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Connecting distant places: an art historical view of the collection by Dr Mary Eagle

Rover Thomas, ‘Nylia Country, Canning Stock Route, WA’, 1989, natural pigments on canvas, 90 x 200cm, Australian National University Collection

Indigenous Art at the Australian National University was published in 2009. In its opening essay Connecting distant places: an art historical view of the collection, art historian Dr Mary Eagle engages with the historical stories and contexts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the collection and figures the immense value of contemporary Indigenous art and its narratives for our society and ecology today.

Three short excerpts follow and we invite you to read the whole essay here: Connecting distant places: An art historical view of the collection

The collection as a whole testifies to the process by which it came into being: a by-product of a long-standing engagement between Australian National University scholars and Aboriginal people, that has long extended into government policy. To name four distinctive features of the collection, the first comprises some paintings on masonite that were commissioned by the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner at Port Keats in the 1950s. Among them are some striking panels, representing maps of country and body-paintings for ceremonies, which prefigure paintings by Rover Thomas in the east Kimberly twenty years later. The second features a dozen or more painted shields, given by the senior men of Yuendumu to Gough Whitlam in 1980. When the shields are in array, it is apparent that they claim as much by way of traditional rights as the coats-of-arms of the Knights of the Garter displayed in the chapel at Windsor Castle. Although it had fallen to Malcolm Fraser to bring in the land rights legislation in 1976, Whitlam, the previous Prime Minister, loomed large in Aboriginal people’s memory as the father of land rights. When Yuendumu opened its Old People’s respite centre in 2001, it was again Whitlam whom Warlpiri people were keenest to have with them to mark the occasion. Whitlam, in turn, when he passed the gift to the university department, then known as Prehistory and Anthropology, tacitly acknowledged the contribution made by the anthropologists in relation to land claims: Whitlam’s symbolic act, of pouring sand through Lingiari’s hands at Wave Hill, had been on Stanner’s advice. Thirdly, an integrated group of bark paintings from Yirrkala entered the collection through the close association the artists had with the anthropologist Howard Morphy. Among them, one large work was painted while Banapana Maymuru, a visiting fellow at the ANU, was teaching anthropology students about the culture of his people. Produced as a message to Canberra, it was formally presented to the University by the artist’s father Narritjin Maymuru at an exhibition opened by Nugget Coombs. Finally, two monumental installations, one by Fiona Foley and the other by Djon Mundine, have been constructed in the grounds of the University in recent years. These, too, were an outcome of the close connection between the artists and the University.[i]

Aboriginal paintings give us the opportunity to scan between Aboriginal and settler histories of creative intervention. Present unease about the effects of human creativity and destructiveness urges the comparison. To quote Melinda Hinkson: ‘Aboriginal people insist that the Ancestral Beings created the world, and the imperative of Aboriginal society ever since (at least at the level of cosmological discourse) has been to preserve the continuity.’ The Ancestors furrowed the paths taken by rain, animated the springs, started the creeks flowing and dug the waterholes. The life-giving floods are within their control as is the passage of life between salt and fresh water. The ancestors exert their influence at the pools where water lasts longest, at claypans that dry out quickly, and those where standing water turns sour. Their creative power is evident in the distribution of plant and animal species. The marks of creation are apparent in the composition of rock, mineral, clay and soil underfoot, in the patterns of weather over many years, the benefits of fire and water and the disasters of untrammelled storm, flood, fire and droughts. For thousands of years Aboriginal peoples were involved in the ecological work of the Ancestors, factoring their knowledge of the workings of the whole world into their life with the land. Their contemporary art calls up that knowledge, at a time when science appears to have had a Tjinimin effect on the ecology.[ii]

The ‘wholeness’ of Aboriginal high culture, as defined by Stanner, is of particular interest in this time of ecological threat. If, until now, the capacity of a beautiful painting to produce a rush of blood to the head has been through the representation of country (allied to the abstract qualities of art) rather than through the creation stories, this could be changing. Aboriginal contemporary art has the capacity to make inroads in terms of the deep history implied by its stories. By contrast, the time span of European civilisation is short, and modern culture has consistently looked to the future rather than to the past. Until very recently, that is. Now the tendency is to look anywhere except straight ahead, where the prospect seems disastrous. The Angels announcing the end of the world in the Book of Revelations are Cecil B. de Mille by comparison to the news reporters who tell us about the unravelling of the natural order. Uneasiness contributes an edge of feeling for the narratives of life, death, spirit, transgression, transformation, and integration in Aboriginal paintings. While not exactly the wholeness Stanner wrote about, the evidence of unwanted change has opened viewers to the ecological attentiveness of Aboriginal art. [iii]

[i] Mary Eagle, Connecting Distant Places: An art historical view of the collection, published in Indigenous Art at the ANU, Macmillan Art Publishing, Victoria, 2009, p 13.

[ii] Mary Eagle, Connecting Distant Places: An art historical view of the collection, published in Indigenous Art at the ANU, Macmillan Art Publishing, Victoria, 2009, p 28.

[iii] Mary Eagle, Connecting Distant Places: An art historical view of the collection, published in Indigenous Art at the ANU, Macmillan Art Publishing, Victoria, 2009, p 28-29.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.