2 September 1994

Diversity bound by identity

A group exhibition of Aboriginal art steers away from familiar stereotypes, writes MICHAEL HUTAK.
SINCE its emergence as a dynamic cultural force in the 1980s, Aboriginal art has become submerged in a myriad of stereotypes.
For a fresh perspective, those seeking to forge a new connection with the culture of indigenous Australians would be wise not to miss Narratives, the latest show at Boomalli Gallery, in inner-city Chippendale.
Mounted by Boomalli's resident curator, Hetti Perkins, Narratives displays the work of four generations of Aboriginal women painters, offering insights into each artist's practice, and revealing the sheer diversity to be found in contemporary Aboriginal art.
And as the title implies, the thread that binds the generations is not just race but the will to tell of their lives. Beginning with the 24-year-old Kgamilaroi artist Peta Lonsdale, whose work has graphically portrayed her early experiences avoiding the mission system, Narratives offers not just a snapshot of contemporary Aboriginal painting but a stark image of a people who have suffered yet survived to tell the tale.
But, importantly, Perkins praises Lonsdale for "deliberately avoiding the'victim' mentality".
"Peta finds faith in the strength of Aboriginal society and culture to reinterpret our circumstances and find a positive resolution," says Perkins.
The South Australian artist Kerry Giles, in her early 30s, left her white mother at 16 to rejoin her "mob", the Ngarrindjeri people. Since then she has found a voice in her painting, prints and photographs and has few qualms about imbuing her work with striking political messages.
"This is documentary," she says. "It's graffiti." The massive canvases she is showing in Narratives depict before-and-after aerial views of the Murray River: before and after white settlement.
The first she calls her "pretty boy" painting: "It shows how the river Murray used to be before colonial people. You've got the whole ecosystem, full of bush tucker: musta, brolga, wombat, goanna, catfish, yabbie, freshwater turtle, periwinkles, mussels, stumpy-tail lizard and all the bush berries." A self-sustaining environment.
The next two paintings depict the gradual destruction of the river system culminating in Ugly Painting, Ugly Subject, a harrowing, almost nihilistic vision of the river. It is a conglomeration of quotes and newspaper clippings depicting the graphic degradation of the environment.
"It's past crisis point," says Giles. "People take pretty photos of dead trees that were killed by salt. It's a graveyard of dead trees.
"For instance, today the Ngarrindjeri people have to ask at farmyard doors to get the rushes to weave the baskets that they've been weaving for thousands and thousands of years because there are no rushes left.
"Paintings are not just pretty pictures on the wall - they are identity."
Elaine Russell, in her early 50s, is only just beginning her career in the visual arts and Narratives is her first major exhibition. "I always knew I could draw, but I've only been painting for 12 months," she told the Herald.
For Russell, painting is an expressive medium which gives her an outlet to tell of her past: "There are so many more stories I have to paint. I love it. It's so new to me. When I get a brush in my hand I just can't stop.
"And everything I've painted I've sold, so I must be doing something right|"
Russell's disarmingly straightforward paintings depict her childhood experiences on the Murrin Bridge Mission, during the era when fair-skinned children were forcibly removed from their parents' care.
"We did what we were told - if we didn't we wouldn't get our rations. It all left me very resentful of the whites in my teens, but it's OK now, I'm married to a white."
The paintings are supported by short texts, an extension of oral history traditions and reminiscent of the work of fellow Aboriginal artists Ian Abdulla and Harry Wedge. Her work reflects the "regimental and policed nature of mission life", according to Perkins.
The last of the foursome is Pantjiti Mary McLean who has been encouraged by a fellow Kalgoorlie artist, Nalda Searles, to introduce figurative elements to her practice of dot paintings. It has unleashed in Pantjiti a seemingly unending creative source.
"Mary's work is about everyday things. What you see is what you get," says Searles. "There's no dreaming here; it's all a huge story about everyday life
"She lives in a small settlement on the outskirts of Kalgoorlie where she's the only artist, so in a sense, she is working alone.
"Her work has become so popular because it's so colourful and joyful. There's never any violence in her work - there's abundance and the bush is alive and flourishing and so are the people.
"Because Mary doesn't read, her work is not linear and goes in all directions. She just turns the paper around and around."
Searles described an "enormous" painting Pantjiti has produced for the Tandanya Aboriginal Arts Centre in Adelaide. "It's four metres long by one-and-a-half metres wide and there are literally hundreds of figures on it, all coming together in a big celebration," she says.
"She's found her calling and now paints everyday. She's a wonderful inspiration to the children in the community."
Pantjiti Mary McLean also has a solo exhibition of works on paper called Homelands at the Aboriginal and South Pacific Gallery in Surry Hills, until July 16.
What drives Pantjiti, now in her 60s, to paint?
"It comes from the happiness in my heart," she says.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald