Sophisticated, disturbing Aboriginal art on show

Michael Cook, Civilised

My Country, Contemporary Art from Black Australia
Auckland Art Gallery
Until July 20

The new exhibition My Country at the Auckland Art Gallery is an opportunity to see art by contemporary aboriginal artists. While there are a couple of examples of the dot paintings which have generally been regarded as the first style of contemporary work produced by Australian aborigines, most of this exhibition has a more challenging approach. This is art which gives an insight into the social, political and personal; aspirations and reflections of aborigines.

The exhibition features the work of 46 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, including film, photography, installation, painting, drawing and sculpture. Highlights include The Oyster Fisherman, a photographic series by Fiona Foley who has received the Australia Council Visual Arts Award; I Forgive You, Bindi Cole’s work of Emu feathers made in response to Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology; and Stranded, Warwick Thornton’s epic and immersive 3D film.

"The exhibition covers three core themes of history, contemporary life and country in which ancestral myths the response to colonisation are combined with the politics of life today.

Michael Cook’s series of photographs called Civilised, some of which were exhibited at last year’s Auckland Art fair are included in a reflection on the cultural divide between the early settlers and the indigenous people. Cook’s images imagine aborigines as being incorporated as part of European society wearing clothes, using weapons and accepting the myths and history of Europe.

This implies an acceptance by the European colonists of aborigines being their equal, which was not the case, with the indigenous people being regarded as lesser people, not even offered a treaty as happened in New Zealand.

Cook's cleverly staged photographs appear to located partly in a studio and partly on a beach. This, along with the strangely attired figures creates surreal images that underline and undermine the notions of the noble savage.

Fiona Foley’s series of photographs, Oyster Fisherman, are a set of images that seem to be stills taken from a film. They provide a narrative of the journey of a young woman and her abuse. Based on the early abduction of Aborigines to work in the fishing industry, they are both a personal record and a commentary on slavery and abuse.

Vincent Serico’s large panoramic painting Carnovon Collision (Big Map tells of a series of massacres which occurred in the 19th century. It combines traditional aboriginal dot painting overlaid with a topographical rendering of the Dawson River area along with the account of events which happened to the  Jiman people.

Abstract shapes and cartoon-like images of settlers and aborigines combine in a simple unemotional account of a tragic period in Australian history. The one fully realised figure is of a white man contrasts markedly with all the aboriginal figures who are rendered as black silhouettes.

Most of the art works have a political bite to them, some more so than others, with the works ranging from despairing graffiti slogans through to more subtle and incisive statements.

Dianne Jones takes a clever take on cultural domination by reworking Duchamp’s image of the Mona Lisa with a moustache in which the artist dismissed the domination of Renaissance art. Jones has done the same trick but using Webber's image of Captain Cook with a black moustache, refiguring the idea of discovery.

Some works address the impact of Christianity such as Archie Moore’s “On a Mission from God” which features a set of small miniature bibles where pages have been used to make origami-style churches, the works reflecting on the way in which the foreign teaching and strange places of worship were imposed on the indigenous population.

Warwick Thornton’s video “Stranded." also reflects on the impact of religion with the artist strapped to rotating on a crucifix white light box which rotates in the wilderness of Australia, his body lacerated. In this mixture of sci-fi, myth, religion and politics the artist presents himself as a latter day sufferer or saviour.

Some works look much like European and American abstract art but the political, environmental and personal aspects of the works give them a greater density. So Sally Gabori’s “Dibirdibi Country” with its vivid colours is a topographical and personal map of her lands with plains and harbours, sunsets and sunrises but also a forceful example of abstract expressionism.

Doreen Reid Nakamarra's untitled work is an op art work worthy of Bridget Riley but here the zigzag stripes are replications of the creeks and valleys of the her environment as well as close-up renditions of sandy rivulets which seem to speak of the energy flows within the land.

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