print and online. She has extensive experience working in the arts and currently serves as Partnerships and Platforming Manager for Community Arts Network. Favourite part of the playground? The flying fox or wherever the food is!

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