Beyond Sacred – The Laverty Collection of Indigenous Art in Print and on Exhibition

Beyond Sacred – The Laverty Collection of Indigenous Art in Print and on Exhibition

Paddy Bedford

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 08.08.08

Author: Jeremy Eccles

It's a crucial time for Aboriginal art. We should be sitting up and admiring the maturing of the most dynamic art movement in the country from a condition of amateur disorganisation, dogged by bad news stories about the exploitation of artists, to a professionalised 'industry' that is brave and confident enough to face its critics – whether aesthetic or practical. For the Federal government is poised to take action on last year's Senate Report and has to seriously consider both professionalising the remote art centres and giving spine to the NAVA Code of Conduct.

Yet there's resistance in the heartland. Even as the WA Government launches a new, bigger indigenous art prize, the current benchmark, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award finds its silver jubilee endangered by what can only be called a boycott by some Desert art centres against others.

The sad thing about this internecine strife at the 'business' end of affairs is that the art is going gang-busters all over the world, and the response to it is getting more complex all the time. First there was the Maningrida show in London which I wrote about in March. Now, in Japan, Emily Kngwarreye (NOT Ngwarray as some trendy linguists are now insisting – she never wrote her skin name which should be consistently under K in the indices of the increasing number of books being published currently!) has had both huge and emotional audiences at two major museums and curatorial articles that declare her "one of the most important abstract painters of the 20th Century.... transcending the Aboriginal art genre".

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OK – so there have been mutterings of de Kooning and Pollock about her work before; but I suspect Australians have never really taken them seriously. Now we might have to accept the case that's being made following a necessary displacement of Emily's art to somewhere it isn't limited by what we all think we know about its origins in a grubby humpy in the Simpson Desert.

And that could just be the beginnings of a necessary connoisseurship. For you may recall that in London, the Turner Prize-winning artist and columnist, Grayson Perry made the Western art case in The Times that neither spirituality nor hidden meanings could actually take Maningrida's artists past the key gate-keeping tests of "aesthetic and intellectual complexity" which his mob had established. Consequently, any collective and historical standards of authenticity in indigenous art are well below "the authenticity bestowed by connoisseurs" in his tribe!

Perhaps Mr Perry should read the four essays which open 'Beyond Sacred'? For the Lavertys – Colin and Liz, who've collected Australian abstract expressionst art as well as building probably the best private indigenous collection in the country – have commissioned serious writers to support the contention behind their magnificent publication that "the best pictures in our collection are great contemporary art".

Nick Waterlow, curator, Biennale director and COFA Senior Lecturer, for instance, might well be riposting directly to Perry with his attack on the way Western artists define 'contemporary' in an effort to retain their own centrality in the world through just the sort of rigid demarcation that the Englishman espouses. This is achieved by seeing all else as being in dialogue with previous or succeeding Western art eras. Waterlow, on the other hand, views the emergence of Aboriginal art (as we now know it) at Papunya in 1971 as "as radical, as iconoclastic and as universal" as any off the European ground-breakers of the 20th Century.

In fact, he's prepared to look back on that century as containing three equally defining non-figurative art movements – Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian et al; Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning et al; and the Papunya Tula artists of the 70s.

Which immediately raises some questions about the absence of 'our' revolutionaries from the current Sydney Biennale so dedicated to such change artists of the 20th Century.

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Judith Ryan, the most senior indigenous curator in the country at the NGV throws the gauntlet even more directly at the feet of the Biennale's Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev by claiming that Emily Kngwarreye's "vigorous striped works on paper and canvas are a form of audacious arte povera"! "We are dealing not with artefacts that ape ceremonial objects and look nostalgically backwards to an earlier reality", she declares generally of Aboriginal art, "but with art that is modern in its materials and spirit and is made by participants in a money economy who look forward and dare to be different".

She also uses that word 'revolution' about Papunya, and throws Immants Tillers into the equation, specifically his reference to a 'renaissance' in Aboriginal art, "likening (its) most recent history to a momentous period of revolutionary change and achievement in Western art". Given this frame of reference, Ryan then challenges conventional wisdom by questioning such terms as "Balgo art" in favour of acknowledging the work of individuals or language groups rather than communities.

Ryan's strength is that she bases her case on tracing a painterly progression from Johnny Warangkula's "creation of a dense field of dots", through Mick Namarari's "myriad dots and stippled markings which form broken fields of colour and tone", to "the superb colourist works of Pitjanjatjara artist Tommy Watson". Turkey Tolson, Rover Thomas, Kitty Kantilla and John Mawurndjul also join her pantheon of artists who moved from paintings of "a solemn liturgical power" to "a new visualisation and idea of the continent" - the essential point being that such a progression emerged from "the aesthetic impulse of the process of painting", not from anything New Agish or ethnographic.

Howard Morphy, the ANU academic and prolific author is marginally less of a proselytiser as he traces the Lavertys' collecting habits from their "wonder and awe" on first sighting Papunya art at the Brisbane Expo in 1988 to their asking the question, "What is its inspiration?". And Morphy's answer: "As with all major art traditions, the answer requires a journey into the history of the society that produced it; it also requires the universal human capacity to respond to form and apprehend aesthetic effort".

