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New directions

Chrischona Schmidt and Gwen Horsfield, and chaired by Dr Margo Neale
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 23 August 2008

Dr MARGO NEALE: I have a little section on the program called ‘new directions’, which is to look at what some students might be doing in this area at the moment, related directly or indirectly to Emily, Utopia or Indigenous art in the centre. I have asked two young PhD students to talk to us for about ten minutes each on what they are doing and the direction they are taking. I think it would be helpful, not only for us to hear that but also for them, if we can direct them or assist them later if they need to talk to some people.

The first one is Chrischona Schmidt, who is a PhD student at the Cross-Cultural Research Centre at the Australian National University. Her research examines Emily’s role as painter within the community of Utopia. But I also have to add that Chrischona has done all the voluntary work in organising the forum because I was a little busy with a few other things. You know there are lots of nuts and bolts with this kind of thing, especially as I decided only a couple of weeks ago that I may be able to squeeze in one more item. Fortunately, Chrischona was drifting by at the time. So I grabbed her and she was very happy to volunteer. I am hoping that Chrischona makes contact with the people around here who will be able to assist her with her research.

CHRISCHONA SCHMIDT: We heard yesterday throughout the day some new insights and approaches to Emily’s work, taking up new perspectives to understand her work in a different way. Today we have heard about contemporary issues and modernity issues. We also heard yesterday about retelling the history of Emily’s work - what is a ritual in relation to her work.

My approach in my research includes a lot of these aspects that we have touched on. One of them is the development of her art throughout the eight years she painted but she did batiks before so that is included. With that I mean stylistic periods and also new themes about which Christopher Hodges spoke.

The next topic I am interested in is the different people who have been involved in marketing, selling and exhibiting her work. How has it been exposed to the world, which is what the previous session was about.

The next point we touched on was through Sally Butler’s talk mainly: how does she fit in with these people she lived with - with Gloria who was here, with Barbara, with her whole family, with the community? How did she share her Dreaming with them and also country? How was this group made up?

But I don’t want to just look at Emily. Emily is a big part of it, but over the 30 years or so now that the development of Utopia art has come about. How can we look at it from a general perspective - maybe not seeing it as an Aboriginal art movement in general but as a Utopia art movement, so having a local art history? What are the influences that Emily has experienced and also other Aboriginal artists have experienced, such as the physical influences through her country, the environment and the seasons that she experienced? But also the spiritual influences about which we heard before, dreaming and ritual, and then kin, the sharing and teaching of knowledge, the daily negotiation of relationships. And finally the art market and its demands. As we heard Christopher Hodges and Susan McCulloch, there are different art markets. How did she react to these different art markets? Did she change because Christopher implied - and even that would be very interesting – that she said, ‘I do my own thing even if it’s commissioned’.

That ties into another notion within art history – how an artist has his or her own agency all the time. So as an individual she has a choice to paint what she wants to paint and how to do it. She has a choice to negotiate it. So does every other artist in this community. What is agency in relation to her style and to her work?

Another thing that was touched on yesterday by a brief question that really interests me in the long run is: how has she had an influence, not just outside but inside the community? How has her way of expressing her country herself, really putting herself onto canvas, influenced other artists in the community? How has that been an ongoing process and not stopped when she passed away? This is really what Margo outlined before. That would be her legacy in a way within the community. I think that would be very interesting to look at, even if people say, ‘Well no, that’s her thing, she’s autonomous. I’m doing my thing’. That is again coming back to individuality and agency of the artist.

As Susan [McCulloch] pointed out yesterday, Utopia consists of 15 outstations with about 200 to 300 artists there. How does Emily’s work, her whole oeuvre, fit into this community? Can all of these 15 outstations be grouped as one community, as we have done so far in this symposium, and say there is one Utopia style, or do we have to rethink that category and say, ‘No, there are 15 outstations and there are 15 countries and there are probably more than 15 different families living around them’. One thing I would like to explore in the long run, if we can, is in relation to what has been done in Europe where for a very long time we have grouped artists in all sorts of voluntary associations such as artists groups, workshops and communities. Can we do that with Utopia? In all these groups that we know from European art there is often - not always but often - a single leader. Can Emily be that leader or is that totally misconceived?

My research really focuses on tracing back all these different aspects that I have mentioned through time from the 1970s until now. I am also trying to build up a local art history and that is taking up part of what Terry [Smith] said. Thank you.

