Visual Art

The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial offers an overview of the aesthetic, intellectual and political power of contemporary Indigenous art. By Miriam Cosic.

4th National Indigenous Art Triennial

An installation view of Blak Parliament House, 2021, by Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyere Artists.
An installation view of Blak Parliament House, 2021, by Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyere Artists.
Credit: Supplied

The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial, Ceremony, is a small but perfectly formed exhibition. The aesthetic dominates and yet contemporary Indigenous issues are ever present: dispossession, ties to Country, climate change and pride in being a part of the oldest cultural lineage there is. That juxtaposition – of grace to brutal truth – is a hallmark of chief curator Hetti Perkins’ work. “The public part is just the tip of it,” she said at the media preview. “And then there is this massive body of knowledge, of stories and history – the intangible things lie below the surface.”

The National Gallery of Australia is showing an embarrassment of riches at the moment: Jeffrey Smart; Project 1: Sarah Lucas; part two of Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now – and now this. With 19 individual artists or collectives, it spans media from delicate, shell-like clay pottery to overwhelming multichannel video installations, from traditional weaving to high-tech machinery continuously delivering art in real time. So much of it draws the visitor closer – physically, to explore the intricacy of the making, and mentally, for full immersion into the concepts being offered.

Dylan Rivers’ Untitled (Bungalow) 2022 makes approach essential. Without it, his photograph of an eye, inkjet printed and blown up to fill a wall, is startling but little more. Closer, one can see the reflection of colonial buildings on the iris. His grandmother and her sister were placed in The Bungalow, a home for “half-caste” Aboriginal children in central Australia, and her stories were developmental for him. He had also seen old photographs of Indigenous people that seemed to be taken in studios until one noticed reflections of Country in their eyes. He returned to his Kaytetye Country to bring those two memories together in an exploration of colonisation and evangelism.

The video work in the show is compelling. Nyctinasty (2021) is photographer Hayley Millar Baker’s first short film. In black and white, with long meditative focuses on her face and body and on close-up ceremonial-style movement, it is an eerie exploration of her personal sense of connection to the spirit world. She says she revisited horror films and Quentin Tarantino movies in her search for the ingredients. “I am petrified of the dark because of what I can see and feel in the dark, without having full control over myself,” she writes in the online catalogue. “And that’s because of my relationship with ghosts and spirits.”

Another video’s mood couldn’t be more different. Made by Yirrkala man Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu in north-east Arnhem Land, Maralitja (2022) is projected on a huge concave screen and explores Country and its ceremonies. His totem is Bäru, or crocodile: “Bäru comes from the salt water,” he says. “I come from the salt water.” Visitors were standing back to comprehend the vastness of it. Yet stepping forward to stand midpoint on the “chord” – as geometrists call the line across endpoints of a curve – especially during the long sequences of waves breaking on the shore, gives a more exciting immersive experience. Yunupiŋu is Deaf and communicates via sign language, and knowing that enhances the depth of this visual conversation with the viewer.

This work also echoes a quote from Andrew Snelgar in an explanatory video in the online catalogue. Snelgar’s work is an installation of finely incised tools and weapons adorned with ochre that represent contemporary interpretations of ongoing traditional object-making from south-eastern Australia. In the video of him on the land, he remarks, “I still believe that there is a lot of song in Country. Those songs and stories are still there and if you listen you can hear them.”

The opening hall of the exhibition offers this on a vast scale. The area is dominated by large concrete slabs placed in formation, each looking like an abstract tombstone. Called untitled (winhangarra) (2022), each is made of cast concrete mounted on steel frames, with recesses formed by placing branches and logs into the setting concrete and then burning them out, leaving streamlined impressions of organic material. They are a response to historical architecture: both to the Brutalist architecture of the gallery itself and to the works it owns that depict the “cultural architecture” of the 19th-century Kwatkwat artist Tommy McRae.