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But Morphy is unwilling to make the Japanese leap to instant modernism for Emily Kngwarreye. "(Her) monochrome paintings based on simply body painting designs only become fine art in a Western context after the ground has been broken by modernism and abstract expressionism. That does not make them modernist or abstract expressionist; rather it removes a blindfold covering the eyes of a western audience, thus enabling them to appreciate the paintings' properties as aesthetic forms".

And with our blindfolds removed, Morphy's happy to lead us to consider whether Damien Hirst's recent, amazingly expensive diamond-encrusted skull might not be analogous to the torquoise encrusted skulls of the Aztecs, the decorated skulls of Tibet, or the painted skulls of Eastern Arnhemland. Not that anyone had the market in mind when the latter were created; "But that does not itself make them any lesser works of art", insists Morphy.

But to what extent are we drawn to the indigenous – whether skulls or paintings – because of a presumed, if inexplicable spirituality innate in its production? That was a question raised by Nicolas Rothwell of The Australian in his early review of the Laverty book. He hailed the "unreachable, irreducible, unknowable" in remote Aboriginal art, "speaking of ritual and beliefs communicated in concealed language. This is the precise reverse of the contemporary", he claimed, challenging the very core of the Laverty enterprise. "It is the thing of most cherished value in the indigenous domain; the secret Westerners want and seek to buy, and cannot have. Such is the pull that draws the Lavertys on, and yet it goes almost unementioned in the theoretical apparatus they have built like a castle around their raw desire".

"Unmentioned"? It seems to me that Judith Ryan covers this field bravely when she describes this aspect of the art as "conceptual" rather than spiritual. "A set of signs and symbols is used to conceptualise place and the presence or trace of creator ancestors who entered into and became the land. The visual language of circles and paths used to encode named resting places and travelling paths of ancestral beings, and to map large tracts of land has now etched its way into our consciousness, amounting to what Geoffrey Bardon termed 'a re-perception of Australian landscape'".

And 'Beyond Sacred' – a title that reinforces the message - offers a glorious feast of landscape – both the physical ones we know, mostly photographed by Peter Eve, and the individual reinterpretations of dozens of Aboriginal artists. The Lavertys show a quite consistent capacity to collect the best artists of the past 20 years, and the best works of those artists. Most 'communities' (despite Judith Ryan's quibble) and some individual artists also receive a bare page of text written by a close associate. Colin Laverty himself has tackled Balgo, which perhaps explains what feels like an inbalance of Balgo art in both book and Newcastle exhibition.

The other arguable inbalance is towards neatness rather than raw desert painting. Early Papunya boards are largely missing, Pitjanjatjara and Nganjanjatjara art is an absence apart from Tommy Watson, and Alma Webou Kalaju – a Martu woman of the desert, now transported to coastal Bidyadanga, makes the cut to lead us into her young disciple, Daniel Walbidi. Mind you, you'll have to work quite hard to discover Walbidi's youth; for the Lavertys really are determined to take you directly to the art, and nothing else.

This is even more the case in the Newcastle Region Art Gallery exhibition, where the collector couple is quoted as saying: "Non-indigenous viewers must initially engage with paintings because of their visual beauty or impact or painterly qualities". Yet a granny, while I was there, was clearly frustrated as she told her grand-daughter; "Where are the stories? All these paintings have stories to them, you know". And then she tried imagining a few herself – which just may have justified the exhibition's reticence.

Who made this selection, I wonder? It was originally shown at Rhana Devenport's Govett Brewster Gallery in New Zealand where Aboriginal art is comparatively unknown. In fact, this was claimed as "the first major exhibition of contemporary Australian Indigenous painting to be held in Aotearoa New Zealand"; hence the emphasis is on 'Paintings from remote communities'. But was there ever an intention to link to the book, other than in the marketing mind of the book's publisher? For a clear difference lies in the selectors' choice of Paddy Bedford artworks. The book richly reveals the Old Man's development from inheritor of the Rover Thomas paradigm of story-telling in ochres to "just painting", as his mate and mentor Tony Oliver puts it in the book, in a range of smoky greys and pinks, brilliant blue gouaches, and, most stunningly, his confident use of white. In Newcastle, we see only the destination in gouache, not the journey.

Nevertheless, standing in the middle of the open plan gallery surrounded by such uninhibited colour, such variety of styles – from Jan Billycan's masterpiece 'Kirriwirri', through the tonal range of Susie Bootja Bootja's 'Kanningara' triptych to the conceptual extreme of Lorna Fencer's 'Grief' – one had to admit that the arguments behind 'Beyond Sacred' had been powerfully reinforced.

'Beyond Sacred' is published by Hardie Grant Books at $120. 'Paintings from remote communities' from The Laverty Collection is at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery until 31 August.


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Last modified: November 12, 2008 3:52 PM