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Off the walls

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A rich and diverse collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

by Meredith McKendry


Gathered over almost 40 years by Australian Government agencies responsible for Aboriginal affairs, this exhibition takes you into the politics and history of a time of great change.

The artworks in the Off the Walls: Art from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Agencies, 1967–2005 exhibition belong to a unique collection that was started in 1967 by the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. For almost 40 years, the council, and the agencies that supported and replaced it, including the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (1973–89), the Aboriginal Development Commission (1980–89) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) (1989–2005), added to the collection.

An image of a colourful acrylic artwork from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection.
Painting on canvas (detail) by unknown artist, National Museum of Australia

ATSIC had branches in towns, cities, and in regional and remote areas across Australia. And in these offices, on walls and in cabinets, were significant collections of local artists — about 2200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks and culturally significant objects. The resulting diversity is one of the greatest strengths of the combined collection.

In April 2005 the Australian Government dissolved ATSIC and decided to bring this cultural material together as a single collection. A transport company was contracted and, within 48 hours, couriers began to collect all artworks and significant objects from the commission’s offices across Australia and place them into storage — the works in this exhibition literally came ‘off the walls’.

This was a time of great upheaval for ATSIC staff members, but they met the removalists with civility and cooperation. Keeping the artworks together was seen as the most important thing.

In 2007 the government transferred the complete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art (ATSIAA) collection to the Museum, where the objects could be preserved, studied and kept together for the future. Featuring artwork by internationally renowned artists such as Rover Thomas, Narritjin Maymuru, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Fiona Foley, the collection comprises bark paintings, watercolours, carvings, baskets and fibre works, spears, shell necklaces, sporting trophies and posters.

Divided into four office settings, the exhibition uses authentic desks, computers and filing cabinets to loosely represent each decade from the 1970s to the 2000s. You will see the artworks and objects placed back in the office, displayed alongside letters, newspaper clippings and other documents that will help give you a glimpse of a fascinating and tumultuous period in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

Off the Walls is not just an art exhibition, it presents art in the context of cultural politics over four profoundly important decades for Indigenous Australians. It is an eclectic, diverse and surprising collection,’ says Andrew Sayers, Director of the Museum.

This highly significant collection illustrates an important part of Australia’s history. It is entwined with the story of the relationship between government and Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from 1967 to 2005.

Exhibition curator Andy Greenslade says, ‘The collection relates to the work of all those bodies that had dealings with, or were responsible for, Aboriginal affairs over a 38-year period. It was such a fertile period in Aboriginal affairs, from land rights, personal rights, native title, recognition of stolen generations, recognition of the problem of deaths in custody, and this entire collection relates to that.’ From the extensive collection of 2200 pieces, 200 items were chosen to represent the four decades.

‘It was wonderful to have so rich a collection to select from. We wanted to put the art in its original context — displayed on office walls — and also to help the public discover some of the cultural, social and political implications of the work. They’re not just artworks, they have a much deeper significance in the life and culture of Aboriginal people.

‘For example, the print that commemorates the hand-back of Ayers Rock and renaming as Uluru in 1985 is a beautiful print, but it’s more than just a piece of art. Another good example is the portrait of David Unaipon used on the $50 note, which was tangible proof of white society celebrating the achievements of Aboriginal people.’

Many of the artworks and objects are also things of great beauty, representing the regional and stylistic diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture over nearly 40 years.

‘The ATSIAA collection provides a comprehensive view of the growth of Aboriginal art movements across the country. There are so many really wonderful works of art that we decided to split the exhibition to celebrate the pure artistic achievement of the works. We used the four office blocks to tell the political and textual stories, and displayed other artworks in galleries to showcase the variety of media in which Indigenous culture is expressed through art, expertise of the artists and the beauty of the works.’

Your stories 

Full understanding of the ATSIAA collection has been hampered by a lack of detail about many of the artists, where the works were made and where they came from.

Curator Andy Greenslade says she is hoping that the public will help her to understand more about how the collection was put together.

‘We’re really keen for the collection to be seen online by as many people as possible. I’d like to know more about who the makers were, particularly the more traditional three-dimensional works such as tools, baskets or weapons; there’s very little documentation on those. We would like to be sure that what we have is correct, and what we haven’t got is added to.’

Here, some of those people share their memories with the Museum.

Phil Donnelly

A portrait of an Indigenous man.
Portrait by unknown artist, National Museum of Australia

‘As Queensland State Director of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs [DAA] at the time, I was involved in the purchase of this artwork [right]. I note that your description says that it is a colour ‘reproduction’. I hope this is not true because at the time of purchase it was an original artwork.

In 1988 there were a number of protests held in Brisbane associated with the Bicentennial celebrations and Expo 88. Many of these protests were held in Musgrave Park in South Brisbane. The subject of this work was camped in Musgrave Park as part of one of these protests when he was spotted by the artist, who made a number of sketches and photographs for the work, which he completed in his studio on Bribie Island.

