Modern master

Date: 24/09/2005

Europe's view of Aboriginal art is under challenge, writes ANGELA BENNIE.

For some, there is no argument: contemporary art is art produced today. That is all there is to it.

For others, it is not quite so simple. The question of what is contemporary art is loaded and has had huge consequences for the reception of contemporary Aboriginal art in Australia and internationally. Western ideas about aesthetics, the special status of the art object, the "genius" of the art object's creator and so on intrude into the way contemporary Aboriginal art is "read", no matter how hard the effort to treat it on its own terms.

In Australia, there has been a slow metamorphosis in the cultural status of contemporary Aboriginal art. Where once it was considered tribal art and relegated to the basements of ethnographical museums, today's indigenous art is housed in the main galleries of leading art institutions. It is often placed in the centre of the exhibiting space, as if these institutions were signalling: here is the core of Australian contemporary art.

Elsewhere it is a little different. The art of indigenous Australians has historically been regarded as "primitive" art and housed in ethnographic or anthropological museums, lobbed in alongside specimens of African art and what has been generically labelled "Oceanic" art.

A little less than 10 years ago, for example, the bark paintings of one of Australia's greatest living artists, John Mawurndjul of the Kuninjku people of Western Arnhem Land, were excluded from the Cologne Art Fair because they were deemed "tribal".

As recently as 2002, Australian art dealer Tom Spender claimed he was refused permission to show the works of Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye at the Basel Miami art fair in the US, an offshoot of the world's premier European contemporary art fair, Switzerland's Basel Art, on the same grounds. Both Thomas and Kngwarreye have been Australia's official representatives at that most contemporary of all contemporary art exhibitions in the world: the Venice Biennale. Both hold venerable positions in Australian contemporary art.

And while the new Musee du Quai Branly in Paris - being built to house France's vast collections of African and Oceanic arts, including Aboriginal art - is being heralded as the Great Leap Forward in French museumship, it begs the question: why a separate museum for such arts? Is there something quintessentially different about them to the art housed in the great galleries of Paris such as the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre and the Musee d'Orsay? And, if so, what might that be?

The question is not idle. It goes to the heart of the issue of whether art produced by indigenous Australian artists today is contemporary art or not.

Three events in Basel aim to unsettle some of these European ideas - or at least rattle them enough to make them conceptually unsteady.

In Basel's leading contemporary art gallery, the Tinguely Museum, an exhibition of about 70 contemporary works on bark by John Mawurndjul opened this week and will run until the end of January.

Only one other indigenous artist has received the honour of a solo show in Europe: Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, with his first solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1988.

Mawurndjul is considered one of Australia's most significant and innovative contemporary artists. In 2003, he was awarded the $30,000 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award for two startling bark paintings, the first indigenous artist to win that highly competitive award.

The senior curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Victoria, Judith Ryan, says Mawurndjul has almost singlehandedly revolutionised and transformed the style of bark painting. "He has revolutionised it from just iconic images on a plain background to the entire surface of the bark being filled with semi-abstract signs, or rarrk [cross-hatching], of which he is a supreme master," she says. "He has inspired many others to work this way. He is a very important figure in Australian art. Whenever we are able to see the work of one artist in this depth, we are particularly fortunate. Especially an artist like this."

At the same time as Mawurndjul's exhibition, another exhibition of bark paintings opens at Basel's more staid Museum Kulturen. The exhibition comprises 30 paintings from the museum's collection of barks taken to Switzerland from Arnhem Land by the Czech anthropologist and artist Karel Kupka in the 1950s and '60s.

It is hoped that the conjunction of the two exhibitions will allow viewers to experience Mawurndjul's work in its traditional, social and cultural context but also see its full innovative splendour.

"This is what is extraordinarily important about this artist," says indigenous curator and scholar Wally Caruana. "With Clifford Possum [a Papunya artist of the Western Desert movement] and artists like him, it is much easier to see how the sort of work he does is contemporary art. It is much easier to see how they are taking traditional material and enlarging it into contemporary material.

"With bark painting it is much more complex, because it already has a complex visual language and is curtailed by its highly traditional medium. [Mawurndjul] works within the traditional media and then pushes the boundaries. If you look at the work of the generations before him, then you can see the contemporary innovations he has made, how he continues to reinvent and transform the art that precedes him."

The third major event is a symposium on the philosophical questions raised by the two exhibitions. The two-day event opens today and features scholars, curators, museum chiefs, anthropologists and ethnographers from Europe and Australia.

Among the Australians will be Aboriginal activist and art curator Gary Foley, who will speak about the "inevitable collision" between politics and indigenous art, and Judith Ryan, who will speak on the aesthetics intrinsic to bark painting. The curator of the Musee du Quai Branly, Philippe Peltier, will deliver a paper on issues surrounding the presentation of Aboriginal art in European museums.

The supervising curator of the Basel exhibition and symposium, Bernard Luthi, will take part in a debate on the way contemporary art is displayed.

"I have been interested in Aboriginal art since the mid-1970s, when even in Australia it was difficult to find works outside the anthropological context," Luthi says. He recognises much has changed in Australia, "but at this European end, there is still the prevailing concept that non-Western artists of so-called 'tribal' societies are strong only when working within their 'traditional' boundaries".

"You might remember, Basel's art fair officially still refuses works such as those of John Mawurndjul," he says. "[This current event] would already be a success if the people responsible for the fair would start to rethink their prejudices and narrow-minded concepts.

"I felt it was time to get rid of this awkward preconception and prove that these artists are able to develop their own individual work as our contemporaries."

Luthi, who is based in Dusseldorf, has spent four years getting the Basel project off the ground. He was already familiar with Mawurndjul's work, having included him in the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition which he curated in the 1980s and also in the 1993 Aratjara exhibition, which he co-curated. Both exhibitions travelled extensively in Europe.

"For me, John seemed somehow destined to be the artist to select for a one-person show," he says.

And so Mawurndjul, too, is in Basel, a seasoned participant in the intercultural exchange of contemporary art and ideas. In an interview with Mawurndjul conducted through an interpreter before the landmark Art Gallery of NSW Crossing Country exhibition last year, the artist likened himself to "a chemist man", who paints from "inside" his mind.

"The way I paint is my own idea from my own way of thinking," he said in the interview. "I changed the law myself. We are new people. We new people have changed things. It is good that our culture is travelling to where Balanda [white people] live and they are thinking hard about it with their minds ... Balanda also paint things they have dreamed. They paint their dreamings too."

As to whether the project will dissolve such entrenched European dichotomies as "high art" and "folk art", "contemporary art" and "traditional art", who is to say? The symposium debates could be merely taking place among the already converted.

On the other hand, the Balanda general public might also come, see and feel the incandescence of this chemist man's sublime rarrk-flows and go back out into the world with a knowledge of another kind.