Art

We must support Australian artists in their most ambitious visions to understand the seismic shifts of our time. By Andy Butler.

Making sense of a changing world

Installation view of Destiny Deacon’s Smile (2017) on display in the DESTINY exhibition.
Credit: Tom Ross

Seeing DESTINY at the end of 2020 seemed like a miracle. Destiny Deacon’s 30-year retrospective finally opened last month at the National Gallery of Victoria after its failure to launch when the pandemic hit in late March.

In the aftermath of stage-four lockdown, art still feels precarious in Melbourne, but a home-town celebration of Kuku and Erub/Mer photographer Deacon’s work is a fitting end to a year in Australian art where the unsettling issues plaguing us on a global scale hit multiple flashpoints.

The Brunswick-based artist is a towering figure. For the past 30 years she has used photographs of dolls and Aboriginalia – Polaroids and dolls are a cheap way to make work – to unpack, with humour and tragedy, the history of racism in Australia. She coined the word “Blak” – a term now adopted by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to describe themselves: “I took the ‘c’ out of Black little cunt,” she says. Her output has given us cultural tools to make sense of a changing world.

There are scores of artists today treading similar paths to Deacon and the generation of artists who built their practices alongside her. This legacy was felt in major contemporary art exhibitions this year, such as the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and the Biennale of Sydney. The recent push by museums and major galleries to platform voices that have historically been excluded from mainstream cultural life continued unabated this year – the Adelaide Biennial sought to make visible the monsters of now, and the Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, brought voices from the edge into the centre.

Australia is rich with artists who offer perspectives and insights that push against our inherited Eurocentric framework, but the infrastructure that collates our mainstream cultural memory is compromised. Our central institutions have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and their support of politicised artists who have transformative visions for society is a smokescreen for a deep and anxious conservatism.

This year, Vincent Namatjira was the first Aboriginal – and first non-white – person to win the Archibald Prize in its near-hundred-year history, with a self-portrait also featuring footballer Adam Goodes. While it’s right to celebrate Namatjira, the 99-year whitewash of Australia’s most prominent national art prize is wholly unsurprising.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, the inability of our cultural institutions to meaningfully confront systemic racism became very clear – even though these spaces have spent the past several years or more platforming artists who engage with social issues.

While museums around the world posted black squares on Instagram in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, or made public statements of support, an Instagram account named Change the Museum started posting hundreds of anonymous stories of structural racism and toxic gaslighting in museums. In Australia, Sydney-based Lilly Lai published a scathing essay detailing their experiences working at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and a toxic work culture plagued by issues around whiteness and class. (The MCA refutes their account.)

Destiny Deacon is the tip of the iceberg. The breadth of dynamic artists we have in Australia, and their perspectives, are internationally significant. 2020 is the culmination of political, cultural, economic and environmental currents of the first years of this millennium, and the next decade and beyond will bring seismic challenges and shifts for us all. Artists are vital in forming the cultural lens to make sense of all this.

The Australian arts ecology is no longer fit for purpose – there’s no way it can support the ambitious visions of our artists. This is by design. We still pit peers against each other through the commercial market or dwindling government grants. Art and culture are inherently social activities, but we’ve turned it into a competition controlled by the economic and political elite, with very few winners. Culture is an incredibly powerful force, and those at the top want to keep a firm grip on how it shapes us.

Even while things felt bleak, a fermenting spirit of collaboration, political activism, camaraderie and hope was gathering within the arts at both national and international levels. The systems we’ve had to work in are collapsing, so now’s our opportunity to create something better in their place. This year has seen some significant changes that will transform visual art for years to come.

The move online has broadened the scope to cross-pollinate ideas across geographic locations and art forms. Artist-led initiatives such as Pari in Parramatta are connecting diverse Australian artists with international collectives and collaborations such as Gudskul in Indonesia and the White Pube in Britain. Hyphenated, an Asian–Australian collective from Melbourne, is using online platforms to draw out connections between First Nations experiences here and colonial histories in Asia. Where predominantly white institutions have failed at the complexity of cultural discussions, artists are striking out on their own.

Capital cities that often lose artists to Sydney and Melbourne are investing more in local talent. The Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane commissioned 40 artists connected to Queensland for the online platform Making Art Work and ACE Open in Adelaide staged a survey of burgeoning practices from South Australia in If the future is to be worth anything. The Perth Festival has announced a 2021 program that focuses on West Australian artists. Regional galleries are staking a larger claim on cultural life, with Ballarat getting a National Centre for Photography, Home of the Arts opening on the Gold Coast, and other regional galleries such as Bendigo Art Gallery, Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) and Shepparton Art Museum curating cutting-edge exhibitions for audiences outside urban centres.

The huge shifts in the funding landscape for the small to medium parts of the ecology call for innovative ways of collaborating, and will also force some places to close. This part of the art world – the non-profits with minuscule budgets – nurtures experimental ideas and practices, and leads museums and commercial galleries by a mile in terms of meaningful contributions to social transformation. It is also the part of our cultural infrastructure that has been gutted the most by our federal government.

Destiny Deacon cut her teeth in this sort of gallery, around the heyday of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Chippendale in the ’90s, with peers such as Richard Bell, Judy Watson, Brenda L. Croft, Fiona Foley and Brook Andrew. We have a long history of visionary artists, and many artists in our new generation could expand our cultural horizons even more if only we would value them.

Next year and beyond feels very uncertain for Australian visual arts, and for the world at large. Artists play vital roles in creating emotional, conceptual, aesthetic and material tools to articulate more astutely our present, to imagine possible futures, and to bring communities closer. Now we need to support them more than ever.  

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Making sense of a changing world".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Andy Butler is an artist and writer. He is the program curator at West Space in Melbourne.