Article by Jack Radley in Berlin // Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017
Galarrwuy Yunupingu proclaimed in his 1989 ‘The Black/White Conflict’: “English is incapable of describing our relationship to the land of our ancestors. We decided to … [describe] it in a way we hoped non-Aboriginal people would understand; through pictures. If they wouldn’t listen to our words, they might try and understand our paintings.” The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and me Collectors Room Berlin showcase a survey of traditions-based and contemporary art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that echoes Yunupingu’s words. ‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’ manifests indigenous peoples’ positionality in an increasingly global world, celebrating the universal language of imagery and the empathy that art can foster in all audiences.
The painting techniques of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in the exhibition prove both enduring and contemporary. Artists long before Jason Middlebrook have painted on wood, and the exhibition traces the aesthetic and narrative nuances of bark paintings. These artists employ a dotting technique as veil, outline, pattern, and volume. However, curator Franchesca Cubillo resists the application of Western art historical vocabulary, like pointillism, onto the works; adequate inquiry into the specificities of their techniques should yield new research and categorization.
That is not to say that many of these artists are not grappling with the Western art historical canon. Richard Bell’s 2005 ‘Big brush stroke’ appropriates Roy Lichtenstein‘s dots in a metaphorical brush stroke, to put his work in direct conversation with the stifling nature of Western tropes, the promotion of certain visual iconicity, and the underlying aims of the “global” art market. Through spirituality, decolonization, and reclamation in connection to their country, these artists manifest the replete aesthetic prowess, political resistance, and cultural value within the NGA’s permanent collection, highlighted for a global audience in Berlin.