“Who’s Afraid of Colour?” showcases the work of female Australian Indigenous artists.
“Who’s Afraid of Colour?” exhibits the work of 118 female Indigenous artists from Australia. This exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne challenges the notion of what ‘real’ Aboriginal art is, and what Aboriginal art and Aboriginality can or ‘should’ be.
The diverse work of Indigenous Australian women artists is celebrated through the thematic framework of the exhibition “Who’s Afraid of Colour?” at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Australia from 16 December 2016 to 17 April 2017. Its intention is to explore Aboriginal women artists as innovators and transformers of tradition and precedent. The artworks span a wide range of media, from video, dot painting and photography, to ceramics and glass art, with these bold works exploring the aesthetics of colour and asserting the politics of identity.
Over 200 art works make up this survey exhibition of Aboriginal women’s art from the NVG Collection demonstrating the diversity of approaches, subject matter and media in which Aboriginal female artists work. Tony Ellwood, Director of the NGV, said of the show:
Since coming into prominence in the late 1980s, Indigenous women have transformed Australian contemporary art, experimenting boldly across artistic mediums and challenging popular notions about how Indigenous art should be created and interpreted. Who’s Afraid of Colour? celebrates the diversity and daring of their work.
The exhibition asserts these artists’ commitment to cherishing, stewarding and perpetuating their culture. It subverts stereotypical expectations that ‘real’ Aboriginal art only comes from ‘remote outback’ Australia, and gives an important presence to contemporary artists such as Bindi Cole Chocka, Yhonnie Scarce and Destiny Deacon. The exhibition presents the work of artists from both city and bush studios. Indigenous women artists irrespective of their mode of training or medium are justifiably positioned at the vanguard of contemporary art practice.
“Who’s Afraid of Colour?” occupies six gallery spaces in NGV and includes major new acquisitions by Melbourne-based artists Destiny Deacon and Bindi Cole Chocka., who both use photography and digital media to explore and challenge notions of Aboriginality.
Destiny Deacon (b. 1957, Maryborough, Queensland. Lives and works in Melbourne) has described herself as “just an old-fashioned political artist”. In her installations, videos and laser-generated prints she considers the casual cruelty of everyday racism with her own idiosyncratic humour and scathing wit. Much of her work aims to ‘rescue’ and elevate collectible objects of ‘Aboriginalia’. She has had several careers in addition to being an artist: she has been a performer, academic and activist reflecting the complexity and multifaceted nature of the influences on her artwork. Primarily known for her photography, Deacon also works in installation, printmaking, performance and writing.
For “Who’s Afraid of Colour?” Deacon presents a series of nine photographic prints, seven of which are new to the NGV Collection. These photographs were originally conceived by Deacon in the late 1990s and early 2000s but have been printed in 2016. Deacon has said this about her work:
First I labour for an idea, one that usually ends up being sad or pathetic, and then during the agony process of getting the image done, somehow things take a turn toward the ironic. Humour cuts deep. I like to think that there’s a laugh and a tear in each picture.
Bindi Cole Chocka (b. 1975, Melbourne Victoria. Lives and works in Melbourne) explores her own life story and her experiences, including her Wadawurrung heritage and the importance of Christianity to her artwork. She explores the impact of politics, the law and other power structures on her lived experience and that of her family and community.
Cole Chocka’s Not really Aboriginal (2008) series which features in “Who’s Afraid of Colour?” explores identity politics and poses questions about how black you need to look to be considered Aboriginal and how ‘white’ Aboriginal people cross the cultural divide. Ultimately, it is a celebration of Aboriginality in all its forms.
Part of the series is a new acquisition to the NGV Collection. The series provoked prominent Australian Herald Sun news columnist Andrew Bolt to claim that Cole Chocka and other “light skinned” Aborigines sought to take professional advantage by identifying as Aboriginal. This incited an action in the Australian Federal Court that found Bolt guilty of contravening the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
Cole Chocka has said the following about her work:
I’ve always been told that I was Aboriginal. I never questioned it because of the colour of my skin or where I lived. My Nan, one of the Stolen Generation was staunchly proud and strong. She made me feel the same way. My traditional land takes in Ballarat, Geelong and Werribee and extends west past Cressy to Derrinallum. I’m from Victoria and I’ve always known this. I’m not black. I’m not from a remote community. Does that mean I’m not really Aboriginal? Or do Aboriginal people come in all shapes, sizes and colours and live in all areas of Australia, remote and urban?
Emily Kam Kngwarray (b. circa 1910-1996, Anmatyerr, Australia) is a prominent and important Australian artist. She represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997. This was considered to be a landmark moment which acknowledged the importance of Indigenous women’s art practice on an international scale and placed Indigenous Australian art firmly within contemporary art, and in Kngwarray’s case, abstract painting.
Her large-scale canvas Anwerlarr anganenty (Big yam Dreaming), from 1995, is included is an exhibition highlight. The painting measures approximately three by eight metres and travelled to the Royal Academy of Arts, London as part of the Australia exhibition in 2013. In this painting Kngwarray represents her birthplace, Alhalker, an important site for anwerlarr or the pencil yam. The organic lines of the work are derived from the lines painted on women’s bodies for awely (women’s ceremonies) and signify the long underground branching of the yam tuber.
Yhonnie Scarce (b. 1973 in Woomera, South Australia. Lives and works in Melbourne) works primarily in the medium of glass. She is one of the first Australian artists to explore the political and aesthetic qualities of glass. She has described her work as “politically motivated and emotionally driven”. Scarce’s artwork and research are focused on the impact of the removal and relocation of Aboriginal people from their homelands and the effects of the Stolen Generation.
Scarce’s work Blood on the wattle (Elliston, South Australia 1849), from 2013, memorialises the horrific massacre at Elliston in 1849; she attempts to provide a place to mourn all who have died as a result of colonialism. The massacre happened when three sheep disappeared from a cattle station in Elliston and a number of Aboriginal people were wrongly accused and consequently pushed off a cliff. The work consists of 400 glass blown, black bush yams that represent the lives lost. They are exhibited within a coffin made of Perspex.
Gulumbu Yunupingu (b. circa 1943 – 2012) is a much celebrated artist from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land. With her two sisters, Barrupu and Nyapanyapa, she transformed Yolngu art. In an area that was formerly the preserve of men, they broke free from replicating pre-ordained minytji (sacred designs) and ordered sequences of crosshatching, and through tonal nuance, the materiality of surface and gestural freedom they defied precedents in Yolngu art.
Gulumbu Yunupingu drew inspiration from watching her father Mungurrawuy paint and hearing his ancestral narratives which chronicled the genesis of the Yolngu universe. Three decades after Mungurrawuy’s death, Yunupingu was working in print making and remembered her father’s stories of two groups of sisters who transformed into stars. From this Yunupingu developed her signature multi-starred iconography that signifies Garak, the universe.
The universe, as a metaphor is inclusive of all ideologies and systems of knowledge and became the focus of Yunupingu’s subsequent paintings and sculptures. Her paintings of gan’yu (stars) are ethereal works, which reach beyond our known universe. Yunupingu’s shifting palettes of ochre evoke seductive individual star clusters with subtle tonal differences. They shimmer with beauty, their sublime presence inspiring awe and curiosity in the viewer.
“Who’s Afraid of Colour?” is the second large-scale survey exhibition of Aboriginal art to be shown at the NGV, the first being “Aboriginal Australia” in 1981. “Aboriginal Australia” was a major exhibition of 328 works but did not include a single work by a named female artist. “Who’s Afraid of Colour?” represents a considerable shift in attitudes and acknowledgement of the important work made by Aboriginal women artists.
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