June 19, 2013

Complementary worlds in the Art Gallery of New South Wales

While many of my PhD days down south are lonely days, I did have an opportunity to spend a wonderful 24 hours in Sydney last week. The occasion was to visit one of my dearest oldest friends who now lives in New York but was on a rare visit to Australia. I jumped at the opportunity to catch up with her and booked myself on to the Murray's Canberra-Sydney express. (Which by the way, I love dearly, if only for the wonderfully ambiguous pre-recorded post-boarding message that says "We thank you for travelling with Murries/Murray's").

Aside from a great and soul-rejuvenating catch-up with the lovely Ms. Iacovella (continuing a friendship that goes back to being 20 and working at World4Kids Aspley), we spent a few hours wandering through the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One of our common interests is art - she's worked for various galleries for years and I've spent years in Ngukurr where many great artists come from, many of whom I've done language work with too. So it was great walking about the gallery with her. We both got equally excited when we spotted this in the main foyer:

 It's a stunning painting by Marra artist Ginger Riley (brother of Mack) called Ngakngak and the Ruined City. I never met Ginger but I've driven through this area and you can totally recognise the topography of the area in the painting. More than just a landscape, it's littered with totemic imagery: the ngag-ngag (white-breasted sea eagle) keenly and sternly watching over its country. And to the right you can just make out two snakes - also Dreamings/totems - either sneaking up on him or simply traversing their country.

We went on and checked out other parts of gallery, both enjoying the 20th Century Australian art. I didn't realise how familiar so much non-Indigenous Australian Art was to me, and how good it is. The magnificent Brett Whiteley piece, William Dobell's wonderful portraits, Sidney Nolan's really interesting and varied work and this brilliant piece by Grace Cossington-Smith. It was at this point that I turned a corner and saw this bit of awesomeness:


On the left is a beautiful Sidney Nolan landscape, Central Australia. Impressive enough. But the painting on the right is just as, if not more impressive and I recognised it instantly. It's Ruined City by Ngukurr artist and Marra elder Angelina George. I was blown away by seeing it there, next to a Sidney Nolan, in amongst the cream of Australia's best non-Indigenous 20th art. The two paintings fit together so well and how great that Angelina's painting isn't restricted to the Indigenous art section - a nice touch of creative curation.

It's not just the curation that I loved but the painting itself. Ruined City, or Burrunju, is an amazing site in Arnhem Land on Ngandi country. It's very remote and most of it is sacred and restricted but I had the absolute privilege of tagging behind some elders on a trip there last year and saw it for myself (only  non-sacred parts, mind you). Burrunju is visually stunning as well as spiritually and historically significant. As well as being a sacred site, old Betty (Angelina's sister) tells of when leprosy was prevalent in the Roper Mission and sufferers used Burrunju as a leprosarium - an on-country alternative to a 600 mile one-way trip to the official leprosarium on Channel Island. (See the fascinating article by Karen Hughes on this history).

Angelina's painting captures the landscape of Burrunju so wonderfully, just like Ginger does in his painting. Funnily enough, the blurb next to the artwork talks about how Angelina decided not to depict any trees in her landscape (for some apparent artistic reason). I was able to scoff at this instantly because there aren't any trees there to start off with! Here's a picture I took last year of just the tiny part of the fringe of Burrunju (it goes for miles) and I'm sure you can see that Angelina's painting captures the place's aesthetic quite brilliantly. And once you get into the rock formations, trees are rather scarce:

So those were the highlights of my quick visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. We also checked out the rest of the Indigenous art in the collection and there were many magnificent pieces, includes a stunning series of 50 year old bark paintings from Arnhem Land and the most stunning mask from the Torres Strait I've ever seen. 

Going back to Canberra on the Murray's my soul was refreshed, not just because of spending time with my lovely friend but because of this trip to the Art Gallery. It could have been such a clash of worlds: Aboriginal art depicting remote sites hung in a major metropolitan art gallery, being in Sydney when I'm now more comfortable and used to working remote and working with Aboriginal people, and struggling with the lonely life I'm currently living v. reuniting with a friend I've shared so much with. But funnily enough it wasn't a clash - all these worlds somehow managed to complement each other and sit comfortably together just like Sidney Nolan and Angelina George's paintings do. Awwww...

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