NAIDOC Week 2020 – Modern and Contemporary Indigenous Art

This week celebrates Indigenous people, culture and history in the land we call Australia. This year’s theme recognises that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were custodians of this land millennia before the arrival of the colonisers of the 18th Century.

This year I’ve been reading a lot more books by Indigenous writers and trying to understand more about the culture and traditions of the Ngunnawal people, who are the traditional owners of Canberra and the surrounding country.

I’m also trying to bring Indigenous culture, people and challenges into my stories, while being careful not stray into areas I shouldn’t and not falling for stereotypes that are harmful to our First Nations people. (I’ll also be enlisting sensitivity readers to help challenge any residual biases or misrepresentations.)

One of the best places to learn about Indigenous art is the National Gallery of Australia, which has permanent Indigenous galleries showcasing the history of modern Indigenous art in Australia (of course, Aboriginal art goes back at least 40,000 years on this continent – the most astonishing thought for white people, whose art traditions are “only” tens of thousands of years old), as well as a new exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art.

My main interest is in art by Indigenous women, which has blossomed over the past forty years to become some of the most exciting contemporary art being produced in Australia (and probably the world).

Below are some of my favourites from today’s visit.

The Aboriginal Memorial from Central Arnhem Land is an installation comprising 200 hollow log coffins, representing the clans that live along the Glyde River.
Uta Uta Tjangala’s untitled works (1984) are rich with meaning for the Pintupi People of the Western Desert (Northern Territory).
Detail of Uta Uta Tjangala’s untitled 1984 work
In the 1980s, Aboriginal women’s art burst into life. Emily Kam Kngwarreye’s incredible Alkalkere Suite is alone worth a trip to the gallery. This display has such impact – in my opinion it rivals the very famous Pollack that most NGA visitors flock to see. Read about the works on the NGA website.
Naata Nungurrayi – Untitled 2010
Mona Jukuna Chuguna and Pijaju Peter Skipper – Jamirlangu (Husband and Wife) 2003
Djerrkngu Yunupingu – Seven Sisters Djerrkngu 2012
Maringka Baker’s Kuru Ala (2007) is another example of brilliant colours, patterns and shapes being used to show us the land of the Pitjinjara people. The artist describes Kuru Ala as having ‘creeks and rock holes everywhere, and many trees. There is puli (rocks) and apu (rocky hills). This is Minyma Tjuta Tjukurrpa (Seven Sisters Creation Story)’.
Jan (Djan Nanundie) Billycan – All the Jila (2006). The artist is from the Kimberley and worked around Broome. Her distinct style represents the large mud flats, dunes and big country that dominate the landscape where her people have lived for thousands of years.
I visited at 10.30 on a Saturday morning and had the place pretty much to myself. It was incredible to be surrounded by such amazing art and being able to take as long as I liked with each painting. There was an art volunteer there and she told me about the artists, their lives and their practice.
How’s this for colour? Naomi Hobson’s Yinyalma (2012). Naomi is a contemporary artist in Far North Queensland. She is also a visual artist, ceramicist and photographer.
Gertie Huddleston – We All Share Water (2001). Hailing from Southern Arnhem Land, Huddleston’s religious beliefs and deep interest in gardens and landscpates were recurring themes in her paintings, focusing on the neat, orderly use of the natural landscape, depicting scenes of abundance in the context of human control.
Seven Sisters 2011 tells the Pitjantjatjara story of Kungkarangkalpa Tjukurpa, or the Seven Sisters Dreaming The story explains the movement of the Seven Sisters constellation (the Pleiades) and the Nyiru constellation (Orion) across the night sky. Nyiru was an evil man who wanted to marry the eldest sister. To escape his unwanted attention, the sisters forever travel between the sky and the earth, and he continues to pursue them. The collaborating artists were: Kunmanara Kawiny, Mona Mitakikil Shepherd and Tjimpayie Prestley.
The incredible A Sister’s Story by the Ken Sisters: The Ken sisters – Tingila Yaritji Young, Maringka Tunkin, Sandra Ken, Freda Brady and Tjungkara Ken from Amata in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Painted over three panels in 2017, the painting represents the connection between the sisters and their connection to country.
The scale of Judy Watson’s Canyon (1997) is impressive. A printmaker and painter connected to her grandmother’s country in north-west Queensland, she represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997, along with Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Yvonne Koolmatrie.
The newest work in the collection, Seven Sisters (2020) by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, is from the story of the seven sisters and is part of the NGA’s Know My Name exhibition of women artists. You can see Nyiru in the right-hand corner, chasing the sisters.

From the NGA site: “This large-scale installation tells the ancestral story of the Seven Sisters Dreaming, using sculptural forms woven from materials including tjanpi (the Pitjantjatjara word for grass) and raffia. In the Dreaming story, the seven sisters are pursued across the land by a man called Nyiru, or Nyirunya. He chases the sisters up into the sky and down to earth again, intent on marrying the eldest of the women. Eventually, the sisters are transformed into the constellation of Pleiades and Nyiru assumes the form of Orion.”

If you are lucky enough to live in Canberra or visit our beautiful city, make sure you visit the National Gallery of Australia and spend some time in the Indigenous Art Galleries.

Happy NAIDOC Week 2020.

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