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Ian McLean and Margo Neale at the start of our journey, Yuendemu

 

Since January 2015, I’ve been working with the eminent art historian Ian McLean and the irrepressible Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum, on a wonderful project funded by the Australian Research Council: to investigate and document the little known but influential relationships between Aboriginal artists and close white associates.

Siobhan interviewing Warlpiri artist Alma Nungarrayi Granites at Yuendemu

I’ve recorded 30 oral histories, in two remote and one urban setting. We are donating this revelatory interview collection to the National Library of Australia, where it will be available as a research resource. But first, I’m mining it for a podcast, called Heart of Artness.

At the ABC, Sydney working on The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, March 2018. Margo Neale (presenter), Claudia Taranto (Executive Producer) and me (producer).

It’s been an enlightening and extraordinary journey. Sitting by a river, 300 kilometres from anywhere in Yolgnu country in tropical Northern Australia, listening to Yinimala Gumana describe how his great-grandfather came back from a hunting trip in 1911 and found about 30 dead bodies floating there: they’d been massacred in a ‘punitive expedition’ after a white surveyor went missing. (The surveyor turned up unharmed.) And then a tragedy in Yinimala’s own life, when a friend and ranger colleague was taken by a crocodile at the same spot, in 2018.

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Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales, who manage the Warlukurlangu art centre in Yuendemu, NT

Learning to understand the two Chilean women whose tough pragmatism has earned the approval of the Warlpiri artists who employ them.

Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales have increased the turnover of their desert art centre from 300 works produced in a year to 8000.

 

 

With artist Richard Bell on top of the MCA, Sydney, which holds his work.

Sitting with artist Richard Bell in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, with Sydney Harbour glittering outside the window, as he fulminates about the “Captain Cook Cruises” going past – a reminder of the British invasion that cruelled his people and tried to quell his culture. ‘ I’m Irish – they practised on us,’ I tell him. ‘For 600 years, before they got to you.’ It instantly changes the dynamic.

What follows below is a version of an article that Ian McLean and I wrote for The Conversation. To find out more, visit the Heart of Artness website and listen to the podcast. Five episodes are up now (Nov 2018). Four to come: on early days in Yuendemu in the 1980s and on the edgy proppaNOW movement of Brisbane, featuring artists such as Bell, Vernon Ah Kee and Jennifer Herd.

Artist Jennifer Herd, founding member of proppaNOW

Aboriginal Art– it’s a white thing

… so Richard Bell declared in 2002. But as we discovered investigating this white thing, it’s also full of ‘positivity’, to use a favourite Bell expression. Not all that is white is evil.

Bell’s accusation was aimed at the then-booming market in remote Aboriginal art, but it was as true of the urban Aboriginal art scene. Bell should know. His [art] has been acquired by major white art institutions, from Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to London’s Tate Modern, and he is represented by Brisbane’s Milani Gallery, a major player in the Australian contemporary art world. This white thing is no big deal says Bell:

‘Nobody thinks it’s strange that black people play in sporting arenas owned by white people, for teams that are owned by white people. Josh [Milani] has an arena for us to play in – it’s the same deal. The MCA is the equivalent to Sydney Cricket Ground.’

As in sport there is much more to the art world than the stars, the artists, and this much more is mainly white. Largely invisible in the hype around Aboriginal art, we wanted to know about these invisible white men and women.

Milani Gallery is a major Australian art centre, owned and run by Josh Milani, who trained as a lawyer: ‘I do it as an advocate – with a sense of moral purpose and hopefully integrity. Queensland has a very large population of Aborigines… my work as a gallerist should represent the culture that’s here.’

Growing up with an Italian migrant father, Milani always “felt like a Wog”. His natural empathy with outsiders and intellectual passion for art and justice led him to where he is now: the go-to dealer for international curators. ‘I’ve learned a lot – how power operates, identity operates.’

Artist Wukun Wanambi and art centre manager Will Stubbs, Yirrkala 2010 (photo: Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre).

Issues of power and identity are equally fundamental to the art produced at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, a Yolngu owned and run art centre in Yirrkala, 600 km east of Darwin. Its art also comes from the artists’ lived experience, in this case of an unusually intact Yolngu culture. Will Stubbs, a former criminal lawyer from Sydney, has been employed to managed the centre for over 20 years. While he has to balance cultural imperatives with market demand, for him cultural imperatives come first. “They bring in what they want to bring in, not what we ask for. And then we have to make it work from there’ – in, that is, the white market and art world.

Celebrated Yolgnu artist Nyapanyapa Yuninpingu (photo: Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre)   

One of its most successful artists is Nyapanyapa Yunipingu. One wet season when the centre ran out of bark, Stubbs handed Nyapanyapa some leftover acetates to keep her busy. She filled them at the rate of five a day. As he filed them away, he noticed ‘this filigree of complexity, of abstract existence, that I’d never seen before.’ As the acetates accumulated, Stubbs realised that seeing them in random permutations and sequences would accentuate their impact – so he contacted a Melbourne digital guru, Joseph Brady, who could devise such an algorithm.

Joseph Brady, digital artist.

The resulting Light Box became an installation in the 2012 Sydney Biennale – and Joseph Brady became so affected by Yolngu culture that he transplanted his young family to Yirrkala, where he now manages the Mulka Project at the art centre, a vast archive of Yolngu knowledge.

Like Milani Gallery, Buku-Larrnggay is one of the most successful purveyors of Aboriginal art, but as different as these two models are, they are not the only success stories. The Warlpiri-run Warlukurlangu Centre at Yuendemu, 300km northwest of Alice Springs, is also defying the post-GFC downturn in the Aboriginal art market.

Warlpiri artist Margaret Lewis Napangardi at work at Yuendemu.

