WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Off the Walls is on the walls!
When National Museum of Australia Council member Peter Yu and Museum Director Andrew Sayers stepped up to the lectern to open Off the Walls: Art from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Agencies 1967–2005, they welcomed two special guests who we were delighted could attend: Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue and Mr Barry Dexter.
Barry Dexter is not a household name in the same sense that Lowitja O’Donoghue is, but he played an integral role in collecting the fine body of works that are featured in Off the Walls. Barry was one of the three members of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (CAA), formed in 1967, along with Professor WEH Stanner and Dr 'Nugget' Coombs. The council members took the approach that only works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists should hang in the offices of the CAA as a statement of solidarity with the people for whom they worked. That collection grew to adorn the walls of every federal Aboriginal affairs agency across the country including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). When the government decided to close ATSIC, it also decided that the Museum would be the guardian of the collection of over 2000 pieces.
Peter Yu had the pleasure of announcing a 'first' with this exhibition. This is the first time that the Museum has called on all visitors — real or virtual — to contribute to the knowledge about and understanding of a collection by sending information to the curator via the quick link on the Museum's exhibition and collection website. Get onto the site, view the collection and see whether you know something about a painting, or other item, on the walls or in one of the recreated 'offices' that represent the four decades of collecting. Then tell us. On the exhibition webpage there is a 'Can you help?' section. Click on the link and share what you know about these amazing objects.
At the opening, our guest of honour, Lowitja, did just that. There is one particular drawing in the exhibition that is very special to her and she was able to give us some of the background on how it came into the collection. The drawing is a portrait, and all of you will have seen it. Open your wallet and check out a $50 note. On it you’ll find a portrait of Aboriginal preacher, inventor and writer, David Unaipon. The drawing was made after Lowitja suggested to the Reserve Bank of Australia that Unaipon would be the perfect choice to be pictured on the note. In thanks, the Bank presented the original drawing to her. Lowitja had a great fondness for the picture, due in part to her friendship with Uniapon. The drawing will stay with the collection but, as a surprise at the opening, the Museum was able to present a facsimile of the drawing to Lowitja to hang in her home. The original hangs in the exhibition, on the walls of the 1990s 'office'.
Guests at the opening explored four of these 'offices' — one for each of the four decades during which the collection was gathered. In the 1970s office space, hang artworks collected in that era — two early boards painted at Papunya, watercolours from Hermannsburg and a woollen hooked rug made in the craft room at Ernabella and probably collected by the Aboriginal Arts Board. Younger visitors to the exhibition have marvelled at the contraption on the desk — a typewriter — and been unable to resist tapping on the keys.
In the 1980s 'office', an old Macintosh computer, cleverly retrofitted by Museum technicians, screens images of protests that were held throughout the decade. A poster shows the handing back of Uluru to the traditional owners — an artwork that is clearly more than just art. The selection of artworks in these office spaces is suggestive of the parallel social and political history of the time. The grand masonite 'bark' painting by Narritjin Maymuru, hanging above the desk, was painted at the Australian National University in the years following the famous Gove Peninsula land rights case (1963) in the Northern Territory.
Noticeboards in the 'offices' are covered with newspaper cuttings and photos of events from the relevant era, ending with the frontpage headline from the Koori Mail, 'Buried', referring to the final announcement of the closing of ATSIC.
Guests at the opening didn't just see the politics of the time, they were also able to glimpse the range and variety in the collection and to see some beautiful artworks, from all over Australia — including watercolours by descendants of the child artists of Carrolup in southwest Western Australia and from Hermannsburg, some of the early prints made by people in remote communities as well as acrylic and bark paintings, carvings, artefacts, fabrics and
more … so much more. Go online and see for yourself!
Andy Greenslade, Curator, ATSIP
Off the Walls: Art from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Agencies is open at the National Museum until 10 June 2012 and on the Museum website indefinitely.