Earth, Wind & Fire

“Some of these art styles are reminiscent of western modern and postmodern abstract painting, although indigenous art developed far away from any such influence.” A new show at Griffin Gallery in London highlights the uncanny ties between Indigenous Australian art and western painting.

Ralph Anderson, Night Vision, 2017

Earth, Wind & Fire is a treat for the eyes, a mix of vivid colours and eye-bending patterns that reshape the space in an unsettling (though, rather enjoyable) manner. There’s a warping of expected perspective as the viewer takes in the main space–the simple white walls of the gallery holding a mix of paintings as well as some backlit wall-hung pieces that verge on optical illusion in some moments, with Rileyesque tricks in line and composition.

The show brings together pieces from six Australian Indigenous artists and seven British artists. Curated by Juan Bolivar and Jennifer Guerrini Maraldi–a long-time collector of Indigenous art–the show aims not to highlight the divides between these apparently very different groups but to draw on the similarities, with a focus on abstraction. The final show is exactly as one may hope; it stops being about who’s from where, and the works appear as one coherent body. I spoke with Jennifer Guerrini Maraldi about her ongoing exploration into the history and future of Indigenous art.

Can you tell me a bit about Earth, Wind & Fire?

The exhibition presents the work of Indigenous Australian contemporary artists and British contemporary artists on the same platform, so they blend seamlessly together. By doing so, we are putting Indigenous Australian contemporary art in the domain of mainstream contemporary art, which hasn’t been done before.

The title of this exhibition, Earth, Wind & Fire alludes to indigenous Australian artists’ deep connection to the natural world and an identity defined by the land and its original creation story. Australian Aboriginal art is known to be the oldest, unbroken art tradition in the world, with a history dating as far back as eighty thousand years. The art is a means of passing information and stories through generations as this culture had no written language, so painting and mark-making was a practical substitute for writing.

The main themes or motifs in desert art, depicted mostly from an aerial view, stem from the Tjukurrpa (story of creation) lore. Topographical maps also feature in their paintings, replicating the character of the landscape as created by the ancestral spirits. This is evident in Lily Nungarrayi Hargraves’s paintingTurkey Dreaming in the show.

Lily Nungarrayi Hargraves, Turkey Dreaming, 2015, Acrylic on canvas

For the exhibition you bring together six Australian Indigenous artists with seven British artists. There is a focus on the similarities of technique and practice between these groups. When did you begin to notice this, and what would you say the key lines of inquiry are? 

For the past two decades I have noted a depth of knowledge and a painterly process among contemporary Indigenous Australian artists that seemed to replicate and almost mirror the work of some major “western” contemporary abstract expressionist painters. It was an absolute fact that Australian indigenous artists, living in isolated, remote communities across Australia, had never seen or engaged with other art. Aboriginal art was coming from a unique cultural tradition where skills and techniques have evolved and developed over thousands of millennia. Some of these art styles are reminiscent of western modern and postmodern abstract painting, although indigenous art developed far away from any such influence.

Juan Bolivar had shown an interest in the Aboriginal art I was exhibiting in the UK and a conversation began about a group exhibition. We decided to include a small selection of contemporary indigenous Australian paintings for Earth Wind & Fire alongside British painters like Sigrid Holmwood, who makes her own pigments, just like the Indigenous Australian artist Kittey Malarvie, who makes her own pigments from natural ochres.

Your interest in Contemporary Indigenous Australian artists began in the 90s with the purchase of a Freddie Timms work. What was it about this piece that stood out to you?

The large work by Freddie Timms, Sugar Bag immediately resonated as a contemporary abstract work of power and significance. The large canvases of 1970s New York colour field school had long been my passion and there was definitely something about Timms’s work that demanded my attention. His spatial awareness was at once dramatic and present and inSugar Bag his use of bright acrylic colour was masterly. This work was the beginning of my lifelong passion for indigenous Australian art and my eventual meeting with Freddie Timms in 2009 in Kununurra (in the North Kimberley region of Western Australia) where he was painting at the time. Freddie was a great man and I was honoured to spend time with him. 

Ngarrlia Tommy May, All the Jumu, 2005, acrylic on canvas
Richard Kirwan, Yellow Kelly, 2016

What are the most exciting aspects of Contemporary Indigenous Australian art right now?

It is exciting to see a new generation of Indigenous artists who seek to preserve the essence of an ancient, traditional culture and communicate this to the wider world. New media and an international awareness has created a fresh approach to making art while still encompassing important “dreamings” passed down through generations. The art is still alive and thriving although many of the original “desert walkers” are with us no longer.

ln the late 1990s when writer Howard Morphy was framing his analysis, he wrote at a time of relative optimism for indigenous Australians, when native title law was newly established and the Northern Territory intervention was not yet a dream in a politician’s mind. High-end art market demand for fresh works from remote communities was exploding, it was a golden time for painting in the Top End of Australia and the Kimberley, in Western Australia. This exciting movement was just beginning to touch the Pitjantjatjara lands of the South Australian desert (on the tri-state borders of NT, WA & SA). Everything seemed possible.

“Aboriginal art is now being incorporated in the general discourse over Australian art,” Morphy declared. “It is collected by the same institutions, exhibited within the same gallery structure, written about in the same journals as other Australian art. This has come about through the Aboriginal struggle to make their art part of the Australian agenda.”

John Greenwood, Selfish Portrait, 2017, Oil on canvas

You visit Australia a lot. Do you feel the Indigenous artists within the country play a large role within the wider contemporary art scene or is there a divide?

Aboriginal art and artists have been incorporated into the mainstream of Australian art–and to a lesser degree the international art arena. Today the divide is diminishing. The best contemporary Indigenous Australian art stands happily beside the finest work from contemporary artists around the world. Although there are still dedicated prizes, art fairs and events that focus solely on contemporary Indigenous art (DAAF, NATSIAA, TARNATHI, DESART to name of few) all acting as promotional platforms for Aboriginal art, today, many Australian commercial galleries, previously dedicated solely to Indigenous art, now intersperse their annual exhibition programs with artists’ exhibitions from a wider world.

Every year, during my Australian travels I feel the change as the younger Indigenous generation of artists are more urban and internet savvy and definitely developing a unique art practice that still, however, draws on their cultural tradition.

“Earth, Wind & Fire” is showing at Griffin Gallery in London until 20 October.

John Stark, The Cradle, 2017
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