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Elder Agnes Shea, Dr Margo Neale and Dennis Grant, National Museum of Australia
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22-23 August 2008

MARGO NEALE: This symposium is called ‘Why do those fellas paint like me?’. That in itself has an interesting story that I will tell you about later. Before I go any further I would like to welcome Aunty Agnes Shea, who is a local Ngunnawal elder, and she would like to do welcome to Country.

AGNES SHEA: Good morning everybody. Welcome to the National Museum of Australia and to this symposium about the late and great Emily from Utopia. Firstly I would like to acknowledge members of the Utopia community – Alan Petyarre, Ronnie Bird, Barbara Weir, Gloria Petyarre, Judy Purvis and Annie Price - and any other Aborigine and Torres Island friends who have come along today, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Before I say a bit about the forum here today, I would like to say a bit about the Ngunnawal people but also explain why an elder was asked to come and do welcome to Country.

The traditional welcome to people is a cultural practice that was handed down by our old people from the beginning of time. What the practice means is that before entering another person’s country you would always announce your arrival and not enter until a traditional owner of that country welcomed you. The reason for this was to respect the people of the country you are entering and also to protect your spirit while you are in their country. I am very proud as one of the elders and, when they do ask an elder to come and do welcome to Country, it shows that the non-Indigenous organisations and governments are also respecting our traditional culture. It also helps to build reconciliation between many cultures of people who now live in Canberra and the region but also throughout Australia.

The Ngunnawal people as with all Indigenous people have a great cultural heritage that we would like to share with all Australians and, as you know, Canberra means meeting place. It is a place of gathering for many of our tribes to come together to deal with important businesses but also for ceremonials. We believe it is important for all of us to acknowledge and recognise our unique histories and to gain understanding that our land is our heritage and how the loss of land has disconnected many Indigenous people from their spiritual links, cultural heritage and identity. Our Ngunnawal ancestors believed in the importance of people gathering together for the purpose of sharing knowledge and building relationships and to celebrate the gift of heritage and our history.

Now I will just say a bit about the wonderful occasion that is happening here today. They have come all the way from the warm desert of central Australia to the cold of a Canberra winter. But my country of Ngunnawal has many seasons, and please come and visit us again in the spring or summer. It is a very beautiful country. We are honoured that you came to help us celebrate the achievements of one of your countrywomen and thank you. I know that you are all very good artists as well. Maybe one day we can see your paintings here too.

I would also like to acknowledge the Director, Craddock Morton, who goes out of his way to support our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, art and traditions. He helps Aboriginal curators, like my deadly niece Margo Neale, to work with our mob all over Australia and take our stuff to the world. I am very proud of my niece who does this and will continue to do it. Thank you darling. Mr Morton understands that blackfellas do business differently and he accommodates this within the institution, making it a positive thing instead of a negative thing. It is very hard to keep our numbers up in institutions. Our people working in institutions are too often seen as troublemakers if they achieve too much or lazy if they do not. He knows how to get the best of blackfellas through all levels of the institution.

Also I would like to acknowledge our Japanese visitors who have come even further than Utopia to get here. I will stop there and say: for those who have come to Canberra for the first time I do extend a very warm welcome to each and every one of you; and for those who have been here before, welcome back. I would like to extend a warm welcome to all the elders that are here today. It probably took about the same time for our Japanese friends to come.

Today’s forum is a very important opportunity for curators, dealers, critics, academics, historians and artists to get their heads together and think about this remarkable and proudly Aborigine woman from the desert and her amazing contribution not only to her people but to the world. I would like to thank you all for having me. I thank Margo and I wish you all the best for today and tomorrow. I have seen the wonderful exhibition and I am so very proud and blown away with it. It is wonderful, but I have to leave because I have a very important doctor’s appointment. Please enjoy your time here. Please enjoy today and tomorrow.

