The Art of Place:

The Art of Place: The 4th National Indigenous Heritage Art Award 1998
Fire -Works Gallery

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1998

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

This review was published in The Courier-Mail 24 August 1998

THE landscape images are filled with old stories, personal histories and new creativity and technologies. Ochres and desert, photographic images and city buildings, evocative dreaming. A major touring exhibition is showing special places that Australia's first inhabitants feel are worth keeping as part of their heritage, as well as the melding of tradition and innovation in indigenous art now.4

`The Art of Place', the fourth National Indigenous Heritage Art Award, which is on view at Brisbane's Fire-Works Gallery from August 11, contains 51 works: paintings on bark, canvas and paper, sculpture in glass and wood, photographs and mixed media pieces. The works have all been made in the past 12 months, and come from all parts of the continent, including Arnhem Land and the desert, the Kimberley and Torres Strait, and towns and cities.

An exhibition of this comprehensiveness could be expected to attract a large audience. However, Aboriginal art shows are now a regular event on the art scene, and this one is touring hot on the heels of another national indigenous art prize, the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award (currently at the Gold Coast City Art Gallery).

Why another indigenous art prize? `The Art of Place' is different, says Fire-Work's manager-curator, Simon Turner, in that it is landscape art created for a specific purpose. The Australian Heritage Commission (which runs the award) has asked each of the artists to submit work on the theme of heritage places, accompanied by a written explanation of why the artist would like the place included in the Register of the National Estate -- Australia's list of cultural and natural heritage places.

``The exhibition is very specific in what it deals with,'' Turner says. ``It gives viewers an opportunity to see the country and heritage through the eyes of Aboriginal and Islander artists.''

The resulting art work is likely to interest a broad cross-section of Australians, rather than gallery-goers alone. The show is expected to attract politically interested people who have followed the land rights, native title and Jabiluka Mine debates, as well as those interested in largely unexplored areas of the country and in Aboriginal traditions.

While many works celebrate the beauty of the country and the richness of indigenous myths, other pieces, and the events they depict, are painful to contemplate. One such work, which lingers in the mind long after viewing, is Queenie McKenzie's painting `Horso Creek massacre' -- a naive image of surprising power which tells the story of an incident in the Kimberley region in the 1880s in which white pastoralists killed all but one of the local Aborigines.

Other works, and statements, have strong conservation messages. In `Sand Bank', an elegant and rhythmic composition, Brisbane artist, Eddie Nona, depicts the fish and animals of the Torres Strait reefs. Crayfishing, a traditional livelihood, is now under threat, he writes: `` it would be easy for the natural wonders of the Torres Strait to be taken advantage of, if not protected from trawlers and fishing boats''.

Artists represented include a few elders in traditional communities, such as Queenie McKenzie, Mowarra Ganambarr from Arnhem Land and Michael Nelson Jagamarra from Papunya -- all successful artists, but not necessarily household names in Australia.

But the majority of work is by younger artists, many of whom are not afraid to take risks with unfamiliar materials. One of the most successful of these experimenters is West Australian artist Tjapartji Bates, who has transposed a traditional sand drawing into glass. This beautiful work is an exciting innovation -- and a possible harbinger of other future experimental directions in indigenous art, according to Turner. ``In the next century,'' he says, `` I can see indigenous artists working in a whole array of new media. People say `When is indigenous art going to stop?' -- but it won't, it will just move into different media, from photography to digital imaging.''

Copyright © 1998 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author