Aboriginal Art Developing
Jack Andrew Wilkie-Jans is a Cairns based indigenous artist and former Startburster. Jack provides a very insightful discussion of the current climate and concept of Indigenous Art in Australia and what it means for the future.
Much as our social trends, cultures and values grow and change, so is the concept of Indigenous Art and so does Indigenous Art. Before I continue let me acknowledge that the term Indigenous Art is in disrepute amongst some academics, for the sake of familiarity for those of us who don’t tend to mince words, I will refer to any artwork done by First Australians (this can include the Islands and the Torres Strait), Indigenous Art or Aboriginal Art.
I was involved with (stuck my nose in) the 2011 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Before its opening I said to the Creative Director how much I’d like to see an art fair such as this acknowledge the changes in Aboriginal Art. I was so pleased to see that more traditional style pieces were displayed alongside some very contemporary styled artworks. The most contemporary, in my opinion, were those of a woman well past her 70s.
Scores of modern Aboriginal artists are making a name for themselves with their newer styles and the markets are responding in cash! This goes to show that nothing stays the same, and while the Aboriginal Art boom may not be as strong as it was a few decades ago, it’s still going strong. More and more Indigenous people are expressing themselves to the world in a medium that Aboriginals are famous for and that is pictures and art. The fact that some Aboriginal artists no longer feel the need to, nor are told by their managers, to paint only dot paintings and that they are reaching out to more European techniques, all demonstrates that Aboriginal pride and culture is facing up to a sustainable future in a global community. Having said that, it’s really only a very small percentage who are doing that, many of which are from the larger cities and have gone through art school. In Cairns, we have the open door to a treasure trove of Indigenous Art, so why is it not happening here? I feel the choice to have such a limited, traditional and, let’s face it, stereotyped types of A&TSI art showing and coming out of Cairns shows a certain narrowness amongst the industry people here locally. We don’t seem to be expanding our horizons on this matter. There are hardly any new faces to A&TSI art in Cairns and what few we see are usually in Cairns due simply as Cairns is the Cultural Catchment of the Northern and Cape areas of Queensland.
I’m by no means rejecting what we have, it is strong and reliable and acts as a great example of where Cultural art is still respected and produced with such meaning as it always has been. However, some of the academic side of Aboriginality and Aboriginal Art is already asking, “what is Aboriginal Art? Is it constituted by the heritage or colour of someone’s skin, or the cultural significance of the work and in which case, could it be make-able by a Sympathiser or Convert to Aboriginal Australians’ history, culture and traditions?”. After all, art is to challenge and no area, field or technique is above such artistic revolution. Or is that why we have Aboriginal Art and Contemporary Aboriginal Art, to separate the techniques and styles of what can be story-telling art and what could be modernist, political and/or aesthetically driven works? I’ll save the Art Vs. Artefact debate for historians, curators and collectors; as labels are not really an artists’ prerogative.
I say this as though it’s a new revelation but I do feel as though in the 50s and 60s when Aboriginal Rights advocates were protesting for acknowledgment and reconciliation that the movement may have, certainly to some degree, thought that once they achieved those things then Aborigines would be free to live as an independent people much like before colonisation. When this all happened and it became apparent that reconciliation did not mean European culture and Traditional culture co-existing. What it actually meant was Aborigines accepting to live in white society. This may not have been intentional but it’s certainly what eventuated and due to the course of history has been the case around the world. It’s not getting better either with our new brand of Indigenous Rights Sympathisers being active in ensuring that Aborigines know how to behave and assimilate as opposed to facilitating and helping us find ourselves and figure out how we might like to fit in with today’s world. We need to gain a personal identity and direction before we can find a collective and racially based identity.
To get back to how the shift in culture and reconciliation fits in with the arts what I suppose I‘m suggesting is if such change is happening/happened then it will all start/continue to reflect in art. Many in the Cape aren’t tribal anymore, so why should our art be? Many of us are remembering, so why shouldn’t our art be cultural? The art industry locally and abroad ought to be re-evaluating how it could better relate with the new generation of A&TSI artists and to figure out how not to exclude Contemporary Aboriginal Artists and Artworks, even those void of cultural bearing. We need to all start thinking how we can all promote Aboriginal Artists as a formidable force within the Visual Arts industry and not just Aboriginal Art; we need to forge and then embrace those freedoms. In individual cases this has worked such as with the career and works of Tracey Moffatt.
As we all know, Aboriginal art dealerships, showrooms, galleries (such as Canopy here in Cairns) are there for a reason and that is profit generation. An aboriginal artist knows they are going to get a better deal with more assured representation at a specialised gallery. We do all appreciate the business side of things also. Specialised dealers and dealerships have to abide by a special code of ethics and conduct and these are what safe-guard Aboriginal or Indigenous Art and Artists at the first point of contact between an artwork being in a studio and then being in the big wide world of industry and collecting.
In Cairns, at a local level, we saw so many changes in the past four years if a local Government and will see many more in the next four. Many feel our arts and cultural industry will suffer and many feel it has been running on empty funds for a while now. Artistic and Business endeavours such as the proposed Cairns Entertainment Precinct failed to get community and hence the new Government’s support, so we (non-industry people as well) need to all figure out how we can start becoming more about the business of art rather than the business of sales and profit, and I mean that in a myriad of ways not just about the simple buying of a piece. I feel it is the lack of integrity that caused the community to not be behind the recent push for arts and culture in Cairns. I am talking about who, outside of the art industry profits from art and where do these profits go and do profiteers realise the spiritual growth this industry is going to and which will need such profiteers to acknowledge these shifts soon in order for everyone involved to survive and grow?
Cairns is a fabulous place for art and indigenous art as well. Tourists come here to experience those elements of this region but very shortly I feel these elements being the arts and cultural aspects of Cairns may well form out to become shallow and nothing. One idea that I’d really like to see happen is Contemporary Aboriginal art displayed/painted on rock faces, maybe slabs of rock in a gallery or limestone wall of a building, because Aboriginal cave painting was the very first form of graffiti art! Why don’t we encourage traditionally themed art displayed in a new and innovative way? We, as industry leaders, need to re-assess what’s going on regarding Aboriginal and Islander art in our own circle of influence and see how we can build the capacity for growth of a very exciting development in the history of art. What opportunities are there- or aren’t there that we can create for A&TSI artists who are hoping to use their talent as a way forward in their lives; but who perhaps do not paint dot paintings or legends? Is there still a place for A&TSI artists who opt for more western practices and techniques in the field of Aboriginal art as we know it? Are we going to create new avenues for them or expect them to join the mainstream and broader art world & to make it on their own like the rest of Australian artists?