By KIERAN FINNANE
A reckoning between Indigenous and other Australians about our history emerges as the strongest thematic strand in the biennial Alice Prize, which opened online last week.
At this time of coronavirus restrictions, with the galleries at Araluen closed to the public and the NT closed to travellers, the Prize was also judged online by director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Rhana Devenport ONZM.
The winning entry is a small (40.5 x 30.5cm), tender portrait of the late Charles Perkins and his daughter Rachel by Thea Perkins – his granddaughter, her niece. Titled Tent Embassy and based on a “treasured family photograph”, it shows father and daughter at an Aboriginal land rights rally.
Perkins tells us this was outside the Old Parliament House in Canberra and her title suggests as much, the Tent Embassy having been a feature at that site since 1972. There’s no direct information about location in the painting, but what looks like a blanket around Rachel’s shoulders might indicate she had been camping at the Tent Embassy.
In late 1974 her father took a week’s leave from his job at the Department Aboriginal Affairs to protest at the Tent Embassy, as he felt the department “was blocking Aboriginal progress rather than facilitating it”. It was perhaps during that week that the photograph was taken.
The artist, though, has lifted the figures out from their surroundings, to focus on the intimate bond between them. She says the work shows how politics was “personal” for her grandfather. It certainly suggests that it strongly formed and informed his relationship with this daughter.
Although claiming our attention gently, it is a lovely work by the early career Perkins – Devenport speaks of her “exquisite jewel-like embrace of painting” and says “its potential reinvigorates realism”.
Its acquisition as part of the Prize will be an important addition to the Alice Springs Collection: both its subjects are important figures in the town’s and Australia’s history and it would be impossible to over-estimate the transformative impact of the Aboriginal land rights campaign and all that flowed from it, including in recent years the Uluru Statement from the Heart for which Rachel Perkins has been a significant voice.
The prize-winner stands in good relationship with three of the four highly commended works, by Aboriginal artists Fiona Foley, Peter Mungkuri, and Grace Kemarre Robinya.
(The other highly commended work, Adonis by Gerwyn Davies, stands apart from these. Its plinth-mounted figure is lusciously adorned yet effaced. In this way, the artist tells us, the work queers representation and renegotiates the terms of visibility.)
Mungkuri’s painting, Ngura (Country), pursues the delicately-drawn black line on rose pink ground work of the last few years where he integrates figuration of trees – “the punu (tree) is where our culture starts” – with the more abstract symbols of traditional story-telling. The painting is not about land rights, it is an assertion of land rights – an understanding of which the Perkinses campaigned to bring to national attention and formal recognition.
Foley’s work, titled Hoodwinked, takes the white hood, chilling icon of the Klu Klux Klan, to make a comment on race relations. Although she tells us the work is inspired by a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained, which tells a story about slavery in mid-19th century America, it has challenging resonance for Australian history, no doubt fully intended. The nine hoods are embroidered with beads, a currency in early hoodwinking, as we know. The hoods themselves invoke the terrors that followed.
In contrast, we might see Grace Kemarre Robinya’s Night Time Raining at Mount Allan (above) as about the resistance to hoodwinking, the way country has been held on to and the way it lives in people – so much so that they are up all night relishing the rare fall of rain.
“All the women and kids and puppy dogs sitting on the mountain, looking at raining, all the stars and rain clouds,” she tells us. “This place is Mount Allan [station]. I lived there long time ago. All the cars going for picnic, night time shooting, finding the kangaroo. All the people’s houses, no one sleeping, everyone is awake looking at the raining.”
Kemarre, it would seem, entered a reverie as she recalled this event in paint, finely dotting the land and sky so that they become a single body holding the joy of people and creatures under the four great veils of rain falling each from its own cloud.
I imagine all these works coming together in future exhibitions that tell a story about country and belonging in all its painful and joyous dimensions.
Other fine works in the exhibition could join in this conversation – Alec Baker’s Ngura, it goes without saying, but also the innovative Short Hair Cow Hide by Mervyn Street, which is actually painted on a full cow hide and tells a story of Aboriginal involvement in the pastoral industry.
“When I was young and working on the station we were mustering and eating short horn cows,” Street recalls. That’s all changed now: with the equal pay decision, Aboriginal stockmen and their families were moved off country; short horn cows were replaced by Brahman, and mustering on horseback, by plane, then helicopter.
Works by non-Indigenous Australians also engage in this reckoning with Australian history, among them large scale works For Sale: Perfection by Stuart Cook and Hunters Roundabout by Franca Barraclough.
Locals may have seen the latter in the original as part of Barraclough’s solo show over the summer and I singled it out for discussion then. Unfortunately the readability and impact of this large-scale horizontal format image really suffer with online viewing.
Cook’s image, being in vertical format, can be better appreciated for its effective critique of the theft of Indigenous land and the European approach to land ownership and use.
Another thematic strand in the show that stood out for me (lucky enough to have a real-life visit to the gallery) was in works concerned with the environment, here and around the globe.
In the wake of the bushfires that ravaged large parts of Australia over the summer and the way they brought about a greater sense of urgency in the need to address climate change, I anticipated more and harder-hitting works with this preoccupation. Perhaps it is too soon.
There are some though. Memorably for me: Traces #2 by Elizabeth O’Donnell, which mourns a burnt tree marked for felling; World View 1 (above) by Fiona Kemp, showing a deflated globe against a backdrop of forest; Struggling to remember by Margaret Ambridge, which conjures a ghostly parched landscape pocked by the raindrops that actually fell on the artist’s cotton rag paper.
The Alice Prize should be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The pre-selection had been completed and the finalist entries had already arrived at the Araluen Arts Centre when the coronavirus shutdown put paid to the possibility of a live exhibition.
It is to the credit of the Alice Springs Art Foundation and Araluen that they have made the best of a bad situation, installing the show and going ahead with the judging.
An online visit is a pale imitation of a gallery experience – a reminder, if we needed one, to make the most of our opportunities, when they return, to encounter art in the real.