Dr MARGO NEALE: Like all PhD students, it’s a big area so there will be a lot of chopping back. But it is great stuff and some of that local on-the-ground research hasn’t been done. We have all got carried away with the art and taken it off. I wish you luck and will be interested to help you and follow what you are doing.

The next speaker is Gwen Horsfield. Gwen is also a PhD candidate but in the art history department at the Australian National University. Her thesis actually is a bit broader: it examines Australia’s participation at the Venice biennales from 1978 to 2007 of which Emily was one of the lucky Australian artists to have exhibited at them.

GWEN HORSFIELD: As Margo said, the period that my research considers is 1978 to 2007, which was a period of enormous social and political change within Australian society and it also encompasses the rise to prominence of Indigenous art. So I am arguing for the broader contextualisation of Emily’s art within that.

My paper is titled ‘Emily in Venice: Australian art and identity at the 1997 Venice Biennale’. Venice is a city with a long history of cross-cultural encounters. The meeting of cultures that this paper will address took place in 1997 at the oldest and most prestigious of international art competitions - the Venice Biennale. It was here amidst the glamour and high finance of the global centre of capitalist art tourism that Australia showcased one of its most valuable and internationally recognised cultural exports: the art of Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

My doctoral research considers the history of Australia’s participation in the Venice Biennale as a kind of microcosm of changes in the national field of cultural production. Over time the roles played by commerce, the arts bureaucracy and the global media have been shaped by a range of political and economic imperatives. However, my discussion today focuses on Emily’s contribution and examines the 1997 joint exhibition Fluent [full title of exhibition Fluent: 47th Venice Biennale 1997: Emily Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson] within the context of the ideological project conducted by Australia at the Biennale - what the present Australian commissioner [for the 2009 Venice Biennale], Doug Hall, calls the advocacy of Venice, making Australia look very, very good.

Despite its status and influence, the Venice Biennale is regarded as something of an anachronism among contemporary art shows. Because the bulk of the exhibits are separated into the category of individual nation states and are funded primarily by their respective governments, the event remains a unique vehicle for displays of nationalism within the global arts scene. Australia quite openly utilises this diplomatic aspect of the Biennale, but unfortunately the selection process has a history of being dominated by political conservatism and artistic insularity.

Throughout the 1950s, Prime Minister Robert Menzies closely controlled the selection of art for export, and this resulted in some very poorly received exhibitions in Venice. The 1958 show, consisting of landscape paintings by Arthur Streeton and Arthur Boyd, drew unfavourable comparisons with the lifeless scenery of geographic magazines and was even likened to the propagandising of the Soviet pavilion. Members of the contemporary art scene at home were appalled that they were being represented by Streeton who by then had been dead for 15 years.

On hearing of the lukewarm international reception to Australia’s entry, Menzies declared that ‘the Biennale was run by crackpots’, and withdrew federal government support altogether. Although Menzies and the modernists were on opposing sides of the artistic debate, both were equally conscious that what appears at Venice is seen by the world to represent not only the best of Australian art but in many ways a broader vision of Australian culture and society.

Australia was not to participate again until 1978 and since then, under the auspices of the Australia Council, has met with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. The process of fostering a national identity through the arts is no longer left to chance; it is now literally part of the Australia Council’s mission and statement, which you will find on their website.

The possibility of sending Aboriginal art to Venice was raised in Australia as early as 1952. An Italian-Australian woman named Elizabeth Fagioli Griffiths petitioned public servants and arts bureaucrats with letters urging them to create a pavilion at Venice that included ‘both the Australian school of art and the Aboriginal art’. In the era of the White Australia Policy her efforts went unrewarded. Aboriginal artists did not represent Australia for the first time until 1990, long after they had risen to prominence within Australian art history and the international art market. Trevor Nicholls and Rover Thomas were selected for that landmark show.

Seven years later, Fluent, managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, brought together exclusively female Indigenous artists and curators. The exhibition sought to convey ‘the ideals of excellence and contemporaneity as well as a fluidity of expression and fluency of method’. It featured Emily’s work alongside that of the rural fibre craft practitioner Yvonne Koolmatrie as well as urban artist Judy Watson, who filled the lower level of the Australian pavilion with an installation of unstretched canvases, painted bronze stones and periodic performances by Russell Page of the Bangara Dance Company.

