Date: 10th January 1998
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald

Aboriginal artists carry a heavy weight. They have been hailed as the Next Big Thing, as political warriors and cultural torch-bearers. They can be all those things and more. But what they do best is create wonderful art.

fluent - Art Gallery of NSW.
Until February 15.

ABORIGINAL art has made such progress in the past decade that it is surprising to find how many people still see this work in terms of anthropology, not aesthetics. Such an attitude is especially prevalent in Europe, where art dealers who thought they were onto the Next Big Thing have struggled to attract customers. Aboriginal art has enjoyed its moments of fame, and even outright hype, but it remains a deeply alien quantity for overseas audiences.

It is instructive to look at the experiences of Djon Mundine, Australia's best-travelled Abor iginal curator, as recounted in a recent issue of Art and Australia.

In Dusseldorf with the 1993 touring exhibition Aratjara, Mundine encountered audiences who were perplexed that he was wearing Western clothes and speaking English. The idea of the Aborigines as a primitive people, with an ancient, mystic al relationship to the land, had taken a firm grip on the German imagination. While this view is partly true, it is also a romanticisation of Aboriginal life, and ultimately a stereotype. It follows that all stereotypes, even the most flattering, act to diminish their subjects.

In reality, it is impossible to lay down a set of guidelines that define Aboriginal art and identity. New artists and new forms of expression come along with bewildering rapidity: good, bad and indifferent, it is all "Aboriginal art".

This is disturbing to those purists who would prefer a small, decrepit bark painting to a large, brightly coloured canvas; who see anything made after 1972 as being tainted by the marketplace. But there is no way back to those good ol' days, when Aborigines did not even have the right to vote. Aboriginal issues are playing an increasingly large role in the political arena, and Aboriginal art is a dominant part of Australia's cultural image. The big problem is: how to send the correct messages to the rest of the world?

The Howard Government would obviously like to proclaim that everything is just dandy, with black and white Australians living in peace and harmony. On the other hand, Aboriginal activists know that grand-scale international embarrassment may prove to be their most potent weapon in the fight for justice over native title. Until such disputes are resolved, Aboriginal art will continue to send mixed signals to overseas audiences. Every exhibition promoted by the state could be seen as a cosmetic job, designed to defuse perceptions of political division. Yet many of the artists and bureaucrats involved in these shows are only too willing to inform overseas viewers about the fraught relationship between the state and its indigenous citizens.

For exhibition organisers there is constant pressure to include angry political works by urban artists in travelling exhibitions, not simply because they are seen as valid parts of the totality of Aboriginal experience, but because they destroy any pretence that Australia is free of racial divisions.

With Aratjara, there were complaints from audiences and host venues in Germany, London and Denmark that the urban work tended to spoil the show. It did not fit in with the usual preconceptions about the spirituality of Aboriginal art, and introduced a radical, discordant note. Yet the curators had a compelling political argument for showing such pieces, regardless of all aesthetic considerations.

This brings us to the 1997 Venice Biennale, the world's most prestigious showcase for contemporary art. In the Biennale each nation gets to choose its own representatives, with the national pavilions in the Giardini area providing a global index of cultural insecurity or delusions of grandeur. One quickly separates the smart countries from the naive, the professional from the amateurish, the fashion-conscious from the dogged provincials.

Although the European powers and the United States tend to overshadow the rest of the field, there is little consistency from one Biennale to the next, as arts bureaucracies keep changing personnel and policies. A nation that triumphed in the previous Biennale may flop next time around.

Australia has had a pavilion in the Giardini only since 1988, and our contributions have been extremely uneven. The dilemma for the Australia Council, which had the task of choosing the 1997 representatives, was to select the kind of art that faithfully reflected Australian priorities while making maximum impact with hardened, international audiences that will barely glance twice at a dull pavilion.

From the beginning, the noises were not promising. The Australia Council had let it be known it was looking for proposals featuring Aboriginal women artists.

This provoked the predictable howls about political correctness, and the suspicion that Australia was thinking about the Biennale in terms of its own conscience, rather than more objective criteria. There were also questions about the wisdom of sending more than one artist, since the building, designed by Philip Cox, imposed strict limits on the size and quantity of work that might be shown successfully. Previous exhibitors had suffered from the fussy, distracting detail of the floor, and a split-level arrangement that made the art feel squeezed and cramped.

Out of four Australian showings, only Bill Henson's large, disturbing photographs of 1995 had seemed to make much of an impression. His procedure was unconventional but effective: he plunged the pavilion into darkness and spotlit the works individually.

In 1997 the Australia Council was also working out its own relationship with a Coalition Government that had very different priorities from the arts-friendly reign of Paul Keating. To choose a politically inflammatory show might have been perceived as an act of belligerence. A show that failed spectacularly would suggest failure or incompetence. The solution was fluent, an exhibition featuring work by Emily Kngwarreye, Judy Watson and Yvonne Koolmatrie, currently showing at the Art Gallery of NSW, as an official Sydney Festival event.

Last year I turned up at the pavilion in Venice expecting the worst, and was surprised by the presentation and atmosphere of the exhibition. The curators, Hetti Perkins, Brenda Croft and Victoria Lynn, had taken a leaf from Bill Henson's book, by turning out the lights and bringing in the spotlights. Once again this technique worked well, lending an unexpectedly dramatic air to many of the works, particularly the stained, unstretched canvases of Judy Watson.

