The Ancient Made New
Since the 1980s the National Gallery of Victoria has pursued a collecting policy focused on contemporary Indigenous Australian art. This year, to mark the museum’s 150th anniversary, a further 173 works have been gifted by the Felton Bequest
Judith Ryan, Friday, 1st July 2011
In seeking to construct an Indigenous collection of consequence, distinct from the great historical collections of Australian museums, the NGV determined initially to focus on the Western Desert art movement, where a phenomenal new form of painting had emerged that was the first to be acknowledged as art rather than artefact. Western Desert art has an irresistible presence, fortified by religious orthodoxy and mandatory adherence to ritual law. Bold linear gestures, fields of vibrant colour and the visual music of pointillist dotting pulse with the shock of the ancient made new, and accord Europeans a radical and illuminating way of construing their unfathomable continent, beheld by them as the ‘emptiest of lands’.
Recognising its historical significance and aesthetic cogency, the NGV focused attention on the earliest works by Papunya Tula and other founding artists of Western Desert art centres, where ‘a new visualisation and idea of the continent had come forth out of the burning and freezing red sand’.5 Subsequently curatorial attention moved to Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands, the Kimberley, Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait, and not neglecting the revolutionary figures working in coastal cities, especially in south-eastern Australia. The years 1984 to 2011 have seen the collection flourish apace with the varied imaginings and narratives of these artists, and the evolution of what Robert Hughes has called the last great art movement of the 20th century.
The NGV’s Indigenous collection is now part of an enduring and critical record whereby Aboriginal people have made known their presence, their ritual and their intellectual and social achievement over the past 60,000 years. Many of the works are assertions of cultural difference and ancestrally sanctioned rights to land as contested space made within the order determined by the dominant settler culture. The collection was rehoused in the Indigenous galleries at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre in October 2002, when monumental treasures, both old and new, were decisively placed in a prominent position in a 21st-century art museum.
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