[At that 1997 Biennale] eight untitled paintings by Emily from 1994 to 1995 were shown, all of them displaying the economy of brush strokes and reduction in form and colour that signalled yet another distinct stylistic shift in her oeuvre. Curator Hetty Perkins emphasised in her essay the rhythm and universality of Emily’s motifs saying ‘The stripe is a mark that is globally occurring like a word in a language we can all understand’. What appealed to curators and industry professionals however did not necessarily appeal to the art buying public. Earlier in 1997 Sotheby’s had informed a collector who had submitted a work by Emily for sale that ‘the auction house was not interested in the "lines period", nor in the slapdash works with muddy colours’. They wanted works of higher quality.

The complexity, precision and harmonious colours of the late 1980s and early 1990s were apparently more accessible to a market-orientated audience, while later minimalist and seemingly less considered paintings remained interesting to theorists and academics who sought to place the artist within a globalising concept of contemporary art. For some viewers the later styles also signalled a deterioration in quality. As the pressure of the so-called ‘Emily industry’ compelled the artist to be ever more prolific, it is perhaps inevitable that the richness of her work diminished.

Although the curatorial rationale of Fluent was to demonstrate the endurance and continuity of Aboriginal culture, the irony of presenting this within an implicitly nationalist forum was not lost on international audiences. Critics were impressed by Emily’s work but described Australia’s overall contribution as ‘introspective’, ‘reformist’ and ‘uncourageous’. One unsympathetic reviewer wrote: ‘It was worth the trip to Venice just to see the sight of half the art world staggering under the weight of their history while the other half looked on smugly. These problems cannot be solved merely by exporting them’. At home the critical response struck an uneasy balance between praise - citing the unfailing appeal of Indigenous art to international audiences - and censure for ‘projecting our political priorities into an uncaring international showcase’. I think that one was from John McDonald.

Ironically, the year that Fluent went to Venice was not an especially triumphant one for the Aboriginal arts industry. As preparations for the show were under way, budget cuts of $350 million in state funding to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission were announced. The impact of these financial constraints was felt substantially by art centres established by Aboriginal women’s councils throughout remote areas of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, in some cases resulting in a lack of electricity and running water. Charges of official tokenism abounded for, in the words of Jo Dyer, ‘at the same time that the federal government is parading Indigenous people and cultures on the world stage, they are ripping our funding to bits’.

In Europe controversy lingered over the second rejection of Aboriginal art by the German organisers of the Cologne Art Fair who claimed that the art did not meet their contemporary exhibition standards. Meanwhile, at home two incidents in particular brought the vexed question of authenticity to the fore in public debate. Firstly, allegations that Kathleen Petyarre’s prize-winning Storm in Aknangkerre Country had been painted primarily by her white husband Jim Beamish and, secondly, the revelation that the moderately successful and ostensibly Aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup was in fact an elderly white woman from a family of wealthy pastoralists.

So the year 1997’s remarkable succession of events, each dramatised by journalists eager to assume the role of moral watchdogs, demonstrated that the criteria for determining the authenticity, contemporaneity, and aesthetic and economic value of Aboriginal art were as contentious as ever. What frustrated many Indigenous commentators was that simultaneously these debates played out in a public arena saturated with the corporate and government appropriation of Aboriginal imagery.

Tribal iconography has been ubiquitous in Australian popular and consumer culture since the 1980s, adorning everything from Qantas Boeing jets to Australia Post uniforms and Olympic Games spectacles. What occurs domestically is arguably magnified in Venice - a tension between the inherently regional qualities of Aboriginal art and the nationalist aspirations of state and big business, to say nothing of the sad irony of a regime that makes cultural ambassadors of its own repressed.

International audiences, accustomed to the official use of Aboriginality as a form of nation branding, may not have been aware of the extent or divisiveness of these underlying issues back home. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work has been described in the past as being ‘without obvious aboriginality or political content’. But when it is examined in the context of a nation state ideology being presented on the world stage, against the backdrop of post-colonial anxieties and the goal of making Australia look very, very good, it takes on an almost subversive political significance and thus fulfils a most vital function of contemporary art, regardless of the intentions of its maker.

Dr MARGO NEALE: Thank you, Gwen, there is a lot of meat in that. It’s a nice broad perspective and it is good to get some other international reactions through the reviews, which we often forget.

[Disclaimer by Gwen Horsfield: please note that this transcript does not include the proper acknowledgement of scholarly sources, such as books and articles, that were referred to in the preparation of this paper.]

Date published: 27 October 2008