The ‘culture warriors’ turn subtle

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IT seems only yesterday that the NGA’s inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial, “Culture Warriors”, was running. Now it’s time for the second Triennial, “unDisclosed”.

Twenty artists have been selected, and when I catch Franchesca Cubillo, senior curator of indigenous art at the NGA fresh from hanging the exhibition, the excitement is palpable.

Cubillo has been working closely with the curator, Carly Lane, and agrees that the enigmatic title for this year’s triennial is very different from the confrontational “Culture Warriors”.

Take Fiona Foley’s painting installation, “Let 100 Flowers Bloom”. It’s beautiful, but it refers to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (1897) in Queensland, a little-known piece of legislation that humiliated indigenous Australians by introducing a system of tight controls.

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There is no doubt, Cubillo says, that with other artworks, too, you’ll say: “These are beautiful and very powerful,” but soon discover that there is more to that beauty.

“The commentary is very subtle, provoking thought and engagement with the visual elements,” she says.

Apart from subtlety, there’s Tony Albert’s in-your-face work “Pay Attention Motherf…er!” It has the same title as a famous work by American artist Bruce Neumann, deliberately used by Albert to show us that you can’t presume anger is the preserve of indigenous artists alone.

Among the senior figures represented is Nyapanyapa Yunupingu from north-east Arnhem Land, striking for her radical departure from the dreaming narrative, with bark paintings showing contemporary scenes, such as the Sydney hotel where she stayed during an exhibition.

Canberra, too, has a representative in Danie Mellor, former winner of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, whose “wonderful drawings in blue-and-white” used on the invitation to the exhibition are full of references to both indigenous and Masonic culture. Mellor’s point is that indigenous and non-indigenous people have recourse to ancient rituals, so who’s the primitive Australian and who’s the sophisticated one?

Such are the questions that the Second National Indigenous Art Triennial will help unravel.

“unDisclosed”, at the National Gallery of Australia, until July 22.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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