Behind them, mounted across the wall, are 280 burnt banksia forms by Penny Evans made of the clay of the region on Yaegl Country around Coffs Harbour. Titled gudhuwali BURN (2020–21), it memorialises the devastating effects of the 2015 and 2019 bushfires, referring to the cultural significance of fire in traditional Indigenous life and the frightening consequences of ignoring Indigenous protocols of land care. Also set up in the room is a jumbled installation of bright political artefacts in soft sculptures and paintings created collaboratively by members of the Aboriginal-run Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyere Artists art centres in the Northern Territory. Called Blak Parliament House (2021), they are a bold compilation of the people’s political messaging of the past 50 years. When I visited later, a group of primary-school children sitting on stools were responding enthusiastically to the guide’s remarks and questions.

There are more sombre moments, such as the darkened room containing boxes of sheep and cattle bones reclaimed from colonial farmland in Walgalu Country. They are exhibited in display cases that are inscribed and catalogued by artist and writer S. J. Norman, bearing “the words of the people and culture they displaced”. Norman has worked on Bone Libraries since 2010, part of the Unsettling Suite opus in which he has catalogued dictionaries of Aboriginal languages considered extinct by colonial anthropologists.

Whatever the medium used by the artists here, the works represent up-to-the-minute interpretations of the world. A collection of beautiful and very fragile bowls, in ochre colours on white, are made of paper. There are also seven ceramic works, Yumari (2021), made by Kunmanara Carroll (of the Luritja and Pintupi people) in the 12 months before his death last year. Each looks like a large and elongated modernist vase, fired with unusual colours such as blue and green, yet holding the stories passed to him by his father from their original Country, Ilpili, east of Kintore.

Elsewhere, Yawuru artist Robert Andrew has created a kinetic installation of an inkjet printer running atop a large backdrop. A writing machine traverses the top of the wall, slowly and in both directions, automatically spilling red paint at intervals. The paint dribbles down the wall to reveal a phrase in the language of the Kamberri/Canberra land where the gallery stands: “nainmurra guuruburrii dhaura” (taking care of ceremonial ground).

A group of untitled paintings made by Mantua Nangala depict her intimate connection with her Country, telling women’s stories about Pintupi Country in the Western Desert. The dots she uses are so minute that they begin to scintillate on approach,
a surprise that is a little dizzying.

Ceremony is testament that our culture has survived – not only over the many thousands of years but, particularly, the last couple of hundred years – because of its capacity for innovation and adaptability,” Perkins said of her choice of title for the exhibition. Every room reveals it. They also reveal her own world view.

An Eastern Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman with a German mother, Perkins has lived and breathed Indigenous affairs and art her whole life. Her father was the famous activist and public servant Charles Perkins, her sister is the filmmaker Rachel Perkins and her daughter the actor Madeleine Madden. Perkins herself was a curator at the famed Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, which was founded by a young cohort of Aboriginal artists, including Fiona Foley, Tracey Moffatt, Brenda L. Croft and Michael Riley, who went on to become celebrated in the art world here and overseas. Perkins was curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for 22 years and co-curated the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1997.

The exhibition demonstrates her sophistication, reflecting her immersion in Indigenous culture, intellectually, aesthetically and politically. 

The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial, Ceremony, is at the National Gallery of Australia until July 31 and then will tour.

Miriam Cosic’s accommodation was provided by the NGA.



EXHIBITION Transforming Worlds: Change and Tradition in Contemporary India

NGV International, Melbourne, until August 28

FESTIVAL Barossa Arts Festival

Venues throughout the Barossa Valley, South Australia, until April 30

CIRCUS CIRCFest22 Meanjin

Venues throughout Brisbane, April 21–May 1

MUSIC Tamworth Country Music Festival

Tamworth, NSW, April 18-24

CLASSICAL Dvořák’s New World

Perth Concert Hall, April 22-23

Last Chance

EXHIBITION Project 1: Sarah Lucas

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until April 18

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "The grace of brutal truth".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

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