I will finish in the words of the Ngunnawal people: Ngunna yerrabi yanggu, which means ‘You may leave your footprints on Ngunnawal land.’ Thank you and good morning to each and every one present here today.

MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Aunty Agnes. Now I would like to introduce, according to the program, Craddock Morton, but unfortunately he is not well and could not make it. He has to be very not well. I think he ousted himself from his sick bed to make it last night, so we are grateful for that. But we have an equally good replacement in Dennis Grant, who is a friend, colleague and political ally of Mr Morton. He will also do a welcome.

DENNIS GRANT: A pale replica, I am afraid, of Craddock Morton. Could I say on behalf of the governing council of the National Museum of Australia and of the Director, Craddock Morton, who is unwell and unable to make it, that we acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this museum stands, the Ngambri and Ngunnawal. We accept the welcome today.

I welcome to the Museum members from the Utopia community – Alan Petyarre, Ronnie Bird, Barbara Weir, Gloria Petyarre, Judy Purvis and Annie Price. This has had a long journey: these works came to Utopia, went to Japan, came to Canberra. Part of the journey has involved some extraordinary people from Japan and we thank them - Mayumi Uchida, Chiaki Ajioka, Hitomi Toku and Seiichiro Sakata - and of course our huge friend Janet Holmes à Court.

Because I am a pale replica of Craddock Morton I am not going to talk for long, except to say that this exhibition has been a really extraordinary experience for the Museum. It’s been a privilege to be in there to see how this works. It sits in a context of works this year at the Museum. Earlier in the same exhibition space we had the wonderful Papunya Tula paintings where we examined the history and art of the movement. That is now as we speak on at the Australia Museum in Sydney, Australia’s oldest museum. The work that we do here is not exclusively ACT based. We do travel and move around.

This exhibition is most unusual in that it began way, way offshore. It has been an illuminating experience for the professionals in the Museum to deal with the professionals of the great galleries of Osaka and Tokyo. It has taken us to a level in the museum world that in a short seven years is pretty extraordinary. Everyone has been behind Emily. As you may know, the exhibition was intended only to be seen by Japanese audiences only in Japan. Some fairly ugly carry on went on in the background to make sure that it came here and we won and it did.

Welcome to you all. I hope you have all been in there and had a bit of a look. After this seminar can I just suggest that you go back and have another look at some point because you may even see it slightly differently. I should thank one person in particular for all of this - we should thank Margo for getting the thing together.

MARGO NEALE: The title ‘why do those fellas paint like me’ is a bit of a historic reversal because if you recall ten years ago when I did the first Emily retrospective for the Queensland Art Gallery that nationally toured, people were always comparing Emily with Monet, Pollock and Kandinsky. I have put the shoe on the other foot now and said, ‘Why do they paint like her instead of her painting like them?’ Over the ten years there hadn’t been a lot of reassessment or talk about her legacy in a very widespread way. There is always a couple of people ploughing away but generally Emily’s legacy was not taken up. All you heard mostly about was market values and not really a lot about how she was positioned or situated in Australian art, world art and Indigenous art, and all of those sorts of issues.

We now have an opportunity to have another look in a new context. We always knew she was of international stature but we didn’t have a case study in which to actually talk about it. Now we do have responses from a whole range of people from the other side of the world, so there is something more tangible to go on and look further into the legacy of this remarkable artist.

The first thing we are going to hit is getting stuck into the big issue you hear people talking about and they all still feel a bit uncomfortable about is calling her a modernist. There is a whole range of opinions. People say why do we have to label her anyway and, if you do, why that one and why not a new one; is she really a modernist; or is it impossible for her to be a modernist. There are all those kinds of discussions, because once somebody hits the public domain in the contemporary art field people have to find ways of slotting her in order to talk about it but she remains forever slippery. Thus she is a great topic to talk about, because she actually will create new trajectories and new ways of seeing and being. This is the sort of stuff that people will tease out over this time.