An image of a colourful acrylic artwork from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection.
Painting on canvas by unknown artist, National Museum of Australia

On completing the work early in 1989 he brought it into my office in Adelaide Street, Brisbane, to see whether I might be interested in buying it for the Department. I forget the price he asked for it, but it was beyond my budget at the time. Nevertheless, he left me with a photograph of the work.

Shortly after this the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gerry Hand, visited my office and saw the photograph. He was very impressed with it and wanted to buy it for his office in the new Parliament House. He asked me to contact the artist and secure the painting. When I contacted the artist he told me that he already had a buyer for it, but he would much rather the painting be hung in Parliament House than in some anonymous dwelling. He told me that he had been able to cancel the purchase from his first buyer and it was now available for purchase by the Minister.

When I told the Minister he was pleased, but later informed me that the purchase had been vetoed by the art acquisitions section of the Parliament House authority.

This placed me in something of a dilemma, since the artist had a clear expectation that he had made the sale. It was eventually solved by expending a considerable whack from my yearly public relations budget, and the portrait became the property of DAA.

It then hung on the walls of my office from where its haunted eyes scrutinised my every administrative decision and, I think, caused me to modify a few.’

Justine Francke

Painting on canvas by Ngalawurr Mununggurr.
Painting on canvas by Ngalawurr Mununggurr, National Museum of Australia

‘I’m a former ATSIC NSW Office staff member. I don’t recall all the specific details but I can tell you that the ATSIC NSW State Office asked an artist to paint this and it was meant to have pictures, but the artist chose to use abbreviations. The initials on the painting [above left] stand for “Young Black Woman, Young White Woman, Young White Boy, Young Black Boy, Old Black Man, Young Black Boy, Old Black Woman, Young Black Woman”. As far as I know this painting was never prominently displayed in the office.’

Leon White

‘This artist [of the artwork right] is now deceased. Her surname is Mununggurr. Her clan is Djapu. This artist was also the inspiration of the murals inside the Darwin Post Office. She is a daughter of Gulumbu, a leading artist from Yirrkala area, and her mother is the sister of Mandawuy Yunupingu from Yothu Yindi, and Galarrawuy Yunupingu, former chairman of the Northern Land Council.’

'Universe' screenprint by Rover Thomas.
Universe, screenprint by Rover Thomas, National Museum of Australia.

Kerrie Nelson

‘I was the Regional Manager of the ATSIC Queanbeyan Regional Office from 1995 to 1998, and purchased this print (above) from Judith Behan of the Chapman Gallery in Manuka using Commonwealth funds. It cost approximately $800 and another $300 to frame it. It was registered as an “attractive item”. As the majority of staff did not like the print, and I loved it, I moved the print around with me as I moved jobs. In 1999 I spent the year in other APS [Australian Public Service] agencies and transferred the print to the ATSIC state office in Sydney as the state manager, Phil Donnelly, loved it as much as I did.

The print’s last official home was in my office at the Office of Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations, where it was unceremoniously removed from the wall along with all the other paintings and artefacts in ATSIC offices everywhere. The reason for the removal of artwork was not just Sugar Ray Robinson’s charge that artworks were walking out the door. My understanding is that the Chair of the Commission threatened to use the artwork to fund a legal action.

From my perspective, having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and artefacts in the workplace is absolutely crucial for reminding us for whom we work and their concerns, preoccupations and different perceptions of the meaning of country, law, kinship and ceremony — a reminder to us of a distinct culture when we make policy and deliver programs and services.

This year I won the 2010 Overland Judith Wright Poetry prize for New and Emerging Poets for ‘Chorus of crows’. This poem was published in the Overland literary journal issue 202 — it mentions Rover’s print and the removal of it from my office.’

Chorus of crows

When they took the dotted/cross hatched worlds
off all the office walls to hoard them
in a secret storeroom somewhere
(Mitchell/Fyshwick/Tuggeranong?)
when each piece of art and artefact was placed
(without bubble wrap or due regard)
in Woolworths shopping trolleys
that lurched along the corridors
their wobbly wheels protesting to the last
when workers sat transfixed to telephones
and screens (like crows on a carcass pecking
pecking unperturbed by passing cars)
she hurried to the women’s toilet
locked the door/flushed
and wept.

KA Nelson, ‘Chorus of crows’, Verse 6, Overland 202, Autumn 2011, pp. 46–48, Overland magazine website

Can you help us?

Come and see the exhibition or browse through the collection on the Museum’s website, Off the Walls, and help us to fill in the gaps. If you know something more about a work — the date it was made, the name of its maker, or a relevant story, please tell us.

Off the Walls: Art from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Agencies, 1967–2005 is on display until 10 June in the First Australians Focus Gallery.