The just-opened Sydney Modern, the new building of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, is a sign of new era for the institution. In addition to the new temporary exhibition spaces, its sole permanent exhibition space is the new home for the Yiribana Gallery, which is dedicated solely to art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Since the ’90s, the Yiribana Gallery had been located in the museum’s original neoclassical-style building—sandstone exterior, Doric columns, topped with a triangular pediment—and for years it showed a very narrow view of contemporary Australian art: mainly white male artists. And because it was located in a basement level, most visitors often got lost trying to find it.
“I think it’s always been the desire to relocate the gallery,” Cara Pinchbeck, a senior curator at the Art Gallery, told ARTnews. Now the Yiribana Gallery will be front and center.
At a time when many Australian art institutions didn’t have spaces dedicated to work by contemporary Indigenous artists, the Yiribana Gallery’s establishment in 1994 was a watershed. Even though the museum had already been displaying Indigenous artists’ work since 1973, it was in what was called the “Tribal” or “Primitive Art Gallery.” Naming it “Yiribana,” which means “the way” in Dharug, the Aboriginal language of Sydney, was a clear recognition that Indigenous art was part of modern-day Australia and not just its distant past. Still, it took until the early 2000s for the accession numbers to change from “P” (for primitive) to “IA” (Indigenous Australian), and for works from this collection department to be shown in other parts of the museum.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales has been one of the pioneering institutions, collecting art by Aboriginal artists in earnest in the 1950s, but wider interest in Indigenous art within the Australian art world didn’t pick up until the ’70s. Before that, it had been a series of “fits and starts,” Bruce Johnson McLean, the National Gallery of Australia’s assistant director for Indigenous engagement, told ARTnews. Artists like Albert Namatjira, who painted landscapes in traditional European representation, and Nym Banduk, who painted with an Indigenous dot technique on bark, had gained some prominence in the mid-20th century, but “from 1970, we start to talk about the movement because it does collect a lot of communities, a lot of people,” he said. “It becomes this tidal wave that can’t be erased or ignored anymore.”
In 1971, a visiting schoolteacher at Papunya, a rural settlement 150 miles from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, asked his students to paint a mural at the school. Some of the senior tribal men, who worked as groundskeepers, saw and asked if they could do it instead so that the children could learn about where they came from. The men enjoyed it so much they continued painting.
“The desire to paint outstripped the materials available,” Johnson McLean said. They soon took to acrylics over the laborious task of having to collect and process natural ochre. They also started painting on whatever surfaces were available—composition boards, doors, car parts. Inadvertently, they created art that could be transported elsewhere, out of the desert, to be shown and sold.
There were numerous other movements that intersected with the initial art push. “It speaks to a non-uniform experience with engagement with Indigenous people,” Johnson McLean said. “The only uniform thing is the racism.” (Among other groups, Indigenous Australians were not counted as part of the population in all contexts until 1967, and their children were still being forcibly taken for assimilation until the 1970s.)
From the start, Australia’s recognition of its Indigenous art has been a bit haphazard. At the beginning of local institutions’ collecting, works such as weaving and bark painting were considered more as folk art than as fine art. “There was just no way to engage with it or understand it in the spaces that you need to do in a museum,” Johnson McLean said. Similarly, the National Gallery of Australia has tapped two leading curators, Indigenous Australian women Kelli Cole and Hetti Perkins (who led the Art Gallery of NSW’s Indigenous art accession change), to organize a major retrospective opening next year of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, one of the most popular Australian artists.
Even though documents, like the National Gallery’s founding document, the 1966 Lindsay Report, clearly state a focus on Indigenous art to be made, institutions lacked Indigenous people on staff who could contextualize the works’ value and significance. “A lot of the works quite rightly were collected for their aesthetic value,” Johnson McLean said. Cultural competency only started coming in decades later, beginning in the ’90s, when institutions hired Indigenous Australians at a greater rate, and also started dedicating entire galleries to Indigenous art, such as Yiribana.
“It’s always been an interesting thing to send Indigenous Australian art overseas,” Johnson McLean said, “because that’s been the history: It needs to be recognized elsewhere before it is recognized here.” International institutions, ranging from Brazil to Germany were more interested and engaged in Indigenous Australian stories and art than local institutions.
Interest in Indigenous Australian art has had a sustained history in France, extending back as early as the 1970s. This year, two exhibitions with large focuses on Indigenous art ran in Paris: “Reclaim the Earth” at the Palais de Tokyo, which counted five Aboriginal Australians out of the fourteen artists, and a solo show dedicated to Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori at the Fondation Cartier.
Fondation Cartier curator Juliette Lecorne places the international interest in Indigenous Australian art within the greater trend of investigation of Indigenous art globally, adding that Indigenous cultural knowledge has become especially important in the face of the global climate crisis. “The recognition and acknowledgement of all cultures is more than ever essential, specifically for cultures that have been invisible, instrumentalized or erased for decades,” Lecorne said.
These sentiments are repeated by Gagosian senior director Louise Neri, who develops exhibitions for the mega-gallery, and is also Australian. She cites the start of it from an exhibition done in conjunction with comedian Steve Martin, whom she says is “an impassioned advocate.” (A selection of works from Martin’s collection were recently displayed at the National Arts Club in New York.)
Since that showing of Martin’s holdings in Indigenous Australian art in 2019, Gagosian has been one of the proponents on the secondary market, placing works with both private collectors and institutions. In addition to the “ecological understanding of the conditions of existence and survival,” Neri said Indigenous Australian artists’ works are also attractive because they currently have a lower price point than other secondary market works that the gallery might deal in, though high-quality works are scarce and hard to source.
Renowned Indigenous Australian artist Brook Andrew, who organized the 2020 Sydney Biennale, thinks that some collectors see Indigenous Australian art “as an unstable investment, but there are also a lot of people who really love it.”
Having exhibited his own art in the Europe since 1994, Andrew said he has seen a gradual shift from exoticization to a welcome interrogation of what a label like “Indigenous art” actually means, particularly in Australia, where there are hundreds of independent Indigenous communities. The label itself is one that often puts work by these artists in a box: Though the “primitive” association is being shed, “Indigenous” can box an artist with others without much else in common besides geography.
Andrew likens this moment for Indigenous Australian art as comparable to how the mainstream art world has previously regarded the work of art by artists from other marginalized groups, which in turn creates this “hang up” on a non-Western view of the world. “I think it’s been the rest of the world that’s been dragging its feet,” he said.
Containing 75,000 square feet of exhibition space, the Sydney Modern almost doubles that of the Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition space. To celebrate its opening, the gallery commissioned large-scale works by nine artists, including three Aboriginal Australians: Lorraine Connelly-Northey, who has recreated her Waradgerie people’s traditional narrbong-galang (woven bags) in reclaimed metal; Karla Dickens, who’s made a 6.5 foot-long mixed-media panel showing hooded figures; and Jonathan Jones, whose work will be revealed next year on a land bridge and will include cool burnings by Aboriginal people every year.
With projects like this and elsewhere across the country, Indigenous Australian’s art is “becoming completely embedded within all conversations about Australian art,” Pinchbeck said. “It now holds a central place.”