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WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this exhibition includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
A time capsule of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art
The Off the Walls exhibition features about 200 works from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection.
The collection was started in 1967 by the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. It passed from one agency to another and included more than 2200 works when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was dissolved in 2005.
This highly significant collection illustrates an important part of Australia's history. It is entwined with the story of the relationship between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Many of the works are also things of great beauty. All of them are like objects in a time capsule — a time capsule representing the regional and stylistic diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture over nearly 40 years.
Local and world-renowned Indigenous artists
The works in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art collection were brought together by organisations including the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (1973–89), Aboriginal Development Commission (1980–89) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1989–2005).
Thirty regional offices across Australia developed significant collections of local artists. The collection also includes works by world-renowned artists and the resulting diversity is one of its greatest strengths.
Despite the closure of ATSIC being a time of great upheaval, staff members met removalists with civility and cooperation and the collection was kept together as a whole. Now, as part of the National Historical Collection it can be preserved, studies and displayed into the future.
The collection includes many objects linked to contemporary events. The presence of these works reveals much about the circumstances that existed at the time the objects came into the collection.
A framed St Kilda Football Club jersey which hung in the Melbourne ATSIC office was presented to ATSIC Chairperson Gatjil Djerrkura by Australian Football League player Nicky Winmar in 1998. It relates to an incident that occurred at the close of a St Kilda versus Collingwood match in 1993.
Winmar turned to racist elements in the crowd and raised his jersey, pointing at his bare skin. That act, symbolic of pride in his Aboriginality, was mirrored in his support for ATSIC.
The collection also includes a small number of important documents. A letter from the Reserve Bank to ATSIC Chairperson Lois (now Lowitja) O'Donoghue, recognises her proposal to feature David Unaipon on the $50 note. The letter hung in the ATSIC boardroom in Canberra alongside artist Lyell Dolan's original drawing of Unaipon.
The collection also features original artwork and framed posters chronicling various health campaigns and community events.
Bark paintings, a powerful symbol of Aboriginality, were among the first artworks acquired by the Council for Aboriginal Affairs.
They provided a strong message of respect for Aboriginal culture and linked the work of the office staff to the people they worked with and represented.
Bark paintings make up about a tenth of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection.
The bulk of these painting were amassed in the earlier years, although some barks, including those of contemporary painters, continued to be acquired.
The Nhulunbuy, Sydney and Canberra offices held the largest collections.
Featured artists included Narratjin Maymuru, Billy Yirawala and Roy Dadaynga Marika.
Watercolours from the Hermannsburg School of painting, a group of Aboriginal artists noted for their depictions of their country were collected in the 1970s, in the early years of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The department displayed these distinctive works in its offices, alongside bark paintings and other traditional objects.
The other significant group of watercolours in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection comes from south-west Western Australia. Most of these works were collected in the 1990s by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission offices in WA. They show the influence of child artists from the Carrolup Native Settlement, whose work sparked a landscape painting style in WA that is reminiscent of the Hermannsburg School.
In the midst of these delicate paintings is a vivid watercolour by Harold Thomas, the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an art school. He also designed the Aboriginal flag.
Many of the contemporary works in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection are print works, including linocuts, screenprints, etchings and lithographs.
Aboriginal activist Kevin Gilbert's foray into lino-printmaking generated stunning examples of the power of this simple medium. Artists Fiona Foley, Karen Casey, Sally Morgan, Rosella Namok, Rover Thomas and Judy Watson are also represented.
The success of artists from the southern and eastern parts of Australia, many of whom were formally trained, led the way for master printmakers to take their expertise into more remote areas in the 1980s.
These specialist printmakers ran workshops where artists were able to create designs directly onto plates that the printmakers then took back to their studios to print. The relatively low cost of this form of art production meant that original artworks became affordable and accessible to a wide market.
There are many acrylic paintings in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection, with feature artists including John John Bennett, Lin Onus, Kathleen Petyarre, Andrew Spencer Tjapaltjarri, Trevor Nicholls and Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula.
A highlight of the collection are early paintings from Papunya, acknowledged as the birthplace of Western Desert acrylic painting.
From the 1970s, and encouraged by the Aboriginal Arts Board which promoted their work nationally and internationally, artists from the Western and Central Desert regions embraced painting on boards and canvases.
The marks and designs they painted, rich in symbolic meaning, had previously been confined to ceremonial use, as painting designs on the ground and on people's bodies.
In the south, the paintings of urban-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists working in acrylic emerged in a different tradition — one of politics and protest.
These works are charged with individual expressions of history; they draw on shared pasts and singular experiences.
Baskets, carvings and other works
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art collection includes a wide variety of necklaces, boomerangs, digjeridus, sculptures and other carved wooden works.
It includes several batiks on silk and cotton, from the Ernabella and Utopia regions, along with a woollen rug, made about 1972 and attributed to Nyukana (Daisy) Baker.
Other works made from natural fibre included fans, mats, fishnets, traps and skirts. The largest group of woven fibre work is baskets. The identity of the makers of most of these objects is unknown but their styles and types show they came from across Australia.
Most were probably made by women. From the 1970s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs bodies recognised the importance of women in communities, and promoted their role in posters, programs and collections.
More on the collection
Read more about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs art collection in 'An extraordinary collection', an article by curator Andy Greenslade from the August 2011 edition of Goree magazine.