People were also very uncomfortable for years to talk about her in terms of Eurocentric paradigms because it was taking away her aboriginality. But then if you talked only about her as an Aboriginal artist you sort of marginalised her. There is whole thing about at what point do you take the cultural content out and then sanitise the work and her and the place she comes from, the importance of culture and tradition, and at what point don’t you. When does it become anthropological? It’s a fascinating subject that she has given us all to think about. Her contribution probably is just that in my terms in that she has opened up whole new fields. We cannot just talk about her in the same way as we talk about Sydney Nolan or Arthur Boyd. It is still fresh fields ahead.

(videos played)

MARGO NEALE: You are in for quite a bit of footage in the first part of this, which is a nice way to ease into the day. Professor Akira Tatehata was a man who was looking at Big Yam Dreaming. He was unfortunately unable to come because he is worse than me and most other people in terms of overcommitting himself. He had two major block busters. He did offer and said, ‘I can come for a night.’ He was going to fly for a Japan one day, be here and he thought he could hop on a plane at Canberra airport after the opening and fly back. But as we know that is not possible. So we let him off the hook on the condition that he still did his lecture.

He has done it on a video which I haven’t seen either. I am in for a surprise as well. His English is better than he thinks it is. He thinks it is appalling. He is really embarrassed about doing it. We knew we didn’t want to go taking time with translations. He has extended himself under great embarrassment to do this in English. You will find he is consulting his notes and trying to hide his head a bit. He thought he would look very silly and foolish. Of course he doesn’t and he isn’t.

Professor Tatehata is a very important element of this whole project because it was he who initiated it. He saw the show in 1998 and was totally committed to dedicating himself to however long it took to try to move the people in Japan who had to fund this. He knew it wouldn’t be easy because in Japan they are really only into European block busters. Emily who is she? Where is Australia? Who’s that? Who was going to come? The cultural newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun has a culture department whose job it is to promote international culture in Japan, which they have been doing since the 1860s. They do bring in major sporting, music and cultural events. They have to please the Japanese public. They have to make back their money so they can do the next project. It was a huge job that took many years.

Fortunately there was a man at Yomiuri Shimbun at the time, Mr Sakata, who had worked in Sydney as a journalist and was already really interested in Aboriginal art and had taken some Aboriginal art shows overseas. So the combination of Tatehata san and Sakata san at Yomiuri Shimbun, and Craddock Morton sitting here in this place whilst I was here - being in the right place at the right time the right things happened.

I was trying to think of a way of explaining Professor Tatehata. He is a very quiet man but he has a liberated mind with a poetic heart and fire in his belly. That is how I would have to describe him. He shuffles around like an academic and looks like he might not have all that but he has. I was recently in Sydney where Asialink did a visual arts forum and I saw the fire in the belly again when there was a big problem he had with the Chinese government for this Chinese avant garde show he was running there. He actually said to me, ‘People might think I am a bit stupid and silly because of the way I am but I’m not. They are going to find out. When there is a big problem, I really go for it.’ That struck a chord because that is what he would have had to do is get us to move and to get Yomiuri to move with the best will in the world.

In the catalogue he wrote a paper called ‘The impossible modernist’. For him who is from a totally different cultural sphere as a Japanese man steeped in Japanese cultural tradition who is also an international contemporary art curator, critic and academic, of course he could only come at Emily’s work as what he sees on the canvas. At the same time he is obliged to find out where it comes from. Then he felt he couldn’t do that very well because he would be treading on cultural territory with a bit of cultural imperial colonialism going on. He said, ‘I either say something or I say nothing. I don’t know how to explain her. I can formally analyse the work. I can talk about the colour, line, texture, space and scale - I can do all that - but I don’t know how it got here. All I can do is pronounce her a genius.’ I have done it fundamentally and simplistically of course, but basically that is his story. I, too, am going to be surprised to see and hear what Professor Tatehata says on this next piece of footage which I believe is about 17 minutes long.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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