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
The NGV’s Indigenous collection attests to the artists’ commitment to cherishing, stewarding and perpetuating their culture despite a history of dispossession. It also subverts the stereotypical expectation that ‘real’ Indigenous art only comes from ‘remote outback’ Australia, and gives an important presence to eloquent artists such as Jonathan Jones, Julie Gough, Christian Thompson and Vernon Ah Kee. They use modern materials and digital media, and reference the international language of art to express the politics of their identity or to comment on issues of universal concern. For artists living in the most densely populated coastal regions of Australia, where original Indigenous languages are no longer spoken due to the long-term presence of a foreign power, the greatest challenge is to find a personal artistic language and master a modern medium. Yhonnie Scarce chooses to work in blown glass, Dennis Nona in mammoth linocuts, etchings and cast bronze sculptures, whereas Jones works with currents of fluid and dancing light as a metaphor of living culture.
Jonathan Jones’ untitled (muyan) (2011; Fig. 5) is one of three works commissioned by the Felton Bequest to honour William Barak (1824–1903), the first Aboriginal artist of renown. Jones has accelerated his practice and transcended his earlier light assemblages in this pristine and seamless installation. Using materials that enervate a modern industrial streetscape, five LED light boxes perform and recollect with zigzags, verticals and diamonds – all metaphors of Wurundjeri sacred body marks – metamorphosed and connected to an anomalous context and culture. The design iconography sourced from Barak’s drawings and weapons creates an incandescent geometry that is at once architectonic and ephemeral. The Wurundjeri leader’s spiritual presence is symbolically reinstated by the yellow glow of wattle, which suffuses from the light boxes every August. The work negotiates an abiding tribute to Barak who in predicting his own death said it would happen when muyan (wattle) was in bloom.
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