Sunday, September 22, 2013


Bliss by Fiona Foley
I was lucky enough to get invited to a preview of the RA's new Australia exhibition last week, and to hear the curator Kathleen Soriano, and indigenous artist Christian Thompson talking about it at the High Commission on Friday night.  As much as anything, it's very exciting that there is so much Australian culture, and so much indigenous Australian culture, on show in London this autumn.  There's even a new dedicated website, called Australian Nexus, which exists to bring them all together. And there is Origins, right in the thick of it.  Fiona Foley, whose Lecture is set to be a Festival highlight, has a video piece called Bliss at the centre of the last, most political section of the RA show: it deals with the way in which Aboriginal workers were turned into opium addicts, paid in drugs rather than cash - and it does it through the disturbing medium of beautiful poppies.  Vernon Ah Kee, the designer of Gudirr Gudirr, also has a piece in the show.  And so it goes on.  There's even an essay in the catalogue by Thomas Keneally - who got us interested in Aboriginal culture in the first place, way back in 2003-4 with Bullie's House.

The show begins stunningly, with an evocation of journeying into landscape: a lone motorbike rider drives into the bush, raising his arms in a crucifix.  And then there's a room of beautiful indigenous art - the traditional art of Dreaming, totem and landscape, although some of it has shifted form and medium to be painted on canvas and hung on walls.  The majesty, colour and sheer energy of these works is so powerful that it is difficult to see how the rest of the show can possibly live up to them - and for the first few rooms of European-style art created after the invasion, it emphatically doesn't.  It takes some time to realise that, in a way, this let-down is almost the point: that the settler art, supposedly more "civilised", more "refined", was in fact simplistic and timid by comparison with that of the indigenous culture.

Where the exhibition really takes off again is in the more modern sections, when white artists begin to engage with the reality of the land, rather than imposing a European sensibility; and when indigenous art becomes engaged with the political encounter between the cultures.  Sidney Nolan's series of Ned Kelly paintings are there - much more vibrant and epic in the flesh than in any reproduction (including the exhibition poster, which washes out the colours quite badly).  Albert Namatjira's watercolours are similar acts of cultural boundary-bursting - he uses that most English of forms to paint a landscape about as far from Surrey as you can imagine - and to fulfil his ancestral Dreaming.  Margaret Preston is one of the first non-Indigenous artists to absorb indigenous influences, and as a result her work seems to speak far more clearly of and to the Australian space - geographical, political and spiritual. Her evocation of Adam and Eve as indigenous people exiled from Eden by a white angel is provocative and visceral.

The show ends with Fiona's work, Vernon's Can't Chant (wegrehere) #2 and other pieces exploring the tensions of an emerging, but far from integrated or complete, cross-cultural, post-colonial reality.  Australia is full of tensions - and that is what makes it so culturally dynamic at the present moment.  It's a vital time to be engaged with what is happening there.

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