Run by two Chilean women, its market-driven approach is the polar opposite of the culture-privileging mission of Will Stubbs. ‘They hired me because I’m an outsider,’ says Cecilia Alfonso, who started at Warlukurlangu in 2001. ‘They don’t want some hippie-dippy well-intentioned person to run their business.’ She and her business partner, Gloria Morales, monitor the market closely and encourage the artists to paint what is likely to sell. ‘This is a meeting of the two worlds as an enterprise and they come in for money.’ The centre now turns over about 8000 artworks a year, compared to around 300 when she and Gloria started. Traditional owner and artist Andrea Nungarrayi Martin is unconcerned whether the artists paint their traditional ‘tjukurrpa’ or dreaming story or decide to do something non-sacred. “Doesn’t matter – so long as it sells.”

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Cecilia Alfonso with Warlpiri foundation artist of Warlukurlangu, Paddy Stewart.

It’s another twist in the ‘authenticity’ debate around Aboriginal art. In 2002 Bell decried how the white-controlled Aboriginal art industry privileged art from remote areas as more ‘authentic’ than that by urban artists such as him even though ‘we paid the biggest price.’ Bell’s genius is to leverage this loss to get a return. “When I started working with Richard [in 2003], we were selling paintings for $2000”, recalls Milani, but ‘the more people he offended, the more I put his prices up!’ … and the more this white clientele bought Bell’s paintings.

When Milani first met Bell in a pub, he had his trademark punch. He wrote on a beer coaster that he was an ‘enema of the state’. But he was no novice and he had a plan. Brilliant as these white dealers are, they need the artists as much as the artists need them. ‘We’ve positioned ourselves inside the tent’ – though not without Milani’s help – but, Bell told us, ‘that doesn’t stop us from getting outside and pissing on the tent.’

Artist Richard Bell.

 

OHR Third EditionI am thrilled to report that my article The Affective Power of Voice: Oral History on Radio, has been included in the forthcoming edition of The Oral History Reader (Routledge 2015). This comprehensive anthology (722pp) is undoubtedly the most important collection of articles by the international community of oral history scholars and practitioners. I am humbled to be in the company of such giants of the genre as Sandro Portelli, Michael Frisch, Studs Terkel, Paul Thompson, Sherna Berger Gluck, Valerie Yow, Doug Boyd, Paula Hamilton, Steven High, Linda Shopes and of course the editors, Australia’s Alistair Thomson of Monash University and the UK’s Rob Perks of the British Library.

 

2015 has been a good year for publication of my oral histories. The City of Sydney has done a fine job of placing online the archive of interviews with residents at Millers Point Sydney, done by me and coordinating oral historian Frank Heimans back around 2006. These interviews capture the rich harbourside community life of one of Sydney’s oldest suburbs, where men worked on the wharves (stevedoring) under tough conditions, and women raised families in cramped public housing. One of my favourite quotes was a woman who laughed that yes they did have running water back then – you ran in to the laundry, filled a bucket, ran back out and threw it into the bath! There are also great interviews with sports journalist legend Frank Hyde, a gentle man with a lovely sense of humour who sings Danny Boy on the tape; Jack Mundey, trade union leader extraordinaire, whose Green Bans movement stopped the proposed demolition of these inner Sydney ‘slums’ and kept the community intact; and Bill Ford, who grew up swimming off the steps at the ‘Met’ wharf and went on to be part of the famous US Freedom Ride that was mimicked in New South Wales in 1965 in a push to end discrimination against Aboriginal Australians.

INA launch

With Denis O’Flynn, President INA, Dr Richard Reid, Michael Lyons and Dennis Foley at the launch of the INA Oral History, Nov 2015

My other big project this year brought me full circle: recording the oral histories of prominent Sydney Irish and Irish-Australian members of the Irish National Association (INA), which has its centenary in 2015. As an accidental Irish migrant who has now spent just over half her life in Australia, it was fascinating to hear stories of similar migrants, and what they felt they’d gained and lost in the process. The project explores how the INA upholds Irish culture and heritage, through activities around music, dancing, teaching the Irish language and maintaining an awareness of Irish history and politics, through events like the annual Easter oration at the wonderful Waverly cemetery monument, the St Patrick’s Day parade (revived in 1979) and the Famine Memorial event at Hyde Park Barracks each August. The interviews were commissioned by the National Library of Australia, which has placed some of them online in full. You can browse the timed summary, where a keyword or phrase will take you direct to the audio, and even provide a citation. Try Bishop David Cremin recalling how he held a controversial Requiem Mass for Bobby Sands, the first of the IRA hunger strikers to die in 1981. Or Maurie O’Sullivan, passionate Irish cultural advocate, describing how he talks Irish to his dogs and his horse to keep up his language skills! There is also Tomás De Bháldraithe, whose father wrote the first Irish-English dictionary, reflecting on the prominent role his family played in the public intellectual life of the nascent Irish state.

My next oral history project promises to be exciting and very different. It’s an investigation into the relational aspects of how contemporary Aboriginal art is produced, funded by the Australian Research Council. I’m part of a team with noted art historian Ian McLean and Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia, the indefatigable Margo Neale. We’re seeking to understand how Indigenous artists work with non-Indigenous art centre staff and dealers, and in conversation with other artists, both Indigenous and non, and how these relationships affect the art that emerges. We’ve already visited two remote communities and it’s been a revelation. No wonder I love oral history – you get to hear the life stories of the most extraordinary people. And I agree with Studs – there are no ordinary people; just the uncelebrated. Let’s get celebrating!

Field research with Margo Neale and Prof Ian McLean

Field research with Margo Neale and Prof Ian McLean

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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