Installed in the more spacious setting of the Yiribana galleries at the AGNSW, fluent may now be examined under normal lighting conditions. Although not so immediately striking, it remains an interesting exhibition. Stripped of the unifying chiaroscuro of Venice, it becomes a show in three distinct parts.

The first displays the blotched, bruised canvases of Judy Watson, which resemble batiks; the second features the raw, energetic stripes and meandering grids painted by the late Emily Kngwarreye. The third component - two large eel traps woven by Yvonne Koolmatrie - acts as a kind of bridge between urban and tribal sensibilities. It is as though one might pass conceptually through Koolmatrie's funnel-like forms, trading the watery feel of Watson's work for Kngwarreye's dry, desert-grown calligraphy. Appropriately enough, Koolmatrie lives and works in a rural area of South Australia, which puts her halfway between the city and the outback.

Reflecting on fluent in Venice, it now seems like an ingenious conjuring trick. The professionalism of the display was detail-perfect: from the chic, black-and-red showbag that was handed out to visiting press and curators, to the design of the catalogue, which resembles a slick, corporate report. There may be an irony in the fact that nowadays many big corporations reputedly include reproductions of Aboriginal art in their own glossy reports.

In her catalogue essay, Perkins makes the obligatory political references - to massacres in colonial times and latter-day "ethnocide" - yet her tone is anything but strident. The Aboriginal flag is inserted as a blurred end-piece, with a note explaining its significance. Even the title, fluent, with its initial letter in arty lower-case, is an excellent impersonation of the vague but portentous titles that pop up everywhere in the contemporary art scene. (Sometimes I think I'd like to see shows with more specific titles, such as Paintings with Stripes, or Sculptures with Spiky Bits, or perhaps Derivative New Work by Greedy, Pushy Careerists.)

The overall effect was to divert attention from the ideological reasons for choosing three Aboriginal women artists. Radical politics became radical style: reconciliation by design. It was a daring way to re-present Aboriginal art as one form of contemporary expression among many others. The spiritual or political messages could be extracted at will, but the all-important first impression was a vision of bold minimalist stripes, fields of shimmering colour, and two floating sculptural forms that could have been designed by Russian constructivists as agitprop loudspeakers. The work was exotic in origins, but suggested many comforting family ties with international modernism.

At the AGNSW, fluent is a less high-powered proposition.

Koolmatrie's eel traps seem more sedately contained within Aboriginal weaving traditions.

Watson's paintings feel slightly laid-back, as though their veils of colour were caused by natural processes rather than the artist's hand. The largest piece, Canyon, looks like an imprint of a muddy, ochreous landslide. I thought of Yves Klein's works at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where painted surfaces had been scorched with a blowtorch or left out in the rain. Onto these free-form backdrops, Watson has outlined a single floating shape, as in grindstone or spine, where the object symbolises some archetypal spiritual presence. The tiny swirling pastel marks added to most of these works are reminiscent of the more operatic swirls in Van Gogh's Starry Night. Although the cosmic echoes are probably of the same order, Watson takes a far more passive, tranquil approach.

If Watson's works must be seen in a contemplative light, Kngwarreye's stripe paintings are all action. From the first time I encountered works from this series, at the Utopia gallery, I've found it hard to make up my mind about them.

In her last years, Kngwarreye must have produced hundreds of stripe paintings, and some of them are obviously much more successful than others. The speed and immediacy of these pictures ensured a hit-or-miss result, but the works in fluent have enough variation to avoid any suggestion of formula. No matter how basic the approach, there is something exhilarating about an artist dragging a loaded brush across a canvas in great, vigorous swathes, laying one stripe alongside another with tremendous freedom.

All the accidents in these paintings contribute to their impact. One line may collide with another, or an entire column of parallel lines may lurch awkwardly to left or right. In a large painting such as Untitled (Awelye) (1994), it is like looking at a geological cross-section, showing different layers of earth deposited over time.

So many of Kngwarreye's pictures are based on the yam root systems that were part of her particular Dreaming. The starker, horizontal lines are supposedly based on ceremonial body painting, but the preoccupation with age-old, sacred subjects remains intact. It is an open question whether our knowledge of the story behind the stripes changes the way we look at these works. Do they become more meaningful? Do they seem more "spiritual"? I doubt it, unless the viewer is completely immersed in the idea that everything Aboriginal is, by definition, a beacon of religious significance.

What I find most moving in these stripe paintings is their earthy, no-nonsense approach, through which the artist's character and temperament are clearly visible. Kngwarreye was a freakish painter, but a personality whose guiding principle was obviously not reflection but activity. She attained a form of spontaneous expression that many modern artists have spent their entire lives searching for - as they study, practise, and struggle to rid themselves of the mind-set imposed by Western culture. It is style and self- consciousness that impose the greatest burdens, but Kngwarreye seems to have been absolutely free of such perils. Her work becomes stylish only under curatorial manipulation.

She may not be an artist from whom we can take any lasting lessons, but it is hard not to be impressed by her sheer vitality.